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Through a glass, darkly

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

[ by Emlyn Cameron — On North Korea: a retrospective as preemptive strike ]
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Charles Cameron’s introduction: Regular readers may know my son Emlyn from previous contributions on Zenpundit [1, 2]. Here he wages a war of miniturization on the Korean fiefdom of Kim Jong-Un.

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Snow falls on Kim Jong-Il‘s funeral cortege

Reflecting on the Nuclear staring contest now ongoing between the United States and North Korea, I confront mixed feelings: Obviously one must consider different strategies and engage in a pragmatic calculus; One must consider the pros and cons, the risks and rewards, and the numerous lives which might be ended or fail ever to be lived as a consequence of any policy. It is, I need not say, a very complex issue. Worse still, it is an issue of severe import to many whose lives hang in the balance.

But I find myself grappling with a less practical question and coming away irresolute: If North Korea’s brand of surreal statism could be overthrown without bloodshed or tragedy, how would I feel? Would I be proud? Pleased? Grateful? Somehow, I can’t convince myself that I would be entirely satisfied. I feel certain that any pride, pleasure, or gratitude would be alloyed with something else. And this in spite of my knowledge that such a coup would be, well, a coup, and of the welcome it would justifiably receive.

“The bloodless anticlimax to an Orwellian police state?” I hear the likely refrain, “Terrific!”

“A peaceful end to a regime which embraced not only Stalinist propagandism, but De Facto Monarchy? Still better!” The voices continue.

“And a conclusion to tantrums and ICBM rattle throwing? Who could hope for more?” Comes the triumphal call.

And yet, I am unconvinced in the recesses of my heart. That might be strange to many people, even a tad immoral, but it’s how things stand.

In order that such a stance might make more sense, I’ll admit that I have a strange affection for the turbulent little state and its Emperor’s New Jumpsuits. This probably extends from more general conflicted feelings about overt dictatorships: I am someone who deeply loves enlightenment philosophy, and cherishes my personal freedoms. I am, all the same, a morbid person, prone to fatalism, and I harbor dark anticipations about the future of humanity. Somewhere in the middle I developed a great relish for bleak wit. For these reasons, it should come as no shock that I am a great admirer of George Orwell and a fan of his writings. Perhaps like others who count themselves among his readers, I find myself emotionally torn while reading Nineteen Eighty-Four or Animal Farm; The dystopias he presents disturb me, and yet, (in spite of my philosophical leanings) a small part of me is always tugged at by a desire to relinquish the struggle of self determination, and to escape the paradox of choice by giving in to such an oppression. The terrible certainties, even of state assigned conclusions and death, speak to some tired part in me, which recognizes strain from the ongoing alertness required of anyone who wants to be the arbiter of their own affairs.

North Korea, likewise, is a natural antagonist to the individualism I hold dear, but, perhaps because of its total conviction and flagrance in opposing my worldview, I am captivated by its iconography and insular existence. I have always been fascinated by the ludicrous spectacle, the stark imagery, and the total devotion of totalitarian nations, though I revile their premises. Having one around, therefore, leaves me in rather a strange position: I desire the grip of the North Korean state on its people broken as a matter of principle, while simultaneously fearing the death of a kind of dangerous endangered species; I am struck by the feeling that the end of the North Korean state would be a victory for my values, and the loss of one of the world’s great curiosities.

A friend recently called North Korea “an Eighth Wonder of the World”, and I agree. It is a tragic wonder, dangerous rather than glorious, but a wonder none the less.

My grandfather, a conservative philosopher, referred to himself as a “sentimental monarchist”. If a peaceful end came to the militaristic regime in North Korea, my relief would be tinged with a similar kind of sentimental loss; Something interesting would be gone, and I would feel a nostalgic pang for the missing strangeness. I fancy that I would rather keep the aggressive little power, not on a map, but on a shelf. I should like to keep it in a snow globe, I think (the state already more or less frozen as it is).

