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Gaza now stretches all the way to Disneyland

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- on the hopelessly interdisciplinary nature of reality ]
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There really is no limit to the diversity of strands which go into a complex tapestry such as that of Gaza.

Jean-Pierre Filiu has written, and Hurst will shortly publish, his History of Gaza. Mark Levine, University of California, Irvine, sums up both the book and the timeliness of its publication in his blurb:

Anyone familiar with Jean-Pierre Filiu’s scholarship knows well his talent for taking complex historical processes and bringing their relevance for the present day to the front burner. Never have such skills been more needed than in addressing the still poorly understood history of Gaza. And Filiu succeeds admirably. Providing a wonderful synopsis of a century’s worth of history, his discussion of the more direct roots of the present violent dynamics, beginning with the “crushed generation” of the Six Day War and continuing through the travails of Gaza’s burgeoning hiphop scene, demonstrates just how historically and culturally rich remains this much abused land. A clear must-read for all those seeking to think outside the existing outdated prisms for studying history, and the future of Gaza and Palestine/israel writ large.

Filiu himself:

Considering the appalling reality of life in contemporary Gaza, a broader view of the current situation can only be taken from the perspective of history, with an attempt to set aside the disorientation, the horror and the hatred that the present situation has engendered. The ‘Gaza Strip’, as it is today, is not so much a geographical entity as the product of the tormented and tragic history of a territory where the majority of the population is made up of refugees who have already attempted to escape other torments, and other tragedies. Gaza’s borders have closed in on those who have fled there: the refugees born within the territory have been destined to remain confined within it, a fate they also share with all of those who have dreamed of leaving it. Neither Israel nor Egypt wanted the ‘Strip’ to exist: it is a territorial entity ‘by default’.

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When Filiu wrote his earlier book, Apocalypse in Islam, he knew the realities of the situation demanded he research pop culture as well as classical sources in Qur’an and ahadith — and devoted 8 full-color pages to illustrations of 21 book-covers like these:

It’s not surprising, then, that he covers “the travails of Gaza’s burgeoning hiphop scene” in this one — but the point I wish to make is more general. If we are to grasp the complex realities of today’s and tomorrow’s trouble-spots, we need to be aware of trends that impinge on our disciplinary foci — “national security” and so forth — from an unprecenented array of other areas. Many of our nat-sec authors, bloggers and tweeters, bloggers, authors and pundits are aware of these areas — Dan Drezner, for instance,eploicates international affairs via a trendy meme in his — but it’s the use of such memes by those the analysts study that’s most significant.

Thus Daveed Gartenstein-Ross wrote a year ago regarding the Boston bombing:

Tamerlan listened to all kinds of music, including classical and rap, and used the email address The_Professor@real-hiphop.com. In fact, a few years ago he had planned to enter music school. AP (Apr. 23) shows that Tamerlan’s interpretation of Islam guided his eventual avoidance of music. Six weeks after Tamerlan had told Elmirza Khozhugov, the ex-husband of his sister, about his plans to enter music school, they spoke on the phone. Elmirza asked how music school was going. Tamerlan said that he had quit, and explained that “music is not really supported in Islam.”

and more recently in The Lies American Jihadists Tell Themselves on FP:

The first “homegrown” jihadist whom most Westerners learned about was John Walker Lindh, a young man who traveled to Afghanistan to join the Taliban prior to the 9/11 attacks. Lindh, before his turn toward radical Islam, used to post regularly on hip-hop message boards in the adopted persona of a racially-conscious black hip-hop artist (Lindh is white, from the wealthy northern California region of Marin County).

And thus also, Disney characters now show up in anti-Hamas propaganda… echoing an image of Samantha Lewthwaite we’ve seen here before:

The truth is, pop culture, high culture, scholarship, propaganda, truths, myths and lies are all hopelessly entangled in how we think about the world, and while our thoughts may prefer certain disciplines or “silos” to others, the world itself is no respecter of silos, but is interdiscipoinary to the core.

We had best get used to it.

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New Book: The Lion’s Gate by Steven Pressfield

Sunday, May 11th, 2014

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

The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War by Steven Pressfield 

This just arrived hot off the presses on my doorstep yesterday, courtesy of Steve and in terms of writing, The Lion’s Gate appears to be a significant departure for him.

While Pressfield has done novels that were historical fiction (Gates of Fire, Killing Rommel),  military futurism ( The Profession ) or non-fiction essays on harnessing creativity ( The War of Art), achieving professionalism ( Turning Pro) and writing (The Authentic Swing), The Lion’s Gate is a serious work on history.

