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Commentary on Politics and Strategy

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Infinity Journal has a good article by eminent Clausewitzian strategist Colin Gray on the interrelationship of politics and strategy (free registration required):

Politics, Strategy and the Stream of Time

….Second, many scholars appear to be resistant to the conceptually, perhaps even morally, necessary recognition of the implications of the fact that all ‘policy’ is made by political process, and that that process, everywhere and in all periods, is run and dominated by the people who succeed in being influential over others. The substantive content of policy is made in a process of political negotiation among the people and organizations who contend for power, as they must. Decisions on national defence are taken politically, usually with input from subject-specific experts and interests. But, in all systems of governance politics ultimately rules. Prudent assessment concerning the maintenance of their preeminent popular influence flags to political leaders where the limits of the politically tolerable most probably lie. This is not to be critical, it is simply to recognize that we humans run our affairs, including our security affairs, by the means of a political process that is geared to generate power as influence, not prudent policy. Policy does not emerge, pristine and unsullied by unduly subjective emotions, as the ever dynamic product of objective expert analysis.[xviii] This is not to claim that political process will be indifferent to arguments that are armed with evidence of apparent national danger. But it is to say that strategic theorists and defence analysts (like this author) need to appreciate the humbling professional truth that their contribution to debate on public policy can always be trumped by politics.

Third, civil-military relations may well be said to lie at the heart of strategy, as Eliot Cohen claims, but it would probably be more correct to argue that public political tolerance is as, if not even more, vital.[xix] As a very general rule, people will go only whither they are content to be led. Great leaders always require willing, even if somewhat politically passive, followers. Civil-military relations vary in detail, of course, given the breadth of unique historical circumstance that is their particular foundation in every polity. However, this critically important subject does allow authority to an elementary golden rule: the military power of the state must always be subject to authority that is accepted very widely as politically legitimate. The substantive reason for this is that the well-being of society and state cannot prudently be entrusted, or surrendered, even to their coercive instruments. It is only common sense to deny those coercive instruments the opportunity to be more than they should be, given the temptations to organizational mission creep that can come opportunistically to soldiers. Military culture often differs from public and private political culture(s), and it would be imprudent to have one’s national security policy and strategy decided by professional military experts (or their civilian defence analytical associates and frequent functional allies). The price one pays for insisting upon civilian political authority over defence matters is, naturally, necessarily an acceptance ultimately of the sovereignty of a public political will that is ever likely to be inadequately understanding of security problems. It is worth noting that the danger of undue military influence over the policy realm is understandably enhanced when the polity is committed to war (even only to ‘armed politics’ or ‘politics with arms’). However, the peril to civilian (political) supremacy in war lies not only in the scope and weight of the burdens of actual armed conflict, but also in the nature of war itself. By this I mean that the balance of relative influence between the civilian and the soldier is likely to alter simply because of the dynamic and ever unpredictable course of a (necessarily unique) particular war. Whatever the constitutional niceties and formalities in relations, in wartime the state can find itself serving the present and near-term future apparent necessities of a conflict that has evolved beyond expectation, let alone confident anticipation. There is in effect a natural and inevitable tendency for the needs of an on-going conflict to subordinate and even subvert civilian society so that national priorities are reordered more and more in practice in favour of the plausible necessities of war. Not infrequently in strategic history, this re-prioritization in favour of the military security interest has occurred with good enough reason. My point is that even when military leaders are not seeking to reduce or subvert civilian political authority, a context of armed conflict may itself achieve that end.

I think in the second paragraph Gray is correct in the broad historical sense of major wars and existential conflicts. As violence escalates, the war tends to become a Darwinian (or Clausewitzian) ratchet turning in the direction toward “absolute war“. We can see examples of this tendency in historical conflicts as diverse as the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars, the Thirty Year’s War and of course, the Second World War, which culminated in nuclear fire.

Curiously,the United States since the end of WWII has had the exact opposite tendency than the one described by Gray: the politicization of war as a mere prop for or tool of civilian domestic politics -and strategy being subordinated to (increasingly trivial) political matters- without regard to combat effectiveness, the external strategic effects or the ultimate outcome of victory or defeat. There are, in my view, many reasons for this. Most of them are particular to the sad state of American culture and our current generation of “leaders”, but some are intrinsic to the epistemological natures of strategy and politics themselves.

