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Recommended Reading & Viewing

Friday, October 17th, 2014

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

Top Billing! The Bridge Series on #Operating  - #Operating, The Army #Operating Concept, The Army #Operating Concept ‘s Global Landpower Network, The Army #Operating Concept and Allies,  Operationalizing the Army #Operating Concept  and Undue Emphasis on the Army #Operating Concept 

The new Army Operating Concept (AOC) posted earlier this week received a lot of feedback on social media and in the halls of military installations – which ultimately led to this series, titled “#Operating: A Personal Reflection on the Army Operating Concept,” on The Bridge. This post will kick things off by taking a holistic look at the document; later posts will focus on personal reactions to the document – what it says, what it fails to say, or even particular elements from it that resonate.

To begin, the framing of this future-oriented document is solidly rooted in the past…something we should all expect given that the overseer of its publication is the noted Warrior-Historian, LTG H.R. McMaster. A military document that not only references in the endnotes historical analysis and theory found in texts like those by Thucydides, Clausewitz, and even past military doctrine, but also conceptually intertwines their wisdom throughout, is likely to be more valuable than a document typified by “buzzword bingo.” While professional vernacular is a tool to accurately and quickly convey terms among members of the profession, it can also be used to gloss over or even replace deep thought and vital understanding, even among the “initiated.” So, while the AOC certainly reduces its use of typical military language from previous versions, it does still contain its fair share of jargon.

For the uninitiated, the AOC is supposed to “describe how the Army…employs forces and capabilities…to accomplish campaign objectives and protect U.S. national interests” (Page 8). It takes a little digging to find that in this document. To make things a little easier (at least for me), I’m going to break out some key elements and translate its contents into my language, hopefully increasing the accessibility of the concepts.

War on the Rocks – Sir Lawrence Freedman - THE MASTER STRATEGIST IS STILL A MYTH 

This problem of functional separation, a feature of the specialization of contemporary life, is relevant to the problem of strategy-making. It might be much easier to propose a bold and imaginative strategy when you are not going to be held accountable if it all goes wrong. There are other forms of functional separation. Steed takes seriously the problem of the regular disconnect between the political from the military, which I highlight. I was citing this as a problem with the classical tradition, associated with Jomini and Clausewitz, which focuses on decisive battle as the source of political victory. I dealt with this in a recent War on the Rocks article. This divide between generals and politicians has become a matter for concern among a number of contemporary writers, including Hew Strachan. But the problem goes wider, as can be seen in laments about the separation of planners from doers in large businesses. Steed and I can agree that there is a real challenge when it comes to translating the language and concerns of the military into terms that the politician will grasp. Conversely, it is equally difficult to give the military an appreciation for the real, and often contradictory, pressures that a politician faces. But even if structures are improved, there will always be distinctive interests and perspectives. A succession of rounded strategic people is unlikely to develop.

….We may do better, therefore, looking for good strategy rather than worrying about great strategists. What fascinates me about good strategy is not that it comes from people who are uniquely qualified, but that it can be generated by fallible human beings working through imperfect organizations operating in conditions of great uncertainty. People can be propelled into challenging roles (Harry Truman and Clement Attlee in 1945) and then do surprisingly well. Neither of them would have been identified as putative Alexanders. In general I would encourage those preparing for some major strategic decisions to think about how to diagnose situations and focus on the problem at hand, and manage a degree of empathy with their opponents as well as with their partners. The will need to think ahead, forge coalitions and hold on to long-term objectives. As they appreciate the importance of chance and unintended consequences, they should stay pragmatic, changing course when one does not work and shifting goals as new opportunities arise and others are closed off. But in practice it may turn out that an actual situation will really suit somebody who is stubborn and bloody-minded, autocratic rather than consultative, narrowly focused and ruthless, and so able to act as a force of nature and push aside all obstacles.

Scholar’s Stage – Bargaining with the Dragon 

Lets start with the protestors.

What are the protestor’s demands?

    1. When the protests began the protestors rallied around two demands:
      Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying (hereafter CY Leung) will step down.


  1. Hong Kong will institute a democratic system where candidates for popular election are  chosen by voters, not a committee selected by the Communist Party of China.

