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On Eric Hobsbawm

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

I was going to comment on the death of the famed historian who was the Soviet Union’s most venerable and shameless apologist, but I was beaten to it in a brilliant piece by British blogger and fellow Chicago Boyz member, Helen Szamuely:

A great Communist crime denier dies

On my way to and from Manchester yesterday and today I read Anne Applebaum’s latest book Iron Curtain about the subjugation of Eastern Europe between 1944 and 1956. Ms Applebaum’s knowledge and understanding of the European Union is not quite what it ought to be, given that she usually appears in the guise of one of our leading political commentators but she does know the history of Communism and what it did to the countries and peoples who, for various reasons, found themselves under its rule. The first few chapters describe in some detail the brutality, violence, whole scale looting and widespread rapine that marked the Red Army’s route across Eastern and Central Europe, regardless of whether they were in enemy or friendly countries, with soldiers or civilians, men or women, adults or children, friend or foe. And then came the NKVD and the organized violence and looting. How many people know, for instance, that several of the Nazi camps, Auschwitz and Buchenwald included, were reopened by the Soviets for their own purposes? Not a few of the people they imprisoned there had been liberated only a few weeks previously.

As I was reading this horrible tale I got a text message from somebody who saw on the news that Professor Eric Hobsbawm, the best known apologist for Stalin and denier of Communist crimes, has died. We are entering a period of unrestrained mourning for this man who has on various occasions been described as the greatest living historian and one of the most influential ones. Sadly, the last part of it is true. He has been influential.

While Holocaust deniers are rightly excoriated Professor Hobsbawm has been treated in life and will be in death with the greatest adulation. Channel 4 lists some of the misguided souls who are pronouncing sorrowfully on the demise of this supposedly great man and asks rather disingenuously whether he was an apologist for tyranny.

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, he was….

Read the rest here.


When Does Conflict Become “War”?

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

When does mere conflict end and war begin?

Great philosophers of strategy and statecraft did not treat all conflict as war but regarded war as a discernably distinct phenomenon, different from both peace and other kinds of conflict. War had a special status and unique character, glorious and terrible:

“Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting. “

    -Sun Tzu

“When the Corcyraeans heard of their preparations they came to Corinth with envoys from Lacedaemon and Sicyon, whom they persuaded to accompany them, and bade her recall the garrison and settlers, as she had nothing to do with Epidamnus. If, however, she had any claims to make, they were willing to submit the matter to the arbitration of such of the cities in Peloponnese as should be chosen by mutual agreement, and that the colony should remain with the city to whom the arbitrators might assign it. They were also willing to refer the matter to the oracle at Delphi. If, in defiance of their protestations, war was appealed to, they should be themselves compelled by this violence to seek friends in quarters where they had no desire to seek them, and to make even old ties give way to the necessity of assistance. The answer they got from Corinth was that, if they would withdraw their fleet and the barbarians from Epidamnus, negotiation might be possible; but, while the town was still being besieged, going before arbitrators was out of the question. The Corcyraeans retorted that if Corinth would withdraw her troops from Epidamnus they would withdraw theirs, or they were ready to let both parties remain in statu quo, an armistice being concluded till judgment could be given. “


“Thus, therefore, the political object, as the original motive of the war, will be the standard for determining both the aim of the military force, and also the amount of effort to be made. This it cannot be in itself; but it is so in relation to both the belligerent states, because we are concerned with realities, not with mere abstractions. One and the same political object may produce totally different effects upon different people, or even upon the same people at different times; we can, therefore, only admit the political object as the measure, by considering it in its effects upon those masses which it is to move, and consequently the nature of those masses also comes into consideration. It is easy to see that thus the result may be very different according as these masses are animated with a spirit which will infuse vigour into the action or otherwise.”

– Carl von Clausewitz 

We see from the above that war was not regarded as the same as either the political conflict which precipitated it or even, in the case of the Corcyraeans, the violence done against their interests in Epidamnus by the Corinthians, which did not yet rise to be considered war in the eyes of either Corcyra or Corinth. Instead the occupation of Epidamnus was something we would recognize today as coercion.  Like war itself, coercion operates by a calculus that is only partially rational; not only is the psychological pressure of coercion subject to passions of the moment, our reactions to the threat of violence -and willingness to engage in it – may be rooted in evolutionary adaptations going back to the dawn of mankind. Coercion, or resistance to it, usually is the midwife of war.

