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America’s Anti-Agoge

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

“….Instead of softening their feet with shoe or sandal, his rule was to make them hardy through going barefoot. This habit, if practiced, would, as he believed, enable them to scale heights more easily and clamber down precipices with less danger.”

– Xenophon, The Polity of the Lacedaemonians

Be quiet! In your position, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman! Then why the fuck did you accept the position? Who the fuck hired you? You should step down! If that is what you think of being headmaster, you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not!”
Jerelyn Luther, the Shrieker of Yale

“I personally am tired of hearing that first amendment rights protect students when they are creating a hostile and unsafe learning environment for myself and for other students here.”

– Brenda Smith-Lezama, Vice President of the Missouri Students Association 

Much has been written this week of the protests at Mizzou and Yale universities now sparking more absurd copycats elsewhere.  Pundits have covered the dangerous illiberalism of campus political correctness and speculated that the students are the result of a generation of helicopter parenting. There were earlier essays recently on the “coddled” nature of elite university students generally and skewered Ivy League students in particular as the products of a deeply flawed, intellectually shallow,”meritocratic” rat race that serves as the gateway to the nation’s elite. There have also been conservative suggestions that the students lack the maturity to vote and a furious counterattack by social-justice faction lefties defending the students and their authoritarian anti-free speechsafe space” ideology.

While all interesting and moderately important, I don’t think any of this gets to the heart of the matter.

Up until today, every society in history has had a process, formal or informal, to prepare the next generation of leadership and inculcate virtues in them that would assure their society’s cultural continuity and physical survival. The ancient Chinese mandarinate was based on mastery of Confucian classics; the British Empire had its public schools and storied regiments where the sons of the gentry and peerage bonded; the samurai and daimyo of Tokugawa Japan continued to uphold bushido and cherish antique tactics in warfare centuries after Japan’s unification made such things more ritual than reality.

The definitive example of an educational rite of passage from student to member of the ruling class however, remains the Agoge of ancient Sparta. Established, according to Spartan legend, by the semi-mythical law-giver Lycurgus, the agoge (“the upbringing”) existed to mold Spartan boys through a ferocious training regime into the hoplite soldier-citizens who comprised the social apex of Sparta’s militaristic oligarchy. The agoge ceaselessly battered the students with physical exertion, corporal punishment, exposure to the elements and hunger in a bid to harden them  in mind and body. There’s much about life under the agoge that moderns, even admirers of classical Greece, would find distasteful or even appalling, but it was very effective at inculcating that ascetic toughness, communal discipline, martial prowess and laconic wit that Spartans prized.  For at least three centuries, the agoge helped sustain Sparta’s qualitative military edge and its hegemony over the Greek world and subsequently, its political independence for two centuries more. Not a record that was frequently matched in history.

America too has a system of education to prepare – or rather, certify – our future business, academic, judicial and political leaders based on matriculation at a small number of highly selective, elite universities and liberal arts colleges. Broadly speaking, this includes roughly the top 100 higher education institutions ranked by US News & World Report and narrowly, for filling the very top tiers of finance, law and government service, the Ivy League plus a handful of comparable schools. This would place Mizzou at the bottom of the barrel of our elite education system while Yale is at the very pinnacle. The kids going to exclusive, elite, universities are very bright for the most part, but even more so they are wealthy.

This upper class status includes the campus protestors screaming loudest about their wretched oppression. The hunger striker of Mizzou’s father is a multi-multi-millionaire while the Shrieker of Yale reportedly comes from the relative poverty of her parents $750,000 home. The aggressive authoritarianism on display at Yale, Mizzou, Amherst, Dartmouth or Claremont is less the “Rage of a Privileged Class” than the petulant tantrum of the 1%.  In other words, despite their heroic efforts at a public pathos orgy of political correctness to portray themselves as victims in grave danger as they bullied and assaulted professors other students, these are spoiled rich kids used to getting their way, pitching an unholy fit to get undeserved power over others who disagree.

However obnoxious and unlikable these petty tyrants are or how totalitarian their demands to end free speech and academic freedom, fire and expel all their critics or put social-justice commissars in charge of every university department, they didn’t educate themselves. The students embody, perhaps in a more militant form, what they were taught. The problem isn’t that this year has a random surplus of student radicals, or that sinister racist conspiracies exist in the administrations of our most left-wing universities as protestors claim or that these helicoptered students are all psychologically fragile waifs raised in a culture of self-love and psychodrama. No, the problem is that the system to educate our future leaders tends to inculcate deep hostility and loathing toward their fellow Americans, extolls anti-empirical, witch-hunting dogmatism as a virtue while rewarding narcissism and anti-social aggression in interpersonal relations. This needs to change.

