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On sneers, smears, and mutual sniping

Friday, July 31st, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — not exactly an enthusiast of negative campaigning ]

I’ve been having a series of conversations with my friend Tom Merino recently, and a couple of days ago he suggested two quotes to me for comparison:

SPEC DQ Tom's DoubleSpeak

I’ve formatted them in my usual DoubleQuotes style, but my friend calls the pairing DoubleSpeak and sees them as the starting point for an investigation of the vexed question — who uses the most frequent and vicious slurs against “the other side” — liberals or conservatives?


How would we even begin to measure that? Who would decide whether, for instance, smearing a Republican presidential candidate with a remark that clearly evokes slavery is a lesser or greater lapse than smirching a Democratic president with a remark that clearly evokes the Holocaust?

And who would host a venue where both liberals and conservatives could and would report abuses and insults of this sort, so that some measures of frequency, severity and authority could be employed in something resembling a fair ranking?

Note: on the difficulties of such ranking, see Malcolm Gladwell‘s The Order of Things.


And then there’s Sarah Palin, who used the phrase “blood libel” to describe attacks on her the wake of the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords — because she, Palin, had used a map with crosshairs on Democrats she hoped would be defeated.. Giffords included.

SPEC DQ Palin map blood libel

— the problem here being that “blood libel” refers pretty specifically to the accusation against the Jews that they bake matzoh for Passover using the blood of young Christian children they have slaughtered.

Again, the rhetoric she used trivialized the blood libel, just as Biden trivialized slavery and Huckabee trivializes the Shoah.


But then, hey — if putting cross-hairs on Democrats you’d like to see removed from office is itself an example of heated and dangerous rhetoric, wouldn’t the same be true of putting targets on Republicans you’d like to see removed?

Here’s a helpful DoubleQuote in the Wild:

acceptable or not

Neither “targetting” political adversaries nor “having them in your crosshairs” equates to killing or there would have been a whole lot more attempted assassinations — just the one was bad enough.

Have some proportion, people.


How about that claim that Ahmadinejad said he wanted to “wipe Israel off the face of the map”?

Over the top rhetoric can be rabble rousing, it can also be a warning or a threat, and threats on occasion get carried into practice. So, serious as divisive language and a divided nation is (Luke 11.17), some rhetoric is charged with meaning that transcends mere words and implies — or impels or incites to — action.

Some details. Ahmadinejad didn’t say anything about “wiping Israel off the face of the map” — specifically, he didn’t use the word “map”, and he was quoting the Ayatollah Khomeini in any case. What he said is better translated “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” That’s Juan Cole’s translation, admittedly — but Dan Meridor, Israel’s minister of intelligence and atomic energy, told an Al Jazeera interviewer “They didn’t say, ‘We’ll wipe it out,’ you’re right, but, ‘It will not survive.’”

Is that the end of it? Ahmadinejad didn’t say “wipe off the face of the map” but “vanish from the page of time”?

By no meanms. The faulty English translation was picked up by the Iranians and used, in English, on billboards:

wiped banner from teitelbaum

That banner was on the outside of a Basij HQ.

There’s room enough for some nuance here, but also plenty of room for concern. I’ll include a selection of readings under “Sources & Readings” below..


Oh. Getting back to simple slurs..

Now I learn there’s a new word of scorn, applied by “alt.conservatives” to “conservatives.” Frankly, I find it a distasteful reminder of how low our public speech has fallen — but then I’m a Brit, and rank politeness pretty high — we’re more prone to understatement than plain speaking.

The Washington Post calls it “the the conservative insult of the month” and I won’t go there.


Sources & Readings:

  • Deena Zaru, Anti-Defamation League: Huckabee ‘completely out of line’
  • Mackenzie Weinger, GOP slams Joe Biden ‘chains’ remark
  • SarahPAC, Palin target map
  • Michael Shear, Palin Calls Criticism ‘Blood Libel’
  • RedState, Missouri GOP Senate Candidate Brunner Slams Sarah Palin For Rhetoric And “Cross-hairs” Map
  • Jonathan Steele, Lost in translation
  • Glenn Kessler, Did Ahmadinejad really say Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’?
  • Robert Mackey, Israeli Minister Agrees Ahmadinejad Never Said Israel ‘Must Be Wiped Off the Map’
  • Joshua Teitelbaunm, What Iranian Leaders Really Say about Doing Away with Israel: A Refutation of the Campaign to Excuse Ahmadinejad’s Incitement to Genocide
  • Intellectuals and their Romance with Political Barbarism

    Saturday, July 4th, 2015

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

    Martin Heidegger, Eric Hobsbawm and Ezra Pound

    A  meandering post inspired by Reason Magazine and Charles Cameron.