The original body of protestors who demanded these things were organized by two groups, the Hong Kong Federation of Students (????????, abbrv. ????, or just ??), composed of Hong Kong university students, and Scholarism (????), headed by 17 year old Joshua Wong and mostly composed of youth about his age. The famous photos of umbrella clad youth being pepper sprayed as they charged government lines were of these folks. 

They were joined by a third group, known as Occupy Central with Peace and Love, or Occupy Central for short (?????????, abr.??), on the second day of the protest. Occupy is a different sort of beast than the other two organizations; it is run by seasoned political activists and university professors who have been planning a civil disobedience campaign to protest the 2017 election reforms since early 2013. They had planned to start the protest on October 1st (the PRC’s National Day, the closest equivalent China has to the 4th of July), but when the clashes between students and police escalated on Friday (Sept 26th) they decided to abandon their original plan and join the protestors. Had they been in charge of the show from the beginning I am not sure they would have made the same demands—at least in the beginning—that the students did. But they came late to the party and have to deal with what the students’ demands hath wrought. 

There are two important things about these groups we must remember when assessing the protestors’ strategy and the government’s response to it….


Haft of the Spear -We’re Not Breaking Up Anything

Dart Throwing Chimp – Thoughts on the Power of Civil Resistance

Global Guerrillas -Blockchain Companies and The Internet of Chains

Sam Harris -Can Liberalism Be Saved From Itself? 

War Council -Clear Strategic Thinking About Drones 

Michigan War Studies Review -Exposing the Third Reich: Colonel Truman Smith in Hitler’s Germany

Technology ReviewThe Contrarian’s Guide to Changing the World and Revolution in Progress: The Networked Economy

InformationWeek - Internet Of Things Intrigues Intelligence Community

The Chicago Progressive Issue #4

The GuardianAre the Robots about to Rise?

Politico – The Congressman who Spied for Russia

The AtlanticThe Lies of Adolf Eichmann  and How Gangs took over Prisons

The National InterestMachiavelli: Still Shocking after Five Centuries 

The New York Times –  The ancestors of ISIS



Recommended Reading

Monday, May 19th, 2014

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

Top BillingThe War Nerd: Nigeria’s inevitable Mess 

….Most people don’t remember Biafra now, except as the second name of that spoken-word asshole Jello Biafra. It’s a shame; the Igbo deserve to have their heroic war remembered and honored. But like I said, nobody much cares about African casualties, and when they do, it’s always Africans as helpless victims—never, ever Africans as brave and well-organized armies. I’ve noticed that, over years of doing this column. When Africans are threatening to form a strong, united country, like the Igbo, the Tutsi or the Eritreans, they come in for some weirdly intense hate, and a lot of times it comes from the bloodiest bleeding hearts around. Creeps me out, actually, and I’m not easily crept.

MarketWatch -Too-big-to-fail battle between Larry Summers, Nassim Taleb 

….Summers, who served as Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and more recently as an adviser to Barack Obama, took exception and charged that Taleb was being unrealistic about the difficulties identifying the institutions that pose systemic risk.

Summers told Taleb that he was for more capital, more liquidity, living wills for banks and procedures to wind them down. “What are you for?” he challenged.

“I’m for punishment,” Taleb replied.

 Dean Cheng – The Odd Couple: China and North Korea 

….By contrast, one of the worst case scenarios for Beijing would be a reunified Korean peninsula that was allied with both the United States and Japan. In that situation, the PRC would see itself being contained by three of the largest economies in Asia, adjacent to its territory and capable of wielding enormous military power. Certainly, the prospect of American forces being based in close proximity to Chinese territory, even if not in the former DPRK, would be concerning, if only due to the potential for intelligence collection. Moreover, the Chinese would likely see the steady expansion of NATO as presenting a malignant model for East Asia, with an American-led coalition steadily encroaching upon Chinese territory and jeopardizing the PRC’s ability to access the seas.

Cheng is my go-to guy on Chinese policy.

Christopher Ford -Confucian Rationalizations for One-Party Dictatorship 

….Today, the development of the new quasi-Confucian political discourse of a technocratically-guided but civilizationally-grounded national unity and strength receives support and encouragement from the very highest levels of the Party-State.  The regime and its propaganda apparatus have increasingly been using Confucian key words or notions, and stressing themes of “Chineseness” in political and international relations theory by picking up on elements that began to emerge after Confucius studies received the Party-State’s ideological imprimatur and encouragement in the mid-1980s.

