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New Book: Strategy, Evolution and War

Sunday, May 6th, 2018

[mark safranski / “zen“]

Strategy, Evolution and War: From Apes to Artificial Intelligence by Kenneth Payne

This book by Kenneth Payne of King’s College  is newly released by Georgetown Press. I saw it mainly by chance while perusing my twitter feed and ordered a copy. At first glance, it looks very promising, albeit I have a bias toward cultural evolutionary frameworks. Perhaps it will get me more up to speed on the implications of Ai for emerging warfare.

Just thumbing through, Payne has a solid bibliography and some intriguing chapter and section headings. For example:

The Hoplite Revolution:Warriors, Weapons and Society
Passionate Statesmen and Rational Bands
The Ai Renaissance ad Deep Learning
Chimps are Rational Strategists, Contra Humans

Enough to whet the appetite. May discuss Strategy, Evolution and War further after I finish it.

What have you been reading in the realm of strategy or war lately?

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.

 

Shorts 04: Books, and a personal pic

Sunday, March 4th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — a quick treasury of treasures, what else? ]
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Robert Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion

Abbasid Baghdad did produce its own semi- legendary criminals. Many tales were told of the ingenious exploits of the ninth-century master-thief, al-Uqab (‘the Eagle’), among them the story of a bet he had with a certain doctor that within a set period of time alUqab could steal something from the doctor’s house. Although the house was closely guarded, alUqab drugged the guards. Then, posing as an apparition of Jesus and making use of hypnotism, he succeeded in stealing off with the dcotor himself.

Robert Irwin was an Oxford contemporary & fellow-traveller.

**

Kim Wagner, The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857

In 1963, a human skull was discovered in a pub in south-east England. The handwritten note found inside revealed it to be that of Alum Bheg, an Indian soldier in British service who had been blown from a cannon for his role in the 1857 Uprising, his head brought back as a grisly war-trophy by an Irish officer present at his execution. The skull is a troublesome relic of both anti-colonial violence and the brutality and spectacle of British retribution.

Ooh, grue! Cf. the food of that served in the Arkansas penal system.

^^

Simon Armitage, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: an introduction

We know next to nothing about the author of the poem which has come to be called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was probably written around 1400. In the early 17th century the manuscript was recorded as belonging to a Yorkshireman, Henry Saville of Bank. It was later acquired by Sir Robert Cotton, whose collection also included the Lindisfarne Gospels and the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf . The poem then lay dormant for over 200 years, not coming to light until Queen Victoria was on the throne, thus leapfrogging the attentions of some of our greatest writers and critics. The manuscript, a small, unprepossessing thing, would fit comfortably into an average-size hand, were anyone actually allowed to touch it. Now referred to as Cotton Nero A X, it is considered not only a most brilliant example of Middle English poetry but also as one of the jewels in the crown of English Literature; it now sits in the British Library under conditions of high security and controlled humidity.

Hat-tip: Hanne Elisabeth Storm Ofteland

**

Rennie Davis, The New Humanity: A Movement to Change the World (Volume 1 of 3)

This first book returns to ‘Our Roots’ with a behind-the-scenes look straight from the eye of the social-change hurricane that swept North America during the turbulent times of the 1960s. Rennie Davis was the coordinator of the largest coalition of anti-war and civil rights organizations during that era. Now in vivid detail, he explains how the Sixties movement ignited and expanded, growing in strength and staying power. A compelling, riveting story, it was written to inspire today’s generation to stand on the shoulders of those who came before and arise again to change the world. Like a snowball tumbling down the mountain to become an avalanche that takes out the concrete wall of fear and divide, today’s movement will not be ignored or stopped.

This book is today’s must-read gift to yourself and your friends to uplift humanity and change the world.

Rennie is an old friend, story for another day. Hat-tip: Rennie Davis.

**

This just in:

Bernard Faure, The Fluid Pantheon: Gods of Medieval Japan, Volume 1

Written by one of the leading scholars of Japanese religion, The Fluid Pantheon is the first installment of a multivolume project that promises to be a milestone in our understanding of the mythico-ritual system of esoteric Buddhism—specifically the nature and roles of deities in the religious world of medieval Japan and beyond. Bernard Faure introduces readers to medieval Japanese religiosity and shows the centrality of the gods in religious discourse and ritual; in doing so he moves away from the usual textual, historical, and sociological approaches that constitute the “method” of current religious studies. The approach considers the gods (including buddhas and demons) as meaningful and powerful interlocutors and not merely as cyphers for social groups or projections of the human mind. Throughout he engages insights drawn from structuralism, post-structuralism, and Actor-network theory to retrieve the “implicit pantheon” (as opposed to the “explicit orthodox pantheon”) of esoteric Japanese Buddhism (Mikky?).

Hat-tip: just in from friend Gilles Poitras.

**

Enough of books — heres a personal photo — friend Neil Ayer with a Rothka at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston:

Au ‘voir!

