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REVIEW: Commander of the Faithful by John Kiser

Friday, March 30th, 2018

[Mark Safranski / “zen‘]

Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader by John Kiser  

A while back, I received a copy of Commander of the Faithful from friend of ZP, Major Jim Gant who had been impressed with the book and urged me to read it. My antilibrary pile of books is substantial and it took a while to work my way towards it. I knew a little about Algerian colonial history from reading about the French Third Republic, the Foreign Legion and counterinsurgency literature but the name of Abd el-Kader was obscure to me.  The author, John W. Kiser, had also written a book on the martyred Monks of Tibhirine, a topic that had previously caught the eye of Charles Cameron and made a significant impression. Therefore, I settled in to read a biography of a long forgotten desert Arab chieftain.

What a marvelous book!

Kiser’s fast-moving tale is of a man who attempted to forge from unwieldy tribes and two unwilling empires, a new nation grounded in an enlightened Islam that transcended tribal customs ad corrupt legacies of Ottoman misrule while resisting encroachments of French imperial power. A Sufi marabout who was the son of a marabout, el Kader was the scholar who picked up the sword and whose call to jihad eschewed cruelty and held that piety and modernity were compatible aspirations for the feuding tribes of the Mahgreb. There are a number of themes or conflicts in Commander of the Faithful that will interest ZP readers;

el-Kader’s political effort to build a durable, modernizing, Islamic state and Mahgreb nation from feuding desert tribes and clans

Abd el-Kader struggled to unify disparate Arab tribes and subtribes through piety, generosity and coercion while integrating Turco-Arabs and Algerian Jews who had a place under the old Ottoman regime into his new order. Jews like the diplomat Judas Ben Duran and Christian French former military officers and priests became  el-Kader’s trusted advisers and intermediaries alongside Arab chieftains and Sufi marabouts.

el-Kader the insurgent strategist and battlefield tactician

As a military leader, Abd el-Kader demonstrated both a natural talent for cavalry tactics as well as the organizational skill to build a small, but well-disciplined regular infantry with modern rifles on the European model. It is noteworthy, that while Abd el-Kader suffered the occasional reverse (the worst at the hands of a wily Arab warlord loyal to the French) the French generals fighting him all came to grudgingly respect his bravery, honor and skill. Never defeated, Abd el-Kader made peace with the French and surrendered voluntarily; all of his former enemies, Generals Lamoriciere, Damaus, Bugeaud and Changarnier interceded on al-Kader’s behalf to prod the French government to keep its promises to the Amir, who had become a celebrity POW in a series of French chateaus.

el-Kader the Islamic modernizer and moral figure

The 19th century was a time of intellectual ferment in the Islamic world from Morocco to British India with the prime question being the repeated failures of Islamic authorities in the face of European imperialism of the modern West. El-Kader found different answers than did the Deobandis of India, the Wahhabis of Arabia, the later Mahdists of the Sudan, the followers of al-Afghani or the Young Turks who began turning toward secularism. Educated in the Sufi tradition, el-Kader’s vision of Islam, while devout and at times strict, encompassed a benevolent tolerance and respect for “the People of the Book” and general humanitarianism far in advance of the times that is absent in modern jihadism.

It was Abd el-Kader, in retirement in Damascus, who rallied his men to protect thousands of Christians from being massacred in a bloody pogrom (the 1860 Riots) organized by the Ottoman governor, Ahmed Pasha, using as his instrument two local Druze warlords who were angry about their conflict with the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon and Sunni Arabs and Kurds enraged about the Ottoman reforms that had ended the dhimmi status of the Maronite Christians. It was the Emir who faced down and chastised a howling mob as bad Muslims and evildoers and by his actions thousands of lives were spared. Already honored for his chivalrous treatment of prisoners and his banning of customary decapitation as barbarous, the 1860 Riots cemented Abd El-Kader’s reputation for humanitarianism and made him an international figure known from the cornfields of Iowa to the canals of St. Petersburg.

Kiser, who it must be said keeps the story moving throughout, is at pains to emphasize the exemplary moral character of Abd el-Kader. As Emir, he “walked the walk” and understood the connection between his personal asceticism, probity and generosity to his enemies and the poor and his political authority as Emir. When some Arab tribes betrayed Abd El-Kader in a battle against the French, consequently they were deeply shamed and ended up begging the Emir to be allowed to return to his service. On the occasions when harsh punishments had to be dealt out, Abd el-Kader meted them not as examples of his cruelty to be feared but as examples of justice to deter unacceptable crimes that he would swiftly punish.  This is operating at what the late strategist John Boyd called “the moral level of war”, allowing Abd el-Kader to attract the uncommitted, win over observers, rally his people and demoralize his opponents. Even in defeat, realizing the hopelessness of his position against the might of an industrializing great imperial power that was France. el-Kader retained the initiative, ending the war while he was still undefeated and on honorable terms.

