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Hipbone update & request for your vote!

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — 3 Quarks Daily, Boston Apocalyptic conference, LapidoMedia, World Religions and Spirituality Project, Bellingcat, Loopcast, Pragati, Sembl ]

First, please vote!

[ Note added: voting is now closed: my story received the fifth highest tally of votes out of 45 entries, and is now up for consideration by the 3QD editors in the next round — many, many thanks! ]

My story, War in Heaven, is in the running for the 3 Quarks Daily Arts & Literature Prize. 3 Quarks Daily is a great aggregator site, I’m honored to have made the cut so far, and would love to make it to the next level. My entry is #33 in the alphabetical list here, and votes can be cast at the bottom of the page. Networking for votes is all part of the game, so I’m hoping you’ll vote — & encourage your friends to go to that page & vote my entry up.

If you haven’t read it, here’s my story. It was a finalist in the Atlantic Council‘s Scowcroft Center Art of Future Warfare Project‘s space war challenge, in association with War on the Rocks.

There’s even a Google Hangout video in which Atlantic Council Non-Resident Senior Fellow August Cole, who directs the Art of Future Warfare project, interviews the contest’s winner and finalists, myself included. August’s book, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, is in the running for next great Tom Clancy like techno-thriller.

You’ll find plenty of other good entries at the 3QD contest page, and daily at 3QD as well — as I say, it’s excellent in its own right, and one of the richest contributors of varied and interesting posts on my RSS feed.


Then, in no particular order — check ’em all out —

The Boston conference on Apocalyptic Hopes, Millennial Dreams and Global Jihad:

To my way of thinking, the critical thing to know about the Islamic State is its “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision” as Martin Dempsey put it — and the implications of that statement, both in terms of strategy and of recruitment & morale. That’s what the Boston conference focused on, and that’s why I think it was no less significant for being sparsely attended. In a series of future blogs I hope to go over the videos of the various presentations and spell some of their implications out — Will McCants‘ book, The ISIS Apocalypse, is due out in September, and I’d like to have filled in some background by then.

Here, though, as I’m giving an update on my own doings, is my presentation — an attempt both to tie together some of the strands of the panel I was commenting on (but could barely hear, but that’s a tale or another day), and to express my sense of the importance of apoclyptic thinking, not merely as an intellectual exercise but as an emotional and indeed visceral relaity for those swept up in it:

The other speakers were Richard Landes, WIlliam McCants, Graeme Wood, Timothy Furnish, Cole Bunzel, Jeffrey Bale, David Cook, J.M. Berger, Itamar Marcus, Charles Jacobs, David Redles, Mia Bloom, Charles Strozier, Brenda Brasher and Paul Berman — quite a stellar crew.


My two latest pieces for LapidoMedia, where I’m currently editor:

ANALYSIS: Understanding the jihadists through their poetry and piety
12th June 2015

YOU might not think that ‘what jihadis do in their spare time’ would be a topic of much interest, but it’s one that has been under-reported and is just now breaking into public awareness.

Much of the credit for this goes to Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel for their current New Yorker piece, Battle lines: Want to understand the jihadis? Read their poetry.

But behind Creswell and Haykel’s piece lurks a striking presentation given by the Norwegian terrorism analyst Thomas Hegghammer at St Andrews in April.

Hegghammer’s Wilkinson Memorial lecture was titled Why Terrorists Weep: The Socio-Cultural Practices of Jihadi Militants…

Read the rest

I’m still intending to do a longer and more detailed write-up for Zenpundit on Hegghammer’s highly significant lecture.


The Bamiyan Buddha lives again

A CHINESE couple, dismayed by the Taliban’s destruction of Bamiyan’s two Buddha statues, has brought the larger of the statues back to life.

Locals and visitors can once again see the Bamiyan Buddha through the use of laser technology – this time not in stone but in light.

Carved into the great cliff face towering over the fertile valley of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, two Buddha statues stood for centuries.

In 2001 the Taliban dynamited the statues, built in the Sixth century in the Gandhara style, the larger of them standing 55 metres tall.

It was not the first attack against them.Lapido aims to provide (mostly secular) journalists with insight into the religious & spiritual values behind current events.

Read the rest

I stood there, atop the Bamiyan Buddha: it’s personal.


