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REVIEW: Commander of the Faithful by John Kiser

Friday, March 30th, 2018

[Mark Safranski / “zen‘]

Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader by John Kiser  

A while back, I received a copy of Commander of the Faithful from friend of ZP, Major Jim Gant who had been impressed with the book and urged me to read it. My antilibrary pile of books is substantial and it took a while to work my way towards it. I knew a little about Algerian colonial history from reading about the French Third Republic, the Foreign Legion and counterinsurgency literature but the name of Abd el-Kader was obscure to me.  The author, John W. Kiser, had also written a book on the martyred Monks of Tibhirine, a topic that had previously caught the eye of Charles Cameron and made a significant impression. Therefore, I settled in to read a biography of a long forgotten desert Arab chieftain.

What a marvelous book!

Kiser’s fast-moving tale is of a man who attempted to forge from unwieldy tribes and two unwilling empires, a new nation grounded in an enlightened Islam that transcended tribal customs ad corrupt legacies of Ottoman misrule while resisting encroachments of French imperial power. A Sufi marabout who was the son of a marabout, el Kader was the scholar who picked up the sword and whose call to jihad eschewed cruelty and held that piety and modernity were compatible aspirations for the feuding tribes of the Mahgreb. There are a number of themes or conflicts in Commander of the Faithful that will interest ZP readers;

el-Kader’s political effort to build a durable, modernizing, Islamic state and Mahgreb nation from feuding desert tribes and clans

Abd el-Kader struggled to unify disparate Arab tribes and subtribes through piety, generosity and coercion while integrating Turco-Arabs and Algerian Jews who had a place under the old Ottoman regime into his new order. Jews like the diplomat Judas Ben Duran and Christian French former military officers and priests became  el-Kader’s trusted advisers and intermediaries alongside Arab chieftains and Sufi marabouts.

el-Kader the insurgent strategist and battlefield tactician

As a military leader, Abd el-Kader demonstrated both a natural talent for cavalry tactics as well as the organizational skill to build a small, but well-disciplined regular infantry with modern rifles on the European model. It is noteworthy, that while Abd el-Kader suffered the occasional reverse (the worst at the hands of a wily Arab warlord loyal to the French) the French generals fighting him all came to grudgingly respect his bravery, honor and skill. Never defeated, Abd el-Kader made peace with the French and surrendered voluntarily; all of his former enemies, Generals Lamoriciere, Damaus, Bugeaud and Changarnier interceded on al-Kader’s behalf to prod the French government to keep its promises to the Amir, who had become a celebrity POW in a series of French chateaus.

el-Kader the Islamic modernizer and moral figure

The 19th century was a time of intellectual ferment in the Islamic world from Morocco to British India with the prime question being the repeated failures of Islamic authorities in the face of European imperialism of the modern West. El-Kader found different answers than did the Deobandis of India, the Wahhabis of Arabia, the later Mahdists of the Sudan, the followers of al-Afghani or the Young Turks who began turning toward secularism. Educated in the Sufi tradition, el-Kader’s vision of Islam, while devout and at times strict, encompassed a benevolent tolerance and respect for “the People of the Book” and general humanitarianism far in advance of the times that is absent in modern jihadism.

It was Abd el-Kader, in retirement in Damascus, who rallied his men to protect thousands of Christians from being massacred in a bloody pogrom (the 1860 Riots) organized by the Ottoman governor, Ahmed Pasha, using as his instrument two local Druze warlords who were angry about their conflict with the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon and Sunni Arabs and Kurds enraged about the Ottoman reforms that had ended the dhimmi status of the Maronite Christians. It was the Emir who faced down and chastised a howling mob as bad Muslims and evildoers and by his actions thousands of lives were spared. Already honored for his chivalrous treatment of prisoners and his banning of customary decapitation as barbarous, the 1860 Riots cemented Abd El-Kader’s reputation for humanitarianism and made him an international figure known from the cornfields of Iowa to the canals of St. Petersburg.

