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Small Wars and Big Thoughts

Saturday, March 19th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]


U.S. Marines display captured flag of Nicaraguan rebels led by Augusto Cesar Sandino

While pop-centric COIN may be dead, small wars and irregular warfare will always be with us. We might say they are in the fourth or fifth generation; are an open-source insurgency; or have become “hybrid“; or exist in some kind of mysteriousgray zone“. Whatever we call them, small wars are here to stay.

Two recent publications explore the topic.

The first is a taxonomic work from Robert Bunker at the Strategic Studies Institute:

Old and New Insurgency Forms

….Blood Cultist (Emergent). Strategic implications:  Limited to moderate. This insurgency form can be viewed as a mutation of either radical Islam and/or rampant criminality, as found in parts of Latin America and Africa, into dark spirituality based on cult-like behaviors and activities involving rituals and even human sacrifice. To respond to this insurgency form, either federal law enforcement or the military will be the designated lead depending on the specific international incident taking place. An all-of-government approach will be required to mitigate and defeat this insurgency form, which has terrorism (and narco-terrorism) elements that represent direct threats—especially concerning the Islamic State—to the U.S. homeland […]

I strongly agree with Bunker’s “dark spirituality” angle present in deviant religious-military movements. For example, ISIS, for all its protestations of ultra-orthodoxy in its Salafism exudes a spirit of protean paganism in its words and deeds.

The second is a book, Clausewitz on Small War by Christopher Daase and James W. Davis (Hat tip to Nick Prime). From a book review at the London School of Economics:

….The current generation’s trend in understanding Clausewitz is that of moving beyond On War – an analysis which Clausewitz himself considered incomplete and which was published posthumously. As part of this shift, 2015 alone saw the publication of a new account of his life, together with a biography of his wife and a comparison between Napoleon’s and Clausewitz’s ideas on war, to name a few.

Through Clausewitz on Small War, Christopher Daase and James W. Davis make a significant contribution to such efforts of contextualisation. Yet theirs is quite distinct from other works, in that they translate into English writings that were thus far accessible only to those with a reading knowledge of German. This is precisely where the value of the book lies, as well as being the editors’ primary aim: opening up Clausewitz through translating his own words, rather than in interpreting them. In doing so, they offer the tools through which future analyses can be better informed.

The editors nonetheless do set out a case in the introduction: Clausewitz’s writings on ‘Small War’ are testimony to his continuing relevance. To illustrate this, they offer four chronologically arranged texts – a journey of how his thinking on Small War evolved. Each text was written with a different frame of mind. The first is comprised of lecture notes on small-unit warfare that are informal and rather technical; the second and third are memoranda distributed to military reformers and through which Clausewitz passionately makes the case for militias; and the final is a chapter from On War, again on the arming of the people.

I would add that ZP contributor, Lynn Rees, also had a recent post on the role of Marie von Clausewitz in shaping “Clausewitz” and Clausewitzian thought.

That’s it.

The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security

Friday, March 4th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security by Bartholomew Sparrow

In writing The Strategist, Bartholomew Sparrow has demonstrated that his talents as a biographer match his skill as a scholar. Cautious and careful, in telling the life and national security career of the highly regarded Brent Scowcroft, Sparrow never slips into hagiography, or gives Scowcroft a free pass in situations where it would be easy to do so. In retaining his critical eye, Sparrow has consequently permitted Scowcroft’s selfless character and frequently wise judgement to shine on their own merits in the historical record. The result is that The Strategist is a biography of remarkable power, like a great river, there are deep currents of insight below the gently moving surface.

At a sprawling 716 pages, Sparrow had room to investigate Brent Scowcroft’s family heritage in Mormon Utah, his journey at West Point from student to professor, his intellectual and professional mentors (Herman Beukema, William T.R. Fox, George Lincoln, Richard Yudkin, Andrew Goodpaster) and Scowcroft’s unfailing devotion to his wife Jackie, who became an invalid in the years when Scowcroft’s career embraced its largest burdens. It is this context that helps explain the strong ethical core that Scowcroft demonstrated time and again as a military officer, strategist and statesman as he handled brilliant but brittle personalities at the center of national security and foreign policy.

