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The Freikorps Revival

Monday, September 14th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen”]

One of the signs that the Westphalian state system was approaching its zenith was the gradual extinction of legal private warfare in Europe (and in America , east of the frontier). While this trend predated the French Revolution with divine right absolutism monarchs taxing and regulating their nobles once formidable feudal armies into harmless personal bodyguards and ceremonial companies, it was enforced in earnest after the Napoleonic wars by now bureaucratic nation-states. To the sovereign power of the state jealously guarding its monopoly on the legal use of force, in the late 19th century were added the weight of international law.

While once it was commonplace for heavily armed “Free Companies” to roam Europe’s battlefields, hiring themselves out or pillaging on their own, neither the Lieber Code nor the Hague Convention took an indulgent view of the professional mercenary or the provincial partisan, proscribing their historic role in warfare and condemning them along with spies and saboteurs to death. By the time of the First World War with the exception of Tsarist Russia, which still had vestiges of pre-modern feudalism in their Cossack hosts that supplemented the Russian Army, all of the great and middle powers entered WWI with national armies based upon mass conscription, run by a professional officer corps. Even America saw its long established military tradition of locally raised volunteer units of the States abolished by President Wilson, who instituted a draft. Wilson it seems, feared the political effects of an aging Teddy Roosevelt leading a new band of Rough Riders on the Western Front.

This situation shifted dramatically in the aftermath of the Great War. Communist revolution and civil war in Russia, Hungary and Bavaria spawned a rebirth of private militarism; right-wing and nationalist “white” paramilitaries composed of ex-soldiers  battled anarchist and Bolshevik “Red guards” made up of factory workers and party militants. In defeated Germany, a vigorous and heavily armed “Freikorps” movement of embittered veterans led by charismatic officers arose and fought engagements in the Baltic states, in Polish and Czech borderlands, in the Ruhr and in Bavaria, where they crushed a short-lived Soviet republic.

Partially suppressed by the weak Weimar state, partially covertly subsidized and organized by the leadership of the German Army which saw the Friekorps as a “Black Reichswehr” strategic reserve against French attack, the Freikorps degenerated, pillaged, mutated into terrorist  organizations and gradually merged with and militarized Germany’s extreme nationalist and volkisch (racialist) political factions, including the nascent National Socialist German Workers Party. Ex-Freikorps fighters became the backbone of the Nazi SA and nationalist Stahlhelm armies of brawlers, thugs and hooligans. They even had their own newspapers, sports clubs, artists and writers, among whom Ernst Junger was a favorite of that generation.

The reason for this long historical prologue is that it is happening again. The fascinating article below from VICE gives evidence of what should be called a Freikorps Revival. Note the connection to the French Foreign Legion veterans with the Azov Regiment; the Legion once welcomed almost as many German Freikorps men as did the Nazi Party.

Meet the European Fighters Who Have Gone to War in Ukraine

….”I spent all day with a pistol in one hand and a grenade in the other, wondering how I was going to kill myself and how many [separatists] I could take with me,” said Chris “Swampy” Garrett, a British citizen and a member of the squad of Europeans fighting in Eastern Ukraine for Azov Regiment.

Garrett had just returned to Kiev after a failed mission behind enemy lines in the small village of Shyrokyne. His team had been surrounded and cut off from Ukrainian positions before the men fled. He spent over 14 hours trapped behind an enemy advance, fighting in close quarters and taking shelter from friendly artillery fire, before sneaking out of the village under the cover of darkness.

For Garrett, who has served in the British army and done humanitarian de-mining work in the Karen State on the Thai/Myanmar border, the decision to join the Azov Battalion was a simple one: “One day they posted up on the [Azov Battalion] Facebook site, asking, ‘We need people who have any kind of knowledge with first aid, volunteering, with basic military skills, de-mining, anything. If you have any skills at all, to any level, can you come and help?’ So I kind of saw that as my route in, even if I didn’t stay with the [Azov] Battalion. [It was] my surest way to get into the country—get into the east and then be able to see the bigger picture from there.”