Kiser, who it must be said keeps the story moving throughout, is at pains to emphasize the exemplary moral character of Abd el-Kader. As Emir, he “walked the walk” and understood the connection between his personal asceticism, probity and generosity to his enemies and the poor and his political authority as Emir. When some Arab tribes betrayed Abd El-Kader in a battle against the French, consequently they were deeply shamed and ended up begging the Emir to be allowed to return to his service. On the occasions when harsh punishments had to be dealt out, Abd el-Kader meted them not as examples of his cruelty to be feared but as examples of justice to deter unacceptable crimes that he would swiftly punish.  This is operating at what the late strategist John Boyd called “the moral level of war”, allowing Abd el-Kader to attract the uncommitted, win over observers, rally his people and demoralize his opponents. Even in defeat, realizing the hopelessness of his position against the might of an industrializing great imperial power that was France. el-Kader retained the initiative, ending the war while he was still undefeated and on honorable terms.

In Commander of the Faithful, Kiser paints el-Kader in a romantic light, one that fits the mid 19th century when concepts of honor and chivalry still retained their currency on the battlefield and society, among the Europeans as much as the Emir’s doughty desert tribesmen (if there is any group that comes off poorly, it is the Turks, the dying Ottoman regime’s pashas and beys providing a corrupt and decadent contrast to el-Kader’s nascent Islamic state). The nobility of Abd el-Kader shines from Kiser’s text, both humble and heroic in a manner that rarely sees a 21st century analogue. It is both refreshing and at times, moving to read of men who could strive for the highest ethical standards while engaged in the hardest and most dangerous enterprise.

Strongly recommended.

 

Biden Trump fisticuffs

Friday, March 23rd, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — a war, a schoolyard war, a war of schoolyard words .. at least we know now how childlike American politics have become ]
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In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, General Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party defeated Senator Lewis Cass of the Democratic Party.

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I searched for “biden trump fisticuffs” on Google, and Lord bless us, Elle magazine popped up with an almost exact title, Trump and Biden Challenged Each Other to Fisticuffs, which was a delight.. Well to be frank, the first time I’d spelled my inquiry “dien trump fisticuffs” and received the response Will: Trump is threatening war with North Korea. But what kind? The kind of war I was looking for was fisticuffs, as specified, and the hoped for opponent was Biden, not Dien. But I got satisfaction on my second attempt. Dien, pfft — what was Google thinking about, Dien Bien Phu?

Anyway, even fisticuffs is a metaphor, I think / hope.

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Elle’s words:

Today, exciting news coming to us from the prison of masculinity — the sitting president and the former vice-president have gotten into a chest-puffing war of words over which elder statesmen would thrump the other in a schoolyard braw ..

D dot Trump and J dot Biden fired warning shots at each other not at dawn on a field in Jersey but in the court of public opinion, a civilized and erudite arena if ever there was one.

Everyone reading this post will almost certainly have seen a refernce to this “chest-puffing war of words” because it has been splashed all over the news — but I’m not featuring it here as anything original or particularly obscure, but because of its sheet delight, as conflict reduced to a children’s brawl reduced to words — a cousin twice removed from real war, which is itself drawing appreciably closer at a diplomatic removed by the appointment of John Bolton as National Security Advisor — gatekeeper to the President, and supposedly an even-headed fellow who can balance out the differing views of the Secretary of Stat,, Secretary of Defense, the Intel community, and other advisors.

Bolton is distinctly not level headed, distinctly an ideologue, a hawk’s extreme hawk, in favor of war and opposed to Islam — Islam’s claim to be a religion of peace appears firmly confirmed by the contrast!

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The 7 Traits of a Great Nat Sec Adviser (Bolton Has 0):

Just a few days ago, Brent Scowcroft celebrated his 93d birthday. He is not in the best of health. His days on the public stage are behind him.

