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War on the Rocks: A New Nixon Doctrine – Strategy for a Polycentric World

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

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

I have a new piece up at the excellent War on the Rocks site that is oriented towards both history and contemporary policy Some Excerpts:

A New Nixon Doctrine: Strategy for a Polycentric World

….Asia was only the starting point; the Nixon doctrine continued to evolve in subsequent years into a paradigm for the administration to globally leverage American power, one that, as Chad Pillai explained in his recent War on the Rocks article, still remains very relevant today. Avoiding future Vietnams remained the first priority when President Nixon elaborated on the Nixon Doctrine to the American public in a televised address about the war the following October, but the Nixon Doctrine was rooted in Nixon’s assumptions about larger, fundamental, geopolitical shifts underway that he had begun to explore in print and private talks before running for president. In a secret speech at Bohemian Grove in 1967 that greatly bolstered his presidential prospects, Nixon warned America’s political and business elite that the postwar world as they knew it was irrevocably coming to an end [....]

….China was a strategic lodestone for Richard Nixon’s vision of a reordered world under American leadership, which culminated in Nixon’s historic visit to Peking and toasts with Mao ZeDong and Zhou En-lai. In the aftermath of this diplomatic triumph, a town hall meeting on national security policy was sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute that featured the Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird squaring off with future Nobel-laureate, strategist and administration critic Thomas Schelling over the Nixon Doctrine and the meaning of “polycentrism” in American foreign policy. Laird was concerned with enunciating the implications of the Nixon doctrine as an operative principle for American foreign policy, taking advantage of the glow of a major success for the administration. Schelling, by contrast, was eager to turn the discussion away from China to the unresolved problem of the Vietnam war, even when he elucidated on the Nixon doctrine’s strategic importance. [....]

….What lessons can we draw from the rise of the Nixon Doctrine?

First, as in Nixon’s time, America is again painfully extricating itself from badly managed wars that neither the public nor the leaders in two administrations who are responsible for our defeat are keen to admit were lost. Nixon accepted defeat strategically, but continued to try to conceal it politically (“Vietnamization,” “Peace with Honor,” etc). What happened in Indochina in 1975 with the fall of Saigon is being repeated in Iraq right now, after a fashion. It will also be repeated in Afghanistan, and there it might be worse than present-day Iraq. [....]

Read the article in its entirety here.

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New Book: The Lion’s Gate by Steven Pressfield

Sunday, May 11th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

A full review to come in the future.

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Of a flag and the blood of martyrs

Saturday, May 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- how, where and why the name, the map, and the flag merge into reality -- Gregory Bateson to the rescue ]
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I am indebted for this screengrab to Phillip Smyth, whose recent Singing Hizballah’s Tune in Manama: Why Are Bahrain’s Militants Using the Music of Iran’s Proxies? post in his Hizballah Cavalcade at Aaron Zelin‘s Jihadology included the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq martyr video for those killed fighting in Syria, with its allusion to the martyrdom of Hussein at Karbala — deep breath — from which this grab is taken.

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Let me back up: what I want to discuss here is the significance of flags, with the blooded Shahada flag providing an instance.

We have two brain hemispheres: one of them, according to Gregory Bateson, knows the difference between a sign and what it points to, one doesn’t — and we live in a world that’s made up of these two perceptions, one layered over the other, the other shining through on occasion.

Here’s Bateson — if you don’t know him, one of the presiding geniuses of the twentieth century thought:

The distinction between the name and the thing named or the map and the territory is perhaps really made only by the dominant hemisphere of the brain. The symbolic and affective hemisphere, normally on the right-hand side, is probably unable to distinguish name from thing named. It is certainly not concerned with this sort of distinction. It therefore happens that certain nonrational types of behavior are necessarily present in human life. We do, in fact, have two hemispheres; and we cannot get away from that fact. Each hemisphere does, in fact, operate somewhat differently from the other, and we cannot get away from the tangles that that difference proposes.

