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Phineas Priesthood 2: The Tanakh

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — continuing exploration of the Phineas story as it leads to the recent Larry McQuilliams incident among others ]
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pinchas
Phineas vs Zimri & Cozbi
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I

Paradise is depicted in many traditions as a garden — indeed the very word “paradise” (pardes) means “garden” or “orchard” in Hebrew. It is a place where the divine presence “walks with man in the cool of the day” — glorious phrase — a green and fruitful garden, rich in beauty and tranquility, where the purity of love is unsullied by despair or hatred.

In our scriptures, myths and rituals, we give expression to all that is noblest and most generous in our nature: the “peace that passeth all understanding” manages somehow to cross the great Cartesian divide between mind and body, promising us both inner peace of mind, and external relief from war and strife.

All is not well in this garden, however. Along with the refreshing breezes and the sounds of voices lifted in praise, our scriptures and religions also offer us reasons for killing and warfare, divinely sanctioned injunctions to the sword as well as to peace. One of the recorded sayings of Muhammad teaches that Paradise is found under the shade of swords.

Christ, too, is reported to have said he “came not to bring peace, but a sword”.

Like a perennial landmine in paradise garden, the story of Phineas (also spelled Phinehas or Pinchas) lies await in the Tanakh / Old Testament for some reader to take a wrong step and explode it once again.

Introducing this series in Phineas Priesthood I: Larry McQuilliams, I said:

Since I shall be discussing how the tale of Phineas / Pinchas / Phinehas has been used as offering divine scriptural sanction for acts of religiously-motivated killing, I shall chiefly focus on the negative implications of the tale .. Accordingly, I’d like to invite my friends in the Jewish and Christian scholarly communities, in particular, to assist me in the comments section by suggesting alternative ways of reading a story which in its most literal interpretation has been the cause of untimely and hateful deaths

That goes for the series as a whole. In later posts in this series I shall follow the trail of Phineas (the lone wolf) and touch on the Maccabees and Zealots (his “group” equivalents), first in the ancient world, and then more recently.

II

The story of Phineas is told in the book of Numbers / Bamidbar, chapter 25:

While Israel dwelt in Shittim the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel; and the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Every one of you slay his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.” Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lord.

In all likelihood, I must have heard this passage read aloud at least once before the age of eighteen in the chapels of the British boarding schools I attended — yet I have no vivid childhood memory of a God who encourages mass hangings out in the open air. The God of my childhood and schooling was caring, loving, far-seeing (which I understood to be one of those divine omni-attributes, thus distinguishing him from my parents or teachers), and wise.

Thinking back on my time as a choir-boy, I imagine those sonorous phrases about the anger of the Lord, delivered in the splendid prose of the King James Version, must have rolled right over me, like Alan Bennett‘s reading of the text, “My brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man” in his sermon in the satirical revue, On the Fringe — something along these lines:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” Here endeth the first lesson. Let us now sing Hymn five hundred and eighty seven, All Things Bright and Beatuiful.

God, however, has not finished with the Baal of Peor and those who worship it. But whereas in these first verses he had commanded Moses and the Judges of Israel to string some of his own chosen people up in the sun, the next episode describes an independent action taken by someone who knows His divine anger, knows His wishes, and does not need a direct command nor any official permission or sanction to act on that knowledge:

And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation, and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the inner room, and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman, through her body. Thus the plague was stayed from the people of Israel. Nevertheless those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.

That’s a fairly graphic description of a double murder, particularly when one considers that the phrase “pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman, through her body” is generally taken to mean that Phinehas caught the pair of them in flagrante and speared them through their conjoined offending parts.

God, who according to other passages in scripture is Love, is distinctly pleased by this turn of events:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, `Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace; and it shall be to him, and to his descendants after him, the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the people of Israel.”

Killing is killing, however, and it is only fitting that we should know the names of the victims. Our text continues:

The name of the slain man of Israel, who was slain with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, head of a fathers’ house belonging to the Simeonites. And the name of the Midianite woman who was slain was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the head of the people of a fathers’ house in Midian.

