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American Spartan Redux

Monday, July 31st, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Charles Cameron helpfully tipped the news last week in our comment section, but I wished to give this update the prominence friends of zenpundit.com deserve. American Spartan has been re-released and you can get it  from now until July 31, American Spartan is available for $1.99 at BookHub

For those who need a re-cap, long time readers will recall Major Jim Gant coming to wider attention with his paper, One Tribe at a Time with an assist from noted author Steven Pressfield, where he called for a campaign strategy against the Taliban from “the bottom up” using “the tribes” because the current top down strategy of killing insurgents while building a strong, centralized, state would never work – the war would just drag on indefinitely until the US grew tired and quit Afghanistan. Gant forged a tight relationship with Afghan tribal leader  Noor Azfal ,won some fans with his paper in very high places, including SECDEF Robert Gates and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus who gave him some top cover to implement his ideas but Gant also faced formidable resistance and criticism from Afghan government officials, parts of the ISAF chain of command and academics unhappy with Gant’s conceptual emphasis on tribalism.

Here is an excellent review of American Spartan by Doyle Quiggle in The Marine Corps Gazette:

Whether from Plutarch or Zack Snyder’s 300, we all know the command, “Come back with your shield—or on it.” Special Forces MAJ Jim Gant, USA, came back with his shield, but, like his soul, it’s as mortar-pocked as the face of the moon. The narrator of Gant’s Spartan tale is his lady, a word used with chivalric respect. Ann witnesses, validates, and, by writing this book, binds up the many wounds Gant suffered to mind, body, and soul in Iraq and Afghanistan, an act of healing she began in her home in Maryland, kicking Gant of his drug and alcohol habits to get him back into the fight. As Gen James N. Mattis recently lamented in Warriors and Civilians, true, unflinching acceptance of what warriors become through warfighting is rare. Ann’s narrative asks readers to muster a hard-nosed acceptance of Gant in the fullness of his sometimes brutal, sometimes compassionate (Afghans call this blend of virtues nangyalee) warrior soul.

A collaboration between a warrior and his woman, American Spartan provides an exemplary model for receiving the blood-tainted warrior back into the kill-shy civilian fold. The partnership itself, a cooperative, on-going translation of combat experience into a narrative for communal sharing, is a ritual of homecoming from war, a gift of acceptance that a non-killer, Ann, gives to a killer, Gant. Together, they offer military readership an enduring lesson about how to fight—in mind and battlespace—gray-zone war. With tooth-breaking honesty, Ann records Jim’s edgy mindset after his Iraq deployment:

He had sacrificed everything at the altar of war. War was, by then, all he really knew. He could not imagine a world where the people he had loved most had become strangers, and where—unlike in Iraq—his enemies were not trying to kill him, making them much harder to find and impossible to destroy.

Read the rest here.

I wrote in my own review of American Spartan:

The substance of the book, Gant’s implementation of his “One Tribe at Time” strategy among the Pashtuns and his rise and fall with the hierarchy of the US Army is more complicated and begs for deeper examination. Readers with knowledge of Afghanistan, the Army, American policy or some combination of the three will find nearly as much to read between the lines of American Spartan as they will in the text itself. It is fascinating, really, and the moral implications are deeply disturbing.

To summarize, American Spartan lays out a tragic paradox. My impression is that the tribal engagement strategy Gant championed would never have been permitted to succeed, even had he been a Boy Scout in his personal conduct; and secondly, even if tribal engagement had been fully resourced and enthusiastically supported, Gant himself would have self-destructed regardless.  A Greek tragedy in a khet partug.

Gant has frequently been compared to the legendary Lawrence of Arabia and the fictional Colonel Kurtz.   Interestingly, both of those figures died early and untimely deaths, having long outlived their usefulness for their respective armies. Major Gant is, fortunately, very much alive today which may be the only good outcome associated with his fall from grace.  Given his predisposition for assuming heroic risks, taking battle to the enemy, chance hazards of war and Gant’s own struggle with PTSD, alcoholism and pills chronicled by Tyson, the bitter vendetta of Gant’s immediate superiors ironically may have kept him from also becoming Afghanistan’s John Paul Vann or Bernard Fall.  Gant is not a Colonel Kurtz. That charge would be a slander; nor is he really T.E. Lawrence either, though that is a much better comparison. Gant had more bite to Lawrence’s bark and that was at least part of the equation in Gant’s success.  The al-Saud and al-Rashid tribes and Turkish pashas did not fear Lawrence the same way Taliban commanders and rival Pashtun subtribes personally feared Jim Gant, whom one of his fiercest anthropologist critics called “very scary”.  It was not only tea and beards, nor could it be.