At the World Religions and Spirituality Project at Virginia Commonwealth University, I’m one of two Project Directors for the JIHADISM Project. We’re very much a work in progress, aiming to provide a resource for scholarship of religion as it relates to jihadism.


Justin Seitz made a post titled Analyzing Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf on Bellingcat, to which I responded, and we had a back-and-forth of emails &c.

Justin then gave our discussion a shoutout at The Loopcast

— the immediate context starts around the 30 min mark, and runs to around 35 — and followed up with a second Bellingcat post, Analyzing Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf Part 2 — in which he quoted me again. Key here is his remark:

a human with domain expertise is always going to be in a better position to make judgement calls than any algorithm

Agreed — & many thanks, Justin!

Bellingcat — definitely an honor to get a shoutout there,


Pragati: The Indian National Interest Review

My latest on Pragati was my review of JM berger & Jessica Stern’s ISIS: the State of Terror, which I’ve already noted & linked to here on ZP.

Up next, my review of Mustafa Hamid & Leah Farrall‘s The Arabs at War in Afghanistan


And last but not by any means least…

Cath Styles’ new Sembl slideshow:

It’s a terrific feeling to see the next runner in a relay race take off from the handover… Cath is getting some high praise for her work on Sembl for the museum world, including the following:

Sembl incredibly succesfully mixes competitive and collaborative play, creativity and expression, and exploration and inspiration. It’s the sort of game you think about when you’re not playing it, and it’s the sort of game that helps you see the world in new ways.

Paul Callaghan
Writer, Game Developer, Lecturer at Unversity of East London

Meanwhile, I’m still quietly plugging away at some other aspects of the HipBone / Sembl project.

My Pragati review of Stern & Berger’s ISIS: State of Terror

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — in which the Islamic State is nicely viewed through the lens of WB Yeats ]

My review of Jessica Stern & JM Berger‘s book, ISIS: State of Terror, just came out in tbe Takshashila Institution‘s magazine, Pragati. Here’s a teaser..


Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are filled with passionate intensity.

WB Yeats, The Second Coming

In the closing pages of ISIS: the State of Terror, Jessica Stern and JM Berger quote Yeats’ celebrated poem and comment: “It is hard to imagine a terrible avatar of passionate intensity more purified than the ISIS. More than even al Qaeda, the first terror of the twenty-first century, ISIS exists as an outlet for the worst — the most base an horrific impulses of humanity, dressed in fanatic pretexts of religiosity that have been gutted of all nuance and complexity. And yet, if we lay claim to the role of ‘best’, then Yeats condemns us as well, and rightly so. It is difficult to detect a trace of conviction in the world’s attitude toward the Syrian civil war and the events that followed in Iraq…”

Stern and Berger suggest that in Yeats’ poem, “the reality of the world is distilled to the razor-sharp essence that the best poetry provides”. Indeed the poem and their comments on it, captures the essence of both their book and of the situation we find ourselves in.

Yeats in his poem writes “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed”. It would be hard to find a more apt description for the IS’ video of the twenty-one Coptic Christians beheaded on the Libyan shores of the Mediterranean, their blood mingling with the tide, than these few words written a century earlier. Yeats writes “The worst are filled with passionate intensity”. This intensity is something we need to come to terms with. And how better explain the increasing sectarianism in the Middle East, than with the simple words, “The centre cannot hold?” Finally, Yeats’ vision is an overtly apocalyptic one, as the poem’s title, The Second Coming, eloquently testifies.

In understanding that intensity, three words describe the major strands with respect to the ISIS: barbaric, viral, and eschatological. The barbaric nature of IS behavior is not a spontaneous eruption, but a calculated move away from al Qaeda’s more subdued approach, premised on Abu Bakr al-Naji’s book, The Management of Savagery, which describes, according to its subtitle, “the most critical stage through which the Ummah will pass”. Al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the revered forerunner of today’s Islamic State, was heavily influenced by Naji’s tract, as is IS to this day, as Stern and Berger make clear. Indeed, to quote a phrase from within the book, their book itself might have been subtitled The Marketing of Savagery.


To read the whole review, please visit the review on Pragati.

New Article at Pragati: Diplomatic Warfare?

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen”]

I have a new article up at Pragati: The Indian National Interest. A review of Warrior Diplomat by Michael G. Waltz

Diplomatic Warfare? 

