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On analogical mountains — & pitons that portend enlightenment

Saturday, April 2nd, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — carrying French mountaineering coals to a mountaineering Frenchman ]

As imagination can reach farther than spacecraft, so analogical mountains are at a higher elevation — indeed, a higher octave — than physical ones:

Tablet DQ rurp mt analogue

René Daumal
‘s brilliant novel Mount Analogue was uncompleted, and fittingly so, at his death — the peak of the book’s arduous ascent being by necessity wordless.

Thete’s nothing non-Eucidean or metaphysical about Chouinard‘s RURP, however — it’s a piton so small that if you dare hang your life on it, you might well expect to achieve enlightenment. I was given mine as a keepsake by a hitchhiker on his way to try the lower slopes of Everest, while I was taking the hippie route through Turkey and Iran to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in the early seventies. And yes, I confess I use it for exclusively analogical mountaineering.


This DoubleQuote is for my long-time boss and friend Victor d’Allant, who tweeted today:


Umberto Eco, RIP

Saturday, February 20th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — he was a man of word, wit and wisdom ]

The world was chastened last evening to learn of the passing from among us of Umberto Eco.


Zen has long admired Eco, as readers here will know, if for no other reason then as the original exponent of the concept of the antilibrary, here described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book, The Black Swan:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

beato liebana

My own taste, as you know, runs to th apocalyptic, and I have long lusted for his sumptuous edition for Franco Maria Ricci of the Beatus of Liebana commentary on the Book of Revelation. I am grateful to discover I do have in my possession the second issue of FMR magazine, with Eco’s essay Waiting for the Millennium (pp 63-92) containing a number of the plates from that larger work.

It was blog-friend Laura Walker who alerted me to Eco’s passing, with the graceful comment:

He is the best ambassador of the Middle Ages – thought, aesthetics, philosophy, humor, humanity – it’s as if he sends his works from there..

Indeed. We lament his passing.

On the horrors of apocalyptic warfare, 1: its sheer intensity

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — first in a series of four posts on the central theme of a proposed book ]

Saint Michael Fighting the Dragon

In a previous post, I introduced my work on a book proposal concerning Coronation: The Magic and Romance of Monarchy. The second book proposal I’ve put together, which is also currently in the hands of an agent and making the publishing rounds, is titled Jihad and the Passion of ISIS: Making Sense of Religious Violence.


We now have, I believe, a strong undertanding of the Islamic State and its origins in such books as Stern & Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror, Jason Burke, The New Threat, Joby Warrick, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, and Weiss & Hassan, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. Delving directly into the key issue that interests me personally, the eschatology of the Islamic State, we have Will McCants‘ definitive The ISIS Apocalypse. My own contribution will hopefully supplement these riches, and McCants’ book in particular, with a comparative overview of religious violence across continents and centuries, and a particular focus on the passions engendered in both religious and secular movements when the definitive transformation of the world seems close at hand.

What follows is the first section of a four-part exploration of the horrors of apocalyptic war.


I’ve attempted to give a sense of those passions in my post So: how does it feel at World’s End? — invoking Sylvia Plath‘s extraordinary couplet:

By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.
I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

That’s the intensity of the feeling aroused, I’d suggest, in the throngs who followed Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi to Khartoum, and Winston Churchill in his book The River War, conveys the intensity of their jihad in these words:

the force of fanatical passion is far greater than that exerted by any philosophical belief, its function is just the same. It gives men something which they think is sublime to fight for..

Churchill is really pretty astounding on the topic of the Mahdi — a messianic figure in a religion he characterized as laying dreadful curses on its votaries inclouding “the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog”, and a warrior of whom he said that a future Arab historian should place him “foremost among the heroes of his race”.

Here is another Churchillian description of that “fanatical frenzy”:

Then came the Mahdi .. it should not be forgotten that he put life and soul into the hearts of his countrymen and freed his native land of foreigners. The poor miserable natives, eating only a handful of grain, toiling half-naked and without hope, found a new, if terrible magnificence added to life. Within their humble breasts the spirit of the Mahdi roused the fires of patriotism and religion. Life became filled with thrilling, exhilarating terrors. They existed in a new and wonderful world of imagination. While they lived there were great things to be done; and when they died, whether it were slaying the Egyptians or charging the British squares, a Paradise which they could understand awaited them.


Let me make the general point more explicit. Dr Tim Furnish, a frequent commentator on these pages and author of Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden, opens his book as I have cited frequently with this analogy:

Islamic messianic insurrections are qualitatively different from mere fundamentalist ones such as bedevil the world today, despite their surface similarities. In fact, Muslim messianic movements are to fundamentalist uprisings what nuclear weapons are to conventional ones: triggered by the same detonating agents, but far more powerful in scope and effect.