Pick up American Spartan at BookHub today for $1.99!

REVIEW: Why Socrates Died by Waterfield

Sunday, May 21st, 2017

[ Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for why socrates died

Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths by Robin Waterfield

2400 years after his trial and execution at the hands of the restored Democracy, Socrates continues to exert a fascination over the Western mind. He is a seminal figure in the development of philosophy and was part of the cognitive revolution in classical Greece that saw a shift from archaic Homeric values to humanistic, rational and proto-scientific values. The death of Socrates, condemned for thought crimes, was the great contradiction of Athenian self-conception of Athens as  “the school of Hellas” and his execution remained an indictment leveled by the enemies of democracy ever since. While the importance of Socrates is universally acknowledged, the exact circumstances and motives for his death remain obscure; ironically, a philosopher who so deeply valued “truth” had prosecutors and apologists equally determined to conceal or distort it.

British scholar and translator Robin Waterfield has attempted, as did radical journalist I.F. Stone a generation earlier, to unearth the truth behind the myths about Socrates. Unlike Stone, Waterfield’s investigation, Why Socrates Died , rests on an extensive career translating and writing about the classics, including the major primary and secondary sources used for his book. This provides a firmer base for the inevitable speculation from limited evidence that is frequently required in historical reasoning about antiquity. Waterfield is also far less influenced by contemporary political and cultural conflicts than was Stone, whose turbulent career as an investigative journalist was intertwined with Cold War controversies and his activities on behalf of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union. Waterfield also understands far better the machinery of the Athenian state and the nature of Greek polytheistic religious life, which Stone erroneously believed had become thoroughly secularized by the time of the trial of Socrates.

Waterfield notes that while it is normal that most of the records of historical events during antiquity are fragmentary or have vanished, we two purported records for Socrates’ defense speech at his trial, one of the prosecution and numerous apologia. Socrates trial was obviously no ordinary law case for impiety, being still recalled by Athenians a half-century later. Nor did the disciples of Socrates who most ardently took up his cause, Plato and Xenophon, wish the case to be forgotten but rather endeavored to protect their master’s reputation for all posterity. Waterfield writes:

….Both Plato and Xenophon wanted to give their readers the impression that a high-minded philosopher was convicted by the stupidity of the mob, but this was an attempt to distract attention from the real reasons Socrates was killed.

The real reason posited by Waterfield was that Socrates  was the teacher of Alcibiades and Critias and thus bore some responsibility for the grave misfortunes suffered by Athens during the war and the crimes of the Thirty Tyrants afterwards. Moreover, as Waterfield argues, Socrates was not so much the victim of a political show trial in which Socrates deliberately provoked the democratic faction to kill him, as I.F. Stone argued but was a religious sacrifice or scapegoat for the transgressions of his students against democracy so that a fragile Athenian society could heal its wounds.

Much of the book is devoted to the career of the mercurial and highly charismatic Alcibiades, who entered politics young and as a disciple of Socrates. According to Wakefield, A scion of the greatest of Athenian houses, Alcibiades in his person was emblematic of all of the virtues and vices of the old Athenian aristocracy that had once ruled Athens from the grand council of the Aeropagus. Of the rising generation of young and clever men of good breeding who aimed to play a role in the politics of the radical democracy, Alcibiades had the greatest promise. Highly intelligent, wealthy, handsome and with a magnetic charm, Alcibiades had the natural arête and metis to romance the mob and bend it to his will. It was this that Waterfield argues attracted the attention of Socrates, who saw in Alcibiades and other young men of promising talent he took on as students the future of Athens.

