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Elkus interviews Charles Cameron at Abu Muqawama

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

[ by Mark Safranski a.k.a "zen"]

Longtime friend of ZP,  Adam Elkus interviews our own Charles Cameron at the highly regarded Abu Muqawama blog:

Interview Charles Cameron 

[....]  AE: How has the study of apocalyptic tropes and culture changed (if it has at all) since 9/11 focused attention on radical Islamist movements?

CC: USC’s Stephen O’Leary was the first to study apocalyptic as rhetoric in his 1994 Arguing the Apocalypse, and joined BU’s Richard Landes in forming the (late, lamented) Center for Millennial Studies, which gave millennial scholars a platform to engage with one another. David Cook opened my eyes to Islamist messianism at CMS around 1998, and the publication of his two books (Studies in Muslim ApocalypticContemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature), Tim Furnish’s Holiest Wars and J-P Filiu’s Apocalypse in Islam brought it to wider scholarly attention — while Landes’ own encyclopedic Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience gives a wide-angle view of the field in extraordinary detail.

I’d say we’ve gone from brushing off apocalyptic as a superstitious irrelevance to an awareness that apocalyptic features strongly in Islamist narratives, both Shia and Sunni, over the past decade, but still tend to underestimate its significance within contemporary movements within American Christianity. When Harold Camping proclaimed the end of the world in 2011, he spent circa $100 million worldwide on warning ads, and reports suggest that hundreds of Hmong tribespeople in Vietnam lost their lives in clashes with the police after moving en masse to a mountain to await the rapture. Apocalyptic movements can have significant impact — cf. the Taiping Rebellion in China, which left 20 million or so dead in its wake.

Read the rest here.


More Books and Bookshelf Musings

Sunday, June 30th, 2013


Mussolini’s Italy:Life under the Fascist Dictatorship by by R. J. B. Bosworth 

Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott

Been busy writing a book review and a long and serious post, so here is something more lighthearted and tangible in the meantime.

Having recently purchased the Bosworth bio of Mussolini, I went back and bought his history of Italian Fascism. While doing that, I came across Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which had either been highly recommended in a discussion over at Chicago Boyz blog or perhaps in an email by one of the Chicago Boyz themselves ( maybe Lex will help me out here).

However, a long discussion by my amigo Adam Elkus on Facebook about his emerging organizational system for his books coupled with an hour long search to try and find a book I needed to cite in the review I was writing have made me realize something: I no longer have any organization to my books.

Sure, there’s still a semblance of a core – a Soviet/Russian bookcase, an antique/antiquarian bookcase for collectible editions 80-130+ years old, three shelves of strategy and war, two and half on Nazi Germany, two on Richard Nixon, an “Ummah” shelf on Islam, al Qaida, Central Asia and the Mideast but after that it starts getting messy. Once methodically organized, diplomatic history and diplo memoirs are spread across two rooms, four bookcases and three packing boxes in the garage; the Vietnam War is on two shelves in two different bookcases plus a half dozen or books so shelved at work; ancient history and classical philosophy have metastasized to occupy parts of three shelves in two different rooms; American history, European history, Japan and China,  sociology, general science, politics, biographies, neuroscience, intelligence community, economics are everywhere and anywhere. Your guess is probably almost as good as mine.

And then there are book piles randomly stacked horizontally on top of shelved books and bookcases or stacked by my computer desk or on/under/next to my nightstand. I no longer recall what books I have loaned out or to whom vice given away as gifts.

Bibliomania….A Gentle Madness …..



Elkus on Mad Dogs and Military History

Friday, May 10th, 2013

Adam Elkus has a lengthy and meaty post at Abu Muqawama, inspired by General Mattis, one that you should really read in full:

The Mattis Book Club

….But while gaining an understanding of the nature of war is useful, there are a lot of things it won’t do. This becomes most apparent in the section of the email where Mattis makes specific claims. Mattis repeatedly states that nothing is new under the sun, makes comparisons across big temporal zones (Alexander the Great in Persian Iraq vs. 2004 iraq), and advances specific analytical arguments about military theories. He does so on the basis of a sweeping generalization that 5,000 years of warfare tells us in aggregate that war has not changed. While this makes for a rousing line, it is also a fairly problematic statement. How do we really know that the nature of war has not changed in 5,000 years?

