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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.

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A racist form of Odinism and the Kansas shootings

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- still convinced we don't known nearly enough about religion -- with a quick look at the Kansas shooting ]
.

The victims:

The victims of the Overland Park Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom shootings weren’t even Jewish, they were Christians — as the NYT reported:

A few hours later, a handcuffed Mr. Miller was shouting allegiance to Hitler, while three white people, two Methodists and a Catholic, lay dead.

**

The autobiography:

Religion is in fact key to an understanding of the events in Overland Park.

Frazier Glenn Miller, one time leader of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and virulent online Antisemite arrested for the Overland Park shootings shooter appears to have misjudged the religion of those he killed — but if we were to assume he was himself a Christian, we would as surely misjudge his religion. In his autobiography, available online, Miller offers us his own beliefs — a creed not of love but of warrior racism:

Every book in the bible, except one, was written by Jews, which explains, among other things, why the bible says the Jews are God’s chosen people. If I’d written the thing, my people would be the chosen ones. How odd of God to choose the rats.

God must be a racist, because He selected a chosen race. And, He practiced racial discrimination when he smited all those gentile men, women, children, and babies on behalf of the Jews. Sampson and God alone killed 10,000 gentiles with the jawbone of a jackass. And I own some valuable ocean front property in Arizona.

Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What a brilliant recipe to enslave the Shabbos Goyim.

Christianity is the second biggest trick the Jews ever played on us. The biggest was legalized abortion!

But, on the other hand, White Christians today represent the best of our Race and the best hope for our racial survival because, generally, they are sober, moral, physically healthy, and idealistic. The Jews too recognize this potential threat and attack Christianity non-stop with the vigor and determination of trained attack dogs.

I’d love to see North America’s 100 million Aryan Christians convert to the religion invented by their own race and practiced for a thousand generations before the Jews thought up Christianity.

Odinism! This was the religion for a strong heroic people, the Germanic people, from whose loins we all descended, be we German, English, Scott, Irish, or Scandinavian, in whole or in part.

Odin! Odin! Odin! Was the battle cry of our ancestors; their light eyes ablaze with the glare of the predator, as they swept over and conquered the decadent multi-racial Roman Empire.

And Valhalla does not accept Negroes. There’s a sign over the pearly gates there which reads, “Whites only.”

Oh, Glory day!

**

Shakespeare:

Humans, we are humans — Jews, Christians, Muslims, lovers, haters. How often and in how many contexts must we repeat Shylock‘s words?

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die?

**

A Resource:

For a fuller insight into Odinism as a contemporary neo-Pagan faith, and the relation of some though not all forms of that faith to the radical right, I’d recommend the relevant section in:

  • Jeffrey Kaplan, Radical Religion in America: Millenarian Movements from the Far Right to the Children of Noah
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    Love (of Islam) Is Blindness

    Friday, March 14th, 2014

    [ Guest post by Dr Tim Furnish -- cross-posted from MahdiWatch ]
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    Even Christ might have a hard time fixing John Brennan's view of Islam, unlike with this chap

    **

    In Shakespeare’s works, particularly King Lear, “blindness is not [merely] a physical quality, but a mental flaw some people possess.” More authoritatively, and perhaps more pithily expressed by the Gospel writers, Jesus said that “if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (St. Matthew, 15:14). It’s easy to see how this describes the Obama Administration as a whole — but particularly its policy towards Islam and the Islamic world. And the main spokesman for this visual and intellectual impairment is CIA Director John Brennan.

    I commented on Brennan’s, and indeed his entire agency’s, (willful?) blindness to Islamic realities last year. But as Ronaldus Magnus once said to an equally clueless opponent, “there you go again.” At the Council on Foreign Relations two days ago, the man who oversees the mission to “provide … leaders with the best information possible to help them make policy involving other countries” expressed egregiously bad information on Islamic history and beliefs—and not for the first time, either.