….Garrett is not the only member of the group of European soldiers who came to defend Ukrainian sovereignty. But while some came to protect Ukraine, others here came to fight for conservative and nationalist politics in Ukraine’s relatively open political space. For Harley, a 42-year-old from France who served in the French navy and later in the private security industry, involvement was two-sided: he came “to help Ukraine against Russia” and wears a “Fuck U Putin” bracelet on his wrist, but joined Azov because its politics were similar to his own: “Azov,” he said, propagated a political agenda that “was closer to my idea.” 

Azov’s politics have drawn fire for being far-right to the point of neo-Nazism; “If you want to find Nazis, [Azov] is the place to come,” one soldier told me on the way to the frontline. And yet, the political reality of Azov is much more complicated than that. One soldier in the European group told me he estimates that around 20 percent of the battalion could be considered neo-Nazis, while David Eriksson—a 48-year-old Swede who owns real estate and marketing businesses—said: “I think almost 100 percent of foreigners—it used to be maybe 90 percent of foreigners—are not Nazis. They are here to fight.”

Read the rest here.

This may be a meta-trend. Everywhere, rootless young (and some not so young) men are turning their backs on civilized existence and seeking out answers to life or a quick death in lawless conflict zones. Third generation European Muslims who leave families and communities to join ISIS in Syria while American and Dutch motorcycle gang members show up to fight with the Kurdish Peshmerga. Russian outlaw bikers by contrast are Putin’s Cossacks in the Crimea and Donbass while in Pakistan the ISI has made funneling angry young men into terrorist groups and militias something of a cottage industry

Some of these men will never return, but most will. If the lessons of history are to be reckoned, this bodes poorly for the future. They will bring a Darwinian outlook and a politics of the gun.


Saturday, May 9th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

This important and terrifying book should be read by everyone who cares about the future of human civilization.” Anatol Lieven

Warlords, inc. ; Black Markets, Broken States and the Rise of the Warlord Entrepreneur, Edited by Noah Raford and Andrew Trabulsi

Warlords, inc. a book to which I have contributed a chapter, is being launched today at The Long Now Foundation in San Francisco. Published by Penguin-Random House, Warlords, inc. was the brainchild of Dr. Noah Raford, who recruited an impressive group of experts, journalists, scholars and futurists to analyze and anticipate emergent security trends and irregular warfare among non-state actors, including terrorists, hackers, insurgents, sectarians and corporations.  With a foreword by Dr. Robert J. Bunker, the list of authors include:

William Barnes
Daniel Biro
James Bosworth
Nils Gilman
Jesse Goldhammer
Daniel S. Gressang
Vinay Gupta
Paul Hilder
Graham Leicester
Sam Logan
Noah Raford
Tuesday Reitano
Mark Safranski
John P. Sullivan
Peter Taylor
Hardin Tibbs
Andrew Trabulsi
Shlok Vaidya
Steven Weber

As editor, Andrew Trabulsi did a heroic job herding cats in editing this substantial volume and keeping all of the authors and project on track and on time. Warlords, inc. is available May 12 on Amazon and will be at Barnes & Noble and Target as well. Excited and proud to be part of this endeavor!

Obama & Ferguson: the split screen as DoubleQuote

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — the favorite word used on twitter to describe tonights’s split screen show was “surreal” ]

Those of you who read me here regularly know that I believe juxtaposition is a key tool for both thinking and understanding. The split screen reporting of Obama‘s Ferguson speech, for instance…

DQ Obama Ferguson Fox


I was watching the speech on the White House site, and they were giving Obama the full-screen treatment — so I was unaware that things were any different elsewhere.

I feel the single screen-shot from Fox above does justice to the power of juxtaposition, but for good measure I’ll also post a screen-shot from CNN, where the “violence” is portrayed more crisply perhaps:

DQ Obama Ferguson CNN

although the “lower third” caption doesn’t quote Obama to such powerful effect.


For those who would like to see how the split screen treatment fared in its quieter moments as well as its more vivid ones, here’s the Fox report in full:

I find it interesting that while splitting the screen in two halves adds to the power of the effect, the attempt at a three-way split fails miserably by comparison.