Unfortunately, with Alcibiades, his numerous gifts could never be separated from his equally stupendous flaws – sexual libertinism, flamboyant profligacy, megalomaniacal ambition and reckless hubris – that were frequently his undoing. A psychological chameleon and demagogue, Waterfield argues that the Athenians, as much as they repeatedly forgave and embraced Alcibiades and his schemes, ultimately feared him as an aspiring tyrant. This feeling crystallized into blame for Socrates in the public mind when other students of his who lacked the charms of Alcibiades, notably Critias, sought revolution and oligarchy. Critias’ bloodthirsty pro-Spartan regime as well as the elite’s prior attempt at oligarchy are explained but not with the same space and attention to detail devoted to Alcibiades. One point that Waterfield takes further than most is arguing that Critias aspirations for a morally reformed and less populated Athens are very much in line with the teachings of Socrates. That far from an aberration for whom Socrates bears little responsibility, Critias represented the philosopher’s hopes for Athens and the Athenian democrats who had suffered at the hands of the Thirty Tyrants wanted someone held accountable. That someone was Socrates, whose teachings as it were, would imperil democracy again were he left at liberty.

Waterfield’s handling of the trial itself is less satisfying and includes a lengthy foray into fictive speculation of material prejudicial to Socrates that his notable apologists, Plato and Xenophon, have carefully omitted from their elegies to their beloved master and his trial. The parallels between Athenian religious ceremony and the results of Socrates trial – a trial for impiety held in defiance of the general amnesty that had been decreed for actions under previous regimes – are present. The Greeks did not as a rule go in for human sacrifices in the classical era (though it wasn’t quite as unknown as is commonly believed) but the symmetry is present if more metaphorical than perhaps explicitly religious. It is difficult as a modern to game out exactly where matters of state end and religion begin when the religion is pagan and intertwined in the mind of Athenians with the fate of the state. A debate more for classical scholars than the average layman.

What is difficult to dispute is the centrality of Socrates life in the evolution of Western philosophy and the contradiction he presents for admirers of self-government and free speech and thought as the core of a liberal society. Socrates elenchus is radically subversive; his Homeric tenets on rulership were arch-reactionary even by the standards of his day and Socrates devotion to his beliefs could not be dented even when they required the supreme sacrifice.

What would an American Socrates look and sound like today? How would “the herd” react to his immovable defiance of popular ideologies? Judging by the barometer of social media and the lynch mob mentalities and angry censoriousness that prevail in elite quarters of American life, I’d have to say: poorly. I see no evidence that Americans living in the bastion of civil liberty would prove more tolerant of dissent than did the Athenian democrats who put Socrates to death.

Waterfield has written a lively and informative explanation of a philosopher whose execution casts a long shadow even after two thousand years.  Recommended.

 

Eagle, tiger vs drone

Friday, February 24th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — tiger swats mechanical mosquito, also ontology and metaphor ]
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I recently reported on eagles in training to take down drones in Next up — the anti-eagle drone — here’s video to go with that report..

and here’s video of tigers similarly employed to pair with that eagle video, making a fine YouTube DoubleQuote:

**

Thoreau describes the (newfangled) train in Walden, using an animal metaphor:

When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with planetary motion … with its steam cloud like a banner streaming behind in gold and silver wreaths … as if this traveling demigod, this cloud-compeller, would ere long take the sunset sky for the livery of his train? when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils, (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.

We have nature, and we have nurture — but new tech hardly fits in either category. When a new tech arises, initially, it’s readily assimilated to an animal, ie a form of nature — as in my equation of drone and mosquito in the header to this post.

And drone? What kind of name is that? As near as I can judge, the mechanical usage derives from the same term used to describe a male bee.

**

Okay, we might as well close with a quote from Thoreau’s friend Emerson, offering an intriguing ontology of means of transport, the natural and technological included — with an eagle this time on the receiving end of hunting..

Man moves in all modes, by legs of horses, by wings of winds, by steam, by gas of balloon, by electricity, and stands on tiptoe threatening to hunt the eagle in his own element.

Strategy and Prometheus Unbound

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Senior Counselor to the President and Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon has been very much in the news lately, as one might expect of a former Breitbart editor turned closest adviser to the President of the United States. Much of this has been political fare by friends and foes (ok, mostly foes). We have read debates about his ideological worldview, the exact nature of Bannon’s (and Breitbart’s)  ties to the sinister Alt-Right, his rank in the White House pecking order, Bannon’s vision of realignment of American politics, populism, ethnonationalism, executive orders, the books he reads and so on. Charles has already weighed in here but I am not delving into these things today.