    Brennan, who once worked as CIA station chief in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and who is said to hold a M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas-Austin, said the following: that al-Qa`idah’s [AQ] Islamic ideology is “a perverse and very corrupt interpretation of the Qur’an” and that that organization has “hijacked” Islam and “distorted the teachings of Mohammed [sic], for violent purposes.” I first refuted this ludicrous claim — particularly the “hijacking” one — almost a decade ago. And I will leave for others to deal with the legion of violent Qur’anic passages that disprove Brennan’s laughable claim about AQ’s exegesis.

    **

    Instead, let’s focus on the founder of Islam, Muhammad. According to not just the Qur’an but Hadiths (sayings attributed to Muhammad and sirât), or biographies of him, Muhammad not only practiced violence but seemed to enjoy and recommend it. And this was not “defensive” war, as the apologists would have it — it was more often than not offensive, attacking peoples and states who had done no harm to any Muslims. Muhammad of course (in)famously presided over the beheading of between 600 and 900 men of the Jewish Banu Qurayzah tribe in Medina who refused to acknowledge him as a “prophet.” He also supervised the beheading of a Meccan poet, al-Nadr b. al-Harith, who opposed him.

    Muhammad furthermore enjoined warring against other Muslims whom he deemed insufficiently devoted to jihad — even ordering that a mosque built by such be burned down. The “prophet” of Islam also employed torture in addition to killing, as when Muhammad ordered the torture by fire of the Jew Kinana b. al-Rabi` until he revealed where he had hidden his wealth.

    Muhammad hijacking Brennan's fairy-tale Islam by directing troops in battle

    **

    Muhammad’s military campaigns have been the subject of a number of works in recent years, such as Russ Rodgers, The Generalship of Muhammad and Richard Gabriel, Muhammad: Islam’s First Great General. The latter’s book was the basis of a long article in “Military History Quarterly” (2007), entitled “Muhammad: the Warrior Prophet,” the conclusion of which is worth quoting: “Classical [Sunni] Islamic law is less tolerant [than Twelver Shi`ism] of non-Muslims … Conservative Sunnis, such as the Wahhabis of Arabia, and modern militant jihadis in Iraq and Pakistan still adhere to the traditional doctrine. It is among these militant conservative Muslims that the military legacy of Muhammad is most alive today.

    "MHQ:" a "perverse and very corrupt" portrayal of Islam's founder, I suppose?

    **

    Maybe U2, not Shakespeare or even Christ, got the relationship between the current American administration and Islam most correct: “love is blindness.”

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    Sunday surprise 18, for sufferers from Jihadi Obsessive Disorder

    Sunday, March 9th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- who is admittedly more of a mental treadmill kind of a guy ]
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    I have no, no, no idea whether this is, as it claims, video of an Al-Qaeda training camp fitness test or just — okay, way way more likely — a silly prank video —

    — but we’ve all seen videos of actual muj trainings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chechnya, Somalia and elsewhere in which aspirant or actual jihadists demonstrate that they can play leapfrog, make their way across simple obstacles, and do mild acrobatics — sometimes with some martial arts or weapons training thrown in.

    **

    What I want to know is: how do those clips compare, think you, with the formal training offered by the Georgian National Ballet

    — or the sweet-flowing informality of parkour

    ??

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    Adding to the Bookpile

    Sunday, February 9th, 2014

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

    Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq by John Dower 

    Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 by William Shirer

    Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh 

    Picked up a few more books for the antilibrary.

    Dower is best known for his prizewinning Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, which unfortunately, I have never read.  Berlin Diaries I have previously skimmed through for research purposes but I did not own a copy. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany was an immensely bestselling book which nearly everyone interested in WWII reads at some point in time. I would put in a good word for Shirer’s lesser known The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 . It was a very readable introduction to the deep political schisms of France during the interwar and Vichy years which ( as I am not focused on French history) later made reading Ian Ousby’s Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944 more profitable.

    I am a fan of the vigorous prose of British historian Michael Burleigh, having previously reviewed  Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism here and can give a strong recommendation for his The Third Reich: A New History.  Burleigh here is tackling moral choices in war and also conflict at what Colonel John Boyd termed “the moral level of war” in a scenario containing the greatest moral extremes in human history, the Second World War.

    The more I try to read, the further behind I fall!

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