What Sparrow makes clear, time and again, was that it was Scowcroft’s unusually high emotional intelligence coupled with an amazing work ethic that provided Scowcroft with the high opportunities that allowed him to bring his talents as a strategist and manager of national security to bear. Quite simply, Scowcroft connected with people and his relentlessly consistent integrity in dealing with everyone – literally from interns to journalists to Presidents of the United States – was such that his word was regarded as being as good as gold. His equanimity too was almost as legendary as his ethics. ” I never heard Scowcroft get angry” is a frequent refrain of former colleagues. His detractors are few: Dick Cheney, who as Vice-President had a bitter break with Scowcroft over the Iraq War, had nothing but praise to say of his former friend’s integrity and judgement.

Not only did Scowcroft forge an unusually close strategic partnership with two presidents (Ford and Bush I) but he managed to win the respect and trust of so paranoid and aloof a figure as Richard Nixon (it is far less clear that Scowcroft trusted Nixon). Scowcroft’s secret was that inside a Beltway where politics and personalities trended Machiavellian, he operated in a zone of trust. Even the Clinton and Obama administrations sought Scowcroft’s counsel because they were assured of his absolute discretion and impartial judgement.

Asked to compare himself with his former boss, Henry Kissinger, Scowcroft demonstrated that he knew his strengths and his limitations. Sparrow writes:

“….Scowcroft had his own well-developed sense of military strategy and world history. He was also brilliant at questioning and evaluating the merits of his new ideas and policy options as well as a superb bureaucratic operator who knew how to put concepts into practice. But unlike Kissinger, Scowcroft said he was better at reacting to and evaluating ideas than he was dreaming them up; that was why he liked to hire people smarter than himself. ‘I don’t have a quick, innovative mind’ he claimed. ‘I don’t automatically think of good new ideas. What I do better is pick out good ideas from bad ideas.”

Was Scowcroft a good strategist?

The first problem in answering this question, at least from reading Sparrow, is that Scowcroft’s rarely equaled skill as a manager of the NSC decision-making process tends to greatly overshadow and blur his record as a strategist.  Scowcroft’s National Security Council, which worked well under Gerald Ford when the greatest of Washington prima donnas, Henry Kissinger, reigned as Secretary of State, hummed like a machine under George H. W. Bush. One would have to go back to Eisenhower to see such a comparable example of smooth national security decision making. The key was the absolute trust Scowcroft established, as Sparrow records:

“Bush, Baker, Scowcroft and other senior administration officials were able to establish relationships based on trust. ‘One of the reasons why the system worked was that Baker and Cheney totally trusted Brent to keep them informed and to fairly represent their views to the president,’ Gates said. ‘He was the only national security adviser in my view that was ever so trusted by the two other principals’ – and Gates had served under six US presidents at the time he wrote the above, before his time as defense secretary under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Scowcroft’s management of the NSC process also worked well because of his creation of other interagency groups to expedite decision making. One of his key innovations (retained by subsequent presidential administrations) was the formation of the Principals Committee which included the Vice-President, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the director of central intelligence, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House Chief of Staff and the national security adviser – all meeting without the president.”

Scowcroft achieved the holy grail of natsec policy – “whole-of-government” planning and execution. Part of the reason was that Brent Scowcroft was extraordinarily close to the elder President Bush, far closer than in the dysfunctional yet highly successful partnership between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. That accounts for some of it, but Condi Rice was just as close to George W. Bush as Scowcroft had been to Bush’s father yet her tenure as national security adviser is given low marks, not least for being completely unable to rein in Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or Vice-President Dick Cheney who was virtually the prime minister of the administration in its early years. The difference may have been that Scowcroft could not only speak with the President’s unquestioned authority, he knew better when to do so than Rice and consequently, seldom needed to do it at all.

The second problem in answering “was Scowcroft a good strategist” is that he clearly was not and never aspired to be a grand strategist in the manner of Richard Nixon, George Kennan or Otto von Bismarck.  Scowcroft never approached national security by attempting to reshape the geopolitical calculus despite the regrettable tagline of “new world order”. Instead, Scowcroft’s strategic philosophy was to manage risks as they emerged by peacefully integrating a collapsing rival state system piecemeal into the existing international community status quo at the lowest possible cost of disruption. Maximizing geopolitical opportunities or strategic gains was not his primary yardstick.