Cozbi and Zimri: their names have not perished from memory.

And the Lord said to Moses, “Harass the Midianites, and smite them; for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the prince of Midian, their sister, who was slain on the day of the plague on account of Peor.”

From a counter-terrorist perspective, this is the incipit — chapter one in the still unfolding history of religio-political violence, and our first instance of the “lone wolf” operative.

III

As Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee notes in his article, Extremism and Zealotry: The Case of Pinchas, the story certainly appears to offer some sanction for religious violence.

At initial glance, this text appears to validate extremist ideology and behavior. An Israelite male and a Midianite female are engaged in publicly lewd behavior. God is angry and sends a plague. Moses appears to be incapacitated, possibly on account to his own marriage to a Midianite woman. So Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, decides to act on his own, grabs a spear, kills the offending couple, and the plague is stopped. Subsequently, God confers his “covenant of peace” upon Pinchas as a reward for his “zealotry.” Latter-day zealots in fact have modeled themselves upon the case of Pinchas.

In writing these posts, I take the story of Phineas as emblematic of all the apparent sanctions for religious violence (the “landmines in the garden” of my title) buried in the world’s scriptures, rituals, histories and hagiographies. But the issue is not restricted to Judaism alone, or Judaism and Christianity, or indeed the three Abrahamic religions. Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita gives sanction to Arjuna‘s battlefield violence, and even Buddhism has a prophecy of a righteous war between the Buddhists and Islam in the very same Kalachakra Tantra that HH the Dalai Lama teaches — though in that case, the violence is envisioned as taking place centuries hence.

IV

Perhaps not surprisingly, given its place within the scriptures of two great religions, this story of Phineas, Cozbi and Zimri echoes down the centuries.

It is first retold in Psalm 106, and again, I probably sang these words to the glorious four-part harmonies of the English choral tradition (at the 6.27 mark in this Guildford Cathedral rendition) in my childhood:

Then stood up Phinees and prayed * and so the plague ceased.
And that was counted unto him for righteousness * among all posterities for evermore.

This might seem to add nothing to the account in Numbers, but in fact a subtle shift is already taking place. As Bayme puts it, the Psalmist “quietly transformed the word for Pinchas’s zeal into one connoting prayer.”

It is often the case that the normative teachings of a great religion strongly promote peace and are at pains to offer alternative interpretations of such passages as the Phineas story, while individuals or extreme groups within them still refer to these “landmine” passages for religious sanction.

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In the next section of this post I shall follow the trail of Phineas / Pinchas through the deutero-canonical Books of the Maccabees, in New Testamental, Talmudic and Patristic writings, and perhaps up through Milton and Brigham Young.

A final post will deal with Hoskin‘s book Vigilantes of Christendom, its tie in with Louis Beam‘s theory of “leaderless resistance” and related events of the last half-century or so — and the happily failed attempt at a massacre in Austin these last few days.

I have a lot of work before me, as well as much already written: I look forward to your pointers, corrections and support.

The Perils of Surprise

Monday, December 8th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our secretary of state a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

….Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As commander in chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us. . .

Indeed we have remembered. Remembered much yet learned little.

As the number of WWII veterans decreases with each year, we should recall the visceral anger most Americans felt toward Japan at the time. It was a white hot rage that caused previously powerful isolationist sentiment to vanish overnight. Only with patient difficulty did FDR, Marshall and other senior American leaders persuade an aroused public of the imperative strategic need for a “Germany First” policy. Nazi Germany was the foe Americans knew we must defeat but the Imperial Japanese were the ones we hated.

Racism is usually trotted out as the trite explanation. While it is true most white Americans of that generation harbored  racist assumptions about East Asians this prejudice hardly stood in the way of warmly embracing Chiang Kai-shek’s China, or later figures like Syngman Rhee and Ngo Dinh Diem and the countries they led. No, what galled Americans was that the Japanese had taken us by surprise! The Japanese had embarrassed America by catching us with our pants down, but more importantly that had done it by cheating! They had, you see, attacked us by surprise.