We should recognize that this is an isolated quote, and strive to not take out of context what was a heartfelt letter to a colleague in need of guidance. But the argument itself—as the cumulative product of a process of self-education in the nature of warfare, does merit some critical analysis. It is part of a humanistic conception of war that stresses the unity of military experience across the ages, and puts the fighting man’s will first. What Mattis dashed off in an email has been repeated by others in journal articles, blog posts, essays, and books. The military historian Brian McAllister Linn, in his seminal study of the Army’s cultures, dubbed it the “heroic” style of war. Linn constrasts this humanistic style this with technocratic Managers, defensive Guardians, and other military tribes with differing values and approaches.

So what do we know about 5,000 years of constant violence?

Often times the answer is that it depends. As my Fuller and Liddell-Hart examples illustrate, the quality of historical accounts is extremely uneven. Military history as a modern discipline only started with Hans Delbruck, a civilian who did some basic math and discovered that many of the most prominent chroniclers of pre-modern warfare were flat-out wrong about ancient history’s greatest battles and campaigns. Anthropologists still argue today about the nature of violence in the evolutionary state of nature and whether it can be mapped to violence in settled states. Second, it may be true that war is war in the Clausewitzian sense. But while it is technically true that Alexander’s Iraqi opponents and Sadrist mobs are both humans seeking to use force to impose their will, this in and of itself is not very useful. There are fairly prominent shifts in the character of politics, the international system, techology, wealth, and society that matter too.  

What constitutes politics is a very important point.

Take for example, the Romans. There was a definite shift between the Early-Middle Republican eras and the Late Republic in elite politics and the socioeconomic conditions upon which Roman assumptions about war and the organization and supply of Legions rested.  Growing inequality of wealth was making it harder for Plebian citizens to afford to muster for a campaign, the need for longserving “professional” Legates to maintain “institutional memory” of the “arts of war” of the Legions expanded even as the highly coveted opportunities for Patricians to command decreased. These trends clashed with what the Romans liked to  believe about themselves and the friction between advocates of reforms (often necessary and practical) and the upholders of  centuries of honored tradition made Roman politics increasingly bitter, dysfunctional and subsequently lethal. The early Romans would have been horrified by Marius and Sulla, to say nothing of Antony and Octavian.

In the end, the politics of the Romans, along with their battlefield experiences, changed how they organized and manned their Legions, why and how they fought the wars as they did and continued to shape Roman warfare as long as the empire lasted. Julius Caesar would have been as startled by Late Antiquity’s semi-barbarian “Roman” Magister Militiums as his own career would have dismayed Decius Mus.

Adam goes on to have some useful things to say about the need for combining historical and quantitative  social science  methodologies and the limitations of each. Delbruck’s overstated skepticism of the ancients aside, sometimes we moderns do not count any better in war or politics – or at times,  even worse


New Book and New Monograph

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

The Strategy Bridge by Colin S. Gray

I have been eager to read this book by the eminent Anglo-American strategist Colin Gray ever since Adam Elkus sang it’s praises and now I have a hardcover copy thanks entirely to an enterprising amigo. A description from Oxford Scholarship:

The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice is an original contribution to the general theory of strategy. While heavily indebted to the writings of Carl von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and the very few other classic authors, this book presents the theory, rather than merely comments on the theory, as developed by others. Bridge explains that the purpose of strategy is to connect purposefully politics and policy with the instruments they must use. The primary focus of attention is on military strategy, but this subject is well nested in discussion of grand strategy, for which military strategy is only one strand. Bridge presents the general theory of strategy comprehensively and explains the utility of this general theory for the particular strategies that strategists need to develop in order to meet their historically unique challenges. The book argues that strategy’s general theory provides essential education for practicing strategists at all times and in all circumstances. As general theory, Bridge is as relevant to understanding strategic behaviour in the Peloponnesian War as it is for the conflicts of the twenty?first century. The book proceeds from exposition of general strategic theory to address three basic issue areas that are not at all well explained in the extant literature, let alone understood, with a view to advancing better practice. Specifically, Bridge tackles the problems that harass and imperil strategic performance; it probes deeply into the hugely under?examined subject of just what it is that the strategist produces—strategic effect; and it ‘joins up the dots’ from theory through practice to consequences, by means of a close examination of command performance. Bridge takes a holistic view of strategy, and it is rigorously attentive to the significance of the contexts within which and for which strategies are developed and applied. The book regards the strategist as a hero, charged with the feasible, but awesomely difficult, task of converting the threat and use of force (for military strategy) into desired political consequences. He seeks some control over the rival or enemy via strategic effect, the product of his instrumental labours. In order to maximize his prospects for success, the practicing strategist requires all the educational assistance that strategic theory can provide.