But for those who study American power and leadership in the modern era, the slender, quiet former Air Force lieutenant general remains a giant. He established the standard by which all will be measured who hold the office of national security adviser to which John Bolton was just named. And understanding the reasons for Scowcroft’s success is the key to understanding why Bolton is such a disturbing, devastatingly bad choice for the job.

Read the whole thing!

Kayfabe is an analog for war and love maybe, not a model

Sunday, February 11th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — hat-tip to Ferdinando Buscema, magician and therefore cognitive science specialist extraordinaire ]
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Occasionally one reads a truly stunning article — stunning, I mean stunnng.

Eric R. Weinstein‘s 2011 Edge answer, WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY’S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT? is one such article, and as such I have retained the full caps in its title.

The theoretical background is :

Evolutionary biologists Richard Alexander and Robert Trivers have recently emphasized that it is deception rather than information that often plays the decisive role in systems of selective pressures. Yet most of our thinking continues to treat deception as something of a perturbation on the exchange of pure information, leaving us unprepared to contemplate a world in which fakery may reliably crowd out the genuine. In particular, humanity’s future selective pressures appear likely to remain tied to economic theory which currently uses as its central construct a market model based on assumptions of perfect information.

If we are to take selection more seriously within humans, we may fairly ask what rigorous system would be capable of tying together an altered reality of layered falsehoods in which absolutely nothing can be assumed to be as it appears. Such a system, in continuous development for more than a century, is known to exist and now supports an intricate multi-billion dollar business empire of pure hokum. It is known to wrestling’s insiders as “Kayfabe”.

Evolutionary biology, okay — I have other preferences for go-to model theory, but this one seems popular among non-magical realists on the cutting edge.. and the analog proposed in this article is kayfabe.

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Which is?

What can be seen as “tying together an altered reality of layered falsehoods in which absolutely nothing can be assumed to be as it appears”? What, in other words, can model all these altered realities? And kayfabe cannot be the answer, since it is one of those altered realities itself. No — for sure, it may provide a superb analog for professional wrestling and those others — “war, finance, love, politics and science” — mentioned later in the piece:

Kayfabrication (the process of transition from reality towards Kayfabe) arises out of attempts to deliver a dependably engaging product for a mass audience while removing the unpredictable upheavals that imperil participants. As such Kayfabrication is a dependable feature of many of our most important systems which share the above two characteristics such as war, finance, love, politics and science.

— but it cannot model them.

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Let’s take a closer look at the analogy, though:

What makes Kayfabe remarkable is that it gives us potentially the most complete example of the general process by which a wide class of important endeavors transition from failed reality to successful fakery.

That’s skirting the “model” concept again, but:

While most modern sports enthusiasts are aware of wrestling’s status as a pseudo sport, what few alive today remember is that it evolved out of a failed real sport (known as “catch” wrestling) which held its last honest title match early in the 20th century. Typical matches could last hours with no satisfying action, or end suddenly with crippling injuries to a promising athlete in whom much had been invested.

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The idea was to avoid two “paradoxical risks”:

  • Occasional but Extreme Peril for the participants
  • General: Monotony for both audience and participants
  • Think about that in the context of war — extensive boredom punctuated by episodes of extreme risk? Try these descriptions from WWI:

    Since then we have been doing infantry work in the trenches. We have been out of work on our trenches; only shrapnel and snipers. Some one described this war as “Months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.” It is sad that it is such a bad country for cavalry.

    and:

    “Months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror” : such is a description of life in the Navy which a naval lieutenant quotes as exactly fitting the facts.

    That covers army and navy, both from Where does the phrase of “boredom punctuated by moments of terror” come from? — but what about the air? It’s not from WWI, but anyway:

    In Barry Lopez’s essay “Flight” (published in About This Life and originally in Harper’s October 1995) he quotes pilots describing flying as “hours of boredom punctuated by minutes of terror.

    And what of love — after, as they say, the honeymoon is over?

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    For that matter, and at an entirely different scale, what about the heartbeat?