Less attention, though usually also accompanied by outrage, have been stories on foreign policy and national security. Nevertheless, the media gave wide play to Bannon’s comments about potential war with China, possible civilizational partnership with Putin’s Russia and most notably, Bannon being given a permanent invitation to meetings of the Principal’s Committee of the National Security Council. Most Democrats and many national security professionals believed Bannon, as a political adviser,  had no business being seated on the NSC by historical standards. While this is true, it is not a very credible argument in light of the previous administration’s decision to make a mere campaign speechwriter with no prior experience an unusually powerful Deputy National Security Adviser.

I think the criticisms based on customary protocol arguments miss the mark by a country mile.

We are all familiar with the ancient Greek myth of the Titan Prometheus. It was Prometheus, whose name meant “forethought”, who defied the gods to give Man the gift of fire – a gift that unleashed the immense creative powers of mankind. For this affront to the gods’ authority, Prometheus was severely punished. Zeus binds Prometheus to Mount Caucasus where an eagle tears out his liver each day. A torment Prometheus endures for ages until the coming of Hercules.

Strategy in American national security is much like Prometheus. Potentially useful as a creative force, sometimes employed like the gift of fire as a useful tool in a small way, most often inert, bound immobile to the rock of policy as politics savagely tears out the liver of anyone posing a strategy that might prevent a foreign policy crisis from becoming a debacle. The truth is that the gods, or in this case the established political class, much prefer a predictable and orderly debacle under their stewardship than a messy win for America with unpredictable second and third order effects.

In fairness, most of the time, stability while accruing small losses is preferable for a global hegemonic power like the United States to disruptively embarking upon large risks to its position in order to win small gains. So long as the international system is strategically designed to sustain hegemony, occasional losses can be a cost of doing business until the system or parts of it no longer appear to be working. Or until political support wanes at home.

The objection to Bannon (aside from his politics) is that a domestic political strategist should not be involved in the NSC. David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett were not. Karl Rove wasn’t.  James Carville, Lee Atwater and innumerable other key political White House staffers never sat on the NSC. However, I don’t think Steve Bannon was invited to attend NSC Principal Committee meetings in that role. Nor was he “replacing” the DNI or CIA Director or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They were not “replaced” but as customary bureaucratic constraints on policy formulation they were intentionally removed.

I think Steve Bannon – whose prior professional efforts at a high level were all about creating and articulating a vision – is really the Trump administration’s grand strategist.

And he’s unbound.

 

 

New Article up at Divergent Options

Monday, January 16th, 2017

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

I have a piece up at Divergent Options, a new national security site that aims to provoke thought regarding foreign policy with a concise template that distills the essence of foreign policy problems and provides but does not recommend options. As DO describes it:

What We Do:  In 1,000 words or less, Divergent Options provides unbiased, dispassionate, candid articles that describe a national security situation, present multiple options to address the situation, and articulate the risk and gain of each option.  Please note that while we assess a national security situation and provide options, we never recommend a specific option.

Who We Communicate To:  Our intended audience is National Security Practitioners worldwide.  We keep our articles short and to the point because we know that Practitioners have a limited amount of time and are likely reading our content on a digital device during a commute, a lunch break, or in-between meetings

My post is an effort to reconnect Syrian policy, widely regarded as a disaster by most foreign policy pundits, back to a coherent grand strategy.

Syria Options: U.S. Grand Strategy 

[…]

Background:  Aleppo has fallen and with it the last shreds of credibility of President Obama’s policy on Syria.  None of Obama’s policy goals for Syria since the Arab Spring revolt were achieved.  In Syria, the Assad regime has crushed western-backed opposition fighters with direct Russian and Iranian military ground support; the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) still controls swaths of Syrian territory[1] and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally Turkey has conspired with Iran and Russia to exclude the U.S. and UN[2] from Syrian settlement talks.

Significance:  While Syria itself is of little strategic value to the U.S. beyond secondary implications for Israeli security, the utter failure of the Obama administration has brought U.S. diplomatic prestige to a nadir reminiscent of the Iranian hostage crisis or the fall of Saigon.  Worse, defeat in Syria occurred in a broader context of successful Russian aggression in Ukraine, uncontested Russian meddling in an U.S. presidential election, and perceptions of U.S. strategic concessions to Tehran in the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA[3]).  Should the next administration want to accomplish more than Obama, it is vital that they  1) address Syria within the context of increased Russian-U.S. competition and 2) seize the initiative in restoring the influence of U.S. leadership with substantive and symbolic policy changes in regard to Syria and Russia.

Read the rest here.


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