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Early Endorsement

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

Stalin: Volume I. Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin

I’ve read quite a bit about old Uncle Joe.

Most of the major biographies of Stalin sit on my shelf, including those from Adam Ulam, Roy Medvedev, Robert Tucker, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Dimitri Volkogonov and other historians more obscure. I’ve read extensive commentaries about the Kremlin Mountaineer from Robert Conquest, Richard Pipes, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,  Milovan Djilas, George Kennan, Nikita Krushchev, Leon Trotskii, Amy Knight, Vyacheslav Molotov, Anton Antonov-Oveseenko, Al Resis, Pavel Sudoplatov, Walter Bedell Smith, Eric Hobsbawm, Herbert von Dirksen, Anatoly Dobrynin and various biographers of Churchill, Truman, FDR, Hitler and Mao. I’m not a Soviet expert, but for a layman, I can throw down rather well on Josef Stalin and his Soviet system.

So, with that in mind, if you are a Russian history buff or Soviet studies person you need to run, not walk, to get yourself a copy of Stalin: Volume I. by Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin.

It is simply that good!

Guest Post: U.S. Marines, the Forever Tribe by Stan Coerr

Friday, January 30th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

We at ZP would like to thank Colonel Stan Coerr for his permission to reprint this essay, written on the eve of  his retirement last July, after a quarter century of of military service in the Marine Corps Reserve and on active duty.

Stan Coerr is the author of Rubicon: the Poetry of War and is a retired Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and works in the federal civil service.   He holds degrees from Duke, Harvard and the Naval War College, has been a fellow at MIT and Stanford, and was recently accepted to begin work on a doctorate at Oxford.  He is finishing a book on his time in Iraq, and his next book will be on the life and work of Dr. Bernard Fall.

The U.S. Marines, America’s Forever Tribe

by Stan Coerr

Today is my last day in the uniform of the United States Marines.

I write this not as a farewell. Rather, this is a reflection on this tribe of which I am a part, and which is inside me forever.

What I remember of twenty- five years inside this brotherhood are vignettes: stories that indicate who we are and why we devote our lives to an organization such as this.

Some happened to me; others I read or saw. All describe who we are as Marines.

——————

What everyone looking in from the outside must realize is that Marines are instant brothers, no matter the situation, no matter whether they have met before that moment.

The Marines are a tribe.

We have our own language, culture, mores and idiomatic shorthand communication.

We have our own distinctive clothing. We cut our hair in a distinctive way.

We paint our bodies with unique tribal markings.

We undergo rites of passage to turn boys into men, the men we need to further the greater good of us all.

We hand down legends of those who went before, who fell in battle, who did great and heroic things.

We sing songs to celebrate them; we memorize what they did.

——————-
We listen to the wisdom of the tribal elders, and we turn to them for decisions and guidance.

Ken Schwenke and Mike Dossett are 180 degrees out from one another in style, but those of us fortunate enough to be Marine Options at NROTC Duke, a team forty strong in the mid to late 1980s, to this day benefit from the nurturing and guidance and demanding perfection of those two men.

Bob Dobson was an exceptional battalion commander, a very deep thinker and a man who knew how to train Marines.

I was fortunate to work beneath the finest general officers the Marine Corps can produce. I worked for George Trautman when he was both a Lieutenant Colonel and a Lieutenant General, and his relentless, driving intellect and fearsome demand for detail, analysis and good decisions sharpened me in ways I am still discovering.

I was lucky enough to serve beneath Generals Mattis, Conway and Dunford, in both peace and war, and from when they were Colonels to their positions as four-star generals.

The nation is fortunate that men such as these have set us on the course we follow today.

————————
The Marine Corps is people, and it is stories.

——————-

I am marching a platoon down the streets of New Orleans during the Mardi Gras parades in 1989, as leader of the drill team.

I was to the side of the team as they marched, so I was right next to the screaming crowds. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets, screaming and shrieking and cheering.

Marine options in college wear navy uniforms but Marine Corps eagle, globe and anchor insignia.

As we marched through the throngs, one man in the crowd, right next to me, saw my EGA and said simply, in a conversational voice and just to me:

“Get it, Marines.”

Never saw him, never spoke to him.

A brother.

——————–

I check in to Bob Dobson’s rifle battalion in Twentynine Palms, California in 1994.