Will McCants makes it very clear in his The ISIS Apocalypse that the Islamic State as we currently encounter it is a caliphal movement rather than a Mahdist one, in other words that it is in an earlier stage of the same process leading eventually to the Mahdi’s arrival — although its propaganda, quoting its “founding father” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is clearly apocalyptic…


Up next: On the horrors of apocalyptic warfare, 2: to spark a messianic fire

Recommended Reading, Abbreviated

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

There’s been a few posts out there recently in the broad strat-FP-mil blogosphere that were collectively so outstanding that I wanted to take a spare moment and highlight them:

Razib KhanISIS Will Win Many Battles But Lose the War

….The piece in Aeon is a necessary corrective to two vulgar and populist reactions to the rise of radical groups like ISIS. First, there is the materialist viewpoint, which holds that a lack of economic opportunities is the dominant causal factor driving the violence. The first order issue to address is the reality that many regions of the world (e.g., non-Muslim Sub-Saharan Africa) have larger portions of the population which are underemployed or unemployed than the Islamic world, and yet do they not serve as sources of violent politically or religiously motivated terrorism. In fact, the best ethnographic work indicates that a disproportionate number of the young men involved in violent religious and political terrorism are not from the bottom of society, but closer to the top. In particular those striving and moving up the socioeconomic ladder in cultures undergoing modernization. The rural peasantry and the established upper classes are relatively immune to radicalization, but those whose roots are in the country but attempting to situate themselves in the middle class or higher are subject to more social dislocation, despite lack of material want. Most of the 9/11 bombers were Saudi, a nation which has a cradle-to-grave system of benefits for citizens, and which has been shielded and enriched by an alliance with the United States. Certainly marginalization, social and economic, are necessary conditions for recruiting from the Islamic Diaspora in Europe, but even here they are not sufficient conditions. The Roma are more socially and economically deprived than Europe’s Muslims, but do not engage in organized terrorism of any sort.

BJ Armstrong – The Strange Words of Strategy

Today we face a world which some tell us is new and different. We have been assured by some that the ideas of the past have little relevance and must be changed to adapt to the future. Yet, if we discard the past, we are left with no foundation to build on. The most recent example of this is the growing use of a new concept labeled “gray wars” or the “gray zone.” Leaders from the special operations community are telling us that the world is new and different. But there are some very important concepts foundational to past military and national strategy that should not be ignored in the rush to the new buzzwords. As Colin Gray writes in his latest book, “problems in contemporary strategy are ever changing, but they all have common roots.”

….The gray wars dialogue is just the most recent in a trend toward turning our back on historical precedent and previous strategic concepts. This past summer in the pages of Infinity Journal (free subscription), I attempted to make a similar case regarding to the idea of Air-Sea Battle, (or JAM-GC as it is now called). Debate over the operational concept which came to be known as Air-Sea Battle has been a large part of naval strategic discussion of the past several years. Despite the volume of words that have been spent on the subject, few have engaged with the actual theory and classical concepts of naval strategy. In my article, “D-All of The Above: Connecting 21st Century Naval Doctrine to Strategy,” I make the case that a better understanding of contemporary naval discourse’s place within the ideals of classical naval strategy will not only help us better understand proposals and counter-proposals, but it will also help strategists to better evaluate and develop future thinking.

Adam Elkus – 50 Shades of Gray: Why the Gray Wars Concept Lacks Strategic Sense and Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here: You Can Not Save The Gray Zone Concept

In a previous article here at War on the Rocks, I argued that the “gray zone” concept — used to describe the strategic behavior of everyone from the Islamic State to Vladimir Putin — is hopelessly muddled and does not contribute much of value to the defense policy discussion. However, Michael J. Mazzarr thinks that there’s more to the concept than I give credit for. Mazarr concedes the main points of my critique, noting that I am correct to say that the gray zone concept is hopelessly muddled and is not novel. However, Mazarr nonetheless asserts that gray zone campaigns today differ in their “coherence, intentionality, and urgency,” thus justifying them as a “distinct approach to strategy.”

While Mazarr is certainly correct to express concern over enemy strategies — novel or otherwise — I nonetheless remain unconvinced that the gray zone concept is not just another example of the strategic studies community needlessly confusing itself by generating new terminology to replace what is not broken. Specifically, I argue once again that the gray zone concept is neither novel nor useful on its own terms. While Mazarr’s re-articulation of the concept rectifies some of its most egregious flaws, Mazarr ultimately cannot save gray zone theories from their own gaping conceptual holes.

Scholar’s Stage – Every Book I Read in 2015

….As is often the case, my reading list is closely connected with what I have written for the Stage, and careful readers of the blog can probably piece together when I read many of these books by looking at the blog posts published throughout the year. I will forgo the usual attempt to place a link to the individual posts related to the readings next to the book that inspired them, for several of these posts (especially “Darwin and War in Ancient China, Sengoku Japan, and Early Modern Europe,” and “The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program“) drew on a dozen or more of the books included here. It would be impractical to place a link next to every title.

I began bolding my ten favorite books of the year with the hope that it would stop readers from asking me what the “best” book of the year was–when you are reading between 65-80 books a year choosing just one really is an impossible task. 2015 is different. This year has a clear winner. I found the story of this book I read so arresting that I read all five of its volumes twice. Had I copy with me here in Taiwan I would not hesitate to reread it all again. Never has a book jumped so fast to Quantum Library status.

This book is Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber, translated by David Hawkes and John Minford with its alternate title, The Story of the Stone. Dream of the Red Chamber is one of the “Four Great Classic Novels” of Chinese literature, and is almost universally described as the best of the four–and by extension, the best novel of Chinese history. I have been making my way through the classic novels through the last few years, but I gave priority to marshal epics like Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh (Water Margin) over Dream, whose story centers around forlorn love and domestic squabbles. This was a mistake. Dream is just as good as the critics claim, and is in contention not just for the title of “best novel ever written in Chinese history,” but “best novel written in human history.” It is a book I shall treasure for the rest of my life.

That’s it.


Our friends at The Bridge have a new online home. Change your bookmarks and blogrolls accordingly!

Tim Furnish update, new book just out

Saturday, November 28th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — this just out from Tim Furnish, author of Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden ]

I’m looking forward to reviewing this, from my friend and our blog-friend Tim Furnish:

A second volume of Tim’s recent writings should be out shortly.

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