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Dawn and Decadence, Innovation, & The Face of Battle — top 3

Friday, October 4th, 2013

[by J. Scott Shipman]

From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, by Jacques Barzun

In a year where I’ve not been able to read as much as normal and with 89 days remaining in 2013, these three titles are the best so far. I’m not finished with Dawn, but it seems like the late Professor Barzun is an old friend (here is a video from 2010). Barzun’s opus was published when he was 93 and was almost ten years in the making. Dawn has been sitting on my shelves for four or five years and I’d started it two or three times only to get bogged down and lose interest. Well over half way finished and I’m pretty sure I’ll be rereading this title for years to come (co-blogger Lynn Rees reports he’s read it four times). Barzun’s scope covers the gamut: religion, literature, poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, philosophy, and the aristocracy/life at court. Since many of these topics are interconnected he uses an ingenious method to assist the reader in keeping up. He uses this: (<page number)(page number>) to direct the reader to something previously discussed or something he will cover later. In the text, he will recommend “the book to read is” “the book to browse is” in brackets. I’ve found this method distracting as I’ve read three books he referenced since I started… Barzun also provides generous lift quotes in the margins to give the reader a flavor for a particular writer or idea/example. If the book had a traditional bibliography, I dare say it would cover a couple hundred pages–at least. Dawn has been a pleasure I’ve been taking in small doses and am in no hurry to finish. This is the best book of the genre that I’ve read.

Men, Machines and Modern Times, by Elting Morison

Elting Morison’s Men, Machines is reviewed at Amazon by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as “purely and simply one of the best books ever written on the process of innovation and the interaction of technology, culture, systems, and individual personalities.” I could not agree more. Morison’s book is a collection of essays dealing with change and man’s inherit but paradoxical reaction to it:

Yet, if human beings are attached to the known, to the realm of things as they are, they also, regrettably for their peace of mind, are incessantly attracted to the unknown and things as they might be. As Ecclesiastes glumly pointed out, men persist in disordering their settled ways and beliefs by seeing out many inventions…Change has always been a constant in human affairs…

From gunnery at sea to 19th Century railroads, Morison provides illustration after illustration of man, his institutions, and the almost universal resistance of both to change. Morison observes of inventors (real “disruptive thinkers’) [this was written in the early 1950's]:

I once collected evidence on the lives of about thirty of these men who flourished in the nineteenth century. A surprising number turned out to be people with little formal education, who drank a good deal, who were careless with money, and who had trouble with wives or other women.

Morison devotes one essay to the characteristics and ills of a “bureau.” He describes the difficulty of getting anything accomplished within an average bureaucracy—largely because bureaucrats live for process and harmony. He says:

Taken together, a set of regulations provides a pattern of behavior for the energies bureaus are set up to regulate….Regulations are a way of keeping a system of energies working in harmony and balance…First it is easier to make a regulation than to abolish it.

Morison’s eighth and concluding essay provide Some Proposals for dealing with change and newness—in a word, solutions to many of the problems identified earlier. That said, only the most dedicated reader will complete the seventh (and longest) chapter, according the Morison, originally intended to be a book about the history of 19th Century American railroad innovation. Overall, I concur with Speaker Gingrich and highly recommend this title.

The Face of Battle, by John Keegan

A title needing no introduction at Zenpundit, I’ll only offer this title as one of the best books of the genre I’ve read. Keegan covers three battles across 500 years of history, Agincourt, Waterloo, and The Somme. In each, he brings alive the battlefield and provides the conditions faced by combatants—often up close and personal. Keegan’s scholarship, insight, and importantly, his humility in addressing a topic he admittedly had no first hand experience make this a must read for anyone in the profession of arms, and recommended for anyone seeking more insight into how we fight.

That’s a wrap, be back soon! 