We have built an American anti-Agoge that cultivates values, ethics and habits in future leaders that are politically repulsive in their authoritarian rejection of Constitutional rights and are antithetical to ruling wisely or well. At times they would seem to conflict with a life as a functionally competent human being. Half of all Yale students in this pressure-cooker require at least some mental health counseling. This is an astounding statistic. Imagine if Polybius or Livy had written that half of the sons of the Patrician class were at least slightly mad. A toxic ruling class that is certain that they have been victimized by the citizens they govern and who lack the normal resilience to withstand minor stresses of life without concocting conspiracy theories or taking to their bed is a recipe for disaster. In a liberal democratic state such as ours, dependent as it is on the values of an open society to function politically, this state of affairs is a sign of political decay and creeping oligarchy.

What is to be done?

We did not arrive at this juncture overnight and fixing a fundamentally broken academic culture will take time, but here are a few simple suggestions to start.

  1. Legislation to Secure Academic Freedom, Due Process and Free Speech on Campus:  This will defang the PC bullies, social justice warriors and their allies in university administration by hamstringing their ability to coerce and punish dissent. Obviously, this will be easier in public universities but these provisions could be attached to receiving Federal funds, including guaranteed student loans.
  2. Draconian Reduction of University Administrative Positions relative to Tenured Faculty: This will save a great deal of money better spent elsewhere in by axing bureaucracy while de-funding and disempowering the diversity commissariat on campus that is the source of much illiberal mischief. Again, this is a matter more for state level action initially.
  3. Restore a Core Undergraduate Canon rooted in Real Courses in Real Academic Fields: This will reduce the Melissa Click problem of academic sinecures for full-time radical political activists posing as professors with Fifty Shades of Gray “scholarship”. The money saved by getting rid of an army of administrators in #2 leaves a lot of room to hire mathematicians, biologists, historians, economists, physicists, philosophers and linguists who earned a doctorate in something real.
  4. Require Elite universities Receiving Federal Funds to allocate 20% of their Student Body to Students from Middle-Class, Lower Middle Class and Working Class backgrounds, Geographically Balanced: I have mixed feelings about this in principle, but it would definitely break up the overwhelming UC-UMC Superzip monoculture at our gateway institutions and bring new talent and perspectives into our ruling class that the university administrators at present work extremely hard to systematically exclude. It will also increase social mobility and provide competition for the progeny of our game-rigging “meritocratic” elite.


None of these will usher in a utopia. Much of radical academia will muddle through doing what they have been doing until retirement, but the system itself will be on a trajectory for better health rather than for getting steadily worse.

DEF 2015 – the People and the Ideas are the Magic

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

“We’re starting an insurgency of critical thinkers” – Darya Pilram, Red Team Instructor

Last weekend was my first Defense Entrepreneurs Forum conference, DEF 2015 . I came away extremely impressed by the diverse talents and intellectual firepower of the participants and their dedication to being positive change agents. Entrepreneurs mixed with active duty military personnel, senior leaders with juniors, Silicon Valley with Beltway, veterans with academics, journalists and authors; despite such obvious differences of perspective, discussion commenced not just with great civility but a sense of fraternity and esprit de corps. “Like a reunion” was how most attendees of DEF 2015 described it.

The conference received special support from The Atlantic Council, The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and their Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and Bunker Labs.  Additionally, there was strong representation at DEF 2015 by the U.S. Naval Institute in the persons of USNI CEO VADM (ret) Pete Daly and LCDR BJ Armstrong, editor of the Institute’s 21st Century book series (Armstrong was kind enough to slip me some copies of Naval Strategy and Naval Tactics, edited by Thomas Cutler and Captain Wayne Hughes, Jr. respectively). DEF 2015 was held at the Booth School’s Gleacher Center and the itinerary can be viewed here:

1st Day Agenda

2nd Day Agenda

3rd Day Agenda

#DEF2015 twitter feed

The advantage of the DEF 2015 conference program was the array of interesting speakers and workshops available (more than are listed online) running different lengths of time; the downside was that at some point, you had to miss something cool to do something great. I invested the largest chunk of time in attending the excellent three-part Design Thinking workshop run by Major (ret) John Silk as this had the most added-value relevance to my job, but I would have liked to have also heard the Bitcoin case study, the DARPA talk and the DEF Consultancy by VADM Daly and Josh Marcuse of DoD. Fortunately, many talks were recorded and will be on the DEF site and YouTube once they are edited.