For example, with the dominant hemisphere, we can regard such a thing as a flag as a sort of name of the country or organization that it represents. But the right hemisphere does not draw this distinction and regards the flag as sacramentally identical with what it represents. So “Old Glory” is the United States. If somebody steps on it, the response may be rage. And this rage will not be diminished by an explanation of map-territory relations. (After all, the man who tramples the flag is equally identifying it with that for which it stands.) There is always and necessarily be a large number of situations in which the response is not guided by the logical distinction between the name and the thing named.

I’d like to reemphasize a couple of phrases:

  • certain nonrational types of behavior are necessarily present in human life
  • the right hemisphere … regards the flag as sacramentally identical with what it represents
  • **

    That quote comes from a while back, of course, and we have a great deal more detailed knowledge now than we did when Bateson first wrote it — but I checked with a neuropsychologist colleague, and he gave me the okay to quote it as an admittedly broad strokes version of a more complex truth, and thus subject to various qualifications.

    And while it may seem like a strange suggestion to some who might otherwise think of the flag as “just a flag, a piece of colored fabric” — it makes perfect sense of the diplomatic protocol surrounding the Saudi flag which I noted in a previous post:

    The script in the centre of the flag is the Islamic creed, “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the Prophet of Allah”. The flag is therefore considered sacred and special protocol rules apply: the flag does not dip in salute, nor is it ever flown at half-mast. Note that the creed always reads properly from right to left, with the sword hilt to the right, so the reverse of the flag is not a mirror image of the obverse. When making the flag, the creed must be reproduced precisely, including the accent marks. The use of the flag on any commercial item (especially clothing) is not recommended as it might be considered inappropriate, or even insulting.

    The Saudi flag is the scripture is the Word of God, in the same (lower case “s” sacramental) way in which the consecrated bread is the body of Christ is the Real Presence in the Catholic eucharist, and in each case, to desecrate the symbol is to desecrate that to which (from the point of one hemisphere) it refers and which (from the perspective of the other) it makes present.

    Thus Bateson might say, with Saint Augustine and the Catechism, that in each of these cases, the outward and visible sign embodies an inward and spiritual reality.

    And which in turn may explain why Bateson, setting an exam for the young psychiatrists he was training in a mental hospital in Palo Alto, asked them as his first question for brief descriptions of “sacrament” and “entropy” — figuring them to be two of the “core notions of 2,500 years of thought about religion and science”.

    To some readers, all this will be so obvious as to need no explanation, to others it may still seem utterly opaque. My hope is to give you a sense that beneath the rational surface of our lives, there lurks another mode of thinking — and that one of its aspects is to treat “signs” as though they *are* whatever they represent.

    **

    Relevant quotes from Gregory Bateson:

    Once I drew up a sort of catechism and offered it to the class as a sampling of the questions which I hoped they would be able to discuss after completing the course. The questions ranged from “What is a sacrament?” to “What is entropy?” and “What is play?”

    As a didactic maneuver, my cathechism was a failure: it silenced the class…

    – Gregory Bateson, Steps to an ecology of mind

    Even grown-up persons with children of their own cannot give a reasonable account of concepts such as entropy, sacrament, syntax, number, quantity, pattern, linear relation, name, class, relevance, energy, redundancy, force, probability, parts, whole, information, tautology, homology, mass (either Newtonian or Christian), explanation, description, rule of dimensions, logical type, metaphor, topology, and so on. What are butterflies? What are starfish? What are beauty and ugliness?

    — Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity

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    Another Book and Future Reviews

    Monday, May 5th, 2014

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

    Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable 

    I am behind on my book reviews. Really behind.

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

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

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

    Should make for some good reading.