Thucydides Roundtable, Addendum: Steve Bannon’s interest in the Peloponnesian War

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — tying our colloquium on Thucydides to current White House events ]
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**

Well, I’ve been majorly out of it since the Thucydides roundtable started, and am only slowly getting back into the swing of things, but I’d like to bookend my initial roundtable comment with a closing observation, this one concerning Steve Bannon and his interest in the history of warfare. The quote that follows is from the Armchair General‘s column, Steve Bannon’s Long Love Affair With War, in today’s Daily Beast:

You can also find Bannon’s affection for military and strategic ruthlessness in what he reads. According to two of Bannon’s former friends from his West Coast days, two of his favorite books are Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the hugely influential ancient Chinese text on military strategy, and the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. The latter tells the story of a holy war to establish dharma.

Sun Tzu, check. Bhagavad Gita, double check. Dharma! Indeed!

**

The article continues:

Julia Jones, Bannon’s longtime Hollywood writing partner and former close friend, recalls seeing him excitedly flipping through both books, and talking about them lovingly and often. She would frequently see various “books all over [Steve’s place] about battles and things,” among his clutter of possessions and interests. (Late last year, Jones — who identifies as a “Bernie Sanders liberal” — had a falling out with Bannon due to his work on the Trump presidential campaign, a role that she said absolutely “disgusted” her.)

“Steve is a strong militarist, he’s in love with war — it’s almost poetry to him,” Jones told The Daily Beast in an interview last year, well before Trump won the election and Bannon landed his new job. “He’s studied it down through the ages, from Greece, through Rome… every battle, every war… Never back down, never apologize, never show weakness… He lives in a world where it’s always high noon at the O.K. Corral.”

Almost poetry.

And back to dharma:

Jones said that Bannon “used to talk a lot about dharma — he felt very strongly about dharma… one of the strongest principles throughout the Bhagavad Gita.”

I suppose I should write a follow-up about dharma and the battlefield of Kurukshetra, where Krishna instructed Arjuna in the dharma appropriate to a warrior.

And so to our roundtable topic — the Peloponnesian War:

She also noted his “obsession” with the military victories and epic battles of the Roman Empire’s Marcus Aurelius and Julius Caesar. But a personal favorite of Bannon’s was the subject of the Peloponnesian War fought between Athens and Sparta.

“He talked a lot about Sparta — how Sparta defeated Athens, he loved the story,” Jones said. “The password on his [desktop] computer at his office at American Vantage Media in Santa Monica was ‘Sparta,’ in fact.”

This is the mindset of Trump’s top White House aide who just earned himself a seat at the table on the National Security Council.

**

You’d like a more direct Bannon Thucydides connection? The topic is smaller than Bannon’s role at the NSC — the “war” between Breitbart and Fox — but Thucydides is front and center. In a Breitbart piece from August 2016, Fox Faces Its Uncertain Future: The Minor Murdochs Take Command, Steve Bannon writes:

Here at Breitbart News, we see ourselves as a small yet up-and-coming competitor to Fox. Yes, you read that right, Breitbart is on the rise, and Fox is in decline. Even the MSM has noticed the changing of the guard; here’s the Washington Post headline from January: “How Breitbart has become a dominant voice in conservative media,” reinforced by Politico just this morning. In this modern-day version of the epic Peloponnesian War, the incumbent Athenians might as well know that the Spartans are coming for them, and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it; indeed, more Spartans are joining us every day. As Thucydides would warn them, if the leaders of Fox choose to pipe Mickey Mouse aboard and give him command on the bridge, well, that will only accelerate Fox’s fall.

See also: Titus in Space (Paris Review, November 2016)

“We’ll Start the War From Right Here!”

Monday, June 6th, 2016

JUNE 6, 1944…..72 Years Ago Today….

Seventy-two years ago over 9,000 American men, some hardly older than boys, laid down their lives on the beaches of Normandy in the greatest military operation in the history of the world. The white crosses stand row upon row in Colleville-sur-Mer,  in silent testimony of their supreme sacrifice.

Others who scrambled ashore on bloody Omaha Beach, or who climbed the rocky cliffs of Pointe du Hoc or who parachuted behind enemy lines with the 82nd and 101st Airborne lived to fight their away across France and across the Rhine into the heartland of Germany to break the power of the Third Reich forever. Others who survived the terrible ordeal of D-Day and fought on were not so lucky and did not come home.

Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. at age fifty-six was the oldest man, the highest ranking soldier and the only general officer in the first wave of the Normandy invasion. Roosevelt was seriously ailing and relied on a cane; he had been refused permission to join the landings twice before his superiors finally relented. Roosevelt’s 8th Regiment missed their objective at Utah Beach by a mile. There was no cover from withering German fire or prospect of swift reinforcement. Allied bombardment there had been light and the men had to cross hundreds of yards of beach to engage the enemy. When nervous subordinates asked if they should re-embark, Roosevelt seized the moment:

“We’ll start the war from right here!”

Heedless of enemy fire Roosevelt strode up and down the beach, reorganized units, directed landings and led his men in battle. By the end of the day the 8th Regiment had taken their sector and Roosevelt had earned the Medal of Honor.

He died forty-four days later during the Battle of France, one among many American GIs.

The “Greatest Generation” is receding into history in increasing numbers with each passing year but their deeds are destined to become legend.


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