I’d like a little magnified globe, not unlike the coral paperweight in Orwell’s book, in which would be held the repressive slice of 1950’s authoritarianism: Marches and missiles behind safety glass. Occasionally, on a quiet night, I might chance to hear a soft, televised threat to my safety, or a report on bountiful rations; If I felt a stab of longing for the atmosphere of suspended aggression from my parents and grand parents age, I could go to the mantle and wind the little state up by hand (rather than by tweet) and hear a tinkling anthem that takes me back; I’d like to visit the trinket now and again and watch snow fallout from a nuclear winter after I shake it, or watch tiny jackboots and smiling, slightly condescending diplomats go about their days work. Maybe the mandatorily grateful workers would even build a cardboard city for my benefit, to give an impression of plenty. And once I had seen the last settling flakes fall, I would place it back above the fire place with a feeling of having harmlessly revisited my childhood, glad of a souvenir to solidify the bittersweet memory. After all, a snow globe can cast nothing else from the mantle to the floor, nor launch beyond its translucent border.

Then again, just because I’d have the terror held safely under glass, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t continue in earnest within.

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.

 

A Backlog of Books for the Antilibrary

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for sapiens harrari book  Image result for Tolkien and the great War: the threshold of middle earth   Image result for soldiers & Ghosts book  Image result for the grand strategy of the roman empire

Image result for intellectuals and society book sowell   Image result for Dynasty book Tom Holland   Image result for psychology of military incompetence book dixon   Image result for Xenophon's Retreat book waterfield

Image result for the young hitler i knew   Image result for You belong to the universe Keats    Image result for Assholes a theory       Image result for Hitler's Private Library

I have an intimidating backlog of new and newish books to review here. I have an even longer queue of not so new books for my Antilibrary. I’m not sure when I will get to some of these, given my schedule, but they are nice to have on hand for research purposes.

Here’s why I picked these up:

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Buzz mainly. Saw a few reviews and some chatter on Twitter. I also like evolutionary and cultural evolutionary themes, “Big History” and the like. OTOH I have also read folks bashing  Harari for a poor grasp of economics, so we shall just have to see.

Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth

This is a natural follow-up to The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings which I reviewed the other day, but in truth I’ve been looking for a copy of this book for a while in used bookstores. I didn’t buy the hardback when it was new and regretted it. This one I will start reading now.

Soldiers & Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity by J. E. Lendon

The ancient world is a topical area where I have been trying to build my Antilibrary for some years now and this book is a twofer being also military history. I am also, in some ways, hoping to make up for the subpar education of my youth by reading the classics and ancient histories.

The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire by Edward Luttwak

Edward Luttwak is one of our more creative – some might say weird – strategic thinkers who is known for putting forth provocative positions embedded with offbeat tangents. Luttwak is also, after a fashion, not an “operator” , or so it is bruited about – and not just an armchair theorist. I liked his The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire even though he gave Byzantine purists fits.

Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell

Sowell was in the news that day for retiring as a columnist and I was in a bookstore.

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland

I have read some of Holland’s other books, most notably Rubicon. He’s an engaging writer and popular historian with a knack for keeping the narrative moving.

The Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman Dixon

While I’m sure a book like this could write itself, Dixon did it and I’m interested in his systemic conclusions, if any, off organizational incompetence.

Xenophon’s Retreat by Robin Waterfield

Xenophon, the student of Socrates, historian and mercenary always struck me as interesting, which probably led me to organize the Xenophon Roundtable years ago on the Wayne Ambler edition of The Anabasis of Cyrus. I also need to pick up Leo Strauss’ On Tyranny again; so little time. So many books.

The Young Hitler I Knew by August Kubizek

A source in almost every major bio or history of Adolf Hitler ever written other than Konrad Heiden’s Der Fuhrer and Trevor-Roper’s  The Last Days of Hitler. Most likely, you have already seen the most reliable or noteworthy parts of Kubizek’s memoir reproduced elsewhere more than once in print and documentaries. This is another topical area for Antilibrary building.

You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future by Jonathan Keats

Buckeyballs. That’s why.

Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James

Partially finished with this one. It is a reasonable argument  built upon recognizable observations but being a philosopher, Dr. James is a bit of a pedant and circles back frequently in the text to reiterate his line of reasoning. This may be standard philo practice  but it makes the book slower going than it might have been for a popular format.

Hitler’s Private Library: The Books that Shaped his Life by Timothy Ryback

A side of Hitler that neither the German public during the Reich nor the generations of students of history after WWII have normally seen. A useful source for research.

That’s it!