I say “on” rather than “of” because Pressfield described his book as “hybrid history”, having approached the Six Day War partly in Studs Terkel fashion, with interviews of participants in the war recounting their experiences heavily driving the story, but this is combined with traditional historical research and Pressfield’s own shaping of the narrative. As a technique, it also reminds me somewhat of what Solzhenitsyn termed a “literary investigation” in describing his monumental Gulag Archipelago.

Israeli history or the specific battles of the Arab-Israeli wars have not been my areas of research, so I am looking forward to reading things that are new to me. The Six Day War burnished Israel’s military reputation and that of Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to the point that frustrated supporters of America’s war effort in Vietnam sent the beleaguered head of MACV, General William Westmoreland, black eyepatches.

A full review to come in the future.

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Another Book and Future Reviews

Monday, May 5th, 2014

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

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable 

I am behind on my book reviews. Really behind.

There are two on tap for the immediate future: The Adaptive Leadership Handbook (vol.1) by Fred Leland & Don Vandergriff and the  highly controversial American Spartan: the Promise, the Mission and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant by Ann Scott Tyson. Both are well worth reading for very different reasons.

I picked up this biography at my new favorite post-Border’s era chain, Half Price Books for two reasons: first, on a crowded shelf the book jacket was striking and caught my eye (design…it matters) and secondly, I have always found Malcolm Xto be an intriguing figure, so prototypical American in the long tradition of dramatic religious-sociopolitical awakening  and theological separatism, despite having set himself in fierce opposition to the American cultural mainstream for much of his adult life.  With some irony and no small degree of calculation on Malcolm X’s part, he became an iconic figure in 20th century American history.

Marable was a respected historian and Malcolm X was well-reviewed by serious scholars and awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The biography was also panned by a polemical collection of afrocentric academics, political activists, Nation of Islam adherents ( including one of Malcolm X’s alleged assassins) and devoted followers of Malcolm X’s legacy, all of whom angrily accused the late author or sloppy research, errors,  speculation, sensationalism and having an agenda to demean Malcolm X’s historical reputation.

Should make for some good reading.

 

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Commentary on Politics and Strategy

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

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

Infinity Journal has a good article by eminent Clausewitzian strategist Colin Gray on the interrelationship of politics and strategy (free registration required):

Politics, Strategy and the Stream of Time

….Second, many scholars appear to be resistant to the conceptually, perhaps even morally, necessary recognition of the implications of the fact that all ‘policy’ is made by political process, and that that process, everywhere and in all periods, is run and dominated by the people who succeed in being influential over others. The substantive content of policy is made in a process of political negotiation among the people and organizations who contend for power, as they must. Decisions on national defence are taken politically, usually with input from subject-specific experts and interests. But, in all systems of governance politics ultimately rules. Prudent assessment concerning the maintenance of their preeminent popular influence flags to political leaders where the limits of the politically tolerable most probably lie. This is not to be critical, it is simply to recognize that we humans run our affairs, including our security affairs, by the means of a political process that is geared to generate power as influence, not prudent policy. Policy does not emerge, pristine and unsullied by unduly subjective emotions, as the ever dynamic product of objective expert analysis.[xviii] This is not to claim that political process will be indifferent to arguments that are armed with evidence of apparent national danger. But it is to say that strategic theorists and defence analysts (like this author) need to appreciate the humbling professional truth that their contribution to debate on public policy can always be trumped by politics.

Third, civil-military relations may well be said to lie at the heart of strategy, as Eliot Cohen claims, but it would probably be more correct to argue that public political tolerance is as, if not even more, vital.[xix] As a very general rule, people will go only whither they are content to be led. Great leaders always require willing, even if somewhat politically passive, followers. Civil-military relations vary in detail, of course, given the breadth of unique historical circumstance that is their particular foundation in every polity. However, this critically important subject does allow authority to an elementary golden rule: the military power of the state must always be subject to authority that is accepted very widely as politically legitimate. The substantive reason for this is that the well-being of society and state cannot prudently be entrusted, or surrendered, even to their coercive instruments. It is only common sense to deny those coercive instruments the opportunity to be more than they should be, given the temptations to organizational mission creep that can come opportunistically to soldiers. Military culture often differs from public and private political culture(s), and it would be imprudent to have one’s national security policy and strategy decided by professional military experts (or their civilian defence analytical associates and frequent functional allies). The price one pays for insisting upon civilian political authority over defence matters is, naturally, necessarily an acceptance ultimately of the sovereignty of a public political will that is ever likely to be inadequately understanding of security problems. It is worth noting that the danger of undue military influence over the policy realm is understandably enhanced when the polity is committed to war (even only to ‘armed politics’ or ‘politics with arms’). However, the peril to civilian (political) supremacy in war lies not only in the scope and weight of the burdens of actual armed conflict, but also in the nature of war itself. By this I mean that the balance of relative influence between the civilian and the soldier is likely to alter simply because of the dynamic and ever unpredictable course of a (necessarily unique) particular war. Whatever the constitutional niceties and formalities in relations, in wartime the state can find itself serving the present and near-term future apparent necessities of a conflict that has evolved beyond expectation, let alone confident anticipation. There is in effect a natural and inevitable tendency for the needs of an on-going conflict to subordinate and even subvert civilian society so that national priorities are reordered more and more in practice in favour of the plausible necessities of war. Not infrequently in strategic history, this re-prioritization in favour of the military security interest has occurred with good enough reason. My point is that even when military leaders are not seeking to reduce or subvert civilian political authority, a context of armed conflict may itself achieve that end.