A few highlights from DEF 2015:

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August Cole of the Atlantic Council and co-author of Ghost Fleet gave the closest thing to a keynote speech with his talk Ghost Fleet and the Art of Future War. Cole delved into the utility of artists and science fiction writers in futurist theorizing about armed conflict (one such writer is ZP’s own managing editor, Charles Cameron whose contribution to Cole’s futurism project was War in Heaven) including ” urban warfare in mega-cities”.

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A textbook example of the high quality of F2F interaction at DEF 2015: A debate over the technical, tactical and strategic capacities of drones in non-permissive environments broke out during lunch between VADM Pete Daly (gesturing) and NDU researcher Joshua Steinman (far left) that drew in the rest of the table as well as August Cole and several passers-by.

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Richard Walsh of the U.S. Navy’s CNO Innovation cell advised everyone to “rock the boat” in a way that epitomized Boyd’s maxim of “Doing something” instead of “Being somebody”. Walsh explained his experience in terms of “grit” where people rise to an idea, a philosophy that resonated strongly with the audience.

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William McNulty of Team Rubicon gave one of the most inspiring and moving of all the DEF 2015 talks regarding American veterans who have stepped up to forge one of the world’s most effective, first responder, humanitarian NGOs. I saw McNulty speak about Team Rubicon number of years ago at Boyd & Beyond and it was stunning to hear how the organization has since grown in its reach and capacity to make the world a better place.

It is important also to emphasize that great value of the informal networking times built into DEF 2015 both during the conference and at the evening socials, respectively at 25 Degrees and Moe’s Cantina (both located in the Chicago Loop). I made new friends and met old ones I have known from the strategy-sphere, Twitter and Facebook F2F for the first time. Stimulating convos were had with BJ Armstrong, Nate Finney, Joe Byerly, Josh Steinman, Mikhail Grinberg, Rich Walsh, August Cole, Nick Kesler, “Micah of West Point and “Emily of Loyola”.

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Finally, thanks needs to be given to the DEF leadership team for making DEF 2015 an outstanding success, including but not limited to Ben Kohlmann, J. P. Mintz, Mikhail Grinberg, Jen Walsh and Joe “the Leaderboard” Byerly. See you all next year!

Ben Kohlmann.jpg Mintz.jpg Embedded image permalink Jennifer Walsh Joe Byerly


Military Reform through Education

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
Photo of Don Vandergriff instructing with a map

Don Vandergriff facilitating Adaptive Soldier/Leader exercises at Fort Benning

Fred Leland at LESC Blog recently had a guest post up by Dan Grazier from the Project on Government Oversight regarding the important work Don Vandergriff is doing to reform professional military education and training:

Military Reform Through Education: From The Straus Military Reform Project, Something We In Policing Can Learn From

….I had the privilege of experiencing this process with a group of 30 soldiers and Department of Defense (DoD) civilians learning about adaptive leadership and mission command. All were teachers from various courses at Fort Benning sent by their senior leaders seeking to infuse new ideas into their organizations. They spent a week learning how to incorporate adaptability into their courses during a seminar taught by CDI military advisor Don Vandergriff and his colleagues with Yorktown Systems Group.

The Adaptive Soldier/Leader Training & Education (ASLTE) seminar aims to move the Army away from outdated assembly-line training methods that teach soldiers to mindlessly execute checklists. Instead, the seminar shows soldiers how to incorporate creative and interactive methods that challenge both students and teachers. This results in empowered soldiers at all levels able to adapt to any situation. [….]

….Don Vandergriff, a retired Army major, has been on the front lines of personnel reform for many years. While he is most noted for his work at the service level, these seminars seek to transform the Army from the bottom up.

Approximately 20 soldiers and 10 civilian educators spent the week learning various teaching methods through experiential learning, which flips the traditional method military students are used to. Most training today follows the “crawl, walk, run” theory all service members are familiar with. Students are generally expected to complete reading assignments, sit through a PowerPoint lecture, and then finally conduct field training to reinforce what they have learned.