The US government probably should not have been surprised. Imperial Japan struck Tsarist Russia’s far eastern fleet in much the same way in the Russo-Japanese War. The Imperial Japanese Navy had used the question of a hypothetical attack on Pearl Harbor for thirty years in training officer cadets. We were economically squeezing Japan’s access to oil and iron in an effort to hobble their war machine and pressure them into settlement with China and regurgitating their foreign conquests, at least some of them. Conquests which in the quasi-autarkic world of managed trade and western monopolies in raw materials that Japanese militarists saw as crucial for the survival for their empire. Coupled with intelligence warnings, we might have at least been on our guard.

We were not. Japan however, paid dearly for their stupendous triumph at Pearl Harbor. They reaped the whirlwind. So too did Germany. While Joseph Stalin may have been the only person in the world who was surprised when Hitler unleashed the blitzkrieg on the Soviet Union, he was the one person who mattered most. In the long run, it meant Germany’s utter ruin. Tactical surprise is a great advantage but it is hard. Converting tactical surprise into strategic success is a lot harder. While both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz are enthusiastic regarding the potential of surprise, it is mostly on the tactical level and only rarely, as Clausewitz admitted, is it parlayed in the “higher provinces of strategy”. Instead we can expect, too often as he cautioned, “a sound blow in return”.

Why is this?

The reason is that humans are adaptive. If the blow by surprise is not lethal enough to finish them off or convince them to accept terms, after the initial shock and confusion subsides a thirst for revenge may come to the fore. Perhaps even at the expense of rational interests or self-preservation. They may be willing to change forever from what they were to become what can win.

Surprise is perilous.

Is Grand Strategy Democratic?

Friday, August 9th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski – a.k.a. “zen“]

Grand strategy in 1941

A very interesting article at Small Wars Journal by Captain Sean F.X. Barrett, USMC on the state of contemporary grand strategy. Definitely worth the time to read the whole thing:, but I am only going to make meandering comments on a few sections:

The Democratization of Grand Strategy 

Calls for a formalized strategic planning process and grand strategy have been mounting for years.  However, those sounding these calls erroneously remember a past that rarely if ever existed and overestimate the importance of a formalized process and a final product.  Most disconcertingly, they assume that government is necessarily the only supplier of grand strategy, while ignoring that those in government are not incentivized to actually produce it.  In fact, the proliferation of communications technology, which provides the means for accessing a wealth of open source intelligence and for disseminating ideas, and the plethora of academics, analysts, and other intellectuals outside of official government communities provide a more effective, democratic, and transparent substitute to the (oftentimes imagined) Project Solariums of the past.  The environment in which these intellectuals operate nurtures “real devils,” who vigorously propose policy and strategy alternatives in which they truly believe and have a stake in seeing implemented, resulting in a de facto strategic planning process, whose merits far exceed those of a de jure one. 

I think the call for a formal process, or at least an institutionalized forum for “doing grand strategy”, derives from both the lack of incentives correctly noted by Barrett and the frequently piss-poor and astrategic performance of American statesmen after the Soviet collapse. That the resulting criticism, proposals, counter-proposals, debates and domestic politics in drag relating to grand strategy are an alternative, open-source and more effective mechanism than formal planning is an intriguing idea.

Certainly, if a statesman or senior policy adviser have not done hard thinking about geopolitics and grand strategy while in the political wilderness then they won’t do it at all. Once in office, there simply is no time even if the inclination is present. Richard Nixon, who thought very seriously on these matters, as POTUS was militant about having Haldeman carve out undisturbed time for him to continue doing so in a secret “hideaway” office in the EOB. This was highly unusual and difficult even for Nixon to maintain – most presidents and senior officials faced with 18 hour days, 6-7 days a week, simply want to unwind in their off hours, see their loved ones or sleep.