I think in the second paragraph Gray is correct in the broad historical sense of major wars and existential conflicts. As violence escalates, the war tends to become a Darwinian (or Clausewitzian) ratchet turning in the direction toward “absolute war“. We can see examples of this tendency in historical conflicts as diverse as the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars, the Thirty Year’s War and of course, the Second World War, which culminated in nuclear fire.

Curiously,the United States since the end of WWII has had the exact opposite tendency than the one described by Gray: the politicization of war as a mere prop for or tool of civilian domestic politics -and strategy being subordinated to (increasingly trivial) political matters- without regard to combat effectiveness, the external strategic effects or the ultimate outcome of victory or defeat. There are, in my view, many reasons for this. Most of them are particular to the sad state of American culture and our current generation of “leaders”, but some are intrinsic to the epistemological natures of strategy and politics themselves.

Strategy, if it is to be done well, requires a clarity of vision that is willing to strip away cherished illusions, unfounded assumptions and more intentional forms of intellectual dishonesty. This is because making effective strategic decisions depend upon having a realistic calculus of actual and potential power, situational probabilities, material resources, psychological frameworks and other variables with which to work. In a trite and overused phrase, strategy has to be “reality-based” in the sense of being empirical, to the greatest extent feasible, even as it tries to shape future outcomes. As strategy is an iterative process and in warfare something done by tactics, the feedback provided by combat (“lessons learned”) and intelligence about the enemy needs to be understood in context as accurately as possible. This means that enforcing party-lines, shooting the messenger, “not-invented-here” syndrome, putting turf battles over real ones and bowing to ideological fantasies (“the Slavs are subhumans”, “they will greet us with flowers”, “they are only agrarian reformers”) in making strategic assessments is inherently a form of self-defeating intellectual derangement, a willful blindness likely to bring loss or even ruin.

By contrast, Politics is not harmed by expressions of fabulism, mythmaking, self-delusion or the construction of elaborate, closed systems of thought predicated upon ideological fantasies. Arguably, such visions are empowering and inspiring by helping to craft an attractive narrative that men find compelling, unifying and motivating to action, including the will to power or a call to arms to stand, fight and die in a “higher” cause.  That political ideas may only bear a passing resemblance to reality or may be entirely composed of ahistorical nonsense, irrational hatreds and conspiracy theories is not always relevant to their memetic success or failure. To a degree, the process of political radicalization itself, as ideas become more extreme and demanding, tend to attract the kind of true believer personalities given to turning the ideas into violent or even apocalyptic action. Furthermore the intensity of belief or the closed system nature of the ideology tends to make the followers anti-empirical – highly resistant to information (or even the outcomes of physical reality) that run contrary to deeply held beliefs, as seen in the historical examples of die-hard Communists, Imperial Japanese ultranationalists and fanatical Nazis.

If politics trumps strategy then strategy can only prosper if the political mind is rationally sound.

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Adding to the Bookpile

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]
  

Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq by John Dower 

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 by William Shirer

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh 

Picked up a few more books for the antilibrary.

Dower is best known for his prizewinning Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, which unfortunately, I have never read.  Berlin Diaries I have previously skimmed through for research purposes but I did not own a copy. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany was an immensely bestselling book which nearly everyone interested in WWII reads at some point in time. I would put in a good word for Shirer’s lesser known The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 . It was a very readable introduction to the deep political schisms of France during the interwar and Vichy years which ( as I am not focused on French history) later made reading Ian Ousby’s Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944 more profitable.

I am a fan of the vigorous prose of British historian Michael Burleigh, having previously reviewed  Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism here and can give a strong recommendation for his The Third Reich: A New History.  Burleigh here is tackling moral choices in war and also conflict at what Colonel John Boyd termed “the moral level of war” in a scenario containing the greatest moral extremes in human history, the Second World War.

The more I try to read, the further behind I fall!

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