The seminar exposed students to new methods by putting the practical exercises first. For example, the seminar uses several Tactical Decision Games (TDGs) to encourage students to rapidly develop a plan for a military problem presented by the facilitators. TDGs can be created for nearly any kind of a situation, but this course mostly used actual battlefield problems like how to capture a bridge or defeat an enemy force entrenched on a hilltop. While working through these problems, the students are exposed to such concepts as Mission Command and the Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act decision cycle, commonly called the OODA Loop or Boyd Cycle.
It is only after the practical exercises that they receive reading assignments about those concepts. Because they’ve encountered them during the exercises, the concepts become more tangible. The OODA Loop, for instance, explains an individual’s or an organization’s decision-making process. It is a difficult concept to truly understand, but it becomes easier when one first sees how it works and then reads about it. The idea is to give them a moment of discovery, that “Ah ha!” moment. Success using such methods is to have a student say, “So, that’s what you call that,” while reading.

Don is making use of several powerful learning methodologies in his Adaptive Leadership philosophy – and I saying “learning” and not “teaching” because Don has properly put the emphasis on the student actively thinking and doing rather than on passively listening to a lecture or discussion. Lecture has a place in education, to explain or to set the student up for new learning experiences, but it should be used sparingly and in short bursts of time when the instructor has carefully set up a “teachable moment”. By having the students doing active problem solving first, they come to Vandergriff armed with their own questions, eager to have feedback.

The use of games are also a very powerful learning tool, perhaps one of the most effective because the situational learning. tends to be transferrable rather than be compartmentalized and isolated information. The right kind of decision games are serious practice for life. This was noted by RAND social scientists way back during the early days of the Cold War:

“The gamers argued that insights arose from immersion in play. In 1956 Joseph Goldstein noted that the war game demonstrated ‘ the organic nature of complex relationships’ that daily transactions obscured.War-gaming gripped its participants, whipping up the convulsions of diplomacy ‘ more forcefully…than could be experienced through lectures or books’.”

” A team from the Social Science Division [ at RAND ] posed a number of questions which they hoped the unfoldig month of gaming would resolve. Chief among them was whether gaming could be used as a forecasting technique ‘ for sharpening our estimates of the probable consequences of policies pursued by various governments’. Would gaming spark “political inventiveness“, and more importantly, how did it compare to conventional policy analysis? Did gaming uncover problems that might otherwise be neglected? And invoking the emerging touchstone of intuition, did the experience impart to policy analysts and researchers “ a heightened sensitivity to problems of political strategy and policy consequences?”

  Sharon Ghamari- Tabrizi, The Worlds of Herman Kahn

Back to the article:

….Vandergriff’s teaching method incorporates recent research into adult learning, designed “to engage students in direct experiences which are tied to real world problems and situations in which the instructor facilitates rather than directs student progress.” This creates a situation where the students learn from one another. Unlike most other military classes, the ASLTE teachers use very few PowerPoint presentations. They also end up speaking far less than the students themselves.

Vandergriff ran the class through the first TDG and led the discussion afterward. From that point forward, students took turns leading the class through After Action Reviews. Students gained confidence in leading such an exercise while the rest of the class bounced ideas off each other. The interactive nature of this kept the entire class engaged and gave all of them ownership of their own learning.

The concept of ownership was a consistent theme throughout the seminar. According to Vandergriff, a good teacher “works to make his students better than himself and encourages them to take ownership of their development, to make them life-long learners.”

Here Don is making use of the social pressure and reinforcement of a Peer to Peer (P2P) dynamic to maintain maximum student engagement while having them practice critical intellectual reflection, something that is a vital constituent of a professional culture of learning. A true professional embraces an honest discussion of ideas and both accepts and gives critical feedback on performance in hopes of learning and improving.

Read more regarding Don Vandergriff’s adaptive leadership methods here and here.

Sunday surprise: House of Cards meets monks and sexy riot grrls

Sunday, October 11th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — wondering if the same mind (Beau Willimon?) suggested both? ]

Two very different modes of factual reality found their ways into the fictional world of House of Cards, Season 3, American version, and I found the two choices pretty interesting. I’ve recently found clips relating to both on YouTube, so here they are for your consideration:

Pussy Riot:


Tibetan monks:

Taking those two choices together is a bit like juxtaposing Gregorian chant and punk rock — which, come to think of it, is pretty close to what I was getting at in my first ever Riot Grrls post, Pussy Riot, Holy Foolishness and Monk Punk.


Contemplation and activism — poles apart, or one the mainspring for the other?

ISIS: Paganism with an Islamic Face?

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

“And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.”