….Furthermore, when formalized strategic planning processes and grand strategy have actually existed, their importance has largely been exaggerated.  For example, Richard Immerman debunks some of the myths surrounding Project Solarium, which is often referenced today as a model for grand strategy.  In referencing the intelligence that was ostensibly utilized during Project Solarium to guide the formation of grand strategy, he argues that, even though President Eisenhower—whose highest priority was to exploit the full resources of government to formulate a more effective and sustainable national strategy—was welcoming of CIA input, this input had minimal impact on President Eisenhower’s policies or grand strategy.[viii]  After such a long time serving in the Army, President Eisenhower had already developed highly formed beliefs about national security, and while intelligence has been perceived as playing a critical role by confirming his beliefs, a lack of confirmation would not have significantly impacted or altered his decisions.[ix]  Furthermore, Immerman claims that he has “never been able to locate a scintilla of evidence collected by the CIA and other agencies that changed Eisenhower’s [mind].”[x]   

While Barrett is correct that in discerning grand strategy in historical eras it is often reified and exaggerated retrospectively -that is because grand strategy, much like strategy itself, has a deeply iterative character. In facing the Soviet challenge,  Project Solarium both responded to and built upon a solid foundation laid by the post-warwise menNSC-68, Containment policy, the Marshall Plan, the National Security Act, the creation of the CIA , NSC, NATO, the Department of Defense, the Truman Doctrine, the X Article, the Long  Telegram, Bretton Woods and stretching back to WWII, the geopolitical vision of The Atlantic Charter, Potsdam and FDR’s Four Freedoms. Project Solarium was not ex nihilo but an effort to improve, shape, refine and surpass what the Eisenhower administration had inherited from it’s Democratic predecessors.

Barrett is also on target when he identifies a strong ideological-political predisposition in formulation of grand strategy. Eisenhower had not only operational/experential preferences but a worldview that he brought with him into the White House and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, had even stronger convictions that, especially in regard to his fierce and almost Calvinistic anti-communism, sometimes render him a caricature today. We have to be careful though in parsing public statements and private assessments. Dulles, despite his hardline reputation, was a sophisticated and highly influential figure in American foreign policy as the senior GOP adviser through most of the 1940’s. Despite talk of “rollback”, neither Dulles nor Eisenhower had any appetite for leaping into Hungary militarily to support the anti-Soviet revolt or supporting the Franco-British-Israeli debacle in the Suez. Still less attractive was the prospect of military intervention in faraway Laos. Grand strategic ideas were applied with realism and prudence by the Eisenhower administration.

….It should come as no surprise that three of the first four members of the 2014 QDR’s “independent” panel are those that self-selected into the DOD and conformed and performed so well as to achieve flag officer rank, including retired Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; retired Air Force Gen. Gregory S. Martin, former commander of Air Force Materiel Command; and retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, former Defense Intelligence Agency director.[xx]  The fourth member, Michele Flournoy, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, has been deemed politically palatable enough by both Congress and the Obama Administration, and one must assume the DOD well, since nominations are not made, and consent by Congress not given, without DOD’s at least tacit approval.  That we insist on calling this panel independent should be disconcerting enough in itself.  The first four members were selected by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will appoint the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the panel, and the other panel appointees will be made by the chair and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.  This situation is not entirely dissimilar to China under the Ming emperors, wherein the emperors’ concern for stability, obedience, and conformism overlapped with the bureaucracy and their strong aversion to changing the status quo.  The imperial literary examination system of Imperial China helped breed this mutually beneficial conformism, and its effects prove quite relevant in this regard.  While the examination preserved the cultural unity and political stability of China, it also impeded originality and experimentation.[xxi]

Yes.

Arguably, the period of Ming-Q’ing decline may have been superior in the sense that the Confucian classics and the exams upon which they were based that were the gateway to the mandarinate were at least, an objective and respected yardstick, however ossified and ritualized. All we have by contrast are partisan politics, bureaucratic culture and the increasingly oligarchic client-patron networks within the Beltway and Manhattan..