 David Stockman-Why China Will Implode: Its A Monumental Building Aberration, Not An Economy


 …Occasionally a picture is worth a thousand words, and here’s one buried in a Financial Times story on China’s rapidly deteriorating housing market. It seems that during the two-year period 2011-2012, which was the peak of China’s much praised “aggressive” stimulus response to the Great Recession in the DM world, China consumed more cement than did the United States during the entire 20th century!

Agree with Stockman that this figure is astounding. Suspect that it is also fake and also suspect, on a more ominous note, that the Chinese government may not know what the real figure is either.

FORBES -Eyes Wide Shut to North Korea’s Terror Ties


Small Wars Journal Still Shortchanged 

WarCouncil.org -Not By Force Alone: Russian Strategic Surprise in Ukraine

Sensable Learning-Why Standards Cannot Measure Student Achievement: The Binary Bar of Proficiency 

WSJThe Closing of the Collegiate Mind 

Christianity TodayUnconventional Warfare 

SEEDEarly Warning Signs

Ultraculture -A Mexican Scientist Just Invented a ‘Telekinesis’ Helmet 


From Sebastian Junger, author of WAR and featured in RESTREPO

Korengal the Movie


Guest Post: Stephanie Chenault Reviews Saving South Sudan

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Zen here – we would like to give a warm welcome to Stephanie Chenault, with her first guest post at ZP! :

[ by Stephanie Chenault]

“Violence and bloodshed can never have morally good results” – The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare

Saving South Sudan is an ambitious, multimedia event from “World’s Most Dangerous Places,” author Robert Young Pelton and master photographer/filmmaker Tim Freccia. VICE went big on Pelton’s quixotic journey with Nuer Lost Boy Machot Lap Thiep to “fix” South Sudan. The three enter the world’s newest nation, at a time of extreme crisis and bloodshed, creating a grand yarn with bold characters and high adventure set against sweeping, brutal savagery.

The story of South Sudan as viewed through a Western lens is unbelievably complex, but Pelton gives us an African perspective where the current crisis is demystified by those closest to it. South Sudan has plunged into another round of playground rivalry where the contested sandbox is the world’s newest country and the opponent’s bloody noses, busted lips and black eyes are dwarfed by the physical and emotional damage inflicted on its spectators.

Saving South Sudan gives us an intelligent summary of the history, religion, cultural anthropological aspects, militarism, oil economy and “baksheesh-ocracy” that makes South Sudan tick. Serious students of the subject are encouraged to consider all of these facets while reading / viewing this oeuvre: No actions are promoted, no outcomes are predicted- and this is how it should be. This is Africa.

Pelton’s 130 page print piece and 40 min documentary grants the viewer unparalleled access into an Africa where there are no orange sunsets framed by acacia trees. A place where war is irregular, ferocious and unpredictable. In THIS Africa even the “rebel leader” bristles at being identified as such. In an earnest conversation, ousted Vice President Dr Riek Machar relays his desire isn’t to incite violence but to have a seat at the table in order to discuss options and opportunities to end the conflict. Pelton takes the filter off: behind the rhetoric, the violence continues in real time and we know that securing a seat at the table and successful negotiations (see recent media reports) bear little impact on the battle for oil on the ground. If fighting has indeed ceased, most roving bands have yet to receive the memo.

I can’t exit this review without mentioning the main reason to take the time to get briefed on the region through Pelton’s Saving South Sudan. The human touch interviews with the rulers, rebels and raconteurs would be reason enough. So would Freccia’s breathtaking portraits of the people, landscape and conflict. But taking you along this expedition is Machot- an affable, handsome (still) young man and former lost boy. His story is one of sorrow, success, and optimism. His is perhaps the best lens of them all.

Finding the print issue of the magazine can be a challenge but distribution sites are posted at the Vice website. The entire article can be found here.

The “Saving South Sudan” world premiere documentary can be found on-demand here:


Stephanie Chenault is the COO of Venio Inc, a service-disabled, veteran-owned small business which focus on plans, policy, architectures and problem-solving across the Department of Defense for multiple clients.