Strategy, if it is to be done well, requires a clarity of vision that is willing to strip away cherished illusions, unfounded assumptions and more intentional forms of intellectual dishonesty. This is because making effective strategic decisions depend upon having a realistic calculus of actual and potential power, situational probabilities, material resources, psychological frameworks and other variables with which to work. In a trite and overused phrase, strategy has to be “reality-based” in the sense of being empirical, to the greatest extent feasible, even as it tries to shape future outcomes. As strategy is an iterative process and in warfare something done by tactics, the feedback provided by combat (“lessons learned”) and intelligence about the enemy needs to be understood in context as accurately as possible. This means that enforcing party-lines, shooting the messenger, “not-invented-here” syndrome, putting turf battles over real ones and bowing to ideological fantasies (“the Slavs are subhumans”, “they will greet us with flowers”, “they are only agrarian reformers”) in making strategic assessments is inherently a form of self-defeating intellectual derangement, a willful blindness likely to bring loss or even ruin.

By contrast, Politics is not harmed by expressions of fabulism, mythmaking, self-delusion or the construction of elaborate, closed systems of thought predicated upon ideological fantasies. Arguably, such visions are empowering and inspiring by helping to craft an attractive narrative that men find compelling, unifying and motivating to action, including the will to power or a call to arms to stand, fight and die in a “higher” cause.  That political ideas may only bear a passing resemblance to reality or may be entirely composed of ahistorical nonsense, irrational hatreds and conspiracy theories is not always relevant to their memetic success or failure. To a degree, the process of political radicalization itself, as ideas become more extreme and demanding, tend to attract the kind of true believer personalities given to turning the ideas into violent or even apocalyptic action. Furthermore the intensity of belief or the closed system nature of the ideology tends to make the followers anti-empirical – highly resistant to information (or even the outcomes of physical reality) that run contrary to deeply held beliefs, as seen in the historical examples of die-hard Communists, Imperial Japanese ultranationalists and fanatical Nazis.

If politics trumps strategy then strategy can only prosper if the political mind is rationally sound.


On Sacrament: the world transfigured

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- moving from magic to sacrament and from word to world -- with implications for the study of terrorism and torture ]

Roger Wagner, 1984: The Harvest Is the End of the World and the Reapers Are the Angels


Tara Isabella Burton, in a recent Atlantic article Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God, nailed it, in my personal opinion:

But the dwindling role of theology among the liberal arts is a paradigmatic example of dispensing with the baby along with the bathwater.

And she goes on to add:

To study theology well requires not faith, but empathy.


Here’s where things begin to get interesting. Because Ms Burton goes on to explain why that might be the case, first in terms of her own experience:

The BA I did at Oxford was a completely secular program, attracting students from all over the religious spectrum. My classmates included a would-be priest who ended up an atheist, as well as a militant atheist now considering the priesthood. During my time there, I investigated Ancient Near Eastern building patterns to theorize about the age of a settlement; compared passages of the gospels (in the original Greek) to analogous passages in the Jewish wisdom literature of the 1st century BC; examined the structure of a 14th-century Byzantine liturgy; and read The Brothers Karamazov as part of a unit on Christian existentialism.

Then, more generally, in terms of the skillset Theology requires:

As Oxford’s Dr. William Wood, a University Lecturer in Philosophical Theology and my former tutor, puts it: “theology is the closest thing we have at the moment to the kind of general study of all aspects of human culture that was once very common, but is now quite rare.” A good theologian, he says, “has to be a historian, a philosopher, a linguist, a skillful interpreter of texts both ancient and modern, and probably many other things besides.” In many ways, a course in theology is an ideal synthesis of all other liberal arts: no longer, perhaps, “Queen of the Sciences,” but at least, as Wood terms it, “Queen of the Humanities.”