    Reason.com is best known for giving a scrappy libertarian take on current events, crime, technology and pop culture, but recently, an article by Charles Paul Freund touched a deeper, darker vein of twentieth century history and, in my view, a problematic recurring pattern in intellectual life:

    Hunger for Fascism

    Al Pacino has withdrawn from a Danish stage version of Knut Hamsun’s novel, Hunger, after learning that the Norwegian Nobel prize-winning author had been an ardent supporter of Nazi Germany. The move dismayed some of Hamsun’s defenders, but it’s also a reminder of the appalling state of intellectual life during the rise of fascism. So many writers and thinkers embraced fascism in those years that they constituted what came to be called a “fascist foreign legion.”

    Hunger (1890) is considered a classic of psychological literature, and Hamsun himself is regarded by many critics and writers as one of the fathers of literary Modernism, and an important influence on such writers as Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, and many others. In a 1987 introduction to Hunger, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote that “The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.”

    [….] Hamsun’s fascism was hardly a byproduct of hardening of the arteries. He lived for a time in the 1880s in the U.S., and came to dislike the country for its egalitarian principles, and because it had a large black population (even though that population wasn’t benefitting much from the egalitarianism). His 1918 novel, Growth of the Soil, is a pretty good example of “blood and soil” lit. John Carey, a British critic, cites a passage from Hamsun’s Kareno trilogy of dramas, written in the 1890s, as indicative of his outlook:

    “I believe in the born leader, the natural despot, the master, not the man who is chosen but the man who elects himself to be ruler over the masses. I believe in and hope for one thing, and that is the return of the great terrorist, the living essence of human power, the Caesar.”

    Hamsun, who gave his Nobel to Hitler as a mark of his esteem, remained faithful to the fascist cause to the bitter end. Hamsun’s most-often quoted words come from the brief eulogy for Hitler that he published in a collaborationist newspaper in May 1945, a week after the Fuehrer died.

    [….] George Orwell wrote in 1946 that, “The relationship between fascism and the literary intelligentsia badly needs investigating, and [William Butler] Yeats might well be the starting point.” Such investigations have since been written, of course, and they include the expected chapters on Yeats as well as others on D.H. Lawrence (The Plumed Serpent may be the clearest example of Lawrence’s fascism), T.S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis (who at this point is probably as well known for his fascism as for anything else he did).

    What was the appeal of fascism to such people? It wasn’t just that many of them were racists and/or anti-Semites (though that didn’t hurt); plenty of authors have been racists without embracing totalitarian systems. The underlying issue for many of these figures, according to investigations by John R. Harrison and by John Carey, was an antipathy to democracy.

    “Many twentieth-century writers,” wrote John R. Harrison in The Reactionaries: A study of the anti-democratic intelligentsia (1966), “have decided that culture has been sacrificed to democracy; the spread of culture has meant that the level of the masses is raised, but that the level of the elite is lowered.” As for writers like Pound, Yeats, and others, “they realized there was no hope of a return to an earlier form of civilization, so they hoped for a stability provided by totalitarian regimes.”[….]

    Read the whole thing here.

    The dark romance of intellectuals with Fascism died in 1945. Their bloody affair with Communism has dwindled significantly, but lingers in some quarters still.

    Why though was 20th century totalitarianism so attractive to the West’s leading thinkers, artists and writers? After all, once you got past the snazzy uniforms, the trains running on time and land for the peasants, the overt reveling in barbarism and cruelty by Fascists and Communists was hard to miss – and if you missed it, the Nazis gave choreographed tours of concentration camps and the Soviets held show trials right in the face of world media. Very little of the bloodbath was hidden, except to the willingly blind, who tended to most often be well educated and otherwise thoughtful people yet found ways to morally rationalize collaboration and fellow traveling.

    There are, in my view, a number of reasons. These tended to differ somewhat depending on whether the intellectual in question gravitated more to fascism or communism, but even here there is a significant, muddling, psychological, overlap between the two. So much so, that Fascism’s creator cut his political teeth as a firey socialist agitator and as thuggish a Nazi leader as Ernst Rohm could boast of his admiration for his Communist enemies’ “idealism” and street fighting courage. Indeed, in training his stormtroopers, Rohm remarked that ex-communists made the best SA men.

    The first person to offer a coherent explanation of the individuals drawn to fascism was the German-Jewish journalist Konrad Heiden. In Der Fuehrer,  Heiden’s groundbreaking 1944 political biography of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement, referred to two categories of potential adherents : “Armed Bohemians” and the “Armed Intellectuals”.  The former were the freebooting roughnecks and men of habitual violence who were always restless and ill at ease in civilized society. Men like Ernst Rohm, who found in totalitarian movements a political cause to justify themselves. These men do not concern us here.

    The latter group are also ill at ease in established society. The armed intellectuals are the born critics, gadflies, dreamers, autodidacts, bar-room philosophers, self-styled poets and no small number of crackpots and cranks; what these quarrelsome eccentrics lacked in muscle or raw courage, they more than made up for in the blizzard of half-baked ideas and skill at words which they employed with maniacal zeal.  Heiden’s taxonomy was mirrored a few years later by Eric Hoffer in the groups Hoffer called “practical men of action” and the “fanatics” in his classic, The True Believer The armed intellectuals were seldom noteworthy as intellectual heavyweights – men like Alfred Rosenberg and Grigory Zinoviev were third-rate minds, or worse – but they excelled at propagating ideas and simplifying them in the fashion required to build and sustain a mass movement; ideas as war banners or flags of political tribalism rather than as part of a coherent system of thought.  Or as Ortega y Gasset wrote at the time of the fascists and radicals “….ideas are in effect, nothing more than appetites in words, something like musical romanzas.”

