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T. Greer on Ibn Khaldun’s Asabiyah

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage has an exemplary post comparing the philosophy of English social contract theorist Thomas Hobbes with medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, who described a critical component of a functional polity – asabiyah.  You should read Greer’s post in its entirety, but here is the take away as far as strategy is concerned:

….Asabiyah, then, amounts to the feeling among those dying that they are dying for their own. As soon as they begin to feel that they are not dying for their own, but are dying for the king, or for someone else’s clan, or for some obscure institution that is not them — well, that is when asabiyah is gone and the kingdom is in danger. Civilized life shrinks the asabiyah that once united people of different lineages, tribes, and occupations until the people of a kingdom only feel a sense of loyalty to themselves, of if you are lucky, those in their immediate neighborhood or caste. But at this point the feeling they have is not reallyasabiyah at all, but the narrow self interest Hobbes would appreciate. This leaves the kingdom open to attack from the next round of nomadic tribesmen united by charismatic leaders into one indivisible asabiyah driven force. 

Although it was not his intent, I think Ibn Khaldun here answers another puzzle apparent to the careful observer of human affairs. It has oft been held that a strong enemy unites a divided people. When faced with with a foe that threatens liberty and the integrity of the realm, private disagreements ought to be put aside until victory has been declared. But it is not apparent that history actually works this way. If one must compare the rising and declining eras of history’s great empires–here I think of the Romans, the Abbasids, the Ming, the great empires of Castille and the Hapsburgs, or the Russian Empire of Tsarist fame (no doubt other examples can be found with if more thought were put to the question)–it does not seem the enemies they faced in their early days were any less powerful or cunning than the enemies that pushed them to extinction. The difference was in the empires themselves; where the wars of their birth forged nations strong and martial, the wars of their decline only opened and made raw violent internal divisions. Even destruction cannot unite a people who have lost all feeling of asabiyah. 

Ibn Khaldun believed that asabiyah declined over time. He used the analogy of the transition from fierce desert life of equality, mutual glory and conquest to the effeminacy of sedentary decadence and servility of luxurious despotism and the fall of the dynasty in four generations to explain the effect of a decayed asabiyah. Greer continues:

The concept of asabiyah is applied most easily to the distant past. One cannot read histories of the early Islamic conquests and the slow hardening of state authority in Umayyad and Abbasid times without seeing Ibn Khaldun’s cycles within it. I have alluded to many examples of these same themes in East and Central Asian history, for I have found that his theories map well to state-formation among pastoral nomads across the world, including those places Ibn Khaldun had barely heard of. Indeed, Ibn Khaldun’s “independent science” can be applied to almost any pre-modern society or conflict without undue violence to his ideas. I recently wrote that in the pre-modern world, “internal cohesion and loyalty were often the deciding factor in the vast majority of military campaigns” [23]. Ibn Khaldun provides a convincing explanation for where such cohesion came from and why it so often failed when kings and princes needed it most dearly.

There are several reasons why it is difficult to see the hand of asabiyah in the rise and decline of modern great powers. Military science has progressed in the centuries since Ibn Khaldun wrote the Muqaddimah; the drills and training seen in the militaries of our day are capable of creating a strong sense of solidarity and cohesion even when such feelings are absent in the populace at large. In that populace the nationalist fervor that accompanies mass politics has eclipsed (or perhaps, if we take asabiyah as the nucleus of nationalist feeling, perfected) asabiyah as the moving force of modern conflict. This sort of nationalism, dependent as it is on mass media and technologies unknown to Ibn Khaldun,  has a dynamic of its own that he could not have foreseen.

The most important difference between Ibn Khaldun’s world and our own, however, concern the fundamental structure of the societies in which we live. Ibn Khaldun’s was a static age where wealth was easier to seize than make. This is not the case today. For the past two centuries military power has been intertwined with economic growth and industrial capacity. No more can poor ‘Bedouins’ living beyond the pale of civilized society dethrone kings and reshape empires. In the more developed nations of the earth there is so little fear of war that both asabiyah and nationalism are sloughed off with few misgivings. 

 Despite all these differences, Ibn Khaldun did articulate principles that remain relevant despite their age.  The first and most important of these is that social cohesion should be understood as a vital element of national power. Wars are rarely won and strategies rarely made without it. A nation need not be engaged in existential conflict to benefit from strong asabiyah. Absent solidarity, internal controversies absorb the attention of statesmen and internal divisions derail all attempts to craft coherent policy. Strategic malaise is one byproduct of a community deficient in asabiyah. 