….President Eisenhower commissioned Project Solarium in part to devise a strategy for coping with a lack of knowledge about the Soviets’ intentions and capabilities.  Today, however, more and more strategic intelligence is publicly available.  For example, the National Intelligence Council’s[xxiii] new Global Trends series is unclassified.  We now arguably suffer not from too little information, but from too much. This has increasingly democratized the arena of grand strategy and enabled more and more even amateur analysts to help process the wealth of information in the public domain and formulate it into alternative visions for the future.  One might argue that what these different entities focus on is simply policy or at best strategies for individual instruments of national power.  However, even individual policy or strategy analyses might instead be seen as reflections of the overarching principles that they support (and that are often enumerated in the mission statements of many of these think tanks, institutes, and analysis centers), which as Sinnreich contends, are what in fact help form the basis of an enduring grand strategy

Sort of. There are two other ways to look at this picture.

First, that we have an insufficient consensus bordering on ideological schism within the elite as to what America is and is supposed to become that executing  foreign policy, much less enunciating a grand strategy, cannot get beyond the lowest common denominators between left and right and bureaucratic autopilot. This in turn causes the cacophony of voices on grand strategy. I partially subscribe to this view.

Secondly, that our elite, whatever their divisions over political passions or personalities have a consensus grand strategy ( or at least, an ethos) for generational and class aggrandizement at the expense of the rest of us and American national interest in a way that the former 20th century governing class called the Eastern Establishment would have neither imagined nor tolerated. The resulting ferment of “bottom-up” grand strategy is a result of increasing divergence of interests between rulers and the ruled and an erosion of the former’s legitimacy as a result of their self-aggrandizing game-rigging , abandonment of the ethic of leadership as stewardship for “ubi est mea” and a deficit of competence that contrasts with their enormously inflated collective sense of self-importance.

I partially subscribe to this one as well.

Pie Jesus, dona eis requiem

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — of Ozymandias, as Shelley’s story-teller friend reminds us, all that remains are “vast and trunkless legs of stone” ]
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I am very fond of the long view, in which each of us becomes (physical) dust and enters (mental) oblivion — not necessarily in that order — see Shelley, Osymandias, best read by the wonderful Eleanor Bron

I take the video below, with its scenes both of a young girl playing a tribute of flowers to the fallen of 9/11 and of Osama bin Laden, set to Fauré‘s plangent and beautiful Pie Jesus, dona eis requiemBlessed Jesus, grant them peace — as truly comprehensible only in that long view, where oblivion meets forgiveness…
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The notes accompanying the video tell us:

Uploaded on May 4, 2011
Pie Jesu (from Requiem by Gabriel Fauré)

Words : Tommaso da Celano (1200 – 1265)
Music : Gabriel Fauré (1845 – 1924)

Conductor : Michel Corboz
Soprano : Alain Clement
Organ: Philippe Corboz
Berne Symphony Orchestra

Recording on May 1972, in Casino de Berne, Switzerland

Verse :

Pie Jesu Domine (Merciful Jesus) ,
dona eis requiem (grant them rest) ,
sempiternam requiem (grant them everlasting rest) .

Notes:

1) The War in Afghanistan (1979 – 1989)

was a conflict involving the Soviet Union and her puppet against the indigenous Afghan Mujahideen and foreign “Arab–Afghan” volunteers. The mujahideen found military and financial support from a variety of sources particularly Saudi Arabia and the United States.

2) September 11 Attack

The September 11 attacks were a series of coordinated suicide attacks by al-Qaeda led by “Osama bin Laden” upon the United States on September 11, 2001. Nearly 3,000 victims include 343 firefighters and 60 police officers died in the attacks.

The United States responded to the attacks, invaded Afghanistan. This war is not over yet.

3) Osama bin Laden (1957 – 2011)

Osama bin Laden was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. On 1979 he joined the Afghan Mujahideen as a volunteer. After withdrawn USSR, he founded “al-Qaeda” in the war-devastated land and took the decisive action on September 11 2001. U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he had been killed by US armed forces on May 2 2011.