This is why as Sparrow, relates, that Scowcroft and the senior President Bush strongly discouraged “triumphalism” in American rhetoric about the Cold War while trying to work with Mikhail Gorbachev to manage the Soviet collapse; and why the break up of Yugoslavia was viewed with such distaste (Scowcroft had served in the embassy in Belgrade under Kennan). Conversely, this is also why  Scowcroft was so eager to use American military force in Iraq, to defend and reinforce post-Cold War international legal norms from Iraqi aggression, but not to march to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam’s dictatorial regime. Brent Scowcroft deserved the credit for both his early insight that force would be required to remove Iraq from Kuwait and the wisdom of the Bush administration to wield overwhelming force with restraint and diplomatic finesse.  When the second Bush administration – an administration filled with his former colleagues – opted to march on Baghdad, it would have been a simple matter for Scowcroft to remain silent, but instead he offered counsel. When his advice was rebuffed, Scowcroft did the harder thing and made his case against the Iraq War public even though it cost him friendships and access to the President of the United States. A rare choice in Washington.

Scowcroft is indeed a strategist by any reasonable measure and something greater, a statesman for whom the country and its national interest always came first.

Strongly Recommended.

Manea Interviews Galeotti on Hybrid War at SWJ

Sunday, August 23rd, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

Dr. Mark Galeotti

Octavian Manea has another excellent installment of his interviews with warriors and scholars of war over at Small Wars Journal. In this case, Russian security and transnational crime expert, Professor Mark Galeotti of NYU and In Moscow’s Shadows blog.

Hybrid War as a War on Governance

 As Clausewitz emphasized, we first need to understand exactly the nature of the war/threat that we are confronted with. What are the core features of this Russian approach on hybrid warfare?

I like to use the term non-linear warfare, in part because it means nearly nothing, and doesn’t come with the intellectual baggage of a term like hybrid warfare which, after all, it is a term that was designed to discuss how insurgents fight modern armies. We don’t have yet a proper vocabulary. The key thing is to realize the extent to which we all need to return to the essential – almost Clausewitzian – notion of war. In this context, war is a political instrument. War is one means of making the other side do what you want it to do, such as simply to remain part of your sphere of influence. What this approach is really about, in a way, is about placing kinetic military operations back in the toolbox. For a long time we thought them as entirely separate: diplomacy and politics on the one hand and warfare in the other. In some ways, warfare happens when the other things fail. What this doctrine is saying is no, let’s just appreciate that in fact we are talking about a whole spectrum of capabilities that can range from soft power suasion, to economic pressure, to increasingly tough diplomatic lines to a whole gradation of military operations that can range from sending 10 people into blocking a bridge, to sending a hundred people to help foment a local insurrection, to sending 10.000 people in a full-scale war. These instruments can and should be used together rather than as entirely separate pieces. In a way, the point of non-linear war is to bring war back in to the spectrum of modern statecraft, to appreciate that it is an acceptable instrument in Russian eyes and to make sure that policy-makers and policy executors realize the importance of the political impact. It is not about metrics of casualties inflicted, how many bombing raids you manage to launch, all the things that we often see replacing actual military success as an indicator. It comes back to the political effect and the use of the military as a political instrument.

Is NATO’s Eastern Flank vulnerable to non-linear warfare?

Here is the key thing: if we look at what is going on, none of the current uses of the Russian military power should be considered the standard blueprint. If they do anything direct in the Baltic States – and I don’t actually think that they will – it will not be Crimea 2.0 or Donbass 2.0, but something that will be tailored to the situation there, to their perception of the threats and to what they actually want to achieve.