Agreed.  In particular, it is difficult for foreigners to provide another society with an asabiyah that it lacks in order to fight and win counterinsurgency wars. You go to war with the asabiyah that you have and that has been a problem for Americans in places like South Vietnam and Afghanistan.

I’m not sure though that it is impossible to regenerate decaying or dying asabiyah if it can be built upon new myths that are harmonious with old ones, disguising innovations as fidelity to cherished values. The Meiji Restoration is the classic successful example of national revolution being presented as a reactionary movement to return to tradition, toppling the worn-out Shogunate and”restoring” a High Priest- Emperor whose ceremonial figurehead predecessors had not ruled Japan in eight hundred years, if ever at all.  There are also darker historical examples and we are seeing one play out now in the Mideast in the form of the ISIS “Caliphate”.

This kind of attempt to breathe new life into an eroding asabiyah operates at the moral level above strategy that John Boyd termed a “Theme of Vitality and Growth” and it can unlock atavistic passions and be extremely attractive. Simultaneously creative and destructive, society is suddenly remade – not as a plowshare, but as a sword in a strong hand.

Mad Dog Mattis – Blogger

Friday, March 6th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

General James N. “Mad Dog ” Mattis, USMC (ret.), the semi-legendary, no-nonsense, fighting general of our recent wars, beloved by his Marines, has accepted a Distinguished Visiting Fellowship at the highly regarded Hoover Institution, where he has been writing an online column. A fancy way of saying that General Mattis has become a blogger.

In fact, he’s quite good at it.

His most recent post can be found here:

Using Military Force Against ISIS

….Following more than a decade of fighting for poorly articulated political goals, the Congress needs to restore clarity to our policy if we are to gain the American people’s confidence and enlist the assistance of potential allies, while sending a chilling note that we mean business to our enemies. With enemy influence expanding rapidly, patience or half-measures cannot replace a coherent strategy for taking measured steps, aligned with allies, to counter the mutating Islamist threat in the Middle East. The AUMF that Congress passes should be constructed as one building block in a coherent, integrated strategy for dealing with a region erupting in crises. Thus the AUMF needs to serve an enabling role for defeating this enemy, and not a restrictive function. Congress’ voice in the AUMF must not reassure our adversary in advance about what we will not do:

  1. We do not enter wars to withdraw; when we must fight, we fight to win. We should not set arbitrary deadlines which would only reveal that our hearts are not really in the game and would unintentionally embolden our enemies with the recognizable goal of outlasting us.
  2. We should not establish geographic limits in a fight against a franchising, trans-national terrorist group and its associates.  Our AUMF must be fit for the purpose of defeating this specific enemy (a non-state entity) and whoever stands with them, but not be hidebound by the rules for how we fought previous wars against nation states.  We must adapt to our time and the threat and not try to fight as we did in the past using rules no longer effective or applicable.
  3. The AUMF should put the enemy on notice that we will deploy all our military capabilities, as well as our diplomatic and economic tools.  If employing our ground forces will help build the international coalition against ISIS, will hasten the enemy’s defeat, will help to suffocate ISIS’ recruiting through humiliating them on the battlefield, or negatively impact their fundraising cachet, then our Commander-in-Chief should have that option immediately available to achieve our war aims.  When fighting a barbaric enemy who strikes fear into the hearts of many, especially those living in close proximity to this foe, we must not reassure that enemy in advance that it will not face the fiercest, most skillful and ethical combat force in the world. 

While I am not enthused about the idea of a large ground deployment back to Iraq – mainly because our national leadership has no idea on how to assemble a constructive political end that a decisive military victory would buy them, nor a willingness to entertain realistic, stabilizing outcomes (like Kurdish statehood) that would mean changing longstanding US policies – I’m very much in tune with Mattis that any warfare should be waged without a set of needless, self-hobbling, anti-strategic restraints. Note what he writes here:

The AUMF must also make clear that prisoners taken from forces declared hostile will be held until hostilities cease. There is no earthly reason for the Congress to acquiesce to funding a war in which we do not hold prisoners until the fight is over, as is our legitimate right under international law. The AUMF should make clear that the same standards that applied to prisoners in Lincoln’s or FDR’s day will be imposed today. This will ensure that we have a sustainable detainee policy instead of the self-inflicted legal quandary we face today, with released detainees returning to the battlefield to fight us.

“Catch and release” by the Bush and Obama administrations – and the latter tightening ROE in Afghanistan into the gray, blurry zone between military force and law enforcement, was self-defeating and probably is responsible for a sizable number of American casualties.