And finally in a way which makes sense to me, as an analyst of contemporary religious violence with a theological background:

Such precision may seem — to the religious person and agnostic alike — no more useful than counting the number of angels on the head of a pin. But for me, it allowed me access into the fundamental building blocks of the mentality, say, of a 12th-century French monk, or a mystic from besieged Byzantium. While the study of history taught me the story of humanity on a broader scale, the study of theology allowed me insight into the minds and hearts, fears and concerns, of those in circumstances were so wildly different from my own…


when scores of people were willing to kill or die to defend such beliefs — hardly a merely historical phenomenon — it’s worth investigating how and why such beliefs infused all aspects of the world of their believers.

and again:

If history and comparative religion alike offer us perspective on world events from the “outside,” the study of theology offers us a chance to study those same events “from within”: an opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who — in the world outside the ivory tower — still shape plenty of the world


This, I think, is what makes Marina Warner, whom I quoted in my previous post On Magic, so strong a writer — as she puts it:

I lost my faith a long time ago, but the experience of having once believed, and rather fervently too, underlies my sense of words’ power to heal as well as to harm.

This kind of understanding, it seems to be, is an invaluable — and rare — commodity in the community of analysts. And it is also this kind of understanding which gives us such invaluable works as Joseba Zulaika’s Basque Violence: Metaphor and Sacrament, and William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ.


Dana Gioia, poet, critic, and recent Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, made some relevant comments in his piece, The Catholic Writer Today, in First Things. I’ll limit myself to two snippets from section VII of an essay that’s worth reading in toto

Catholicism rightly revels in its theological and philosophical prowess, which is rooted in two millennia of practice and mastery. Theology is important, but formal analytical thought — the splendeur et misère of Roman Catholicism — is not the primary means by which most people experience, accept, or reject a religious faith. They experience the mysteries of faith (or fail to) in the fullness of their humanity — through their emotions, imagination, and senses as well as their intellect.


Dante and Hopkins, Mozart and Palestrina, Michelangelo and El Greco, Bramante and Gaudi, have brought more souls to God than all the preachers of Texas. The loss of great music, painting, architecture, poetry, sculpture, fiction, and theater has limited the ways in which the Church speaks to people both within and beyond the faith.

That’s quite a roll-call – but it’s not ecumenical, and so it omits Lutheran Johann Sebastian Bach, Orthodox Andrei Rublev – and, from an analytic point of view perhaps more interestingly, the great poets, mystics, philosophers and others who have made Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism into such powerful drivers of both quietism and activism – of passion, dispassion and compassion…

… to comprehend the feelings of those who attend the Ta’zieh (passion plays) of Najaf and Tehran… or the Passionspiele (in many ways, so similar) of Oberammergau:

— or to follow the complex, laughing, paradoxical humor of a Chuang Tzu.


I keep saying that Bach and his music, Shakespeare and his plays, have something hugely significant to teach us about the contrapuntal understanding of the multi-voiced world we live in — IMO the sacramental worldview has something no less important to tell us about the profundities and intensities of human feeling and commitment.

And of the eventual translucence and transfiguration of the world.


Recap: on HipBone / Sembl Thinking

Monday, March 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- briefly picking up a strand from an earlier post & running with it ]

Some of the fish in the pool HipBone / Sembl swims in - slide credit Cath Styles, & h/t Derek Robinson


I just wanted to reiterate an Einstein quote that I slipped into the middle of a post on the Black Madonna and iconography recently, where some readers more interested in the Sembl / HipBone games and their applicability to analytic work and creative thinking may have missed it:

The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined. There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought – before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of sign, which can be communicated to others.

The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.

According to what has been said, the play with the mentioned elements is aimed to be analogous to certain logical connections one is searching for.


Combinatory playessential feature in productive thoughtanalogous to certain logical connections one is searching for — these three phrases sum up pretty exactly the congitive training function of the HipBone / Sembl games.

As I said earlier, I have to wonder how many of our analysts are deeply versed in this “combinatory play” of images and kinesthetic experiences, way below the threshold of conscious thought.


Connect the Dots … see the Big Picture

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- bragging on Cath Styles and our joint game project, Sembl, via the Taj Mahal ]

connect the dots... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...and see the big picture... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...


Okay, I cheated: the image on the left is a modification of the image on the right using GIMP, the GNU Image Manipulation Program — but you get the idea — printed images in newspapers used to be done in halftone dots, which when magnified looked like the image on the right, and when seen from regular viewing distance like that on the left. You get my point.

When there’s talk of “solving analytic puzzles”, though, the issue is often phrased in terms of “connecting the dots” to “see the big picture”.

When the “dots” are nuggets of data, information, knowledge, or even god help us wisdom, however, the way to connect them for the most powerful overview is by means of a “creative leap” from one datum to the next — and such a leap, when you think of it, boils down to a primitive element of pattern recognition: this is like that, this sembles that.