     

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    Seydlitz89: “The US Needs to Re-discover the Concept of Strategy”

    Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

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

    Our Clausewitzian friend, Seydlitz89 commented on my recent post on politics and strategy and has a new one of his own that accurately frames a solution to the geopolitical disarray in which the United States finds itself today. Seydlitz89 asked for my comments so I will be making some where appropriate [ in regular text]:

    The US Needs to Re-discover the Concept of Strategy

    by Seydlitz89

     

    There are various definitions of strategy. Basically what I mean here is expressed by a simplified example from Homer. The ten unsuccessful years of the Greek seige of Troy was carried out by force driven by notions of being led by heros/exceptionalism resulting in failure. Compare that to the subsequent Trojan Horse strategy which is far more than a simple ruse. The Greeks are able to turn the Trojan’s own belief system/narrative against them, and the horse is taken into the city to strategic effect. Had the Greeks been able to conquer Troy with force and notions of exceptionalism alone, then strategy would have been unnecessary, but since they were not, strategy became a necessity.

    This particular symbolism chosen by Seydlitz89, of Achilles vs. Odysseus representing antipodes in strategy – of brute power vs. metis – were themes in Charles Hill’s Grand Strategies and Sir Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History and the question of relying more on force or stratagem echoes in many contexts of military history and diplomacy. The “heroic” comment is particularly interesting to me. Homer’s Greeks in the archaic period  lived in aristocratic societies that had replaced the petty monarchies of the Greek Dark Ages in which The Illiad was set, but predated the Greeks of the polis of classical antiquity with which most people are more familiar.  The highest value of the the archaic Greek aristocracy (and for many classical Greeks as well) was “Arete” – an epitome of excellence in spirit and action, a virtuous nobility of character.

    The Trojan Horse is a turning point for the Greeks, as Seydlitz correctly notes.  While all the major leaders of the Greeks in The Illiad are presumed to have arete, the stress on individual action, like the unstoppable battle-madness of Achilles outside Troy, makes unified action difficult and gives rise to bitter quarrels over place and spoils. Adopting the strategy of the Trojan Horse legitimizes collective action in light of arete; this shift in the direction of metis and strategy morally reinforced the iron discipline required for the phalanx, which became common Greek military practice in the century or two after Homer. So much so that while classical Greeks  marveled at the prowess of the legendary Achilles, the death of Aristodemus at Plataea received a far more grudging recognition from the Spartans. Strategy trumped heroics in terms of arete.

    Lets consider strategy as a complex concept of at least three distinct aspects: the first is political context and contingency; the second is dialogue supported by a coherent strategic narrative; and the third is the combined application of various sources of power to achieve an effect greater than the sum of those sources, that is strategic effect. If we combine these three aspects we can conceptualize a test of opposing wills interacting over time applying various moral and material resources within a specific political context. The environment they operate in is one of uncertainty, violence and danger adding to the friction of the entire sequence. The goal is imposing one’s will over that of the enemy, but for the whole complex interaction to be coherent, certain criteria have to be met. Is the political purpose attainable by military means? Are other forms of power more appropriate? Is the purpose worth the possible cost? Who is the enemy exactly? A modern state? A tribe? An ideology?

    A good riff here.

    If you don’t care to take the time to understand the context in which you propose to operate, if you are unwilling to make rational choices about allocating your sources of power, if you are unwilling to acknowledge who (or what) constitutes “the enemy”, then your strategic narrative will be incoherent, unpersuasive and your effects anything but strategic (unless perhaps we count a debacle as being “strategic”).  Asking what the political purpose of military force  being used is for, much less the probability of success, seems to be the questions the Beltway prefers to ignore rather than answer.

    Following Clausewitz, war belongs to political relations, so the enemy is by nature a political one, representing a political community. What is the nature of this political community, is it cohesive or fragmented to the point that it is the foreign presence which actually calls it into being? Dialogue is the interaction of both sides, but narrative includes all audiences involved including the home front, the enemy population and neutral political communities. One can see here how the moral and material cohesion of the two or more political communities influences the number of audiences we are dealing with.