American Caesar — a reread after 30 years

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

[by J. Scott Shipman]

American Caesar, Douglas MacArthur 188-1964, by William Manchester

Often on weekends my wife allows me to tag along as she takes in area estate sales. She’s interested in vintage furniture, and I hope for a decent collection of books. A sale we visited a couple months ago had very few books, but of those few was a hardback copy of American Caesar. I purchased the copy for $1 and mentioned to my wife, “I’ll get to this again someday…” as I’d first read Manchester’s classic biography of General Douglas MacArthur in the early 1980′s while stationed on my first submarine. “Someday” started on the car ride home (she was driving), and I must admit: American Caesar was even better thirty years later. Manchester is a masterful biographer, and equal to the task of such a larger-than-life subject.

MacArthur still evokes passion among admirers and detractors. One take-away from the second reading was just how well-read MacArthur and his father were. When MacArthur the elder died, he left over 4,000 books in his library—both seemed to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of history and warfare. Highly recommended.

PS: I visited the MacArthur Memorial, in Norfolk, Virginia, recently while in town for business and would recommend as well.


More Books and Bookshelf Musings

Sunday, June 30th, 2013


Mussolini’s Italy:Life under the Fascist Dictatorship by by R. J. B. Bosworth 

Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott

Been busy writing a book review and a long and serious post, so here is something more lighthearted and tangible in the meantime.

Having recently purchased the Bosworth bio of Mussolini, I went back and bought his history of Italian Fascism. While doing that, I came across Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which had either been highly recommended in a discussion over at Chicago Boyz blog or perhaps in an email by one of the Chicago Boyz themselves ( maybe Lex will help me out here).

However, a long discussion by my amigo Adam Elkus on Facebook about his emerging organizational system for his books coupled with an hour long search to try and find a book I needed to cite in the review I was writing have made me realize something: I no longer have any organization to my books.

Sure, there’s still a semblance of a core – a Soviet/Russian bookcase, an antique/antiquarian bookcase for collectible editions 80-130+ years old, three shelves of strategy and war, two and half on Nazi Germany, two on Richard Nixon, an “Ummah” shelf on Islam, al Qaida, Central Asia and the Mideast but after that it starts getting messy. Once methodically organized, diplomatic history and diplo memoirs are spread across two rooms, four bookcases and three packing boxes in the garage; the Vietnam War is on two shelves in two different bookcases plus a half dozen or books so shelved at work; ancient history and classical philosophy have metastasized to occupy parts of three shelves in two different rooms; American history, European history, Japan and China,  sociology, general science, politics, biographies, neuroscience, intelligence community, economics are everywhere and anywhere. Your guess is probably almost as good as mine.

And then there are book piles randomly stacked horizontally on top of shelved books and bookcases or stacked by my computer desk or on/under/next to my nightstand. I no longer recall what books I have loaned out or to whom vice given away as gifts.

Bibliomania….A Gentle Madness …..



Heavy breathing on the line: Boyd and the hare

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

[dots connected by Lynn C. Rees]



? 1 ?

? Raises question ?

? 2 ?

What did Lucius Aemilius Paullus know and when did he know it?

? 3 ?

Ask Colonel John Boyd, USAF (1927-1997)

? 4 ?

Namedrop John Boyd

What do most respondants think?

? 5 ?

Naive OODA Loop

? 6 ?

Uncritical Insight

John Boyd is a cheerleader jumping up and down on the sidelines chanting “faster! Faster!! FASTER!!!”.

? 7 ?

Uncritical Insight (cont.)

This reduces Boyd to:

  1. Go fast.
  2. Go faster.
  3. Go ludicrous speed.
  4. Profit!!!

? 8 ?

? – Raises Question  - ?

Is this man a cheerleader?

? 9 ?

? and ?

? and ?

? 10 ?



? 11 ?



? 12 ?

Key Asymmetry

When Boyd smiles, he’s 100 million light years away from being a cheerleader.

? 13 ?

Key Asymmetry (cont.)

If a Boyd particle barely brushed a cheerleader particle, it would annihilate it, leaving behind nothing but:

  1. a tremendous burst of energy
  2. plans for a better fighter plane than the F-35 at 1/1,000,000th the cost.