    Yet, as Charles Paul Freund indicates, totalitarianism attracted as supporters and admirers not just intellectual crackpots like Gottfried Feder, Dietrich Eckhart or Trofim Lysenko, but genuinely substantive men of letters, art and science. Many of these did not officially become “party comrades”, though some like philosophers Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt did, most were content to wield their pens as admirers, fellow travelers, enthusiastic supporters and public apologists. Being intellectuals, they were of course entranced by ideas – on the Right, the totemic, mythic, reactionary idolatry and the volkisch ur-narratives of messianic nationalism (much of which was the mummery of fools). Neither Hitler nor Mussolini were innovators here; the bombastic poet Gabriele D’Annunzio’s grandiose adventurism in Fiume, for example, presaged much of Fascist Italy’s swaggering Il Duce and his bullying blackshirts. On the left, by the intoxicating prospect of revolutionary “justice” and being on the “right side of history”, which could allegedly be explained with “scientific laws” of dialectical materialism. It was all rubbish but it was politically potent rubbish.

    There were also material rewards – the Third Reich and the Soviet Union liked to lavish medals, Stalin Prizes and various emoluments on its foreign sycophants, while intellectuals who were particularly active minions, like Heidegger and Maxim Gorky, were given public honors by their respective regimes. This did not always work out well, however. Unlike Heidegger, who outlived the destruction of his Reich in 1945 to embrace and be embraced by the deconstructionist and postmodernist European left, Gorky was likely murdered by his master, an age-old risk for courtiers of tyrants. While the rewards and awards were highly esteemed, see Paul Robeson’s  pathetic, groveling, gratitude for his Stalin Prize, the primary driver of slavish loyalty was always political. Too many intellectuals in that era were fascinated with totalitarian power, accepted cruelty as strength and despised liberal democracy and individualism, unless if it was individualism as heroic symbolism for some kind of impending vanguard  – square-jawed, blond SS men, muscular Stakhanovite workers brandishing sledgehammers and so on. The barbarism of these regimes the intellectuals either ignored, explained away or embraced.

    This longwinded preface brings me to a question that Charles Cameron asked me in regard to the article in Reason:

    “I notice that quote about how many early 20C intellectuals “realized there was no hope of a return to an earlier form of civilization, so they hoped for a stability provided by totalitarian regimes” and wonder how you see it corresponding with current thoughts which view the dismantling of the Gaddafi, Hussein, and Mubarak regimes as enabling the rise of AQI > ISIS > IS?”

    This is a great question.

    The regimes of Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi shared some similarities, notably official secularism and modernization, but they also had some important ideological and structural differences. Saddam’s regime and Mubrak’s Egypt were rooted in pan-Arab nationalism, a regional anti-imperialist movement the built in fervor from the 20’s and peaked in the late fifties with the personality cult of Nasserism and a characteristic that was shared initially in the early years of Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, who idolized Nasser and for a time, hoped to inherit his mantle. All of the regimes were secular, modernizing, anti-monarchical, anti-imperialist and “socialist” in a nationalist style more suggestive of Hitler and Mussolini than Marx and Lenin. Saddam’s Iraq, furthermore, was like Syria,  Baathist in its pan-Arabism and its founding generation of activists like Michel Aflaq, were directly influenced in by the European totalitarian parties of the 1930’s Left and Right and the extremist movements of the French Third Republic .

    Colonel Gaddafi, who came to power in a coup in 1969, was somewhat different ideologically and probably psychologically. Initially a pan-Arab Nasserite, Gaddafi soon went his own way, drifting toward Third World revolutionary terrorism, a muddled Islamic Libyan utopianism based on a personality cult and finally as a pan-African interventionist given to bizarre and unpredictable behavior. Fearing coups, Gaddafi deliberately weakened and hollowed out the Libyan state, including the military, weakening them institutionally, relying upon competing revolutionary committees, militias, secret police agencies and the like run by members of his extended family until the entire structure was more or less entirely dependent upon Gaddafi’s personal whims. By contrast, Nasser, Mubarak and Saddam Hussein were centralizers who built states centered on the military and security services and a government dominated economy that did not tolerate political rivals. Saddam in particular, took this tendency to an extreme in a conscious imitation of Stalin and Iraq had up until the first Gulf War, a complex bureaucratic state, albeit one dominated by a Baath Party run by the al-Tikriti clan (Saddam’s rule slid more toward Gaddafi’s in practice as postwar decay and sanctions eroded the efficiency of Iraq’s government and arbitrary terror and corruption increasingly were used to prop up the regime)