Fauré’s Requiem is one of the classic works of sacred choral music, and Michel Corboz deservedly one of the pre-eminent conductors of that repertoire.

This video, as you may have guessed, comes from the same source as the other examples of strange pairings of music and visuals which I discussed recently in Taylor Swift, Sara Mingardo, JS Bach and a quiet WTF, and I hope brings closure to that piece.

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I tracked down the picture of the young girl. it is titled:

Cazzandra Peterson leaves flowers at Ground Zero in memory of father William Peterson during the 7th annual 9/11 memorial ceremony September 11, 2008 in New York City.

Family and friends of the victims, heads of government and others gathered at the annual ceremony to remember the attacks that killed more than 2,700 people with the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

(September 10, 2008 – Source: PETER FOLEY/Getty Images North America)

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Pie Jesus, dona eis requiem.

Moral Degeneration in the Crucible of War

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

 

The recent post on Is 4GW Dead? stirred a great deal of interest, so I would like to extend the discussion on a point that that is critical not only for those who have responsibility for conducting military campaigns, but for statecraft and policy as well.

One of more important tenets of 4GW was the importance of “the moral level of war”, drawn from Colonel John Boyd’s thinking on the strategic impact of a combatant’s behavior, immoral  or exemplary, on all observers – belligerents, civilian noncombatants, neutral third parties, the media, the combatant’s own soldiers and citizens back home. Here is Boyd:

Morally our adversaries isolate themselves when they visibly improve their well being to the detriment of others (allies, the uncommitted), by violating codes of conduct or behavior patterns that they profess to uphold or others expect them to uphold.

· Morally we interact with others by avoiding mismatches between what we say we are what we are and the world we have to deal with, as well as by abiding by those other cultural codes or standards we are expected to uphold.

In a Reader’s Digest version of Boyd,  heroic, noble and magnanimous  behavior is admirable and attractive while hypocrisy, cruelty and cowardice are repulsive and antagonizing characteristics. While the former won’t guarantee your victory and the latter, unfortunately, won’t ensure your defeat, they will be a significant factor in ameliorating or generating friction.  The impression given by an army impacts the will of the enemy to fight, the morale and discipline of the soldiers, the restiveness of the civilians, the loyalty of allies and the goodwill of neighbors.

Boyd developed his thinking about the moral level of war in Patterns of Conflict  all the way up to grand strategy and above. The rub about the moral level  is that war is a crucible that puts every “cultural code” or “standard” to the test, as well as the character of the men fighting it and their leaders upon whom great responsibility rests.  Even with the best of intentions in policy and careful generalship in the field, the horrors of war can erode moral fiber and military discipline in an army, in a company or in the heart of one man. Nor does every army begin with good intentions and effective discipline – some fighting forces are scarcely to be regarded as “armies” at all while others embrace the darkness as a matter of policy.

In terms of warfare, let us define “moral degeneration” as a degraded state of moral decline where a belligerent has effectively abandoned the operational and tactical restraints on conduct mandated by the Laws of War (i.e. war crimes are SOP) and in some instances, the vestiges of civilization.

A textbook example of this kind of moral degeneration came to light a few weeks ago when a jihadi lunatic in Syria, a rebel commander Khalid al-Hamad, who goes by the name of “Abu Sakkar”, cut out the heart of a (presumably) dead government soldier and ate it on video. Charles Cameron expounded at length upon this minor atrocity here. I am not, to say the least, a fan of radical, revolutionary, transnational Sunni Islamism but I cannot honestly say that its proponents like Abul Mawdudi , Sayid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden and their ilk ever openly advocated cannibalism. It is much more likely that Mr. al-Hamad’s behavior is explained by the ferocity of the civil war in Syria eroding customary norms of the combatants than  it is by Islamist ideology.