In Commander of the Faithful, Kiser paints el-Kader in a romantic light, one that fits the mid 19th century when concepts of honor and chivalry still retained their currency on the battlefield and society, among the Europeans as much as the Emir’s doughty desert tribesmen (if there is any group that comes off poorly, it is the Turks, the dying Ottoman regime’s pashas and beys providing a corrupt and decadent contrast to el-Kader’s nascent Islamic state). The nobility of Abd el-Kader shines from Kiser’s text, both humble and heroic in a manner that rarely sees a 21st century analogue. It is both refreshing and at times, moving to read of men who could strive for the highest ethical standards while engaged in the hardest and most dangerous enterprise.

Strongly recommended.

 

When are look-alikes alike, eh?

Friday, September 30th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a questiom for Cath Styles and Emily Steiner ]
.

It’s my proposal here that look-alikes are in the eyes of the beholder, perhaps more so than other forms of likeness.

Consider:

Do they look like Darth Vader and C3PO to you, frankly — or more like each other?

**

One really does have to wonder how medieval monastics got hold of copies of Winnie the Pooh:

honey-bear-02-600

and:

honey-bear-01-600

With a double hat-tip to the immensely followable twitter feed of PiersatPenn

**

And what about this?

It probably takes some historical knowledge to appreciate the similarities here — the comparison is not entirely visual.

**

Are mathematically or verbally juxtaposable similarities equally subject to human comparative bias?

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.

Small Wars and Big Thoughts

Saturday, March 19th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]


U.S. Marines display captured flag of Nicaraguan rebels led by Augusto Cesar Sandino

While pop-centric COIN may be dead, small wars and irregular warfare will always be with us. We might say they are in the fourth or fifth generation; are an open-source insurgency; or have become “hybrid“; or exist in some kind of mysteriousgray zone“. Whatever we call them, small wars are here to stay.

Two recent publications explore the topic.

The first is a taxonomic work from Robert Bunker at the Strategic Studies Institute:

Old and New Insurgency Forms

….Blood Cultist (Emergent). Strategic implications:  Limited to moderate. This insurgency form can be viewed as a mutation of either radical Islam and/or rampant criminality, as found in parts of Latin America and Africa, into dark spirituality based on cult-like behaviors and activities involving rituals and even human sacrifice. To respond to this insurgency form, either federal law enforcement or the military will be the designated lead depending on the specific international incident taking place. An all-of-government approach will be required to mitigate and defeat this insurgency form, which has terrorism (and narco-terrorism) elements that represent direct threats—especially concerning the Islamic State—to the U.S. homeland […]

I strongly agree with Bunker’s “dark spirituality” angle present in deviant religious-military movements. For example, ISIS, for all its protestations of ultra-orthodoxy in its Salafism exudes a spirit of protean paganism in its words and deeds.

The second is a book, Clausewitz on Small War by Christopher Daase and James W. Davis (Hat tip to Nick Prime). From a book review at the London School of Economics:

….The current generation’s trend in understanding Clausewitz is that of moving beyond On War – an analysis which Clausewitz himself considered incomplete and which was published posthumously. As part of this shift, 2015 alone saw the publication of a new account of his life, together with a biography of his wife and a comparison between Napoleon’s and Clausewitz’s ideas on war, to name a few.

Through Clausewitz on Small War, Christopher Daase and James W. Davis make a significant contribution to such efforts of contextualisation. Yet theirs is quite distinct from other works, in that they translate into English writings that were thus far accessible only to those with a reading knowledge of German. This is precisely where the value of the book lies, as well as being the editors’ primary aim: opening up Clausewitz through translating his own words, rather than in interpreting them. In doing so, they offer the tools through which future analyses can be better informed.

The editors nonetheless do set out a case in the introduction: Clausewitz’s writings on ‘Small War’ are testimony to his continuing relevance. To illustrate this, they offer four chronologically arranged texts – a journey of how his thinking on Small War evolved. Each text was written with a different frame of mind. The first is comprised of lecture notes on small-unit warfare that are informal and rather technical; the second and third are memoranda distributed to military reformers and through which Clausewitz passionately makes the case for militias; and the final is a chapter from On War, again on the arming of the people.

I would add that ZP contributor, Lynn Rees, also had a recent post on the role of Marie von Clausewitz in shaping “Clausewitz” and Clausewitzian thought.

That’s it.

One quick parallel, one liberation long in coming

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

[jotted by Lynn C. Rees]

Listening to this presentation by Vanya Eftimova Bellinger on her biography of Marie von Clausewitz (helpfully titled Marie von Clausewitz), one quick parallel and one liberation (long in coming) came to mind:

Quick parallel:

As editor of On War, Marie deliberately left On War unfinished.

Carl’s unforeseen death on November 16, 1831 from the cholera left a jumble of papers instead of a book. Marie was left to assemble them into publishable form. Received wisdom long held that Marie’s editorial activity was passive, with the heavy lifting and hard thinking left to her brother Friedrich or some other dude among Carl’s comrades.

Bellinger’s research, based on newly recovered letters Marie and Carl exchanged over their 21 year marriage, reveals the received wisdom as received nonsense: Marie was intimately involved in both the development and detail of Carl’s ideas. Some of Carl’s ideas may in fact be Marie and Carl’s ideas or even Marie’s ideas (though, as a devoted couple, of one mind and one heart, where did one end and the other begin?). She was only qualified editor for Carl’s work other than Carl.