    These dictators, whether hostile to the West (Saddam, Gaddafi) or friendly (Mubarak) lacked the advantage of having a western, fellow-traveling, amen chorus of influential intellectuals as the Fascist and Communist tyrants once enjoyed.  Serious intellectuals and public figures had made pilgrimages to Moscow, Berlin and Rome; no one was going to play John Reed to Muammar Gadaffi’s Lenin or Saddam and say their ramshackle future “worked”. So, when Western leaders, especially the American President, decided it might be good for these regimes to go, the only westerners to defend them in the court of public opinion were those already regarded as minor nuisances, political cranks and buffoons. Furthermore, rather than being viewed as linchpins of stability against radical Islamism, many western politicians and intellectuals of the neoconservative and liberal internationalist variety saw these dictatorships as a cause of radical Islam’s growth at best, or complicit with groups like al Qaida in promoting international terrorism at worst.  Unfortunately, while both Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi had a long and bloody history of funding terrorism, mainly of the radical Palestinian nationalist variety, neither were much interested in helping al Qaida or radical Salafis; Gaddafi  in fact, was fairly busy imprisoning and torturing them on a regular basis, as did the more restrained military backed dictatorship of the Egyptians during most of its existence (the brief period of tolerating Islamism, under Anwar Sadat, resulted in Sadat being assassinated by Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which later merged with al Qaida. The Egyptian military did not tolerate them again until coerced into it by the Arab Spring and pressure from the Obama administration).

    These police state regimes of the Arab world also played an indirect role in the rise of AQIISIS in the sense that their savage repression of all other political alternatives, especially democratic and liberal ones, created a vacuum in civil society that radical Islamism in all its manifestations could fill. This was not unlike the dynamic of Indochina where Ho’s  Communists were greatly helped by the French first brutally suppressing the right wing Vietnamese nationalists in the 1930’s and then Diem’s regime wiping out all the other potential rivals to the Viet Cong in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, leaving the Communists as the voice of political opposition.  The security services of most Arab states, not just Saddam’s or Gaddafi’s, were efficient enough that no real political opposition existed anywhere outside of the mosque from Oman to Morocco, except on sufferance.  These states also played a passive theological role as foils in shaping decades of jihadi discourse at home, in prison, in exile and online regarding the ruler’s “apostasy”, their strategic priority as ” the Near Enemy” and the Islamic legitimacy of supporting or rejecting peaceful, democratic politics as a tool of struggle. During the course of the years of debates, as in secular revolutionary movements, there was a “ratcheting effect” in Islamist discourse towards progressively more radical, more militant and ever more takfirikhawairijte mythologizing tendencies that glorified barbaric violence, all of which was seen clearly in early 1990’s Algeria even before the rise of the Taliban [An important caveat: it is dubious that  liberal or democratic regimes would have changed the radicalization curve for Islamists much as these too would have been regarded as apostasy by Salafi militants, though there might have possibly been fewer of them, at least outside of Egypt].

    With the Arab police states having cleared a space internally for Islamism to dominate underground political discourse the removal of the regimes themselves by American invasion, popular uprising abetted by foreign air support or foreign pressure did eventually enable the rise of ISIS. As much as the cruelty and corruption of the dictators drove their dissatisfied countrymen toward political Islam, they also had means to intimidate, contain or punish those who stepped too far out of line with great severity. No one doubted the ruthlessness of the Assads, Saddam’s willingness to employ terror or the Mad Colonel’s paranoid vindictiveness and when the surety of coercion and retribution disappeared, so too did the restraints on the freedom of action of Islamist radicals. American power was not a substitute for a fearsome native strongman. In the eyes of our enemies we were erratic and soft; capable of miraculous  military feats of devastation if sufficiently provoked, but usually culturally clueless where or when to use our power or against whom, often leaving allies in the lurch or ignoring them spitting in our faces. Instead of fearing the Americans the way they had feared Saddam, the worst jihadis like Zarqawi were emboldened to unleash the kind of medieval barbarism in Iraq that foreshadowed ISIS.

    What alarms me regarding ISIS is that it is theologically a radical-apocalyptic Islamist movement blending insurgency, terrorism and conventional warfare that is also reviving the secular pageantry of Fascism with its grandiose mythmaking, blood rituals, compelling uniforms, Fuhrerprinzip and war-worship. It is an unholy combination that exudes a dark romanticism, a glamour of evil that rootless young Muslim men – a new generation of “armed bohemians” and “armed intellectuals” – find mesmerizing the way young Germans, Italians, Spaniards and Japanese did decades ago. Worse, while we may rightly laugh at the mummery of a dime store “Caliphate” and Islamists cribbing their P.R. style from Triumph of the Will, their success in manipulating deep cultural avatars as the key to power will inspire imitators in barbarism elsewhere that we can ill afford.

    Fascism is dead – but it may not stay that way.