Moral degeneration in war seems to spring from two directions:

a) As a calculated act of Policy, from the top down, enforced by the leadership by military discipline and bureaucratic control.

b) As a spontaneous reaction by soldiers or fighters, appearing from the bottom up, without orders and frequently, in spite of them, possibly due to a breakdown in the chain of command, an erosion of discipline or sheer mutiny for the age-old purpose of reprisal, pillage and rapine.

The first category often occur with war as a convenient cover rather than a cause of grave crimes against humanity that leaders and  ideologues had long wished to carry out. The Armenian Genocide, as John Keegan wrote, belongs properly to the history of Ottoman imperial policy than it did WWI; in truth, the Genocide was the greatest and worst in a long succession of vicious pogroms that the Ottomans had launched against their Armenian Christian subjects during the reign of Abdul Hamid and the Young Turks. The Holocaust (which had some inspiration in Hitler’s mind, from the fate of the Armenians) was more closely tied to the evolution of  Nazi war policy but once Operation Barbarossa opened up the vast spaces of Soviet Eurasia, “the East” in Nazi parlance, the war itself increasingly took a backseat to expediting Hitler and Himmler’s ghastly and murderous racial priorities. This is a pattern of a priori planning, an escalating ideological radicalization of society that tends to be present with most of the large scale democides and genocides. It is the organizational powers of  coercion utilized by the state, or a mobilized faction of , it that makes the enormous scale of death possible, not the war.

What is different and also dangerous about moral degeneration from the bottom-up, is that it is cultural evolution driven by the psychological effects of extreme violence at work and, unlike an act of policy, more likely to be diffused widely across society as a permanent change for the worse. Too many German soldiers in WWI, former peasants and artisans and boys from middle-class families, returned from the Western Front morally coarsened and addicted to the adrenalin rush of combat and became in succession Freikorps paramilitaries, Communist streetfighters, Nazi Stormtroopers and SS men. The World War also gave Russia the men of the Cheka, the Red terror and the first Gulags on the Bolshevik Left and brutal and mad warlords on the White Right.

In more recent two decades, the break-up of Yugoslavia unleashed atavistic passions of ethnic hatred and atrocity, while organized society in Western African states and central Africa broke down entirely in transnational regional civil wars with unrestrained massacres and mass rape. As a result, there is little that is political but much that is primeval, at this juncture, to explain Joseph Kony’s motivations; he resembles nothing so much as a 21st century Kurtz. Mexico too is degenerating from the escalating violence of cartel insurgency and narco-cultas – there is not much tactical or strategic value in pagan death cults or human sacrifice but it is spreading:

…Our impression is that what is now taking place in Mexico has for some time gone way beyond secular and criminal (economic) activities as defined by traditional organized crime studies.3 In fact, the intensity of change may indeed be increasing. Not only have de facto politicalelements come to the fore-i.e., when a cartel takes over an entire city or town, they have no choice but to take over political functions formerly administered by the local government- but social (narcocultura) and religious/spiritual (narcocultos) characteristics are now making themselves more pronounced. What we are likely witnessing is Mexican society starting to not only unravel but to go to war with itself. The bonds and relationships that hold that society together are fraying, unraveling, and, in some instances, the polarity is reversing itself with trust being replaced by mistrust and suspicion. Traditional Mexican values and competing criminal value systems are engaged in a brutal contest over the ?hearts, minds, and souls‘ of its citizens in a street-by-street, block-by-block, and city-by-city war over the future social and political organization of Mexico. Environmental modification is taking place in some urban centers and rural outposts as deviant norms replace traditional ones and the younger generation fully accepts a criminal value system as their baseline of behavior because they have known no other. The continuing incidents of ever increasing barbarism-some would call this a manifestation of evil even if secularly motivated-and the growing popularity of a death cult are but two examples of this clash of values. Additionally, the early rise of what appears to be cartel holy warriors may now also be taking place. While extreme barbarism, death cults, and possibly now holy warriors found in the Mexican cartel wars are still somewhat the exception rather than the rule, each of these trends is extremely alarming, and will be touched upon in turn.

The crucible of war either tempers a people or it breaks them.


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