    That’s “boredome punctuated by excitement” in a nutshell, iterated, and becoming a (mostly) relable rhythm..

    Iterated. Rhythm.

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    I’m unconvinced that the heartbeat is an example of “the general process by which a wide class of important endeavors transition from failed reality to successful fakery”.. And that’s a crucial element of the general process, eh? It has to do with the way in which “important endeavors transition from failed reality to successful fakery.”

    I’d read that as potentially covering the transition from failed Mueller to successful Fox, if things go that way. YMMV:

    But “general process” — again, what’s the mnodel? And more preciseluy, what would the model look like in “stocks and flows” system dynamic form, say in STELLA? See Donella Meadows, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System?

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    Or HipBone?

    I’m not convinced Mueller / Fox is a “boredom then excitement” example, much less that Mueller and Fox are allied in producing their result, whatever this may turn out to be — but Democrat and Republican, perhaps..

    And my search for the abstraction, the underlying model of the general process proposed continues..

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    KAYFABE in Professional Wrestling tells us more:

    To lift the veil on the world of professional wrestling, we need to take a look at the term ‘kayfabe‘. Kayfabe is a wrestling word coming from the early carnival days of wrestling for the word “keep”, originally used as “keep quiet”, or “keep secret”. Kayfabe is often seen as the suspension of disbelief that is used to create the non-wrestling aspects of the business, such as feuds, angles and wrestling gimmicks (or in layman terms, a wrestler’s on-screen persona from their personality down to their attire). In relative terms, a wrestler breaking kayfabe during a show would be likened to an actor breaking character on camera.

    In the past, it was common for wrestlers to adhere to maintaining kayfabe in public, even when outside the ring and off-camera, in order to preserve the illusion that the competition in pro wrestling was not staged.

    Kayfabe breaking as analogous to “an actor breaking character on camera”? And kayfabe transitioning from “virtual” to “real” — another of our favorite themes? Here we are again, from our first source:

    Importantly, Kayfabe also seems to have discovered the limits of how much disbelief the human mind is capable of successfully suspending before fantasy and reality become fully conflated. Wrestling’s system of lies has recently become so intricate that wrestlers have occasionally found themselves engaging in real life adultery following exactly behind the introduction of a fictitious adulterous plot twist in a Kayfabe back-story.

    So “wrestlers have occasionally found themselves” — wrestlers, plural, found themselves engaging, plural — in adultery? Our model needs to accomodatee this plurality along with all the rest.

    Adultery?

Jacquelyn Schneider at War on the Rocks Plus One

Saturday, January 13th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — jazzing on WotR plus Hesse’s GBG ]
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Towards the end of her fine War on the Rocks piece, Blue Hair in the Gray Zone, Dr. Jacquelyn Schneider, Assistant Professor at the U.S. Naval War College (and lucky they are to have her) wrote:

The U.S. military has devoted immense resources to technology, but the future forces will fail without humans designing, adapting, operating, and maintaining the technology.

That’s pretty much the thrust of her whole piece — towards the beginning she’s already said it:

With the pace of current technological change, future force architects should care just as much about the people that man the forces as they do the machines.

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I applaud Dr. Schneider’s article, obviously — but to my mind’s eye it sums to a tiny, concentrated, powerful relationship:

technology : humans

We have the technology, the relation says, we need the humans.

I’m with that, but as always when I see writings that sum to that relation, I think of my own, repeated, obsessive equivalent:

humans : ideas

That’s my obstinate Plus One.

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It began, I suppose, with Hermann Hesse, who described his Glass Bead Game in a poem as a game played in a garden:

In the title poem of his book, Hours in the Garden .. is the Game as he played it himself, while raking leaves in his garden and burning them. In this simpler form, the great Game consists in imagining the great minds and hearts of the past — “wise men and poets and scholars and artists” — meeting across the centuries and talking…

That’s the game as an interaction between humans. In his great, Nobel-winning novel The Glass Bead Game, however, he has abstracted the game, and it is now played with ideas, rather than people:

The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

Hence for myself, once and always:

humans : ideas

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But that’s my background motif, the ostinato of my passacaglia, always running in the background of my mind, even when I’m reading War on the Rocks.