Then-Colonel Jim Mattis, the Seventh Marines regimental commander, called for me to come see him. I was not only just a brand-new Captain, but I was an aviator in an infantry regiment: I was not a key player.

Colonel Mattis took his phone off the hook, closed his office door and spent over an hour, just with me, telling me his warfighting philosophy, vision, goals and expectations. He told me how he saw us fighting – and where – and how he was getting us ready to do just that.

America knows him as the caricature: Mad Dog Mattis. Those of us who served with him know that he is a gifted, caring, warfighting general, and the finest of tribal elders.

——————
I am watching a film clip from Vietnam.

Jack Laurence of CBS News, a very talented TV reporter and author of the magnificent memoir The Cat From Hue, was out in the jungle with a Marine rifle company.

Somehow a Marine from another unit was separated from his brothers, and this company had found him.

Laurence rolls tape, and approaches the company commander. This man is wearing filthy utilities. He is exhausted and thirty pounds underweight, with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. A man with things to do and the weight of hundreds of lives on his shoulders. A hard, intense man.

Laurence talks about the lost Marine, and asks: “Will you take care of this man?”

The Captain stares at Laurence as if he is insane, and says, as if it should be obvious: “He’s a Marine.”

Laurence: “What?”

Captain: “He’s a Marine. I’ll take care of him.”

—————–

I am with Paddy Gough in a Cobra over 29 Palms in December 1992.

We are at one hundred feet, flying back from a mission. It is bitter cold on the desert floor, below freezing, and a dark, ugly cloud layer sits low on the sand.

A line of exhausted Marines below us is marching back to their camp after a week of training. They string out like ants, hundreds of them in the cold. They are bent under their equipment: heavy weapons, mortar tubes, ammunition, packs, helmets, flak jackets.

We fly in silence, watching them, until Paddy comes up on the intercom with me, and says quietly:

“This country does not know how lucky we are to have such men.”

—————–

I am a seven-year-old boy, and my father is putting me to sleep.

I am sleeping in a Marine Corps-issue jungle hammock, which of course to a boy is the coolest thing ever.

I need something to read, so he disappears into the study and returns.

He hands me a book I read cover to cover and which I am holding right now: the 1962 Guidebook for Marines.

—————-

I am giving a speech in El Cajon, California in July 2003.

I was one of the first people back from the invasion of Iraq, and I was therefore much in demand from local groups who wanted to hear about this campaign in Mesopotamia.

I was outdoors at a Fourth of July street festival, speaking to a crowd of several hundred people and telling them how magnificent our fighting force was, and what I had seen.

I told these people that their Marines were in the fight in the desert, winning, doing it right for the people back home, representing the best of who we are as a nation.

Standing far to the back of the crowd was a motorcycle gang. Huge, hairy guys, dozens of them, in beards and bandannas and wraparound sunglasses and leather and boots, leaning on their Harleys.

As I came off the stage, they came to me as a group. The first of them grabbed me and I now saw the EGA sewn onto his vest, right next to his Vietnam campaign patch.

He embraced me, tight, and said:

“Right on, brother. Right on.”

——————————–

Karl Marlantes was in the best position imaginable in 1967.

He was on a Rhodes Scholarship, comfortable in Oxford, immune from the Vietnam War and the vagaries of the draft. He was immersed in the world’s premier academic institution on a full ride, the goal of every serious college student.

But Marlantes had been to Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in 1964. He had been inducted into the tribe. And his brothers were at war. He says:

“I couldn’t go to a party without thinking of my Marine friends, terrified in the jungle while I was hanging onto my girlfriend’s warm body with one arm and holding a pint of bitter in the other. The one choice my conscience would not allow was to sit it out in college.

I pulled all my scholarship money from the bank…and Second Lieutenant Karl Marlantes USMCR reported for active duty. “

—————————–

Or from Phillip Caputo in 1961:

“I wanted to find in a commonplace world a chance to live heroically.

Having known nothing but security, comfort and peace, I hungered for danger, challenges and violence.

The Marine Corps was more than a branch of the armed services. It was a society unto itself, demanding total commitment to its doctrines and values. We were novitiates, and the rigorous training , administered by the high priests called drill instructors, was to be our ordeal of initiation.

At the end of the course, the DIs honored our survival by informing us that we had earned the right to be called Marines.”

—————-

I earned that right, as did many of you. As did millions before us, and the millions to follow.

I feel no sadness about taking off the uniform for the last time. The Marine Corps does not care about me….nor should it. The organization will always be there, and it will always hone and harden the finest our country has to offer.