Prehistoric man lived a life that archaeology increasingly indicates, contrary to philosophical myth-making, was endemic in it’s violent brutality. Whether the violence between or within tiny paleolithic hunter-gatherer bands constituted private murder or warfare is a matter of debate, but the existence of the violence itself is not. Earliest firm evidence of a possible large skirmish or massacre dates back to 14,000 BC and definitive evidence for large-scale, organized battle dates to the end of the Neolithic period and dawn of the Bronze Age in 3500 BC.  Lawrence Keeley, in War Before Civilization, describes primitive man as being hyperviolent in comparison with those noted pacifists, the ancient Romans:

….For example, during a five and a half month period, the Dugum Dani tribesmen of New Guinea were observed to participate in seven full battles and nine raids. One Yanomamo village in South America was raided twenty-five times over a fifteen month period…. 

The high frequencies of prestate warfare contrast with those of even the most aggressive ancient and modern civilized states. The early Roman Republic (510-121 BC) initiated war or was attacked only about once every twenty years. During the late Republic and early Empire (118 BC -211 AD), wars started about once every six or seven years, most being civil wars and provincial revolts. Only a few of these later Roman wars involved any general mobilization of resources, and all were fought by the state’s small (relative to the size of the population) long-service, professional forces supported by normal taxation, localized food levies and plunder. In other words, most inhabitants of the Roman Empire were rarely directly involved in warfare and most experienced the Pax Romana unmolested over many generations. [Keeley,33] 

Simple, prestate societies probably waged “war” – a violent and deliberate conflict with rival groups and in alliance with rival groups against more distant interlopers – but the degree to which archaic and prehistoric humans culturally differentiated between this and their everyday, casual, homicidal violence remains unknown. Moreover, many academics would not accept the thesis of neolithic societies being “warlike”, much less, waging “war” as we understand the term until they rose to levels of social and political complexity generally denoted as chiefdoms, kingdoms and empires (“political” societies).

There’s something to that argument; a certain element of cultural identity is required to see the world in distinctly  “us vs. them” terms instead of an atomized Hobbesian “all vs. all” but I suspect it is far more basic a level of communal identification than the level of cultural identity typical of sophisticated chiefdoms like Cahokia or ancient Hawaii. Cultural and communal identity would tend to focus violence toward outsiders while increasingly complex political and social organization could “shape” how violence took place, molding it into recognizable patterns by regulation, ritual, taboo and command of authority. Once there is enough societal complexity for a leadership to organize and direct mass violence with some crude degree of rational choice and control, not only is war possible but strategy is as well.

Once a society is sophisticated enough to employ violence or the threat of violence purposefully for diplomacy or warfare, it is making a political decision to separate mundane and nearly chronic “conflict” and “war” into different categories. This would appear to be a primitive form of economic calculation distinguishing between conflict that generates acceptable costs and manageable risks and those conflicts that pose unacceptable costs or existential risks. This would give the relationship between primitive tribes the character of bargaining, an ongoing negotiation where the common currencies were violence and propitiation, until one party vacated the area or ceased to exist, most wars then having an innate tendency to escalate toward genocide (our current limitations on warfare, such as they are, derive from greater social complexity and political control over the use of violence).

If an economic calculus is indeed the root of the political decision to recognize some conflicts as “war”, that raises some interesting questions about modernity and advanced  states. What happens  when a conflict occurs with a state sufficiently complex that the ruling elite see their class interests as distinct and superceding those of the state? The calculus and what is considered “acceptable” costs or risks in a conflict vice those mandating “war” shift dramatically away from what might be considered “rational” state interest.

In a society at such an end-state, seemingly intolerable conflict might be tolerated indefinitely while full-fledged wars could be waged over what would appear to be mere trivialities to the national interest.


In addition to some already excellent and extensive comments in the thread, I would like to turn your attention to an interview post at The Last Word on Nothing recommended byZack Beauchamp:

Horgan, Hayden, and the Last Word on Warfare 

Ann:  I understand both of you have written authoritative and charming books on war — John’s, just out, is called The End of War; and Tom’s is Sex and War — and that you’vediscussed these matters before.  I also understand you disagree about war.  How could you not agree?   I mean, war is just nasty stuff and we shouldn’t do it, right?

Tom: Ann, you’re poking the hornet’s nest right off the bat! I don’t think John and I disagree about war, but rather about peace. Don’t get me wrong: we both prefer the latter to the former, by a wide margin. And there are many things we do agree on, I think, such as the substantial observed decrease in the frequency and lethality of war over the past several centuries, and the idea that culture is an important part of the balance between war and peace. But I think we do have a difference of opinion about the attainability of peace (John) versus the inevitability of war (me). I think this makes John a better person than me, and certainly a more optimistic one. And I really, really hope he’s right. In my mind it comes down to an argument about human nature, and whether the impulses and behaviors of war are inborn or acquired. Or at least, that’s my take. John, what’s yours? [….]