Shoma Choudhury talks to the CIA & Taliban, more or less

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- two talks from India's THiNK2013 conference, one about the Taliban and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the other a tale of India / Pakistan Partition ]

Here, Indian journalist Shoma Choudhury interviews Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, one time Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and author of the book, My Life with the Taliban, and Robert Grenier, CIA station chief in Islamabad in 2001 and later Director of the Agency’s Counterterrorist Center, during the THiNK2013 conference held at the Grand Hyatt in Goa, in a session titled An Afghan Date: The CIA Talks To The Taliban on November 9th, 2013:

I haven’t found a reference to this event in the New York Times or Washington Post, and the video of the event has been viewed less than 1,250 times — so I hope that if any Zenpundit readers have in fact already viewed it, they will forgive me for posting it here. It seems to me to be a remarkable conversation, not least because of Choudhury’s skillful moderation.


I only know about this conversation because blog-friend Omar Ali pointed me to the video of a reading of Saadat Hasan Manto‘s account of Partition in his satirical short story, Toba Tek Singh at the same conference. The reader is the actor Naseeruddin Shah whom I admire enormously for his stunning performance as “the common man” in Neeraj Pandey‘s A Wednesday — the story is told as written in Manto’s Urdu, with a principal character who “mutters or shouts a mix of Punjabi, Urdu and English” — and most of an English language translation is provided for those like myself who need it, by means of projected background slides.

But that voice, Naseeruddin Shah’s voice!

You can read Toba Tek Singh in Frances Pritchett‘s translation here.


If these two presentations are anything to go by, the THiNK conference series may be what TED talks could and should have been…


Raza Rumi: lines drawn & boundaries transcended

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- an assassination attempt, a book review -- and a counterpoint of musicians ]


I have mentioned Raza Rumi only once before on Zenpundit, in Darfur question… and wider Sufi ripples two years ago. This week, however, there was an attempt on his life, and on the 29th, Rumi posted about it on his Jahane Rumi blog:

Finally, I countenanced what I had been dreading for quite some time. Journalists and media houses being under threat is a well-known story in conflict-ridden Pakistan. I had also heard about my name being on a few hit-lists but I thought these were tactics to scare dissenters and independent voices. But this was obviously an incorrect assessment of the situation.

On Friday night, when I had planned to visit Data Darbar after my television show, my car was attacked by “unknown” (a euphemism for lethal terror outfits) assailants. The minute I heard the first bullet, the Darwinian instinct made me duck under and I chose to lie on the back of the car.

This near death experience with bullets flying over me and shattered window glass falling over me reminded me of the way my own country was turning into a laboratory of violence. Worse, that when I saved myself, it was not without a price. A young man, who had been working as my driver for sometime, was almost dead. I stood on a busy road asking for help and not a single car stopped…

As I tweeted when I heard about the attempt, I was distressed to hear of the attack, and wish him well — and Pakistan, too.


I’ve been a quiet admirer and occasional reader of Rumi’s blog for quite a while now, and am looking forward to reading his book, Delhi By Heart.

The first and final paragraphs from Venki Vembu‘s review of the book confirm me in my wish to do so. They also — and here’s what this post is really all about — show us both the deeply etched lines of division –

In his novel The Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh writes of the imagined cartographic lines that divide people in the Indian subcontinent and cleave their souls. Many of these “shadow lines” are etched in bitter, hand-me-down memories and imaginations, and for that reason are rather more indelible than lines on a map, which can perhaps be redrawn over time.

— and the possibility that such lines and boundaries can be overcome, erased, transcended —

Rumi offers this fascinating narrative as a “faint voice that wants to transcend boundaries and borders and reject the ills of jingoism spun by nation-state narratives.” In form and spirit, this unusual travelogue is like a jugal bandhi: songs of bhakti tradition fuse seamlessly with qawwali strains from the Nizamuddin dargah. It is an enchanting illustration of how the divisive shadow lines of history can be erased when hearts and minds are opened to new experiences.


Finally, for your listening pleasure: an intricate jugalbandhi or musical dialogue between Zakir Hussain on tabla and Hariprasad Chaurasia on bansuri flute…


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