    American Caesar — a reread after 30 years

    Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

    [by J. Scott Shipman]

    American Caesar, Douglas MacArthur 188-1964, by William Manchester

    Often on weekends my wife allows me to tag along as she takes in area estate sales. She’s interested in vintage furniture, and I hope for a decent collection of books. A sale we visited a couple months ago had very few books, but of those few was a hardback copy of American Caesar. I purchased the copy for $1 and mentioned to my wife, “I’ll get to this again someday…” as I’d first read Manchester’s classic biography of General Douglas MacArthur in the early 1980’s while stationed on my first submarine. “Someday” started on the car ride home (she was driving), and I must admit: American Caesar was even better thirty years later. Manchester is a masterful biographer, and equal to the task of such a larger-than-life subject.

    MacArthur still evokes passion among admirers and detractors. One take-away from the second reading was just how well-read MacArthur and his father were. When MacArthur the elder died, he left over 4,000 books in his library—both seemed to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of history and warfare. Highly recommended.

    PS: I visited the MacArthur Memorial, in Norfolk, Virginia, recently while in town for business and would recommend as well.

    The Controversial CTC Report

    Friday, January 25th, 2013

    The Center for Combating Terrorism at West Point released a report on domestic terrorism that raised hackles for a number of reasons. Despite the dismissals of liberal political pundits, the reasons for objections to the CTC report are legitimate but they did not need to arise in the first place and might have been avoided with a slightly different editorial approach or appropriate caveats (I just finished reading the report, which is primarily focused on the usual suspects). Here’s why I think the normally well-regarded CTC stumbled into a hornet’s nest:

    First, in this foray into domestic terrorism analysis, the center chose to concentrate only on the threat of violence of the Far Right while ignoring other threats coming from the Far Left, infiltration by criminal insurgent networks from Mexico, notably the ultraviolent Zetas whose reach has stirred gang violence in Chicago and Islamist terrorism, either homegrown “lone wolves” or from foreign infiltration or subversion. In itself, this is understandable if the CTC plans a series of reports with a separate focus on different domestic threats; but without that context, it is a myopic analytic perspective, particularly given the demonstrated capabilities of various AQ affiliates or just south of the border, the criminalinsurgency of  the narco-cartels. Had all of these been addressed in one omnibus report, any complaints from conservatives were likely to have been muted or nonexistent. This is not to say that the radical American Far Right does not have a violent threat potential of it’s own worth studying; it does and it is real. But available evidence indicates it to be the least organized, least operationally active and least professionally competent in terms of terrorist “tradecraft” of the three.

    The second and most problematic aspect of the report is an intellectually sloppy definition of a dangerous “antifederalist movement”  where noxious concepts like “white supremacy” and wacko conspiracy theories are casually associated with very mainstream conservative (or even traditionally bipartisan !) political ideas – coincidentally, some of the same ideas that contemporary “big government” liberal elites tend to find irritating, objectionable or critical of their preferred policies. Part of the equation here is that American politics are evolvng into a very bitterly partisan, “low trust” environment, but even on the merits of critical analysis,  these two passages are ill-considered and are largely responsible for most of the recent public criticism of the CTC:

    ….The antifederalist rationale is multifaceted, and includes the beliefs that the American political system and its proxies were hijacked by external forces interested in promoting a “New World Order” (NWO) in which the United States will be absorbed into the United Nations or another version of global government.  They also espouse strong convictions regarding the federal government, believing it to be corrupt and tyrannical, with a natural tendency to intrude on individuals’ civil and constitutional rights.  Finally, they support civil activism, individual freedoms, and self government

    ….In contrast to the relatively long tradition of the white supremacy racist movement, the anti-federalist movement appeared in full force only in the early to mid-1990s, with the emergence of groups such as the  Militia of Montana and the Michigan Militia. Antifederalism is normally identified in the literature as the “Militia” or “Patriot” movement. Anti-federalist and anti-government sentiments were present in American society before the 1990s in diverse movements and ideological associations promoting anti-taxation, gun rights, survivalist  practices,and libertarian ideas 

    This is taxonomic incoherence, or at least could have used some bright-line specifics ( like “Posse Commitatus” qualifying what was meant by “anti-taxation” activists) though in some cases, such as “libertarian ideas” and “civil activism”, I’m at a loss to know who or what violent actors they were implying, despite being fairly well informed on such matters.

    By the standard used in the first paragraph, Glenn Greenwald, Ralph Nader and the ACLU would also be considered “far right antifederalists”. By the standards of the second, we might be in physical danger from Grover Norquist,  Congressman John Dingell and Penn Jillette. No one who opposed the recent increases in income tax rates, dislikes gun-control or thought the DOJ may have abused it’s power in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz or in their stubborn refusal to prosecute Bankster racketeering is likely to welcome a report under the auspices of West Point that juxtaposes such normal and perfectly valid American political beliefs with neo-Nazism. A move that is simply going to – and quite frankly, did – gratuitously irritate a large number of people, including many in the defense and national security communities who are a natural “customer base” for CTC reports.