Mattis writes with admirable clarity and focus. More importantly, his military reputation lends invaluable credence toward educating the public and civilian officials about the nature of strategy and the uses and (more importantly) limitations of military force. Hopefully he will gain an even larger platform in time, but for readers at ZP, here are previous posts by the “Mad Dog” :

A New American Grand Strategy

“The Enemy Is Not Waiting”  

The Worsening Situation in the Middle East–and America’s Role   

Pruning the U.S. Military: We Will Do Less But Must Not Do It Less Well

In Praise of Don Vandergriff for the “Next Yoda” at ONA

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Don Vandergriff

Friend of ZP blog and expert on adaptive leadership training Don Vandergriff has thrown his hat into the ring to replace the much admired, should not have been retired, Andrew Marshall,  the long time (appointed originally by Richard Nixon) head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, affectionately known in DC circles as “Yoda”. Given the military’s badly broken personnel system and dire problem with “toxic leaders” and Vandergriff’s adamant philosophical emphasis upon ethical integrity, strategic thinking and honest intellectual inquiry, he would be a breath of fresh air and catalyst for change.

James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly gave Don a ringing endorsement:

Want to signal a change? My candidate, until someone has a better idea, is Donald Vandergriff, who has in fact applied for the job.

Vandergriff spent 24 years on active duty an enlisted member of the Marine Corps and an Army officer. When he retired ten years ago as a major, a relatively junior rank, he exemplified the tensions between an independent-thinking, irrepressible, let’s-rock-the-boat reformer and the “don’t make waves” normal promotion machine.

Because of his writings and advocacy, near the end of his active-duty tenure Vandergriff was described as “the most influential major in the U.S. Army.” I did an Atlantic-online discussion with him and Robert Coram, author of a popular biography of the late Air Force colonel John Boyd, a dozen years ago. He has written many well-received books about working fundamental change in the training and promotion of officers, including The Path to Victory; Spirit, Blood, and Treasure; and Raising the Bar. If you want an illustration of someone willing to take (and suffer) career risks in the cause of telling unpleasant but important organizational truths, he would be your man.

Yes he would.

Fabius Maximus blog weighs in as well:

….Donald Vandergriff (one of the authors on the FM website) has identified a powerful point of leverage to change our massive and dysfunctional military apparatus:  its personnel system, the process by which the Army recruits, trains, and promotes its officers. Change this and the effects ripple outward through the entire organization over time as the nature and behavior of its leaders evolve. The Army has begun the long slow evolution of its personnel policies, responding to the ideas of Vandergriff and others.

This success puts Vandergriff on the cutting edge of America’s sword. He, and others like him, are crafting a solution of the third kind (about people) to defeat our foes at 4GW.  We can win at 4GW. We must learn to do so, or the 21st century will be a harsh time for America.

There are many strategic and operational issues that the U.S. military and NatSec community would prefer to ignore because they do not play to our areas of strength where the United States enjoys overwhelming dominance relative to the rest of the world. Well, these problem areas will only grow in scope and importance because they are the points where our adversaries see hope of gaining leverage and comparative advantage over us. I am almost tempted to say “Duh” here because enemies hitting your weak points instead of running headlong into our strong points and being killed en mass is strategy 101, but strategy is less popular in some quarters these days than it should be. Don Vandergriff is the sort of man to highlight deficiencies so they can be remediated and, eventually, become new strengths.

Don Vandergriff….strongest recommendation.

John Nagl and Knife Fights on The Break it Down Show

Thursday, December 25th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

  

Knife Fights by John Nagl

Jon and Pete of The Break it Down Show interview arch-COINdinista and former CNAS president turned educator, Dr. John Nagl.  Pete, who is a deep believer in (and practitioner of)  village-district level, F2F partnership with locals in stability ops, counterinsurgency, aid and development projects and host country transition was definitely pleased to have Colonel Nagl as a guest.

Listen to the show hereKnife Fights – with John Nagl

Good drill down after the half-hour mark on the complexity of trying to do COIN with units rotating in and out and the need to avoid imposing American solutions on local forces that may not be able to sustain them ( or need them in the first place, having more urgent problems).

Related Break it Down Show interview with Johnny Walker here..