I was only one of many…but at the same time, I was one of the few.

The Marine Corps serves the nation, and those of us who are called serve the Marine Corps.

We serve the unit.

We serve the tribe.

Most of all, we serve our brothers.

Semper Fidelis.

New Article at Pragati: Diplomatic Warfare?

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen”]

I have a new article up at Pragati: The Indian National Interest. A review of Warrior Diplomat by Michael G. Waltz

Diplomatic Warfare? 

….Waltz, now the president of Metis Solutions, brings to the table a powerful juxtaposition of perspectives on the Afghan war. As a Department of Defense civilian official, he served variously as an Interagency Counter narcotics Coordinator in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) developing strategies to combat opium trafficking in Pashtun regions, as the Pentagon’s Afghanistan Country Director, as the Special Adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney on South Asia and Counterterrorism and finally, as an adviser on negotiations with the Taliban to the deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration.

This is “making policy at 50,000 feet”, briefing and advising senior administration officials on national policy formulation and implementation. No contrast could be more dramatic with Waltz’s alternate role as a Green Beret company commander living among Pashtun tribal villagers, drinking tea with tribal elders, working with village police chiefs, engaging in brutal firefights with Haqqani network insurgents, disarming IEDs and delivering medical care to remote Afghan districts. Like few other officers, Waltz could see the life or death impact of policy he had helped craft on his own soldiers, Afghan farmers, and the Taliban enemy; but at other times, the blindness of policy or its complete irrelevance to the often ugly ground truth of counterinsurgency warfare.

Though the story of Waltz’s gritty experience in combat looms large in Warrior Diplomat, he also lays out a hard analysis regarding the self-created problems that impaired the American war in Afghanistan, including a paucity of resources, the incapacity of NATO partners, a muddled strategy, bureaucratic and political risk aversion and micromanagement of military operations down to the smallest units, a stubborn refusal to confront Pakistan over Taliban sanctuaries and announcing an early withdrawal date from Afghanistan. There is an additional subtext to Waltz’s story; the transformation of the legendary Green Beret Special Forces, intended to work autonomously in small groups training and fighting with indigenous forces, to ‘conventionalised’ units of ‘door-kickers’ who spend enormous amounts of time on powerpoint slides, making fruitless requests for helicopters or artillery support and fighting the timidity and capriciousness of Waltz’s own chain of command.

Read the rest here.

Some of you may have read American Spartan or my earlier review of that book. The stories of Michael Waltz and Jim Gant are not the same but the setting, their operational environment, largely was. Some of the frankly preposterous, Catch-22 restrictions with which Waltz struggled mightily to comply while effectively circumventing may illuminate some of the unspoken reasons why Jim Gant took a different path.

I cannot say it was the objective of the US Army and ISAF to prevent effective COIN operations in Afghanistan in writing their regulations and ROE, but it might as well have been

New Bookapalooza

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

                    

Stalin: Volume I – The Paradoxes of Power by Stephen Kotkin

World Order by Henry Kissinger 

Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins by J.E. Lendon

A Culture of Freedom by Christian Meier

On Sacrifice by Moshe Halbertal

Hitler: A Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock

My Command Operations by Otto “Scarface” Skorzeny 

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Allen Dulles: Spymaster by Peter Grose

The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks 1932-1939 by J. Arch Getty and Oleg Naumov

The Vikings by Jonathan Clements

An unusually large book-buying spree on my part, fueled in part by a stash of Xmas gift cards.

Reading Thinking Fast and Slow already and will probably start the Kotkin book on Stalin tomorrow and I have already finished On Sacrifice, which I will review elsewhere. I’ve resolved to get more books read this year as 2014 was kind of a nadir in that regard (more on that in another post) by my previous standards and looks rather woeful next to T. Greer’s list.

Scott Shipman was instrumental in my picking up World Order, as he convinced me that after I had slogged through all the volumes of Kissinger’s memoirs that he still had something to say.

What new titles have you acquired?

Reading “Hard” Books vs. Pretending to Do So

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The other day, some friends shared an old post by controversial conservative activist, writer and publisher of  The Federalist,  Ben Domenech, that struck a chord:

The Top Ten Books People Lie About Reading 

Have you ever lied about reading a book? Maybe you didn’t want to seem stupid in front of someone you respected. Maybe you rationalized it by reasoning that you had a familiarity with the book, or knew who the author was, or what the story was about, or had glanced at its Wikipedia page. Or maybe you had tried to read the book, even bought it and set it by your bed for months unopened, hoping that it would impart what was in it merely via proximity (if that worked, please email me). 