ABC‘s coverage is also dramatic:


Finally, Tina Nguyen on Mediaite offered a smörgåsbord of split screen images, and closed with a tweet from Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Good question: Obama clearly wasn’t in the loop about the loop he was in

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.

Ronfeldt’s In-Depth Review of America 3.0

Monday, September 23rd, 2013


 David Ronfeldt, RAND strategist and theorist has done a deep two-part  review of America 3.0 over at his Visions from Two Theories blog. Ronfeldt has been spending the last few years developing his TIMN analytic framework (Tribes, Institutions [hierarchical], Markets and Networks) which you can get a taste from here  and here or a full reading with this RAND paper.

David regards the familial structure thesis put forward by James Bennett and Michael Lotus in America 3.0 as “captivating”  and “compelling” for  “illuminating the importance of the nuclear family for America’s evolution in ways that, in my view, help validate and reinforce TIMN”. Both reviews are detailed and should be read in their entirety, but I will have some excerpts below:

America 3.0 illuminates significance of nuclear families — in line with TIMN (Part 1 of 2) 

….Bennett and Lotus show at length (Chapter 2, pp. 29-45) that the nuclear family explains a lot about our distinctive culture and society:

“It has caused Americans to have a uniquely strong concept of each person as an individual self, with an identity that is not bound by family or tribal or social ties. … Our distinctive type [of] American nuclear family has made us what we are.” (p. 29)And “what we are” as a result is individualistic, liberty-loving, nonegalitarian (without being inegalitarian), competitive, enterprising, mobile, and voluntaristic. In addition, Americans tend to have middle-class values, an instrumental view of government, and a preference for suburban lifestyles. 

As the authors carefully note, these are generally positive traits, but they have both bright and dark sides, noticeable for example in the ways they make America a “high-risk, high-return culture” (p. 38) — much to the bane of some individuals. The traits also interact in interesting ways, such that Americans tend to be loners as individuals and families, but also joiners “who form an incomprehensibly dense network of voluntary associations” — much to the benefit of civil society (p. 39). 

In sum, the American-style nuclear family is the major cause of “American exceptionalism” — the basis of our freedom and prosperity, our “amazing powers of assimilation” (p. 53), and our unique institutions:

“It was the deepest basis for the development of freedom and prosperity in England, and then in America. Further, the underlying Anglo-American family type was the foundation for all of the institutions, laws, and cultural practices that gave rise to our freedom and prosperity over the centuries.” (p. 52)The authors go on to show this for America 1.0 and 2.0 in detail. They also reiterate that Americans have long taken the nuclear family for granted. Yet, very different marriage and family practices are the norm in most societies around the world. And the difference is profoundly significant for the kinds of cultural, social, economic, and political evolution that ensue. Indeed, the pull of the nuclear model in the American context is so strong that it has a liberating effect on immigrants who come from societies that are organized around extended families and clans (p. 55) — an important point, since America is a land of immigrants from all over, not just from Anglo-Saxon nuclear-family cultures.

….As for foreign policy, the authors commend “an emerging phenomenon we call “Network Commonwealth,” which is an alignment of nations … who share common ties that may include language, culture and common legal systems.” (p. 260) Above all, they’d like to see the “Anglosphere” take shape. And as the world coalesces into various “global networks of affinity” engaged in shifting coalitions (p. 265), America 3.0 would cease emphasizing democracy-promotion abroad, and “reorient its national strategy to a primary emphasis on maintaining the freedom of the global commons of air, sea, and space.” (p. 263) [UPDATE: For more about the Network Commonwealth and Anglosphere concepts, see Bennett’s 2007 paper here.]

Read the whole thing here.