Let’s look at the three current uses of the military force. In Crimea the role of the military was to create a fait accompli. The forces were there to act as symbols of Russian statehood. In Donbass, we have forces being deployed with these manufactured local insurrections to create chaos, not because for one moment the Russians are eager for the post-industrial decaying Donbass, but precisely as a way of putting pressure on Kiev. If we look at the Baltic States, the long-range bombers that Russia is flying there are not intended to actually launch a military attack, but to create a constant political as well logistical stress on NATO. Three very different uses of military forces. The military provides a series of capacities within a highly integrated military, political, economic, social media, intelligence campaign to achieve your ends.

Why this evolution towards comprehensiveness?

It reflects a variety of processes, but the most fundamental one is the extent to which traditional war, especially between the most advanced powers, is almost incomprehensible in terms of actual direct costs, in terms of economic and political costs. There is a low-intensity war between Russia and Ukraine, but at the same time I can take a plane in Moscow and I can fly to Kiev. There is trade crossing the border, both legal and very heavily illegal. We live in a world where the old notion of war, war as a binary process, where you are at war or you are at peace, means increasingly less. So on one hand, traditional warfare is much less a usable tool. On the other hand, there is the fact that all societies now are much more casualty-averse. Even today’s Russia is not Stalin’s Soviet Union, can’t treat people as ammunition. Old traditional warfare is hardly conceivable unless it is essentially civil war where rational calculations tend to go out of the window. This is less of a new way of war so much as a way of fighting a war in a new world. It is the world that it has changed rather than the tactics and the ideas.

It is in this changed context that everyone is talking about the need to interconnect government agencies and apply a whole-of-government approach. The very reason why they are doing that is that the world has become so heavily interconnected. Of course, at the same time one of the pathologies of complex bureaucracies is departmentalization. In this respect, the Russians have an advantage. Not because they don’t have huge monolithic and often deeply competitive bureaucracies – which they do – but precisely because, at the top at least, Russia remains a pretty authoritarian regime. You have a chief executive who can force coordination in a way that is much harder in a democratic society.

Galeotti has a nice observation about the political and military fungibility of organized crime networks in a globalized environment that I would like to highlight:

….Looking at the underworld shows what happens in voids of governance. Organized crime flourishes where governance fails and because no governmental system is perfect there always will be organized crime. But the scale, the size and the depth of criminal operations depend on the scale of the governance failure. Modern war is increasingly determined precisely by how one seeks to impact the other side’s governability (we see this trend particularly in Ukraine) and also how one can exploit the weaknesses of the other side’s governability. This is not new. One could look at WW2, at the campaign in Italy and the deals struck with the Mafia to provide intelligence and assistance in seizing Sicily. What is new is that what was seen as a disagreeable ad-hoc tactic is becoming the way the Russians are approaching full-spectrum warfare. It is just seen as another perfectly viable, legitimate opportunity. If we look at Crimea. when the “little green men” were deployed there, they were complemented by much less professional, much less uniformly uniformed, thuggish local “self-defense groups.” It has become clear that they were the gunmen of the local organized crime groups, pressed into service as auxiliaries. And when you look at the regime installed in Crimea from the premier down, it is very heavily penetrated by people from within the criminal world. The same pattern happened also in Donbass, where organized crime figures have become local warlords. My belief is also that some of the terrorist actions in the rest of Ukraine were carried out not directly by sympathizers of the rebellion or Russian government agents, but actually by organized crime figures paid by the Russians. Russia is ahead of the curve in global organized crime, where you have a political-criminal-business elite, that is not formed by Tony Soprano-like figures, but from businessmen who have a portfolio of interests that ranges from the essentially legitimate through to the grey and then wholly illegal activities. The boundaries between organized crime, intelligence operations, state-operations have become increasingly unclear.

Read the rest here.

Organized crime has as a strategic objective monopoly control over black market activities (or at least an ability to “tax” other criminals who engage in them) through coercion and force. At times, in an effort to protect these illegal monopolies from rivals or the state, organized crime networks will evolve their capabilities into terrorists, insurgents, political actors and hybrids of any of these. The reverse is also true; insurgencies like the Taliban or FARC can become increasingly “criminalized” as their political context changes or the need to raise revenues increases.