I have not, though I frequently catch many people in conversation and even more online who do.

What does happen too often is a sense of despair welling up as my Antilibrary looks down from the shelves with disapproval as I wonder when I will ever get around to reading them. Maybe this weird bibliophiliac guilt is what spurs people to lie about books they have read. Or perhaps they merely are lazy and want intellectual street cred without the work:

….Take Neil DeGrasse Tyson as one example, whom the internet loves with an unrestrained passion usually reserved for fluffy cat videos. He was asked a few years ago on reddit to share his recommended reading list.Given his brief commentary on the eight books he recommends, he seems largely unfamiliar with the actual content of the works by Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Niccolo Machiavelli, and particularly Sun Tzu, who views the avoidance of killing as the best form of warfare.

The truth is, there are lots of books no one really expects you to read or finish. War and Peace? The Canterbury Tales? The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Announcing that you’ve finished those books might surprise a lot of people and make them think you’re abnormal or anti-social, unless you’re an English or History major who took their reading very, very seriously. Perhaps the shift to ebook format will diminish this reading by osmosis – and book sales, too – since people can afford to be honest about their preference for 50 Shades over The Red and the Black since their booklists are hidden in their Kindles and iPads.

E-reading and reading a book are different experiences. I read Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul on a kindle once. It was convenient, as I was traveling, but the kindle seemed better suited for fiction; with a serious book, I felt the need to mark up pages with marginalia. I last used the Kindle for reading Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom and then gave it to my Eldest child:

So here’s my attempt to drill this down to a more realistic list: books that are culturally ubiquitous, reading deemed essential, writing everyone has heard of… that you’d be mildly embarrassed to admit you’ve never read.

10. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: The libertarian moment has prompted a slew of people to lie about reading Ayn Rand, or to deploy the term “Randian” as a synonym for, say, competitive bidding in Medicare reform without even bothering to understand how nonsensical that is.

9. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: Many pro-evolutionists online display no understanding that the pro-evolution scientific community rejects the bulk of Darwin’s initial findings about evolution.

8. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo and A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens: Virtually every bit of literature about the French Revolution could be tied here, though ignorance of it might inspire fun future headlines, such as “De Blasio Brandishes Knitting Needles, Calls For ‘The People’s Guillotine’ To Be Erected In Times Square.”

7. 1984, George Orwell: A great example of a book people think they have read because they have seen a television ad. On Youtube.

6. Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville: Politicians are the worst about this, quoting and misquoting the writings of the Tocqueville without ever bothering to actually read this essential work. But politicians do this a lot – with The Federalist Papers and The Constitution, too.

Read the rest here.

I have read # 10, 7, 3 and 2 multiple times each and expect I will read them again.  I’ve read de Tocqueville and Tale of Two Cities once. I have looked up stuff in Wealth of Nations but never read it despite having read von Hayek, von Mises, Galbraith, Friedman, Veblen and Marx. I can’t muster much enthusiasm either for Melville or James Joyce, though if forced to choose, I’d select the former.

There’s a lot of intellectual merit – and consequent pride, sort of a nerd throw-down bragging rights – in conquering a “hard” book. I’ve read many that didn’t make that particular list, but perhaps should – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,  Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, Clausewitz’s On War, Aristotle’s The Politics, Herodotus and Thucydides and (in a more modern vein) Barzun’s  Dawn to Decadence or Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.  But there’s many more I have not yet read and worse, may never get to, for lack of time or inclination. My hat is off to those who have slogged through Hobbes’ Leviathan or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason because I’m dubious that I ever will; and while I will probably get around to The Muqaddimah, I’m not sure if I will ever dive into Montaigne or Spengler or most of the great twentieth century novelists. Our time is scarce and so we must choose.

This is of course, what makes book-phonies so worthy of ridicule. There’s something pretentious and absurd about holding forth on a book you have not yourself read as if you were an expert. It’s not remotely as morally serious as the “Stolen honor” frauds who are regularly exposed faking military heroics, but the “Stolen intellect” pretenders to knowledge have a similar motivation and in the end, they are only fooling themselves.

What “hard” books do you take pride in having read?


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