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Is Strategy Dead?

Friday, May 1st, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

[Photo credit: Peter Velter]

Is strategy dead?

Strategy seems to be widely admired in Western governmental circles, but no longer practiced in matters of state.

I am not saying strategy has been forgotten. Far from it. Strategy is still debated,  honored nostalgically (“ah, Containment!”), passed on ritualistically in war colleges, frequently demanded by opposition politicians and its value is regularly extolled in white papers. We admire, ruefully, the use of strategy by others (Beijing, Moscow, ISIS) and regret the sting of its lack in our own efforts. We have universities that grant degrees in strategic studies, scholars who write learned tomes on the art of strategy. Americans love business strategies, sports strategies, investment strategies, learning strategies, strategies for your career, strategies for self-improvement or to find the perfect mate.  We call a very wide variety of non-strategy things “strategy” because we love the word so much. The only thing we don’t seem to be able to do with strategy is practice it.

All of this other “strategy” noise is merely the sound of mourning for an art which has been lost.

Why can Westerners no longer “do strategy”? The reasons I suspect are twofold but are interrelated: The Europeans as a whole now lack a military capacity that would render a strategy meaningful. America, by contrast, still has great military capacity but chronically lack a strategy that would make American use of force meaningful in any given conflict.

In both cases, the root problem is political, albeit expressed differently.

Europeans are largely in agreement as to the nature and purpose of their social contract and choosing to dismantle their Cold War defense establishments was a decision financially consistent with the strong European preference for extremely generous welfare statism and free-riding on American military power. Let’s not mince words, the nations of Europe are in retirement and are unwilling to fund even their basic national security needs, much less their NATO obligations. It is a calculated choice to hollow out NATO and the Europeans made it a decade ago.

Americans by contrast, are deeply polarized as to what kind of nation they wish to be at home. These divisions over fundamental cultural values and social mores have created a kind of schizophrenic, Frankenstein monster, “meritocratic” ruling class that shares a bottom-feeder, careerist, anti-democratic, ethos of oligarchy while fighting vicious kabuki partisan battles to keep each side’s exploited grass-roots political tribe energized, angry and divided.

Because American wars are now fought and opposed primarily for domestic partisan advantages that lead to later financial career advancement for politicians, strategy has largely been displaced by politics and by law, an honorable discipline likewise under siege and partially mastered by our political class to warp for their own benefit. Politicians are far more comfortable with politics and law (most are lawyers, after all) than strategy.

Politics, of course, has always played a role in formulating strategy. It is politics which envisions ends and crafts policies that frames and sustains the use of strategy to claim rewards on the battlefield and the conference table. There should be, when things are going well, harmony in the relationship of politics, policy and strategy. The problem arises when politics attempts to substitute for strategy or leaders are willing to pay high strategic costs abroad for transient and trivial political benefits at home.

In my view, that is where we are today, but I realize opinions vary. So I will ask again:

Is strategy dead?

Paris: reminders

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — personally, i’d rather grieve than hate ]
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You can’t dull one mass of senseless pain with another, they don’t cancel out, nor are they additive — but FWIW:

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The last serious European Christian violence in response to perceived blasphemy that I recall was the rioting surrounding the release of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. I would have been 45 or thereabouts, and was friends with Scorsese‘s friend, the late film-maker Michael Henry Wilson, who was involved with the publicity for the film, and I remember the tension in the air as I obtained my tickets for an LA pre-screening.

In an earlier post, Of films, riots and hatred III: Scorsese and Verhoeven, I quoted The Encyclopedia of Religion and Film:

Overseas, at the September 28 opening in Paris, demonstrators who had gathered for a prayer vigil threw tear gas canisters at the theater’s entrance. Catholic clergy led rock-throwing and fire-bombing assaults on theaters in many French municipalities. A thousand rioters in Athens trashed the Opera cinema, ripping apart the screen and destroying the projection equipment.

and Wikipedia:

On October 22, 1988, a French Christian fundamentalist group launched Molotov cocktails inside the Parisian Saint Michel movie theater while it was showing the film. This attack injured thirteen people, four of whom were severely burned. The Saint Michel theater was heavily damaged, and reopened 3 years later after restoration. Following the attack, a representative of the film’s distributor, United International Pictures, said, “The opponents of the film have largely won. They have massacred the film’s success, and they have scared the public.” Jack Lang, France’s Minister of Culture, went to the St.-Michel theater after the fire, and said, “Freedom of speech is threatened, and we must not be intimidated by such acts.”