– Leviticus 18:21 

“They rejected the commandments of the Lord … and served Baal. They consigned their sons and daughters to the fire”

– 2 Kings 17:16–17

“And do not kill your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you. Indeed, their killing is ever a great sin”

  – Qur’an 17:31

In a recent comment section conversation with Charles Cameron and RAND scholar David Ronfeldt on the character of Fascism and its resurgence, I remarked that ISIS adopting a Fascist style in its propaganda and governance may be drawing upon a ghastly and ancient lineage:

ISIS is really embracing Fascism. It’s ceremonial public executions actually supercede what the Nazis and Fascists did only symbolically with blood flags and heroic cenotaphs and so on. It is reaching back to something very dark and protean, human sacrifice, as a political symbol. I think [ Moshe] Halbertal’s book On Sacrifice, is a useful reference here on how deep this goes culturally, to the bronze age or earlier.

ISIS has for some time been making quite a perverse spectacle of its executions of prisoners, combatant and non-combatant alike, releasing videos to international fanfare and glorying in the resultant horror and global infamy. The precedent for this macabre “propaganda of the deed“was initially set by the forefather of ISIS, the Jordanian jailbird upjumped to “terrorist mastermind”, the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who originally led al Qaida in Iraq during the American occupation of Iraq. Prior to expiring after U.S. forces dropped a 500 lb bomb on his head, al-Zarqawi pioneered the use of  beheading videos, usually featuring himself being filmed incompetently and gruesomely sawing off an orange jumpsuit-clad captive’s head with a large knife, blood spraying everywhere.

Zarqawi’s ghoulish innovation in terrorist messaging admittedly held a certain fascination for the psychopathic segment of Sunni Islamist extremists and it attracted foreign fighters of this nature to Iraq who in turn lionized Zarqawi as “the Sheikh of Slaughterers”; but the beheading videos also generally horrified public opinion in the Muslim world and repelled even hardened jihadis, earning Zarqawi a rebuke from al Qaida number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri:

….Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable – also- are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God.

….However, despite all of this, I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma. And that however far our capabilities reach, they will never be equal to one thousandth of the capabilities of the kingdom of Satan that is waging war on us. And we can kill the captives by bullet. That would achieve that which is sought after without exposing ourselves to the questions and answering to doubts. We don’t need this. 

Zarqawi’s Iraqi bloodlust ended only because it was interrupted by the American military, but the leaders of ISIS have carried on. Far from accepting Zawahiri’s advice, they have doubled down, greatly upgrading the marketing of ritualistic murder from Zarqawi’s crude snuff films to slick videos with professional editing and high production values that have become central to the online “brand” of the ISIS “caliphate”. Like the hosts of a sinister game show, ISIS spokesmen have found the time to murder creatively in order to keep their audience of Islamist terrorist wannabes in the West tuned in and captivate the attention of the global media (though sometimes, things do not work  out as planned).


However effective this circus of horrors has been at daunting their enemies and attracting the allegiance of “zealous young men” to ISIS, it reveals an atavistic impulse at play that no amount of Quranic hand-waving can paper over and conceal. Jurisprudence is absent here; not even the grim and rough Islamic “justice” of the Taliban is given to prisoners of ISIS, which violates the customary protections given under Islamic law or historical Muslim judicial practices. These choreographed and sensationalized executions by ISIS are really a cryptic revival of the ancient and terrible practice of human sacrifice, that in most cultures and religions had long been replaced by symbolic ritual, but once reigned supreme during the Bronze Age, not least in ancient Iraq, which if new findings are to be believed was like Aztec Mexico, a charnel-house of slaughter.

Originating in the Stone Age, human sacrifice in the religious sense of an offering to the gods or God, lasted a surprisingly long time. Setting aside the preColumbian cultures of the New World, the ancient Romans, for example, did not formally outlaw human sacrifice until the first century BC, though the practice had become archaic and Rome vigorously sought to stamp it out among the Gauls and Britons, among whom human sacrifice was an accepted part of Druidic religion. Nor was human sacifice entirely unknown among the ancient Greeks of the classical period while child sacrifice was probably central to Carthaginian state rites to such a degree that other peoples of the time, including the Romans, found abhorrent.