? 14 ?

Critical Insight

To understand Boyd, understand the battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.)

? 15 ?


? 16 ?


Boyd argued victory came by creating of a fatal disconnect between enemy and reality through:

  • mental isolation
  • moral isolation
  • physical isolation

? 17 ?

Message (cont.) 

All three are critical to the originality of Boyd’s thought:

Boyd was thinking outside the box.

? 18 ?

Message (cont.) 

This box:


? 19 ?

Message (cont.) 

More particularly, this box:


? 20 ?

Message (cont.)

Battle of Cannae (216 BC)

Hannibal Barça put 50,000 or so Roman legionaries inside the box.

? 21 ?

Message (cont.)

Few Romans ever thought outside that box again.

? 22 ?


The physical kill box of Cannae became the mental kill box that military thinkers of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century kept their brains in.

? 23 ?

Problem (cont.)

This is your brain:

Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini

? 24 ?

Problem (cont.)

This is your brain on Cannae:


? 25 ?


Schlieffen, Chief of the Great General Staff of the Second Reich from 1893-1906, was obsessed with Cannae.

He even wrote a book on it.

? 26 ?

Worse (cont.)

Schlieffen used an exhaustive checklist when planning future military operations.

? 27 ?

Worse (cont.)

  1. Does my plan destroy the enemy army like Buonoparte?

? 28 ?

Worse (cont.)

Satisfying those stringent requirements led to the Schlieffen-Moltke Plan:

Schlieffen Plan

? 29 ?

Worse (cont.)

Its results were mixed.

? 30 ?


Schlieffen’s plan failed because it only aimed at physical annihilation of Franco-British forces.

? 31 ?

Critique (cont.)

It’s moral and mental isolation (or annihilation) components were few or vestigial.

This absence dominated the Western Front for the next three years.

? 32 ?

First Cut

Boyd suggested that the German development of infiltration techniques in the later half of the war countered this.

Instead of the long bombardments château generals thought would physically annihilate the enemy trench line, barbed wire, and fortifications…

? 33 ?

First Cut (cont.)

The artillery barrage that accompanied German infiltration attack was sudden and unexpected…

…providing suppression as much through sudden mental or moral disorientation as through physical destruction.

? 34 ?

First Cut (cont.)

Instead of the physical impact of large ranks of infantrymen trudging across No Man’s Land…

Small teams of infiltrators dribbled across the lines in small groups, causing moral and mental derangement by attacking the enemy from the flank or rear in unexpected places at surprising times.

? 35-36 ?

Traditional Greek Order of Battle vs Leuctra’s Order of Battle


? 37 ?

Battle of Leuctra

Boyd referred back to Leuctra rather than Cannae as a guide:

Epaminondas‘ seemingly simpler act of stacking his left 50 deep and weakening his right was just as effective as Hannibal’s more technically complex but brittle double envelopment at Cannae.

? 38 ?

Battle of Leuctra (cont.)

Epaminondas created a fatal disconnect between Spartiate and reality through a balanced attack:

  • physical isolation (more husky Boeotians to beat on the Spartan right)
  • moral isolation (that’s against the rules!)
  • mental isolation (the best Boeotian troops were on the left, not, as was tradition, on the right)

? 39 ?

Key Take Away

Epamimondas won a more efficient victory than Hannibal:

He mauled the Spartans just as effectively as Hannibal mauled the Romans …

Without the enormous luck and complexity involved in pulling off a double envelopment.

? 40 ?

And that’s why the NSA records (meta)data on all Americans.


Octavian Manea interviews MIT’s Roger D. Peterson

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Another installment of Octavian Manea’s excellent COIN interview series at SWJ. This one focuses on social science and varieties of insurgency:

Breaking Down “Hearts and Minds”: The Power of Individual Causal Mechanisms in an Insurgency 

….OM: In your research you pointed out to a spectrum of conceivable individual roles in an insurgency. What is the methodology behind this typology?