The artificial divisions between crime and war and politics is generally a taxonomic preference of the modern West and its Westphalian state myths. East Asia by contrast, have long had examples of “hybrid” criminal groups – the Green Gang, the Triads, the Dark Ocean Society, the Yakuza, the Binh Xuyen  and so on. It was more or less normal for established criminal groups to be involved in politics or military affairs, at least on the local level. Those that could not manage this were simply bandits.

T. Greer on Ibn Khaldun’s Asabiyah

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage has an exemplary post comparing the philosophy of English social contract theorist Thomas Hobbes with medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, who described a critical component of a functional polity – asabiyah.  You should read Greer’s post in its entirety, but here is the take away as far as strategy is concerned:

….Asabiyah, then, amounts to the feeling among those dying that they are dying for their own. As soon as they begin to feel that they are not dying for their own, but are dying for the king, or for someone else’s clan, or for some obscure institution that is not them — well, that is when asabiyah is gone and the kingdom is in danger. Civilized life shrinks the asabiyah that once united people of different lineages, tribes, and occupations until the people of a kingdom only feel a sense of loyalty to themselves, of if you are lucky, those in their immediate neighborhood or caste. But at this point the feeling they have is not reallyasabiyah at all, but the narrow self interest Hobbes would appreciate. This leaves the kingdom open to attack from the next round of nomadic tribesmen united by charismatic leaders into one indivisible asabiyah driven force. 

Although it was not his intent, I think Ibn Khaldun here answers another puzzle apparent to the careful observer of human affairs. It has oft been held that a strong enemy unites a divided people. When faced with with a foe that threatens liberty and the integrity of the realm, private disagreements ought to be put aside until victory has been declared. But it is not apparent that history actually works this way. If one must compare the rising and declining eras of history’s great empires–here I think of the Romans, the Abbasids, the Ming, the great empires of Castille and the Hapsburgs, or the Russian Empire of Tsarist fame (no doubt other examples can be found with if more thought were put to the question)–it does not seem the enemies they faced in their early days were any less powerful or cunning than the enemies that pushed them to extinction. The difference was in the empires themselves; where the wars of their birth forged nations strong and martial, the wars of their decline only opened and made raw violent internal divisions. Even destruction cannot unite a people who have lost all feeling of asabiyah. 

Ibn Khaldun believed that asabiyah declined over time. He used the analogy of the transition from fierce desert life of equality, mutual glory and conquest to the effeminacy of sedentary decadence and servility of luxurious despotism and the fall of the dynasty in four generations to explain the effect of a decayed asabiyah. Greer continues:

The concept of asabiyah is applied most easily to the distant past. One cannot read histories of the early Islamic conquests and the slow hardening of state authority in Umayyad and Abbasid times without seeing Ibn Khaldun’s cycles within it. I have alluded to many examples of these same themes in East and Central Asian history, for I have found that his theories map well to state-formation among pastoral nomads across the world, including those places Ibn Khaldun had barely heard of. Indeed, Ibn Khaldun’s “independent science” can be applied to almost any pre-modern society or conflict without undue violence to his ideas. I recently wrote that in the pre-modern world, “internal cohesion and loyalty were often the deciding factor in the vast majority of military campaigns” [23]. Ibn Khaldun provides a convincing explanation for where such cohesion came from and why it so often failed when kings and princes needed it most dearly.

There are several reasons why it is difficult to see the hand of asabiyah in the rise and decline of modern great powers. Military science has progressed in the centuries since Ibn Khaldun wrote the Muqaddimah; the drills and training seen in the militaries of our day are capable of creating a strong sense of solidarity and cohesion even when such feelings are absent in the populace at large. In that populace the nationalist fervor that accompanies mass politics has eclipsed (or perhaps, if we take asabiyah as the nucleus of nationalist feeling, perfected) asabiyah as the moving force of modern conflict. This sort of nationalism, dependent as it is on mass media and technologies unknown to Ibn Khaldun,  has a dynamic of its own that he could not have foreseen.

The most important difference between Ibn Khaldun’s world and our own, however, concern the fundamental structure of the societies in which we live. Ibn Khaldun’s was a static age where wealth was easier to seize than make. This is not the case today. For the past two centuries military power has been intertwined with economic growth and industrial capacity. No more can poor ‘Bedouins’ living beyond the pale of civilized society dethrone kings and reshape empires. In the more developed nations of the earth there is so little fear of war that both asabiyah and nationalism are sloughed off with few misgivings. 