America 3.0 illuminates significance of nuclear families — in line with TIMN (Part 2 of 2)  

….Overlaps with TIMN themes and propositions

Part 1 discussed America 3.0’s key overlap with TIMN: the prevalence and significance of the nuclear family in the American case. This leads to questions about family matters elsewhere. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that there is more to TIMN’s tribal form than the nature of the family. I also spotted several additional thematic overlaps between America 3.0 and TIMN, and I want to highlight those as well. Thus, in outline form, this post addresses:

  • Seeking a fuller understanding of family matters beyond the American case.
  • Gaining a fuller understanding of the tribal/T form.
  • Anticipating the rise of the network/+N form.
  • Recognizing that every form has bright and dark sides.
  • Recognizing the importance of separation among the forms/realms.
  • Recognizing that balance among them is important too.
  • Cautioning against the exportability of the American model.

After these points, the post ends by summarily noting that America 3.0 is more triformist than quadriformist in conception — but a worthy kind of triformist plus, well worth reading.

My discussion emphasizes the T and +N forms. Bennett and Lotus also have lots to say about +I and +M matters — government and business — and I’ll squeeze in a few remarks along the way. But this post mostly skips +I and +M matters. For I’m more interested in how America 3.0 focuses on T (quite sharply) and +N (too diffusely). 

By the way, America 3.0 contains lots of interesting observations that I do not discuss — e.g., that treating land as a commodity was a feature of nuclear-family society (p. 105), and so was creating trusts (p. 112). Readers are advised to harvest the book’s contents for themselves.

….Caution about the exportability of the American model: TIMN sharpens — at least it is supposed to sharpen — our understanding that how societies work depends on how they use four cardinal forms of organization. This simplification leaves room for great complexity, for it is open to great variation in how those forms may be applied in particular societies. Analysts, strategists, and policymakers should be careful about assuming that what works in one society can be made to work in another. 

….In retrospect it seems I pulled my punch there. I left out what might/should have come next: TIMN-based counsel to be wary about assuming that the American model, especially its liberal democracy, can be exported into dramatically different cultures. I recall thinking that at the time; but I was also trying to shape a study of just the tribal form, without getting into more sweeping matters. So I must have pulled that punch, and I can’t find anywhere else I used it. Even so, my view of TIMN is that it does indeed caution against presuming that the American model is exportable, or that foreign societies can be forced into becoming liberal democracies of their own design.

Meanwhile, America 3.0 clearly insists that Americans should be wary of trying to export the American model of democracy. Since so much about the American model depends on the nature of the nuclear family, policies that work well in the United States may not work well in other societies with different cultures — and vice-versa. Accordingly, the authors warn,

“American politicians are likely to be wrong when they tell us that we can successfully export democracy, or make other countries look and act more like the United States.” (p. 24)

“A foreign-policy based primarily on “democracy-promotion” and “nation-building” is one that will fail more times than not, … .” (p. 254)TIMN is not a framework about foreign policy. But as a framework about social evolution, it may have foreign-policy implications that overlap with those of America 3.0. In my nascent view (notably herehere, and here), the two winningest systems of the last half-century or so are liberal democracy and patrimonial corporatism. The former is prominent among the more-advanced societies, the latter among the less-developed (e.g., see here). As Bennett and Lotus point out, liberal democracy is most suitable where nuclear families hold sway. And as I’ve pointed out, patrimonial corporatism is more attractive in societies where clannish tribalism holds sway. 

Read the rest here.

This discussion about America 3.0 and TIMN seems particularly appropriate in light of the need to process, digest and distill the lessons of more than a decade of COIN and counter-terrorism warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and – increasingly- Africa. One of the more difficult aspects of COIN operations has been for American military and diplomatic to decipher the layered relationships and interplay of family honor, tribe, political institution, emerging market and networks in a nation shattered by dictatorship and war like Iraq or to import modern institutions and  a democratic political system in Afghanistan where they had never existed.

Many of these aspects were opaque and were understood only through hard-won experience (frequently lost with new unit rotation) or still remain elusive to Americans even after ten years of fighting among alien cultures which were also permeated by the sectarian nuances and conflicts of Islam. A religion to which relatively few Americans adhere or know sufficiently about, yet is a critical psychological driver for many of our adversaries as well as our allies.

Arguably, the eye-opening response of people to America 3.0 indicates we do not even understand ourselves, much less others

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