The Anti-Strategy Board Cometh

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

President Barack Obama has established by an executive order an Atrocity Prevention Board.  After the 120 day study and planning period (which will determine the writ of the APB), the board will be chaired by Samantha Power, a senior White House foreign policy adviser, NSC staffer and an aggressive advocate of R2P .

This is not likely to end well.

Presidential boards, commissions, study groups and other executive branch bodies are political agendas that power has made into bureaucratic flesh. Some, like the Warren Commission or the Iraq Study Group were transient for an instrumental purpose; others, like the Defense Policy Board put down roots and become real institutions. Some are killed for partisan reasons by new administrations (as Rumsfeld did to DACOWITS by letting it’s charter expire and then remolding it) or from congressional pique (this terminated the Public Diplomacy Commission) while some linger on for decades in zombie status, politically irrelevant but still animate, due to the inertia of bureaucracy.

What is interesting about these various bodies is that without the statutory powers granted to agencies created by legislation, they are merely empty shells unless filled with influential figures with clout or blessed by the patronage of high officials. If this is the case, even very obscure bodies can be platforms for impressive political action. Creepy and cloying old Joe Kennedy parlayed a minor post on a maritime commission and his vast fortune to become successively FDR’s SEC Chairman and the Ambassador to the Court of St. James, where he dispensed bad geopolitical advice and pushed the future careers of his sons, netting a president and two senators. The role of the Defense Policy Board in the run-up to the Iraq War is well known and I am told that one can even launch a constellation of careers and a powerhouse think tank from something as mundane and thankless as writing a COIN manual 😉

It is safe to say that the new Atrocity Prevention Board is not going to be window decoration.

Many people who are seeing what I am seeing in this move are now uneasily prefacing their critical comments with “Well, who can be against stopping atrocities, right?”. Let me say with complete candor: I can. The Atrocity Prevention Board is a great sounding  bad idea that represents an impossible task in terms of Ways, unaffordable in terms of Means and unacheivable in relation to Ends. Worse, by holding the national security community hostage to the serendipity of governmental cruelty on a global scale, the intelligent pursuit of national interests are effectively foreclosed  and the initiative ceded to random, unconnected,  events. This worst kind of institutionalized crisis management time horizon also comes weighted with implicit theoretical assumptions about the end of national sovereignty that would, I expect, surprise most Americans and which we will soon regret embracing.

Given the ambitions and missionary zeal of some R2P advocates and their ADHD approach to military intervention, it is unsurprising that this new entity was not titled “The Genocide Prevention Board”. Genocide, which the United States has definitive treaty obligations to recognize and seek to curtail, is too narrowly defined and too rare an event for such a purpose. “Atrocities” can be almost any scale of lethal violence and could possibly include “non-lethal” violence as well. This is a bureaucratic brief for global micromanagement by the United States that makes the Bush Doctrine appear isolationist and parsimonious in comparison.

A while back, while commenting on R2P, I wrote:

…As Containment required an NSC-68 to put policy flesh on the bones of doctrine, R2P will require the imposition of policy mechanisms that will change the political community of the United States, moving it away from democratic accountability to the electorate toward “legal”, administrative, accountability under international law; a process of harmonizing US policies to an amorphous, transnational, elite consensus, manifested in supranational and international bodies. Or decided privately and quietly, ratifying decisions later as a mere formality in a rubber-stamping process that is opaque to everyone outside of the ruling group.

The president is entitled to arrange the deck chairs as he sees fit, and in truth, this anti-strategic agenda can be executed just as easily through the NSC or offices in the West Wing, but the creation of a formal board is the first step to institutionalizing and “operationalizing a R2P foreign policy” under the cover of emotionalist stagecraft and networking machinations. A doctrine of which the American electorate is generally unaware and the Congress would not support legislatively (if there was a hope in Hell of passage, the administration would have submitted a wish-list bill).

This will not be a matter of just going abroad looking for monsters to slay but of a policy machine that can spew out straw monsters at need even when they don’t exist.


What others are saying about the APB:

Foreign Policy (Walt) –Is the ‘Atrocity Prevention Board‘ a good idea?

Duck of Minerva (Western) –Institutionalizing Atrocity Prevention 

Book Review: JM Berger’s Jihad Joe

Monday, June 20th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — “homegrown” jihad ]



Jihad Joe: Americans who go to war in the name of Islam

by JM Berger

Potomac Books, Inc, 2011, hard back, $29.95


The title by itself is striking — Jihad Joe – and captures nicely the somewhat surreal blend of the normal and the utterly strange that we encounter when we think about “Americans who go to war in the name of Islam” – the subtitle and topic of JM Berger‘s book. And think about them, know a bit about them, we should.