 Despite all these differences, Ibn Khaldun did articulate principles that remain relevant despite their age.  The first and most important of these is that social cohesion should be understood as a vital element of national power. Wars are rarely won and strategies rarely made without it. A nation need not be engaged in existential conflict to benefit from strong asabiyah. Absent solidarity, internal controversies absorb the attention of statesmen and internal divisions derail all attempts to craft coherent policy. Strategic malaise is one byproduct of a community deficient in asabiyah. 

Agreed.  In particular, it is difficult for foreigners to provide another society with an asabiyah that it lacks in order to fight and win counterinsurgency wars. You go to war with the asabiyah that you have and that has been a problem for Americans in places like South Vietnam and Afghanistan.

I’m not sure though that it is impossible to regenerate decaying or dying asabiyah if it can be built upon new myths that are harmonious with old ones, disguising innovations as fidelity to cherished values. The Meiji Restoration is the classic successful example of national revolution being presented as a reactionary movement to return to tradition, toppling the worn-out Shogunate and”restoring” a High Priest- Emperor whose ceremonial figurehead predecessors had not ruled Japan in eight hundred years, if ever at all.  There are also darker historical examples and we are seeing one play out now in the Mideast in the form of the ISIS “Caliphate”.

This kind of attempt to breathe new life into an eroding asabiyah operates at the moral level above strategy that John Boyd termed a “Theme of Vitality and Growth” and it can unlock atavistic passions and be extremely attractive. Simultaneously creative and destructive, society is suddenly remade – not as a plowshare, but as a sword in a strong hand.

So: how does it feel at World’s End?

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — on conveying the experience of the eschatological — on the way to better understanding the allure of IS ]
.

Beatus de Facunda. And the fifth Angel sounded the trumpet: and I saw a star fall from heaven upon the earth, and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit" -- Revelation 9.1-11

And the fifth Angel sounded the trumpet: and I saw a star fall from heaven upon the earth, and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit

**

WE ARE ENTERING PHASE TWO:

I think we’re entering Phase Two of our conversations about Islamist eschatology.

In Phase One, the task was to point out that apocalyptic scriptures and scriptural interpretations were a feature of Al-Qaida discourse, and specifically used in recruitment, and this phase was necessary because apocalyptic movements, in general, are all too easily dismissed by the secular mind until “too late” — think Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo, the Branch Davidians in Waco, Heaven’s Gate in Rancho Santa Fe.

With GEN Dempsey declaring that IS holds an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision”, with Graeme Wood describing that vision in a breakthrough article in The Atlantic, with Jessica Stern and JM Berger making the same point forcefully in their ISIS: The State of Terror, and with Will McCants promising us a book specifically about the eschatological dimension of IS, that need may now have passed.

In my view, the salient points to be made in Phase Two are:

  • that the apocalyptic ideology of IS has strategic implications
  • that there’s a largely and unwisely ignored area of religious studies dealing specifically with eschatological violence, and
  • that the sense of living in eschatological time is viscerally different — I’ve termed it a “force multiplier”
  • In particular, IS strategy is likely to draw in part on the specifically eschatological last hundred pages in Abu Musab al-Suri‘s 1600-page Call to Global Islamic Resistance. As I noted in my review of Jean-Pierre Filiu’s Apocalypse in Islam, Filiu himself states there is “nothing in the least rhetorical about this exercise in apocalyptic exegesis. It is meant instead as a guide for action”. While Filiu devotes several pages to it, Jim Lacey ignores it completely in his A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad: Deciphering Abu Musab al-Suri’s Islamic Jihad Manifesto, commenting only, “Where appropriate, we have also removed most of the repetitive theological justifications undergirding these beliefs” — see my review of Lacey for the Air force Research Institute.

    I’ll deal with the religious studies literature on violent apocalyptic movements in a future post.

    This post is my first attempt at addressing the feeling engendered by being swept up in an “end times’ movement. I foresee this as my major upcoming area of interest and future contributions.