    As I said previously, this could easily have been completely avoided with more careful use of language, given that 99% the report has nothing to do with mainstream politics and is concerned with actors and orgs with often extensive track records of violence. As the CTC, despite it’s independence, is associated so strongly with an official U.S. Army institution, it needs to go the extra mile in explaining it’s analysis when examining domestic terrorism subjects that are or, appear to be, connected to perfectly legitimate participation in the political process. This is the case whether the subject is on the Left or Right – few activists on the Left, for example, have forgotten the days of COINTELPRO and are currently aggrieved by the activities of Project Vigilant.

    I might make a few other criticisms of the report, such as the need for a better informed historical perspective, but that is hardly what the recent uproar was about.

    4GW and Legitimacy at SWJ

    Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

    Fourth Generation Warfare and William Lind was the topic of a critical essay by Major Lincoln Farish at Small Wars Journal. The article was interesting, despite my disagreement with the author on most points, because he was wrestling with important questions related to insurgency and COIN at a time when FM 3-24 is undergoing revision and the role of COIN itself in US Army operational culture is being questioned. Tight defense budgets= Musical chairs at the Pentagon. :)

    Unfortunately, the article contained, in my view, significant problems in terms of understanding 4GW or strategy in general.Here is the article. It isn’t overly long. I am going to be commenting on passages that caught my attention and I invite readers to do the same and check out those made by Ken White and Slapout in the comments section at SWJ:

    The Quest for Legitimacy 

    According to The U.S. Army Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual an insurgency is “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government.” FM 3-24 continues with, “political power is the central issue in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies: each side aims to get the people to accept its governance or authority as legitimate.” Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) advocates propose fighting insurgents with small cadres of highly-trained infantry, avoiding the large footprint of earlier generations of war created by command and control echelons above the company. Even if the 4GW proponents are correct on the tactical level, their proposed methods will not be successful in defeating an insurgency strategically as 4GW does not offer a legitimate alternative to the insurgents at the strategic or national level.

    Premises here are incorrect.

    First, while I do not speak for Mr. Lind, any fair reading of his many columns, articles and posts of the past decade (!) would demonstrate that he was, as Ken White and Slapout indicated, strongly opposed to expeditionary COIN adventures unless they were absolutely unavoidable.  His 4GW grand strategy was for the US to scrupulously avoid “centers of disorder” and view all states, even ideologically hateful misfits, as potential allies against 4GW forces. Where required, the US would instead rely on “punitive raiding” against such 4GW entities but not hunker down in the mud with them on a permanent basis.

    William S. Lind, the architect of the 4GW concept, argues for units to become “true light infantry.”  He writes, “virtually all Fourth Generation forces are free of the First Generation culture of order; they focus outward, they prize initiative and, because they are highly decentralized, they rely on self-discipline.” Discipline is a key issue here; a company commander only has the authority to punish soldiers up to the (U. S. Army) rank of Sergeant (E-5). This is to protect not only the soldiers, but to give the commander the ability to maintain order and discipline commensurate with his position and abilities. A company is usually composed of only three to four officers, and they have little ability to conduct an investigation without disrupting combat operations….

    …. Clear, codified, equitable discipline is one of the features that separate a military from a street gang or an insurgent movement…..

    ….It [4GW forces] should be trained and equipped to use cash to draw on the local infrastructure for most of its needs.”  Lind expects a company to handle most of its logistical needs with a minimum of support from a higher echelon, in other words, Lind is advocating an autonomous company.

    One of the assertions of 4GW theory is that a large military with a  2GW culture organization based on hierarchy, micromanagement. limited or no autonomy of subordinates will go down to defeat ( or at least protracted stalemate) with a smaller, but more agile, adaptive 4GW force. Secondly, that counter-4GW units should be retooled to “mirror” these advantages in initiative and flexibility because the disciplined firepower of conventional military trumps those of irregulars (who of course, lack tanks, attack helicopters, cruise missiles, FOBs with food courts that include Pizza Hut and other hyperexpensive brontosaurian logistical tails). This combat advantage of light infantry over guerrillas is the reason for Lind’s advocacy of “Jaegers“.

    H. John Poole, another disciple of 4GW, goes even further. Poole advocates using fire teams (a 3-4 man team) to perform deep interdiction to deny an enemy maneuver room, destroy minor camps, supply areas, and staying in place for up to three months at a time. In this scenario, how is it possible that the team effects the capture of prisoners? Would the team have to allow surrendering personnel to escape? How would enemy causalities be treated? Would the team leave enemy wounded, and how would that be portrayed to the media and world-wide? Whatever flaws there may be with 4GW, the biggest one is with legitimacy.

    Poole is a tactical expert, which I certainly am not, even in terms of historical study. As I am not qualified to debate the utility of fire-teams vs. platoons or companies, I will simply note that in a different strategic context, both the Soviets and NATO contemplated and prepared for very deep, behind the lines, operations, by small, pre-positioned, sleeper cells. We also have scouts and a variety of special forces units and CIA clandestine operatives running around AfPak and the Horn of Africa – how do they currently handle these problems? Does SEAL Team 6 usually return home from a raid with 50+ prisoners?