The big question, of course, is Why?

Berger writes early on of young men who gather “to focus their rage through a religious filter” and while noting that jihadists comes from varied backgrounds and travel for varied reasons, correctly zeroes in on the sense of obligation that a jihadist interpretation of Islam imposes:

While all major religions have rules that limit or justify war, a small but significant minority of Muslims believe that under the correct circumstances, war is a fundamental obligation for everyone who shares the religion of Islam. When war is carried out according to the rules, it is called military jihad or simply jihad. [emphasis mine]

The rage may spring from many sources, social, economic, political, but when religion is used to focus it, as Berger nicely puts it, that obligation is what provides divine legitimacy — and the promise of miracles, martydom and a paradisal afterlife – and the sense of serving a higher purpose, to otherwise quieter lives.


Berger starts at the beginning. After a brief mention of the presence of many Muslims under slavery, two early and distinctly American expressions of Islam (the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam), and the beginnings of Muslim Brotherhood activity as Egyptian and other Muslim immigrants brought more orthodox strands of Islam to the States, Berger alerts us to the idea that Americans leaving to fight jihad may have deeper roots than we think.

Bin Laden‘s mentor Abdullah Azzam, for instance, was in the US in the 1980s appealing for Americans to help the mujahideen in their resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan – a cause supported by President Reagan, who took tea with muj leaders for discussion and photo op, and by the wily Charlie Wilson of Charlie Wilson’s War. Azzam’s calls for volunteers were successful:

No one kept track of how many Americans answered the call, and no one in or out of the U.S. Government would venture a guess on the record. More than 30 documented cases were examined for this book. Based on court records and intelligence documents, a conservative estimate might be that a minimum of 150 American citizens and legal residents went to fight the Soviets.

Implications for today: this has been happening for a long time, it’s not something Anwar al-Awlaki invented just yesterday — and there have been times when the US was no too displeased at such activities.

Azzam’s appeal was precisely to the sense of a general, compulsory obligation for Muslims – fard ayn in Arabic – buttressed by tales of the miraculous and promises of paradise. I emphasize these points because their appeal is real. The day Al-Qaida was founded, an American was present, Mohammed Loay Bayazid, aka Abu Rida al Suri, and it was his reading of Azzam’s account of miracles among the jihadists in Afghanistan – apparent supernatural protection from and/or paralysis of superior forces, the “odor of sanctity” on martyrs’ bodies – that turned him from a not very pious Muslim into a volunteer jihadist. You can read the stories yourself — Azzam’s book is now available for download, in English, on the web.

I’m focusing in on the religious element because that’s my area, others will comment better than I on the military or historical aspects that Berger deals with. But Berger makes it clear that from its inception, Al-Qaida numbered Americans among its higher echelons, and bin Laden was “strangely enamored of Americans and people who had spent time in the United States” – if only for the very practical reason that their passports allowed them access most anywhere.


The first act of violence on American soil generally attributed to AQ, Berger tells us, was the 1990 killing of Rashad Khalifa in Tucson, AZ. Khalifa was the numerologically inclined leader of a Tucson mosque and translator of the Qur’an whose apocalyptic date-setting (2280 CE) I mentioned in my Zenpundit post Apocalypse Not Yet? a week ago.

Khalifa’s story leads into that of Al Fuqra, a group that Berger describes in some detail, writing of their “rural compounds and small private villages” and their “covert paramilitary training grounds” and noting that while they have been implicated in “at least thirty-four incidents … from bombings to kidnappings to murder … the government has never moved against the group in an organized manner.”

Berger turns next to the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and his followers, soon joined by the AQ-trained bomb-maker Ramzi Yousef, and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center – which failed to topple the towers — leaving the task for Mohammed Atta to complete in 2001 under bin Laden’s command

1992 sees several thousand US troops in Arabia given briefings on Saudi culture – largely a matter of Wahhabist Islam – and four-day passes to visit Mecca at Saudi expense were available for converts. As the Bosnian crisis began to unfold, ex-military Muslims converted by these means formed a natural pool for recruitment as jihadists to defend their Muslim brothers against ethnic cleansing and genocide at the hands of their Serb neighbors.

