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It is the Nine Eleven Century

Sunday, September 11th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Thomas Wade, long time ZP reader reminded me this morning of the post I wrote on the 10th anniversary of September 11. If anything the world has changed for the worse. Will we change course?

I don’t know.

The Nine Eleven Century?


Ten years ago to this day, almost to the hour of which I am writing, commercial jetliners were highjacked by al Qaida teams armed with boxcutters, under the direction of Mohammed Atta, were flown into the towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, believed to be headed to the US Capitol building, crashed in Pennsylvania when passengers led by Todd Beamer heroically attempted to stop the highjackers. The whole world watched – most with horror but some with public glee – on live television as people jumped out of smoke-engulfed windows, holding hands, to their deaths. Then, the towers fell.

From this day flowed terrible consequences that are still unfolding like the rippling shockwave of a bomb.

We look back, sometimes on the History Channel or some other educational program, at the grainy, too fast moving, sepia motion pictures of the start of World War I. The crowds wildly cheered troops with strangely antiquarian uniforms that looked reminiscent of Napoleon’s day, march proudly off to the war that gave Europe the Somme, Gallipoli, Passchendaele and Verdun. And the Russian Revolution.

After the armistice, the victors had a brief chance to reset the geopolitical, strategic and economic patterns the war had wrought and in which they were enmeshed. The statesmen could not rise to that occasion, failing so badly that it was understood even at the time, by John Maynard Keynes and many others, that things were being made worse. World War I. became the historical template for the short but infinitely bloody 20th century of 1914-1991, which historians in future centuries may simply describe as “the long war” or a “civil war of western civilization”.

There is a serious danger, in my view, of September 11 becoming such a template for the 21st century and for the United States.

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, as we remember the fallen and the many members of the armed services of the United States who have served for ten years of war, heroically, at great sacrifice and seldom with complaint, we also need to recall that we should not move through history as sleepwalkers. We owe it to our veterans and to ourselves not to continue to blindly walk the path of the trajectory of 9/11, but to pause and reflect on what changes in the last ten years have been for the good and which require reassessment. Or repeal. To reassert ourselves, as Americans, as masters of our own destiny rather than reacting blindly to events while carelessly ceding more and more control over our lives and our livelihoods to the whims of others and a theatric quest for perfect security. America needs to regain the initiative, remember our strengths and do a much better job of minding the store at home.

The next ninety years being molded by the last ten is not a future I care to leave to my children. I can think of no better way to honor the dead and refute the current sense of decline than for America to collectively step back from immersion in moment by moment events and start to chart a course for the long term.

Recommended Reading—Summer 2016

Monday, July 11th, 2016

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Storm of Creativity2017



white horsewashington


The Storm of Creativity, by Kyna Leski

2017 War With Russia, by General Sir Richard Shirreff

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

Serendipities, Language and Lunacy, by Umberto Eco

Paradise, Dante Alighieri, translated by Mark Musa

Undertow, by Stanton S. Coerr

The White Horse Cometh, by Rich Parks

Washington The Indispensable Man, by John Thomas Flexner

This list starts the first week of May, so perhaps the title should be Spring/Summer. Most of these books are quick reads and all are recommended.

I picked up Ms. Leski’s book at an MIT bookshop on a business trip in early May and read on the train ride home. Books on creativity are ubiquitous, but Ms. Leski takes an interesting approach by describing the creative process using the metaphor of a storm. Several ZP readers will find of interest.

2017 was recommended by a friend. The author was the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the book focuses on a Europe/NATO response to a Russian invasion of the Baltics. Written in a Tom Clancy-like style, the plot is fast-paced even though the good general provides sometimes provides detailed insights into the inner workings of NATA and the North Atlantic Council (this is one of the values of the book—bureaucracy writ-large).

David McCullough’s Wright Brothers delivers an approachable and human accounting of the first men of powered flight. Some reviews on Amazon complain McCullough lifts and uses too many quotes to tell the story. At times the quotes were distracting, but not enough to prevent the enjoyment of the story of two brothers who changed the world. This book was a gift otherwise I probably would not have read.

Serendipities is a short book, but was a long read for me. Eco explains how language and the pursuit of the perfect language has confounded thinkers since time immemorial. He refers to Marco Polo’s unicorn (also used in his Kant and the Platypus which is excellent) explaining how language is often twisted to meet a preconceived notion or idea. The first couple of chapters were quite good, chapters three and four did not hold my interest or were over my head. The closing chapter was good enough to convince me I’ll need to read this little book again. (My Eco anti-library has been growing of late.)

Eco’s book led me to reread Musa’s excellent translation of Paradise. My son gave me the deluxe edition with parallel Italian and English, plus commentary. Eco referenced Canto 26 and 27, and I enjoyed the break so much I read the whole thing!

Undertow is my good friend Stan Coerr’s second book of poetry.  His first book Rubicon was a moving collection of poetry of men at war. Undertow deals more with the heart and is quite good, too. You won’t be disappointed.

White Horse is also a book by an old friend, Rich Parks (we’ve known each other since the mid-80’s). White Horse is self-published and in places it shows, but the overall story is quite good for a first book (I’ve already told him his book would make an excellent screenplay.). The plot is quick and entertaining even if a bit unbelievable, but the story is fiction. Rich is following up with a sequel in August in 2016 and I’ll be reading it, too.

Mr. Flexner’s Washington was a gift, too. In this quick biography Washington is made approachable and human. And when I say “quick,” I mean quick…Trenton and Princeton took one chapter compared to David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing which took up a standalone book. If someone were looking for a first Washington biography, this would be a good place to start.