    A Western democratic government is considered legitimate if its rule is primarily derived from the consent of the populace. An illegitimate government would be one that ruled by coercion. Legitimate governments are inherently stable. They engender the popular support required to manage internal problems, change, and conflict. A lack of legitimacy in a constituted government results in a lack of popular support, and an end to the government’s actions.

    Well, while I understand the point of contrast the author is making, and I’m deeply in sympathy with the inherent Lockeanism, the idea that liberal governments who have the consent of the governed do not regularly exercise coercion is fundamentally and empirically incorrect. This is easily demonstrated by refusing to pay one’s taxes, or attempting to sell unpasteurized milk, engage in sedition, build a house at variance with local zoning or in a myriad of ways. States enforce law where they do not have voluntary compliance and that enforcement, or threat thereof, constitutes coercion in a very real sense. If a state cannot make use of coercion in time of need, then it has failed as a state.

    What states with consent of the governed have is a comparative advantage. Their greater legitimacy permits their actions of coercion- unlike that of a a hated, mad, tyrant – to take place less frequently and then with with less friction when they do. Enjoying greater voluntary compliance, more legitimate states have moral leeway and the political benefit of the doubt of the populace, when confronting lawbreakers and applying coercion to other challengers to the state’s authority. It is this very moral authority possessed by the state that 4GW forces seek to erode.

     Conrad Crane proposes six possible indicators of legitimacy:

    – The ability to provide security for the populace.

    – Selection of leaders at a frequency and in a manner considered just and fair by a substantial majority of the populace.

    – A high level of popular participation in or support for political processes.

    – A culturally acceptable level of corruption.

    – A culturally acceptable level and rate of political, economic, and social development.

    – A high level of regime acceptance by major social institutions.

    While this is a good guide from a western view of what constitutes a “legitimate” government, not every group in the world would agree, and legitimacy is in the eyes of the beholder. What was legitimate in earlier times may now be unacceptable, what is legitimate in one area of the world is not in another.

    Crane’s indicators are usefully pragmatic in a heuristic sense, but probably not sufficient in themselves – “legitimacy” is a huge subject and has many aspects or facets in terms of internal politics, external diplomacy, cultural identity and both positive and international law.  While “legitimacy” is difficult to define to the mutual satisfaction of military leaders, lawyers, statesmen or academics, populations seem to “know it when they see it” (and more importantly, when they don’t). The rub with pop-centric COIN theory, from a 4GW perspective, is that it is extremely difficult (though not always impossible) for armed outsiders to bestow or shore up legitimacy of a state.

    I suspect that gambit works most effectively with new or emergent states also seeking acceptance or peace with neighboring states and aid from the international community and less well in cases of purely civil strife.

    Insurgencies that are trying to develop legitimacy have integrated themselves locally into the social and political fabric of societies worldwide. They establish a “shadow government,” first addressing the needs of the local populace. Insurgents establish themselves as organizations capable of addressing the everyday problems of the local population. Insurgent groups have set up schools, medical clinics, sports clubs, and programs for free meals. Hamas and Hezbollah have also become powerful political parties within their respective governments. The key difference is that to be seen as legitimate, the insurgent only needs to appear legitimate in the area they are operating in and in accordance with the mores of the local populace.

    Much of this passage is actually in concordance with classic 4GW thinking. I would hedge in that many 4GW entities, for example, criminal-insurgencies or loyalist paramilitaries (4GW entities acting in support of the state) have no interest in becoming a “shadow government”. Some, like Hezbollah and HAMAS do, but an across the board assumption is an effort to intellectually shoehorn all insurgencies everywhere into the Maoist model – that they seek to replace regime as the state’s new rulers- and that is one of the major flaws of pop-centric COIN assumptions.

    Atrocities committed by insurgents, even if they were reported could be easily ignored.  International opinion matters little to an insurgent organization that is local, and is not subject to, or concerned with, international laws.


    Atrocities by irregulars may or may not be ignored. Largely that is the fault of policy, our elite’s decided lack of will in consistently pursuing their publicity, condemnation and where possible, exemplary punishment. That said, whether atrocities by irregulars are ignored or not and whether leaders of non-state forces hold international opinion in contempt, as parties to an armed conflict they are indeed subject to the laws of war and international law. Breaking laws does not mean that therefore, you are somehow above them.

    The national government, on the other hand, has to appear legitimate at the international level, the national level, and at the local level. At each level there may be different beliefs as to what does or does not constitute “legitimate” governance. The counter insurgent has an even more difficult time, as they must be seen as “legitimate” in their home country, the host country, internationally, and at the local level. There is a difference in what actions and processes are seen as legitimate by these successive levels and the counter insurgent must not only be cognizant of these expectations and restrictions, but abide by them as well.

    Generally correct, but all levels of legitimacy are not equally important all of the time.