Despite this, she chose to leave it largely as Carl left it, uneven, unfinished, unpolished, and frequently deeply divided against itself. Marie saw Carl’s book, even unfinished, as the greatest work on the study of war ever written. Yet she felt that, providentially perhaps, its incomplete and unsettled state made On War more of an invitation to advance the study of war beyond even her beloved Carl than The One Book On War To Rule Them All. The large blanks left in On War are not, as long claimed, artifacts of a loving but inexpert widow, hopelessly lost among the Great Thoughts of a Great Man. They are roads so wide that the future can move through them with ease, a lasting tribute by a woman of vision to a man of vision she understood better than the small-minded historians (usually dudes) left in her shadow.

This reminds me of the late Col. John Boyd’s slides and the complaints some make that the Colonel didn’t leave behind a comprehensive treatise on war like, um, On War. The Colonel lived as he preached: he was against the formation of orthodoxies, even, and especially, Boydian orthodoxies. He believed they contributed to the closed thinking that Boydian-flavored tactics sought to create in the enemies they targeted. A closed enemy mind is prey to its own illusions. Left without lifelines to reality, a mind’s mental entropy accumulates until it consumes itself and collapses into fatal disorder. Orthodoxy belongs to the same family of tactics, only now the victim is yourself. Orthodoxy is mental suicide.

The Colonel was not going to be a military Aristotle. He was not going to leave behind a body of work so all-encompassing that it euthanized contrary thinking for the next two millennia. So he left behind a bunch of slides, as suggestive in what they don’t say as in what they do say. Filling in the blanks is left as an exercise to viewer.

This has not prevented the rise of a class of Boydian true believers, picking over each slide in search of their master’s Original Intent. This is not the Colonel’s fault: as a peddler of interesting stories, he could no more prevent the rise of the Church of St. John the Boyd than Marie could prevent the rise of the Church of St. Carl the Clausewitz. To herd is human, to stand alone is divine. Yet Marie, like the Colonel, and, perhaps, like Carl, left room for the creative spirit to roam in spite of the best efforts of men of the straight path to restrict it to the Wise and Inscrutable Colonel’s Secret Original Recipe. As the Colonel was a Boyd but not a Boydian, Marie was a Clausewitz but not a Clausewitzian.

Liberation, long in coming: 

Marie’s influence manifests itself most strongly in those chapters attributed to the mature Carl. This means Book 1 Chapter 1, whether with its vintage Cold War Howard-Paret gloss or not. The insight, even the phrasing, of Carl’s famous “War is the continuation of politics with the admixture of other means”, may have originated with Marie.

Marie, born Maria Sophie, Countess von Bruhl, came from a higher social class than Carl. By most measures, she was a far better politician than Carl. The progress of Carl’s career depended as much on Marie as it did on more historically prominent patrons like Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Marie was a lady-in-waiting to multiple Hohenzollern princesses. She was involved and influential in the court politics of Prussia. Such politics may bear a closer resemblance to the social politics portrayed in the novel’s of Marie’s English contemporary Jane Austen than to those portrayed in conventional political history. Yet they may exercise as much, if not more, influence as the brow furrowings of serious statesmen.

Today’s received wisdom is that women were entirely absent from a substantial role in politics until the enlightenment of the late twentieth century gave its institutional validation on the role of women in politics by granting them official line titles. This received wisdom belittles the power that women whose lives or times bore little resemblance to those of a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant-flavored careerist have exercised through the ages. Their politics may seem unimportant, even quaint. Yet they have exercised a sway that has gone largely overlooked by later historians.

In this, 1960s-flavored women’s history ironically often shares the biases of the most male chauvinist historians of the past. Because it was not labelled or institutionalized as capital P politics, it must have been unimportant lower case p politics. Marie knew otherwise and knew otherwise better than Carl. She was established in the highest corridors of power. She knew how the interactions of men and women in high places and high proximity fed the sausage machine that led to war and peace and took lives. She saw how war was the continuation of politics, her politics, capitalized or not, with the addition of other (usually violent) means.

I suspect later Prussian and German military thinkers sensed this. Moltke’s nose curled at any interference in war making from civilians, even those with facial hair more formidable than his own like Bismarck. He may have sensed that, behind Bismarck, there were forces that would have stymied Wilhelm I’s Paris 1870, a reunion tour that rolled on to cataclysmic crescendo at Berlin 1945 after unscheduled stops at Marne 1914, Verdun 1916, and other blood-stained venues. Moltke may have sensed the feminine infiltrating his manly clubhouse. Politics is a game both men and women play. Acknowledging the role of politics in war may have led to even Moltke having to acknowledge that, GASP!!!, women might acquire a role in war as a logical continuation of their role in politics. That could have led to even more civilians stifling Moltke’s fun.

The horror.

And here, perhaps, is Marie von Clausewitz’s most compelling legacy: liberation of the study of war, and, perhaps ultimately, its governance, from its sole reliance on masculinity.


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