RDP: This methodology comes from my 2001 book (Resistance and Rebellion: Lessons from Eastern Europe) which focused on Lithuanian resistance to Soviets in the 1940’s. Insurgency is a complex phenomenon, especially in how violent organization and networks are created and sustained, and the methodology of that book involved breaking down this complexity into component parts and then building back up into a coherent whole. At the base of this process is the way individuals position themselves relative to the dramatic and violent events of insurgency. Most people may wish to remain neutral and just take care of their families but events push significant numbers of individuals into roles of unarmed support of insurgents, or local armed position of a militia, membership in a mobile non-local organization, or equivalent positions in support of the government.  Furthermore, individuals may move back and forth along this spectrum of roles. If one is skeptical of broad and vague theories at a high level of aggregation, as I am, then you need to get down and observe dynamics at a basic level. Observing movement along this spectrum of roles is one way to do that. 

…..Is it FM 3-24 and the whole contemporary Western COIN discourse too narrow, too much focused on rational, cost/benefit models of decision-making? Is it too restrictive when making this inventory of driving motivations or causal mechanisms?

RDP: I think there is a tendency in the Western academic analysis to focus on rational theories. Those theories are straightforward.  But they also might be too straightforward, too simple.  In Iraq, the coalition did not plan on the emotion of resentment stemming from a status reversal affecting Sunni calculations in the beginning stages of the conflict. We did not understand the revenge norms that exist in some of the places. We did not fully understand the social norms that helped to produce the tribal militias in Anbar province.  We did not understand the psychological mechanisms underlying the Sunni view of the new world they were living in. 

The last part is a curious lacuna.

The incompetence of the planning for the occupation of Iraq has been amply recorded – the high level disdain of General Tommy Franks and Secretary Rumsfeld for what befell the day after victory, the keeping of professional Arabists at arms length in preference for Beltway contractors and college kids with AEI connections, the haplessness of Jay Garner and the political obtuseness of Paul Bremer ad so on. This is not what I mean about lacuna.

I mean something more fundamental, in terms of understanding human nature as the root of political behavior and therefore political violence. We are all familiar with the Clausewitzian trinity (or should be) but less attention is paid to the motivational factors that make men decide to stand, fight and die or stand aside. Thucydides also had a trinity that did not attempt to capture the nature of war but rather explain why wars happened and it seems to me to be of particular use for evaluating the decision in small wars to pick up a gun or not, to side with the government or join the rebellion:

“Surely, Lacedaemonians, neither by the patriotism that we displayed at that crisis, nor by the wisdom of our counsels, do we merit our extreme unpopularity with the Hellenes, not at least unpopularity for our empire. That empire we acquired by no violent means, but because you were unwilling to prosecute to its conclusion the war against the barbarian, and because the allies attached themselves to us and spontaneously asked us to assume the command. And the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principal motive, though honour and interest afterwards came in. And at last, when almost all hated us, when some had already revolted and had been subdued, when you had ceased to be the friends that you once were, and had become objects of suspicion and dislike, it appeared no longer safe to give up our empire; especially as all who left us would fall to you. And no one can quarrel with a people for making, in matters of tremendous risk, the best provision that it can for its interest. 

Fear, honor and interest are ever present in “calculation” both by men and by the political communities they compose and the factions that threaten to tear them apart. All the more so in a defeated and broken country divided by ethnicity and sect where all parties were uneasily eyeing the conqueror. No special knowledge of Arab culture should have been required to anticipate that Iraqi men, if made desperate by uncertainty and circumstance, might have at least seen it in their interest to achieve some measure of security with the gun and to enact policies of carrots and sticks a priori to discourage that, before the insurgency gained critical mass.

Awareness of the universality of the Thucydidean trinity would not have in itself guaranteed success in Iraq but knowing it is a rudimentary minimum of political competence upon which you can at least build.


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