What occurred in many cases is that as civilizations evolved in social complexity, substitutionary practices for human sacrifice developed that served the same impulse, to propitiate and honor their God(s) and create powerful emotional bonds among the participants:  animal sacrifice, burial ceremoniesmysteries, religious ritual, necromancy, symbolism in theater and political matters of state religion. The Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac is itself a scriptural admonition to the ancient Hebrews to adopt animal sacrifice as most pleasing to God, a practice the Israelites and Jews of the classical period continued until the destruction of the second temple by the Roman general Titus. From that point on, from the close of the first century AD, Jews and the early, still Judaic, Christians moved away from the practice of animal sacrifice and substituted prayer and theology of salvation, respectively. Sacrifice, especially human sacrifice, became a distinguishing mark of paganism and the subject of Christian crusades in the middle-ages, like the brutal war waged by the Teutonic Knights against the human sacrificing Old Prussians and Lithuanian barbarian tribes.

The Binding of Isaac

The end of late medieval European religious warfare and the rise of the Westphalian system after the Thirty Year’s War slowly shifted the symbolic moral center of sacrifice from God to the State, with divine right monarchy serving as a waystation for the incubation of modern nationalism. There was an epistemic shift, as Halbertal argues in On Sacrifice from a sacred and mystical “sacrificing to” the sovereign God borrowed from the examples of Jewish martyrdom by early Christians who shared in the Romans the same persecutors. This shift opened the gates of permissible sacrifices, legitimating a new secular and political “sacrificing for” the glory of the State.

It is a profound difference but occurring within the same phenomena, as illustrated by two quotes:

…And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

And the Lord said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

                                                                              – Genesis 22:2


….But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow, this ground – The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

     – Abraham Lincoln

Gettysburg and Antietam were not Mount Moriah. Neither were the Somme or Stalingrad the same as the Tophet. From time of the Patriarch Abraham to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, nations of men ceased to sacrifice usually helpless others but moved to sacrifice themselves in what they reckoned as the highest cause. Movement away from human sacrifice as practiced by ancient Carthaginian or animal sacrifice as practiced by most peoples of antiquity, including the Jews, to gentler substitutionary practices, Moshe Halbertal has called the “cataclysmic shift” in the history of civilization.

If so, it is a shift that ISIS has begun to reverse.

In their outstanding ISIS: The State of Terror, counterterrorism scholars Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger analyze the dark obsession ISIS has demonstrated in its propaganda messaging with exquisitely orchestrated executions:

….As we have noted, ISIS’s psychological warfare is directed at its potential victims. But it is also directed at those it aims to control. It is deliberately attempting to blunt its follower’s empathy by forcing them to participate in or observe acts of brutality. Over time, this can lead to secondary psychopathy, or a desire to harm others, and contagion of violence. Beheadings are one such tool for blunting empathy.

Berger and Stern are likely correct that the methodical character of ISIS demonstrations of brutality are intended to desensitize the participants and (as they further explained) a tendency to cultivate secondary psychopathology in ISIS recruits, especially the young. A similar process occurred during the Holocaust with Nazi Einsatzgruppen and reserve unit police battalions detailed to assist the SS mobile killing squads on the Eastern front. Many serving in these units, already fanatical National Socialists, became inured to the suffering of women, children and the old who were shot and dumped still alive into mass graves, though some SS men showed signs of PTSD, depression and higher rates of severe alcoholism, desertion and suicide.

The comparison between the genocidal cruelty of the SS and ISIS, while natural, is limited by a very important distinction. However zealous their ideological fanaticism and dedicated in their murderous mission to exterminate European Jewry, the SS lacked the context of moral certainty and the psychological reinforcement effects of religious exaltation enjoyed by ISIS killers. Even the malevolent Heinrich Himmler, in his secret speech to Nazi gauleiters and SS leaders, regarded the Final Solution as a terrible burden that the SS shouldered on behalf of the Fuhrer to assure Germany’s future; a “glorious” crime that Himmler believed must be kept forever hidden from history and the German people.

Not so ISIS, which revels in its bloody terror. Worse, the repetition of garish executions as public celebrations by ISIS, with a vague but constant religious context, devoid of any shred of Islamic legality, inevitably acquire over time the theological characteristics of Halbertal’s “sacrificing to”  – what began as harsh jihadi jurisprudence and psychological warfare mutated under conditions of lazy, sociopathic brutality and totemic invocations of Islam into ritual “offering” by ISIS of its prisoners of war as human sacrifices in the manner of the ancient pagans. A perverse blasphemy, but one that draws on a powerful archetype deeply buried in the human psyche.

ISIS leaders have not only looked into the Abyss, they have descended into and become one with it.

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