In the case of Last Temptation there was a potential for fatal violence, but no death. Today’s massacre at Charlie Hebdo was less spontaneous, more concentrated, carefully planned and executed, and deadly.

Brief brief: religion and story

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — the bookstore in a church, spirituality in the movies, and the church in a mosque ]
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Selexyz Dominicanen bookstore 602

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There’s a recent post in the New Statesman titled The books of revelations: why are novelists turning back to religion?.

It seems to me that’s a difficult topic to prove or disprove, since it depends on which novelists you read before debating it, and perhaps even what your criteria for excellence in writing might be. I read very few novels these days, and tend to confine myself to those whose language, sentence by sentence, gives me joy to equal that of a topic I enjoy. John Fowles did that for me, John Le Carré, and most recently Ann Patchett with Bel Canto.

Are they turning back to religion? If they are, I haven’t noticed.

But then the novel isn’t where I go for story in any case, and if I suspect there’s a better medium to check in on, film would be my next choice up — and yes, Tarkovsky‘s The Sacrifice, even his Nostalghia — not to mention his Andrei Roublev — definitely yes. Kurosawa? Not so much: in his films it’s more a case of “all human life is there”.

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This quote, from Adrei Tarkovsky’s Cinema of Spirituality, may be helpful:

In the entire history of cinema there has never been a director, who has made such a dramatic stand for the human spirit as did Andrei Tarkovsky. Today, when cinema seems to have drowned in a sea of glamorized triviality, when human relationships on screen have been reduced to sexual intrigue or sloppy sentimentality, and baseness rules the day – this man appears as a lone warrior standing in the midst of this cinematic catastrophe, holding up the banner for human spirituality.

What puts this director in a class all his own and catapults his films onto a height inaccessible to other filmmakers? It is, first and foremost, his uncompromising stance that man is a SPIRITUAL being. This may appear to be self-evident to some, and yet it is just on this very point that 99% of cinema fails. Man’s spirituality is quickly and conveniently pushed aside in favor of other more “exciting” topics: man’s sexuality, man’s psychology, sociology and so on. In today’s cinema, if spirituality is dealt with at all, it is never treated as the foundation of our existence, but is there as an appendage, something the characters concern themselves with in their spare time. In other words, while in other films spirituality may be PART of the plot, in Tarkovsky’s films it IS the plot; it permeates the very fabric of his films. It can be said that his films vibrate with his own spirituality. As he himself states, in all of his films the main characters undergo a SPIRITUAL crisis.

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Whether sticking a stylish set of bookshelves and other trimmings in a beautiful old church should have won the Lensvelt de Architect prize in 2007 to the designers who added the bookshelves to an already stunning edifice is an interesting question. Is the beauty theirs, or borrowed? Have they incorporated the old church into “their” bookshop?

I think, too, of the Mezquita in Cordoba, with a cathedral dropped into the heart of it:

Mezquita_de_Córdoba aerial view

His Catholic Majesty King Charles V of Castile and Aragon said of this:

They have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.

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Is there an aesthetic principle we might consider here?

The Japanese haiku master Basho was once approached by his pupil Kikaku, who showed him this verse:

Dragonfly
I remove the wings
A pea pod!

Quickly Basho wrote in response and mild correction:

A pea pod
I place wings on it
A dragonfly!

Poetry, in Basho’s view, should lift us from the lesser to the greater, not bring the greater down to a lesser level. It’s an interesting concept, and one with wide potential application beyond the sphere of the arts.

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Or — let’s cut the architects, Merkx+Girod, some slack, because the bookstore is indeed quite stunning! I love bookstores, yes, and I love cathedrals.

Is the whole thing, perhaps, a DoubleQuote in stone and stories?

Serpent logics: the marathon

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — oh, the sheer delightful drudgery of finding patterns everywhere ]
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I’ll start this post, as I did the previous one to which this is a sort of appendix, with a (deeply strange, tell me about it) example of the…

Matrioshka pattern:


That’s a piece of jewelry made out of disembodied pieces of Barbies from the extraordinary designer’s mind of Margaux Lange, FWIW.

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This post is the hard core follow up to my earlier piece today, Serpent logics: a ramble, and offers you the chance to laugh and groan your way through all the other “patterns” I’ve been collecting over the last few months. My hope is that repeated (over)exposure to these patterns will make the same patterns leap out at you when you encounter them in “real life”.