REVIEW: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings

Saturday, March 25th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for the felowship the inklings book

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski

“….it is plain that Tolkien has unleashed a mythic awakening and Lewis a Christian awakening”

“….these clubs offered grand things: escape from domesticity, a base for intellectual exploration, an arena for clashing wits, an outlet for enthusiasms, a socially acceptable replacement for the thrills and dangers of war, and in the aftermath of World War I, a surviving remnant to mourn and honor the fallen”

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is a book outside my usual wheelhouse, being concerned deeply with the intellectual interplay among the Inklings impacted their literary works and legacies and more fundamentally, the central role played in the former by Christianity and anthroposophy. I was drawn to this book primarily by virtue of being a radical J.R.R. Tolkien fan, but the center of gravity of The Fellowship is C.S. Lewis, the pivotal figure with whom the other Inklings related; even if Lewis was not always the dominant persona, he was frequently a catalyst or a foil for his fellow Inklings. While the Inklings could survive the untimely death of Charles Williams, whose intellectual brilliance and influence over other writers always surpassed his own literary fame, when C.S. Lewis passed from the scene, the Inklings as an active literary society did as well.

What were the Inklings?

This is a question the authors struggle to answer, despite haven woven four strong biographical essays into one. To call them merely an informal discussion club of Oxford and Cambridge scholars is to miss the mark and greatly underrate their influence. To call the Inklings a “movement” or a “school” – either for promoting Norse mythic or Christian revival – imparts a pedantic formality and air of proselytizing that simply never happened.  The Inklings were always particular about admitting new faces to their pub meetings and stubbornly refused to include women, even Dorothy Sayers , a gifted author whom many of the Inklings admired, respected and befriended. Some of the Inklings were not scholars either, not in the academic sense, being editors, lawyers, poets and religious bohemians of a literary bent.

Largely, the authors struggle because while the Inklings have written or admitted how much their meetings or particular members influenced their thinking, their writings or in Lewis’ case, his faith – there is very little record of the meetings themselves. Much of what happened has to be inferred beyond specific incidents like Hugo Dyson’s repeated taunting of J.R.R. Tolkien (“…not more fucking elves!”) or taken from extant correspondence of prolific letter writers like Lewis or diarists like his brother, Warnie (who despite his raging alcoholism, managed to become later in life, an impressive historian of the France of Louis XIV).

The Fellowship though leaves little doubt  that the meetings of the Inklings at the Eagle and Child (“the bird and baby”) or C.S. Lewis’ rooms at Magdalene College at Cambridge were a chief intellectual and social support for the Inklings and an escape from possible loneliness. While Tolkien enjoyed a busy family life with his wife Edith and four children, Lewis’ long endured (which is the correct word) for much of his life, a bizarrely dysfunctional relationship with a much older woman whom he never married, Mrs. Jane Moore, the mother of a close friend who had been killed serving on the Western Front. Other Inklings were bachelors or had unhappy, austere, marriages, making the cerebral debate and late night amusements of the Inklings a welcome refuge.

One of the aspects of the Inklings that comes across in the book – their fellowship of male camaraderie – is nearly extinct in the 21st century and has a distinctly antiquarian air. Such associations were once commonplace. Not merely in academic circles or exclusive clubs of the wealthy, but every small town and hamlet had its charitable societies, Masonic orders, veteran’s organizations, Knights of Columbus and humble bowling leagues that formed and strengthened male social networks among friends, neighbors and their larger community from the 18th century onward. By the time women began demanding entry (or abolition) in the early 70’s these groups were already well into dying off, victims of mass society and suburbanization.

As the Zaleskis convey in The Fellowship, for an informal club of sorts lacking the aesthetic pretensions of the Bloomsbury group, the range of Inkling scholarship, literary and religious influence remains to this day, staggering. Aside from the scholarly accomplishments of its members, other writers drawn into their orbit, at least for periods of time, included T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dorothy Sayers, Saul Bellow, G.K. Chesterton, John Wain and Roy Campbell; and also several generations of fantasy authors were inspired by the tales of Narnia and Middle-Earth, including by his own admission, the immensely popular George R.R. Martin. The effect of Lewis’ Christian apologetics, especially The Screwtape Letters, may be equally large – and this was the largest source of friction for Tolkien, whose deeply pious, pre-Vatican II traditional Catholicism left him with scant patience for C.S. Lewis’ “amateur” theology and even less for his dear friend’s residual Ulster Protestant cultural prejudices.

In The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings, Philip and Carol Zaleski have crafted a deeply researched and complex group biography of impressive depth and reach. Strongly recommended.


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