And then I’m reading Dr. Schneider, and in the overlap of concepts —

technology : humans meets humans : ideas

or more simply:

technology : humans : ideas

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That’s what I’m impelled to say: just as we need the people to give algorithms to meaning and extract meaning from them, so we need the algorithms, and their contexts on a range of scales from tactical issues to the great questions of war and peace, conflict and resolution, pacifist’s and warrior’s codes…

What say your heart and mind?

Manea interviews Bob Work at Small Wars Journal

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Octavian Manea interviews former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work for Small Wars Journal. Work, generally regarded as a straight shooter and smart Pentagon insider, served in this position both for the Obama and the Trump administrations and is also a former Undersecretary of the Navy and CEO of CNAS.

The Role of Offset Strategies in Restoring Conventional Deterrence 

Manea: Usually when we are talking about the Cold War, the first thing that we think in terms of a strategic framework is containment. But what has been the role the offset strategies played in the broader Cold War competition? In 1997, William Perry made an interesting observation that I think is worth reflecting on: “these strategies, containment, deterrence and offset strategy were the components of a broad holding strategy during the Cold War. I call it a holding strategy because it did not change the geopolitical conditions which led to the Cold War, but it did deter another World War and it did stem Soviet expansion in the world until the internal contradictions in the Soviet system finally caused the Soviet Union to collapse. The holding strategy worked.”

Work: As Bill Perry suggests, technological offset strategies played an important role during the Cold War. The thinking about offset strategies can actually be traced to WW2. When the United States entered the war, planners concluded that the U.S. would need over 200 infantry divisions and about 280 air combat groups to ultimately defeat the Axis powers. However, U.S. leadership knew that if they built so many infantry divisions, the manpower they would need to work the arsenal of democracy wouldn’t be there. They therefore made a conscious decision to hold the number of infantry divisions to no more than 90 while keeping the 280 air combat groups. The thinking was that a “heavy fisted air arm” would help make up for the lack of infantry parity with the Axis powers.
The “90-division gamble” turned out to be a winner, but it was a close-run thing. In 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, the U.S. Army literally ran out of infantry, forcing leaders to rush untrained troops to the front. Despite this, the idea that technology could help offset an enemy’s strength took hold in American strategic thinking. As a result, throughout the Cold War, the U.S. never tried to match the Soviet Union tank for tank, plane for plane, or soldier for soldier. It instead sought ways to “offset” the potential adversary’s advantages through technological superiority and technologically-enabled organizational constructs and operational concepts.

President Eisenhower was well aware of the 90-division gamble. When he became president, he asked how many infantry divisions it would take to deter a Warsaw Pact invasion of Europe. Coincidentally, he was told about 90 divisions. Eisenhower knew that having a “peacetime” standing army of that size was neither politically nor fiscally sustainable. To counter Soviet conventional superiority, he therefore opted for what is now thought of as the First Offset Strategy (1OS), which armed a much smaller U.S. ground force with battlefield atomic weapons, and an explicit threat to use them on invading Warsaw Pact forces.
The 1OS strategy worked. We know this because the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies adopted a new campaign design to forestall NATO’s use of nuclear weapons early in a campaign. They planned to conduct conventional attacks in powerful successive echelons to achieve a penetration of the NATO front lines. Once a breach was achieved, an Operational Maneuver Group (OMG) would drive deep into NATO’s rear.  The Soviets believed that once an OMG was operating behind NATO’s front lines, NATO leadership would be dissuaded or incapable of resorting to nuclear weapons. We’ll never know if NATO would have ever approved atomic attacks in response to a Warsaw Pact invasion.  But we do know the 1OS provided a credible deterrent and had a major impact on Soviet thinking.

Fast-forward twenty years…..

Read the rest here

 


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