I am unfortunately in the midst of a large project for work, but The Strategy Bridge is now at the very top of my bookpile and I will review it when I am finished.

And as long as we are on the subject of Professor Gray, he ventured into the murky domain of cyber war recently, publishing a monograph on the subject for The Strategic Studies Institute:

Making Strategic Sense of Cyber Power: Why the Sky is not Falling

Obviously, Dr. Gray is not in the “Cyber Pearl Harbor” camp:

The revolution in military affairs (RMA) theory of the 1990s (and the transformation theory that succeeded it) was always strategy- and politics-light. It is not exactly surprising thatthe next major intellectual challenge, that of cyber, similarly should attract analysis and assessment almost entirely naked of political and strategic meaning. Presumably, many people believed that “doing it” was more important than thinking about why one should be doing it. Anyone who seeks to think strategically is obliged to ask, “So what?” of his or her subject of current concern. But the cyber revolution did not arrive with three bangs, in a manner closely analogous to the atomic fact of the summer of 1945; instead it ambled, then galloped forward over a 25-year period, with most of us adapting to it in detail. When historians in the future seek to identify a classic book or two on cyber power written in the 1990s and 2000s, they will be hard pressed to locate even the shortest of short-listable items. There are three or four books that appear to have unusual merit, but they are not conceptually impressive. Certainly they are nowhere near deserving (oxymoronic) instant classic status. It is important that cyber should be understood as just another RMA, because it is possible to make helpful sense of it in that context. Above all else, perhaps, RMA identification enables us to place cyber where it belongs, in the grand narrative of strategic history….

Read the rest here.


Elkus on Policy Relevance

Monday, February 18th, 2013

Intriguing and vigorously argued piece by Adam over at Abu Muqawama

Relevant to Policy?

Are we in a 1914 scenario in East Asia? How often do guerrillas succeed? Did counterterrorism law erode national sovereignty? These are just a few of the important questions that political science has some bearing on. Yet barely a couple months goes by without an op-ed decrying political science’s alleged lack of relevance to the outside world.

Political scientists are frequently told their research is too arcane, mathematical, and self-involved to be of possible value to anyone in Washington dealing with real-world policy problems. There’s a grain of truth here. As international political economy whiz Kindred Winecoff observes, political scientists need to make a better “elevator pitch.” But here’s the problem: at the end of the day, there is a difference between what Max Weber dubbed science as a vocation and the subjective policy lessons we can take from our study. Part of that gap is reflected in the difficulties that people with purely policy interests inevitably encounter in PhD programs.

From my own (minor) experience so far, it is grueling, necessitates the assimilation of difficult methodologies, and involves having to think about intellectual questions that many people would regard as hopelessly arcane. Even a good PhD program that directly tackles policy questions will likely demand the student grapple with questions of esoteric theory and method. And not all research that tackles highly abstract questions is policy-irrelevant. Highly technical analysis of game theory and economics generated useful policy applications form the World War II convoy system to nuclear strategy and wargaming.

All of these advances began from the desire to grapple with difficult questions to produce knowledge, something many critics of political science research do not acknowledge. Take Greg Ferenstein, who penned an article supporting Eric Cantor’s call to defund the NSF. His gripe is familiar. Political science is obscuratist, hyper-mathematical, and disconnected from the policy world. Political scientists don’t do enough to make their research accessible to policymakers. Ferenstein wants a political science that his mother-in-law can understand, and he thinks starving academia of resources will motivate hungry researchers to do better. So is modern political science irrelevant to policy needs?

Contra Ferenstein, policymakers have thrown substantial $$ at the kind of research he regards as navel-gazing arcana. The RAND Corporation got a lot of mileage using what Ferenstein derides as “clever mathematical models” during the Cold War.  I’m not sure that Jay Ulfelder, who worked for the intelligence community-funded Political Instability Task Force, would agree that his quantitative forecasting methodologies must pass a mother-in-law test to be valuable. And when New York University’s game theory guru Bruce Bueno De Mesquita speaks, the CIA listens. Drew Conway, a man that could easily teach a computer programming course just as well as poli-sci 101, gives invited talks at West Point on analyzing terrorist networks. I don’t think Ulfelder, Mesquita, or Conway have sleepless nights pondering the relevance of their research to the govermment!

Read the rest here 

As an aside, I have found Ulfelder’s posts on his research or comments on the field at Dart Throwing Chimp to be very useful and worth reading.



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