    **

    SUGGESTED CONTEXTS:

    There’s an extraordinary paragraph in Seduction of the Spirit by Harvey Cox, the prominent Harvard theologian, in which he tells us what the world’s next great encyclopedic work on religion might be like — using the analogy of Thomas AquinasSumma Theologica in a decidedly post-psychedelic age:

    Thus the next Summa might consist not of a thousand chapters but of a thousand alternative states of being, held together not by a glued binding but by the fact that all thousand are equally real.

    Imagine what kind of world it would be if instead of merely tolerating or studying them, one could actually be, temporarily at least, a Sioux brave seeing an ordeal vision, a neolithic hunter prostrate before the sacred fire, a Krishna lovingly ravishing a woodsful of goat girls, a sixteenth-century Carmelite nun caught up in ecstatic prayer, a prophet touched by flame to go release a captive people…

    Religious experience is as wide, and in fact as wild as that, and the lives and world views of a Black Elk, a Teresa of Avila, an incarnation of Vishnu and an Isaiah are as different as cultures can be, united only in the degree of their focus. Cox can list them, he can invite us to consider their experiences in turn, but he cannot entirely bring us into each of their lives. Between them and his readers is a distance not only of cultural imagination, but of conviction, of tremendous passion.

    **

    In Fiction as the Essence of War, George Vlachonikolis wrote on War on the Rocks recently:

    Coker reveals the struggle of many a veteran by asking: “how can someone who was there tell others what it was like? Especially if they can’t find a moral?” This is a thought that will resonate with anybody with a wartime experience. As for me, my 6 years in the Army has now all but been reduced to a handful of dinnerpartyfriendly anecdotes as a consequence of this plight.

    Stern & Berger, on page 2 of their book, ISIS: The State of Terrorism, write:

    It is difficult to properly convey the magnitude of the sadistic violence shown in these videos. Some featured multiple beheadings, men and women toether, with the later victims force to watch the irst die. In one video, the insurgents drove out into the streets of Iraq cities, pile out of the vehicle, and beheaded a prisoner in full view of pedestrians, capturing the whole thing on video and then driving ogg scot-free.

    Some things are just hard to explain in a way that viscerally grips the reader, engendering rich and deep understanding.

    The power of religion is one of them, and that’s true a fortiori of the power of its extreme form, that of those who are “semiotically aroused” — in Richard Landes‘ very useful term — by the power of an “end times” vision.

    **

    I have quoted the first paragraph of Tim Furnish‘s book, Holiest Wars, often enough already, and I’ll quote it again for shock value — I don’t think it’s the sort of analogy that can be “proven” or “refuted”, but it gives a visceral sense of the importance of identifying an Islamist jihadist apocalyptic movement as such, and understanding what that implies:

    Muslim messianic movements are to fundamentalist uprisings what nuclear weapons are to conventional ones: triggered by the same detonating agents, but far more powerful in scope and effect.

    And Richard Landes in Fatal Attraction: The Shared Antichrist of the Global Progressive Left and Jihad gives us a sense of how an apocalyptic undercurrent works:

    It is a great mistake to suppose that the only writers who matter are those whom the educated in their saner moments can take seriously. There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and halfeducated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures, and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history.

    **

    A FIRST APPROXIMATION:

    Let me take a first stab at indicating — by analogy — the level of passion involved:

    Cox writes of prophecy, Sylvia Plath of electroshock treatment. In her poem, The Hanging Man:

    By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.
    I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

    And her description of the same experience in her novel The Bell Jar is no less, perhaps even more powerful — note also the “end times” reference:

    I shut my eyes.

    There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath.

    Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant.

    Let me suggest to you:

    Many IS members feel they have been shaken “like the end of the world” and live and breathe in “an air crackling with blue light”.

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    The illustration at the head of this post is one of many from The Beatus of Facundus, itself one of many brilliantly illustrated versions of Beatus of Liebana‘s commentary on Revelation. I was first exposed to Beatus by an article Umberto Eco wrote for FMR magazine. Eco also mentions the Beatus in Name of the Rose, and indeed wrote a most desirable book on the topic.


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