In this introductory video on Sembl, Dr Cath Styles puts what we’re up to nicely:

Sembl from Catherine Styles on Vimeo.

Key quote:

Sembl generates a trove of unique analogical data, and if that data is linked to logical data about concepts, people and places, Sembl will connect our intuitive understanding of how things are like each other with our rational knowledge of what things are. We’re building a new kind of index to the global network, harnessing the associating capacity of humans and the processing power of machines. so we can surface useful, relevant information from masses of available data. It’s browse and play in the service of find and resolve…

Let’s bullet-point that. It’s not the only way to describe Sembl, but it’s a very concise and useful one. We are:

  • generating a trove of unique analogical data
  • building a new kind of index to the global network
  • connecting our intuitive understanding with our rational knowledge
  • surfacing useful, relevant information from masses of available data
  • harnessing the associating capacity of humans and the processing power of machines
  • And we’re doing that in depth, in a style that calls forth artistry


    Isaac Bashevis Singer‘s artist’s eye sees connections that are more mystical and less obviously practical than the ones you and I see — in his short story, A Piece of Advice, for instance:

    Nowadays snow is a trifle: it falls for a day or two at most. But in those days! Often it snowed for a month without stopping! Huge snowdrifts piled up; houses were buried; and everyone had to dig their way out. Heaven and earth merged and became one. Why does the beard of an old man turn white? Such things are all related. — at night, we heard the howling of beasts . . . or perhaps it was only the sound of the wind.

    — but then Isaac Bashevis Singer has a Nobel Prize for this sort of thing — while for almost all values of you and I, you and I don’t as yet, and maybe never will.


    Here’s what an artist’s eye makes of the Taj Mahal:

    View of the Taj Mahal from the Yamuna River side, Ca 1810, via Art Investments & Jackson Auctions


    Lind on “the Navy’s Intellectual Seppuku”

    Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

    William Lind had a very important piece regarding an extraordinarily ill-considered move by the Navy brass:

    The Navy Commits Intellectual Seppuku 

    The December, 2013 issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings contains an article, “Don’t Say Goodbye to Intellectual Diversity” by Lt. Alexander P. Smith, that should receive wide attention but probably won’t. It warns of a policy change in Navy officer recruiting that adds up to intellectual suicide. Lt. Smith writes, “Starting next year, the vast majority of all NROTC graduates will be STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with minimal studies in the humanities … As a result of the new policy, a high school senior’s best chance of obtaining a Navy scholarship is to apply for Tiers 1 and 2 (engineering, hard sciences, and math), since CNO guidance specifies that not less than 85 percent of incoming officers will come from this restricted pool.”

    ….The engineering way of thinking and the military way of thinking are not merely different. They are opposites. Engineering, math, and other sciences depend on analysis of hard data. Before you make a decision, you are careful to gather all the facts, however long that may take. The facts are then carefully analyzed, again without much regard for the time required. Multiple actors check and re-check each others’ work. Lowest-common-denominator, committee-consensus decisions are usually the safest course. Anything that is not hard data is rejected. Hunches have no place in designing a bridge.

    Making military decisions in time of war could not be more different. Intuition, educated guessing, hunches, and the like are major players. Hard facts are few; most information is incomplete and ambiguous, and part of it is always wrong, but the decision-maker cannot know how much or which parts. Creativity is more important than analysis. So is synthesis: putting parts together in new ways. Committee-consensus, lowest-common-denominator decisions are usually the worst options. Time is precious, and a less-than-optimal decision now often produces better results than a better decision later. Decisions made by one or two people are often preferable to those with many participants. There is good reason why Clausewitz warned against councils of war.

    Read the whole thing here.

    Rarely have I seen Lind more on target than in this piece.

    Taking a rank-deferential, strongly hierarchical organization and by design making it more of a closed system intellectually and expecting good things to happen should disqualify that person from ever being an engineer because they are clearly too dumb to understand what resilience and feedback are. Or second and third order effects.

    STEM, by the way, is not the problem. No one should argue for an all-historian or philosopher Navy either. STEM is great. Engineers can bring a specific and powerful kind of problem solving framework to the table. The Navy needs a lot of smart engineers.

    It is just that no smart engineer would propose to do this because the negative downstream effects of an all-engineer institutional culture for an armed service are self-evident.


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