    Seydlitz here has written a paragraph to which Col. John Boyd would readily assent. The moral position your use of force communicates matters greatly to a variety of audiences, particularly if your actions contradict your words and your strategic narrative. Boyd argued for a grand strategy that would “Pump-up our resolve, drain-away our adversary’s resolve, and attract the uncommitted” , a task made impossible when marrying hypocrisy to cruelty while boasting of our own virtues. It is hard to lose a popularity contest with a ghoulish, beheading, paramilitary cult of sociopathic fanatics, or a brutal movement of unlettered zealot hillmen who throw acid in the faces of women, but at times the United States government managed to do exactly that. If the current and previous administrations had run WWII, we’d have had half the people of occupied Europe weighing their chances with the SS.

    So based on our conceptual model, we can deduce that strategy requires a clear and specific political context, you cannot have a strategy to simply remain the only superpower on earth, or engage against methods such as terrorism or extremism. All of these are simply too abstract to be engaged in any way by strategy since the political contexts are too broad or nonexistent. How could the lone superpower prepare against any conceivable challenge from any rising political community, let alone engage a method of violence, strategically?

    Declaring that we were in “The War on Terrorism” was the American elite’s way of finessing two aspects of the conflict they found most disturbing – the inconvenient reality that two American allies, Saudi Arabia and especially Pakistan, had done much to create the radical jihad movement from which our enemy had come and the elite’s own enormous political and psychological revulsion at grappling with the enemy’s sincere religious motivations and claim to defend Islam.  Not being willing to identify your enemy, even to yourself, will make discerning his center of gravity rather tough. Nor will anyone be impressed with demonstration of moral cowardice in fearing to do so.

    Maintaining your strategic position relative to others?  This is more of a political task to emphasize the fundamentals, especially economic growth and moral confidence in the legitimacy of the model we present to the world, that make up the various aspects of national power of which military force is but one. A society that is ill-governed, corrupt and enduring social decay might be relatively more powerful than others (for a time) but it is unlikely to use its advantages effectively, much less wisely or decisively.

    Re-discovering strategy allows us to look more critically at both our recent wars in terms of political context. What was the political purpose which we expected to achieve by especially military means in Afghanistan and Iraq? It seems to have been to remake both the Afghan and Iraqi political identities, since only that would have assured the success of the new governments we wished to impose.

    From this perspective, not only Afghanistan and Iraq, but also more recent possible US military action regarding Syria, Iran or in support of the current Ukrainian government are all astrategic. None of them are coherent in any of the three aspects I have introduced

    Complete agreement. The Bush administration based its claim to strategy on a narrow worldview of preemptive unilateralism, while the Obama administration has appointees who actively promote anti-strategic/astrategic models of national security decision making and disdain strategy altogether.

    To illustrate this, let’s quickly consider Iraq. Iraq was initially portrayed as a looming threat. Operations commenced in 2002, although for some reason US and coalition air activity over Iraq was uniquely not considered military action. In the following spring, the country was quickly overrun, but the political purpose of imposing a new Iraqi political identity (as symbolized by the white, blue and yellow flag they were expected to adopt) was quite radical requirring sustained and extensive US moral and material support. An Iraqi resistance movement quickly spread with the US leadership caught by surprise. No strategy went into the planning of this campaign, instead it was based on a preference on organized violence linked with ideological assumptions regarding the market system as well as US exceptionalism.
    .
    What we have experienced since 9/11 is not strategy, but the collapse of strategy as a coherent concept in US policy formulation producing a series of astrategic spasoms involving organized violence but to no US strategic effect. Instead we only have the aftereffects, the knock off of the corruption of these events contributing to a dissolution of US political standing in the world.

    “Collapse” is an apt description.

    Let us be clear that the supreme responsibility for this cognitive, cultural and moral collapse lies with the self-congratulatory, bipartisan elite, inside and out of the executive and legislative branches. They make policy that the military strives to carry out, they craft the strategic narrative or refuse to do so and they decide whether or not to focus on strategy and the exigencies of war or their ideological trivialities, they set the national moral example of careerism and brazen efforts to game the system for the personal enrichment of their relatives and cronies.

    They are failing us and have been doing so for nearly a quarter-century.

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