Most of the examples you run across may prove humorous — but if you’re monitoring news feeds for serious matters, my hunch is that you’ll find some of them helpful in grasping “big pictures” or gestalts, noting analomalies and seeing parallels you might otherwise have missed.

Have at it!

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Here’s another Matrioshka, from the structural end of lit crit that my friend Wm. Benzon attacks with gusto over at New Savannah:

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Enantiodromia:

You’ll recall this is the pattern where something turns into its opposite… as described in this quote from the movie Prozac Nation:

I dream about all the things I wish I’d said.
The opposite of what came out of my mouth.
I wish I’d said
“Please forgive me. Please help me.
I know I have no right to behave this way?”

Here are a few examples…

Ahmed Akkari Repents Violent Opposition to Danish Cartoons Lampooning Islam:

After a Danish newspaper published cartoons satirizing the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, Ahmed Akkari spearheaded protests that ultimately cost the lives of 200 people. Now he says he’s sorry. Michael Moynihan on what changed Akkari’s mind.

That’s impressive!

That one’s run of the media mill…

And this one’s from my delightful, delicious boss, Danielle LaPorte:

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A friend sent me this:

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Let’s just plough ahead…

Nominalism:

Nominalism is the category where the distinction between a word and what it represents gets blurry — a very significant distinction in some cases —

How’s this for naming your donkey after your President?

Consider this one, another instance of nominalism in action, from the French justice system:

A mother who sent her three-year-old son Jihad to school wearing a sweater with the words “I am a bomb” on the front, along with his name and ‘Born on September 11th’ on the back, was handed a suspended jail sentence on Friday for “glorifying a crime”. A court of appeal in the city of Nimes, southern France, convicted Jihad’s mother Bouchra Bagour and his uncle Zeyad for “glorifying a crime” in relation to the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11th 2001.

The classic nominalist image — with which I’d compare and contrast the French three-year-old with the unfortunate name and tsee-shirt — is Magritte’s cdelebrated “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”:

And here’s one final nominalist example:

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The spiral:

Here’s a potential downwards spiral, for those watching India:

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Straight parallelism:

This one’s from Jonathan Franzen:

And meanwhile the overheating of the atmosphere, meanwhile the calamitous overuse of antibiotics by agribusiness, meanwhile the widespread tinkering with cell nucleii, which may well prove to be as disastrous as tinkering with atomic nucleii. And, yes, the thermonuclear warheads are still in their silos and subs.

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Simple Opposition:

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Some of these categories seem pretty fluid — or to put that another way, some of these examples might fit with equal ease into several doifferent categories. Here’s another oppositional class:

Arms crossed:

From Ezra Klein and Evan Solta blogging at WaPo’s Wonkbook: The Republican Party’s problem, in two sentences:

It would be a disaster for the party to shut down the government over Obamacare. But it’s good for every individual Republican politician to support shutting down the government over Obamacare.

A great “values” juxtaposition:

And hey, nice phrasing:

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Here’s an example of one of the central patterns of violence and justice:

Tit for Tat:

[ the account this tweet came from, which was a media outlet for Shabaab, has since been closed — hence the less than euqal graphical appearance of this particular tweet… ]

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And here, without too much further ado, is a whole concatenation of…

Serpents biting their tails:

[ … and that last one of Nein‘s appears to have been withdrawn from circulation ]

This one I love for its lesson on biblical pick-and-choose:

This one is also a DoubleQuote:

when closely followed by:

And this one really bites:

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To close the series out with more of a bang than a whimper, here’s Serpent bites Tail with apocalypse & gameplay for additional spice:

Of dualities, contradictions and the nonduality II

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — notes towards a pattern language of conflict and conflict resolution: bridging divides in Baghdad 2013, Netherlands 1888 and the Germanies 1961 ]
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I’ll be collecting examples of “dualities and the non-dual” here, because they give us a chance to consider the pattern that underlies “conflict and conflict resolution” and much else besides. This post picks up on an earlier post on the same topic: I’ll begin with three tweets that came across my bows this last week…

First, a vivid glimpse of sectarianism in today’s Iraq:

Second: sectarianism in the Netherlands, 1888:

And last, unexpected but charming, the divided Berlin of 1961:

It’s obvious once you think about it — thought we don’t always remember, such is the mind’s propensity to distinguish, divide, and argue from just one half of the whole — that human nature embraces both conflict and conflict resolution.


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