This isn’t the conclusion of my summer reading, but a pretty good start.What are  you reading this summer?

The Center Can Hold

Friday, July 8th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]


“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity….”

The sad and shocking events this week have come at a time when America is more politically and socially polarized than any other time in recent memory. This has led to casual comparisons between 2016 and the America of the most turbulent year of the Vietnam War, 1968.

They are not the same.

It is not 1968. That year saw the assassinations of MLK and RFK, race riots and arson in 125 American cities and armed troops on the streets. 16,899 young American men were killed in Vietnam that year while massive anti-war demonstrations closed universities and rocked Washington, DC.  Lyndon Baines Johnson, President of the United States, declined under the pressure to run for re-election and a “police riot” broke out in Mayor Daley’s Chicago on live television. America was torn apart on generational, racial and political lines. This week has certainly been tragic for a variety of reasons that go deep into the American psyche, but thankfully we are not even close to reliving 1968.

It might be useful however, to recall Robert Kennedy’s words, spoken after announcing to his supporters at a campaign stop that Martin Luther King had just been assassinated:

….We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.


Review: The Rule of the Clan

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Rule of the Clan by Mark Weiner

I often review good books. Sometimes I review great ones. The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals about the Future of Individual Freedom  by Mark S. Weiner gets the highest compliment of all: it is an academic book that is clearly and engagingly written so as to be broadly useful.

Weiner is Professor of Law and Sidney I. Reitman Scholar at Rutgers University whose research interests gravitate to societal evolution of constitutional orders and legal anthropology. Weiner has put his talents to use in examining the constitutional nature of a global phenomena that has plagued IR scholars, COIN theorists, diplomats, counterterrorism experts, unconventional warfare officers, strategists, politicians and judges. The problem they wrestle with goes by many names that capture some aspect of its nature – black globalization, failed states, rogue states, 4GW, hybrid war, non-state actors, criminal insurgency, terrorism and many other terms. What Weiner does in The Rule of the Clan is lay out a historical hypothesis of tension between the models of Societies of Contract – that is Western, liberal democratic, states based upon the rule of law – and the ancient Societies of Status based upon kinship networks from which the modern world emerged and now in places has begun to regress.

Weiner deftly weaves the practical problems of intervention in Libya or counterterrorism against al Qaida with political philosophy, intellectual and legal history, anthropology, sociology and economics. In smooth prose, Weiner illustrates the commonalities and endurance of the values of clan and kinship network lineage systems in societies as diverse as Iceland, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, India and the Scottish highlands, even as the modern state arose around them. The problem of personal security and the dynamic of the feud/vendetta as a social regulator of conduct is examined along with the political difficulties of shifting from systems of socially sanctioned collective vengeance to individual rights based justice systems. Weiner implores liberals (broadly, Westerners) not to underestimate (and ultimately undermine) the degree of delicacy and strategic patience required for non-western states transitioning between Societies of Status to Societies of Contract. The relationship between the state and individualism is complicated because it is inherently paradoxical, argues Weiner: only a state with strong, if limited, powers creates the security and legal structure for individualism and contract to flourish free of the threat of organized private violence and the tyranny of collectivistic identities.

Weiner’s argument is elegant, well supported and concise (258 pages inc. endnotes and index) and he bends over backwards in The Rule of the Clan to stress the universal nature of clannism in the evolution of human societies, however distant that memory may be for a Frenchman, American or Norwegian. If the mores of clan life are still very real and present for a Palestinian supporter (or enemy) of HAMAS in Gaza, they were once equally real to Saxons, Scots and Franks. This posture can also take the rough edges off the crueler aspects of, say, life for a widow and her children in a Pushtun village by glossing over the negative cultural behaviors that Westerners find antagonizing and so difficult to ignore on humanitarian grounds. This is not to argue that Weiner is wrong, I think he is largely correct, but this approach minimizes the friction involved in the domestic politics of foreign policy-making in Western societies which contain elite constituencies for the spread of liberal values by the force of arms.

Strongest recommendation.

New Book- The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House

Friday, March 25th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / a.k.a  “zen“]

The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House […] by Zalmay Khalilzad

Just received a courtesy review copy of The Envoy, the memoir of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, from Christine at St. Martin’s Press.

Khalilzad was part of a small group of diplomatic troubleshooters and heavy hitters for the second Bush administration, whose numbers included John Negroponte, Ryan Crocker and John Bolton who were heavily engaged during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like the others, Khalilzad had held a variety of important policy posts at State, the NSC and the Department of Defense before assuming ambassadorial duties; the bureaucratic experience, ties to senior White House officials and the exigencies of counterinsurgency warfare would make these posts more actively proconsular than was typical for an American ambassador.   Indeed, the endorsements on the book jacket, which include two former Secretaries of State, a former Secretary of Defense and a former CIA Director testify to the author’s political weight in Khalilzad’s years of government service.

It’s been a while since I have read a diplomatic memoir, so I’m particularly looking forward to seeing how Khalilzad treats Afghanistan’s early post-Taliban years, given that he personally is a bridge from the Reagan policy of supporting the anti-Soviet mujahedin to the toppling of the Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11 and helping to organize the new Afghan state. Khalilzad is also, of course, an Afghan by birth, giving him greater insight into that country’s complex political and social divisions than most American diplomats could muster.

I will give The Envoy a formal review in the future but Khalizad has given a synopsis of where he thinks American policy went awry in Afghanistan over at Thomas E. Rick’s Best Defense blog.

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