Reading “Hard” Books vs. Pretending to Do So

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The other day, some friends shared an old post by controversial conservative activist, writer and publisher of  The Federalist,  Ben Domenech, that struck a chord:

The Top Ten Books People Lie About Reading 

Have you ever lied about reading a book? Maybe you didn’t want to seem stupid in front of someone you respected. Maybe you rationalized it by reasoning that you had a familiarity with the book, or knew who the author was, or what the story was about, or had glanced at its Wikipedia page. Or maybe you had tried to read the book, even bought it and set it by your bed for months unopened, hoping that it would impart what was in it merely via proximity (if that worked, please email me). 

I have not, though I frequently catch many people in conversation and even more online who do.

What does happen too often is a sense of despair welling up as my Antilibrary looks down from the shelves with disapproval as I wonder when I will ever get around to reading them. Maybe this weird bibliophiliac guilt is what spurs people to lie about books they have read. Or perhaps they merely are lazy and want intellectual street cred without the work:

….Take Neil DeGrasse Tyson as one example, whom the internet loves with an unrestrained passion usually reserved for fluffy cat videos. He was asked a few years ago on reddit to share his recommended reading list.Given his brief commentary on the eight books he recommends, he seems largely unfamiliar with the actual content of the works by Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Niccolo Machiavelli, and particularly Sun Tzu, who views the avoidance of killing as the best form of warfare.

The truth is, there are lots of books no one really expects you to read or finish. War and Peace? The Canterbury Tales? The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Announcing that you’ve finished those books might surprise a lot of people and make them think you’re abnormal or anti-social, unless you’re an English or History major who took their reading very, very seriously. Perhaps the shift to ebook format will diminish this reading by osmosis – and book sales, too – since people can afford to be honest about their preference for 50 Shades over The Red and the Black since their booklists are hidden in their Kindles and iPads.

E-reading and reading a book are different experiences. I read Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul on a kindle once. It was convenient, as I was traveling, but the kindle seemed better suited for fiction; with a serious book, I felt the need to mark up pages with marginalia. I last used the Kindle for reading Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom and then gave it to my Eldest child:

So here’s my attempt to drill this down to a more realistic list: books that are culturally ubiquitous, reading deemed essential, writing everyone has heard of… that you’d be mildly embarrassed to admit you’ve never read.

10. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: The libertarian moment has prompted a slew of people to lie about reading Ayn Rand, or to deploy the term “Randian” as a synonym for, say, competitive bidding in Medicare reform without even bothering to understand how nonsensical that is.

9. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: Many pro-evolutionists online display no understanding that the pro-evolution scientific community rejects the bulk of Darwin’s initial findings about evolution.

8. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo and A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens: Virtually every bit of literature about the French Revolution could be tied here, though ignorance of it might inspire fun future headlines, such as “De Blasio Brandishes Knitting Needles, Calls For ‘The People’s Guillotine’ To Be Erected In Times Square.”

7. 1984, George Orwell: A great example of a book people think they have read because they have seen a television ad. On Youtube.

6. Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville: Politicians are the worst about this, quoting and misquoting the writings of the Tocqueville without ever bothering to actually read this essential work. But politicians do this a lot – with The Federalist Papers and The Constitution, too.

Read the rest here.

I have read # 10, 7, 3 and 2 multiple times each and expect I will read them again.  I’ve read de Tocqueville and Tale of Two Cities once. I have looked up stuff in Wealth of Nations but never read it despite having read von Hayek, von Mises, Galbraith, Friedman, Veblen and Marx. I can’t muster much enthusiasm either for Melville or James Joyce, though if forced to choose, I’d select the former.

There’s a lot of intellectual merit – and consequent pride, sort of a nerd throw-down bragging rights – in conquering a “hard” book. I’ve read many that didn’t make that particular list, but perhaps should – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,  Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, Clausewitz’s On War, Aristotle’s The Politics, Herodotus and Thucydides and (in a more modern vein) Barzun’s  Dawn to Decadence or Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.  But there’s many more I have not yet read and worse, may never get to, for lack of time or inclination. My hat is off to those who have slogged through Hobbes’ Leviathan or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason because I’m dubious that I ever will; and while I will probably get around to The Muqaddimah, I’m not sure if I will ever dive into Montaigne or Spengler or most of the great twentieth century novelists. Our time is scarce and so we must choose.

This is of course, what makes book-phonies so worthy of ridicule. There’s something pretentious and absurd about holding forth on a book you have not yourself read as if you were an expert. It’s not remotely as morally serious as the “Stolen honor” frauds who are regularly exposed faking military heroics, but the “Stolen intellect” pretenders to knowledge have a similar motivation and in the end, they are only fooling themselves.

What “hard” books do you take pride in having read?


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