    The context of situations matter a great deal – first of all, the shooting part of war does count even in 4GW or COIN. It does not help to be scrupulously legitimate in all OF your actions if you lose the war to insurgents and are captured, tortured lavishly and displayed in a cage before being executed on live television.  Appealing to the sense of legitimacy of generally adversarial and distantly located foreign elites may or may not matter vs. appealing to the primary loyalty of villagers in guerrilla country. Or it might.

    It is important to remember that in terms of legitimacy, the counterinsurgent  has an audience of overlapping political communities, but communities of unequal importance to the outcome. All actions in counterinsurgency warfare have political trade-offs. The bias is to ruthlessly accept those trade-offs that methodically and irrevocably advance the COIN side to victory and eschew ones where the costs greatly exceed any potential gain. To quote John Boyd, when considering conflict and threatswe should only undertake operations and policies that:

    • Support our national goal, which at the highest level involves improving our fitness, as an organic whole, to shape and cope with an ever-changing environment
    • Pump-up our resolve, drain-away our adversary’s resolve, and attract the uncommitted
    • End the conflict on favorable terms
    • Ensure that the conflict and peace terms do not provide seeds for (unfavorable) future conflict.

    To continue:

    The 4GW method of COIN does not properly account for legitimacy. Following the 4GW method, insurgent groups will be able to use the need for legitimacy by the counter insurgents to disrupt operations. If a charge is made that the 4GW forces have committed an atrocity, there will be a lot of interest in that story by outside groups. The media will want information, and human rights groups will bring political pressure for a full and complete investigation to be conducted, something a company commander will not have the resources to do.

    I find this passage to simply be strange, given the emphasis that various writers of the 4GW school placed upon the mental and moral levels of war. Whether you agree with 4GW and William Lind or think that both = horseshit, it remains a fact that concern with legitimacy is one of 4GW’s central tenets as a theory or school of strategic thought. See, there’s this guy, an Israeli military historian, named Martin van Creveld and……

    The problem, I suspect, is with how the author approaches legitimacy and the division of responsibility for questions of tactics, operations, strategy and policy. Bill Lind’s advocacy of of jaegers never seemed to me to imply that a master sergeant or captain out in the backcountry would be running an international level IO on his own. In his area of responsibility, with locals, sure – just not when Lara Logan or Dr. Jakob Kellenberger of the Red Cross shows up.

    If the alleged atrocity is not investigated properly, regardless of the veracity, legitimacy for the operation and popular support at all levels will be at risk. The insurgents will be able to use the incident as a rallying cry against the counter insurgent forces. The lack of a full and complete investigation will give credence to their claims, and there will be allegations of “cover ups” and “obfuscation,” by those sympathetic to the insurgent cause. Outside neutral groups, like NGOs and the media, will not be able to quickly and easily refute these allegations, further reinforcing the insurgent’s claims. These claims harm the legitimacy of the counter insurgent operations and degrade popular support. Without popular support the U.S. Army would be forced to leave, allowing the insurgents to reoccupy the area. Tactically the insurgents may have been beaten at every turn, but strategically they have won. Given the proposed structure of 4GW forces, small 3-4 man teams, out of direct contact with higher headquarters for extended periods of time, with a minimum of command oversight- how would an investigation occur? How would media requests be handled, or investigations by human rights NGOs? How would the team or the company even be able to demonstrate that they were not responsible for the alleged crime? Do 4GW adherents believe that the US Army would be given the benefit of the doubt by the international press?


    First of all, all of what the passage describes occurs now, under the present system, beloved by Big Army, of top down micromanagement of company and platoon leaders by senior field grade or, remarkably, general officers. Any incarnation of 4GW COIN operations have not failed in the way Farish described but every major media failure that has happened in the war can be attributed in part, to the current institutional culture, climate and structure that produced such slick American IO moments as Abu Ghraib and “the Runaway General“.

    Admittedly, as it is untried, a 4GW style COIN operation might not do any better than this, but really, it could hardly do worse.

    The current mass of command and control, while cumbersome and at times inefficient, exists to protect the soldier and to allow him to conduct his mission with minimal disruption. To try and strip that away to a “lean fighting force” is to invite tactical success, but strategic failure. 

    Top-heavy, slow moving, risk-averse, military bureaucracies ensure strategic victory?  Administrative process defines or formulates strategy? WTF?

    With the loss of a robust command structure and the protection it brings from outside agencies, it will be easy for the insurgents to portray soldiers as cold-blooded killers, rampaging throughout the land with no oversight and no regard for international law, the UCMJ, or legitimacy. Without the appearance of legitimacy popular support will erode, without popular support counter- insurgent forces will be forced to cede the battlefield to the insurgents.

    Move….out…of….your….comfort zone.

    In general, military history and strategic thinking need to be taught earlier in the career arc of professional officers than the War College level as a counter to the habits of mind inculcated by organizational culture. The relationship between tactics, strategy and policy is always holistic, not distributed between “tactical leaders”, “operational planners” and civilian “policy wonks”. Strategy does not live way up at HQ or in the White House but should be a ladder or chain of implications that reach down to guide tactical decisions and upwards to a national or grand strategy.

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