With the combination of the first WTC bombing and the Bosnian jihad, the “far enemy / near enemy” combo was in place: jihad could draw on both local and global events to fuel its global plans, and find both local and targets to take down…

By the beginning of the 1990s, America was in AQ’s sights, though AQ was barely known to a handful of Americans. The 1993 Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu featured AQ-trained forces, and the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy attacks were soon in the planning stages. In 1996, bin Laden publishes his declaration of war on America, and the CIA put together a first plan to kidnap him…


Anwar al-Awlaki enters the picture around this time, a complex man Berger calls “a study in contradictions” – “a gifted speaker who was capable of moving men to action”.

If the power of religion to focus rage, and the concept of jihad as a compulsory obligation, fard ayn, are two of our first take-aways from Berger’s book, here is a third: rhetoric is the tool that transforms the curious (pious or not so much) into the committed. Anwar al-Awlaki had “a powerful cocktail of skills” but they boil down to this: the ability to talks Islam casually, in the American manner, to American kids — in American English, in a way that appears pious and scholarly, presents jihad as both obligation and adventure, and moves them to action…

Three of the 9-11 hijackers were al-Awlaki contacts… Nidal Hasan, the army psychiatrist who massacred his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood… Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspected “underwear bomber”… Faizal Shazad, the Times Square bomber… the list of those who have known and been influenced by al-Awlaki goes on…

The history of AQ by now is well known, covered in such books as Lawrence Wright‘s The Looming Tower and Peter Bergen‘s The Longest War, so Berger can concentrate on the “home grown” side of things, featuring — alongside al-Awlaki — his clumsier precursor the AQ propagandist Adam Gadahn, and paying considerable attention to another less-than-widely reported aspect of the jihad – the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba group and its ISI-assisted 2008 attack on Mumbai, India, for which the intelligence scouting was done by the Pakistani-American sometime DEA agent David Headley, and the subsequent planning of an attack in Denmark…Berger turns next to Somalia and al-Shabab – but you get the drift, he is offering us a thoroughgoing, fully researched tour of the various Americans and groups joined by Americans across the world, involved in waging jihad, against scattered local enemies, or against the “far enemy” – the United States.


Berger’s work is detail-packed and focused, and a useful resource for that reason alone. But it is also and specifically the work of someone who has read and talked with and listened to the people he is writing about, and his work carries their voices embedded in his own commentary. It thus joins such works as Jessica Stern‘s Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill and Mark Juergensmeyer‘s similarly named and similarly excellent Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence.

Bringing us up to date, Berger offers an overview of jihadist use of the internet, paying special attention to English-language sites – Islamic Awakening, Revolution Muslim — emphasizing the peripheral nature of “forum” activities, but also crediting them as an active doorway to recruitment. Zach Chesser, Samir Khan, Jihad Recollections and Inspire magazine, they’re all here. Read Berger’s recent blog post on “gamification” after this chapter, follow him at @intelwire, and you’ll be ongoingly up to date on his thought…

Berger closes with a look at future prospects. The opening of this chapter – an overview of the history so far covered – speaks volumes:

The journey of the American jihadist spans continents and decades. Americans of every race and cultural background have made the decision to take up arms in the name of Islam and strike a blow for what they believed to be justice.

Many who embarked on this journey took their first steps for the noblest of reasons – to lay their lives on the line in defense of people who seemed defenseless. But some chose to act for baser reasons – anger, hatred of the “other,” desire for power, or an urge towards violence.

In the early days of the movement, it was possible to be a jihadist and still be a “good” American…

Berger neither condemns nor excuses: he sees, he asks, he researches, he reports. His observations of the current situation can thus be trusted to be driven by insight rather than ideology – not the most common of stances, but one we very much need.

He pinpoints as the first element that almost all American jihadists have in common as “an urgent feeling that Muslims are under attack”. Foreign policy implications? Yes indeed – but Berger is also looking to the Muslim community to take an approach less focused on what he terms a “litany of grievances” – valid though some of them may be – which in effect helps perpetuate a “counterproductive narrative” of how the US views and treats Muslims.

Once a narrative that America is at war with Islam is established, the argument for jihad as fard ayn can be made – and all manner of shame, frustrations, rage, violent tendencies, alienation and idealism can be unleashed under the jihadist banner.

Berger’s conclusion:

We must preserve the constitutional rights and basic human respect due to American Muslims while changing the playing field to create conditions in which extremism cannot thrive. These goals are not mutually exclusive – they are independent.

If principle and pragmatism are not enough reason to change the tone of the conversation, there isx one more thing to consider. It would be not only dangerous but shameful to prove that our enemies were right about us all along.

Berger’s is a book to read, certainly — and more significantly perhaps, a book to admire.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. I'm thinking about the 211 Sarah Schlesingers who were killed because they were Jewish.

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