….Waltz, now the president of Metis Solutions, brings to the table a powerful juxtaposition of perspectives on the Afghan war. As a Department of Defense civilian official, he served variously as an Interagency Counter narcotics Coordinator in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) developing strategies to combat opium trafficking in Pashtun regions, as the Pentagon’s Afghanistan Country Director, as the Special Adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney on South Asia and Counterterrorism and finally, as an adviser on negotiations with the Taliban to the deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration.

This is “making policy at 50,000 feet”, briefing and advising senior administration officials on national policy formulation and implementation. No contrast could be more dramatic with Waltz’s alternate role as a Green Beret company commander living among Pashtun tribal villagers, drinking tea with tribal elders, working with village police chiefs, engaging in brutal firefights with Haqqani network insurgents, disarming IEDs and delivering medical care to remote Afghan districts. Like few other officers, Waltz could see the life or death impact of policy he had helped craft on his own soldiers, Afghan farmers, and the Taliban enemy; but at other times, the blindness of policy or its complete irrelevance to the often ugly ground truth of counterinsurgency warfare.

Though the story of Waltz’s gritty experience in combat looms large in Warrior Diplomat, he also lays out a hard analysis regarding the self-created problems that impaired the American war in Afghanistan, including a paucity of resources, the incapacity of NATO partners, a muddled strategy, bureaucratic and political risk aversion and micromanagement of military operations down to the smallest units, a stubborn refusal to confront Pakistan over Taliban sanctuaries and announcing an early withdrawal date from Afghanistan. There is an additional subtext to Waltz’s story; the transformation of the legendary Green Beret Special Forces, intended to work autonomously in small groups training and fighting with indigenous forces, to ‘conventionalised’ units of ‘door-kickers’ who spend enormous amounts of time on powerpoint slides, making fruitless requests for helicopters or artillery support and fighting the timidity and capriciousness of Waltz’s own chain of command.

Read the rest here.

Some of you may have read American Spartan or my earlier review of that book. The stories of Michael Waltz and Jim Gant are not the same but the setting, their operational environment, largely was. Some of the frankly preposterous, Catch-22 restrictions with which Waltz struggled mightily to comply while effectively circumventing may illuminate some of the unspoken reasons why Jim Gant took a different path.

I cannot say it was the objective of the US Army and ISAF to prevent effective COIN operations in Afghanistan in writing their regulations and ROE, but it might as well have been

New Article at Pragati: Review of Strategy: A History

Friday, February 28th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Strategy: A History by Sir Lawrence Freedman

I have a new article up at Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review, a review of Sir Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History:

Always present, ever elusive


Strategy is a fascinating subject. Seemingly always useful, sometimes vital, strategy is attempted by many, done poorly by most and understood well by remarkably few. One of those few is Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman of King’s College War Studies Department, who has authored one of the most comprehensive books on the historical context of strategy-making ever written. Not content at explaining strategy in warfare or western civilisation from ancient times to modernity, the simply titled Strategy: A History aims to reveal strategy in life in its broadest terms without losing its elusive essence.

It is customary for works on strategic history to have canonical references – Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Napoleon, Clausewitz, Jomini– and Freedman of course does have these, but he has created a massive and protean 629 page richly detailed codex in which also appear such unlikely figures as Eldridge Cleaver, Mutaqda a-Sadr, Satan, Vilfredo Pareto, Edward Bernays, Sumantra Ghoshal, Quakers, the cartoon strip Dilbert and troops of chimpanzees.  Strategy: A History displays an intellectual range of astonishing breadth and texture in clear prose that merits comparison as much with Jacques Barzun’s magnum opus From Dawn to Decadence as it does with famous classic Makers of Modern Strategy edited by Peter Paret.

Read the rest here.

New Article up at Pragati: Lethal Ideas & Insurgent Memories – Review of The Violent Image

Friday, October 25th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The Violent Image by Neville Bolt 

I have a new book review up at Pragati this morning:

Lethal ideas and insurgent memory 

….One expert who does acknowledge a paradigmatic shift and posits a powerful explanatory model for the behavior of what he terms “the new revolutionaries” is Dr Neville Bolt of the War Studies Department of King’s College, London and author of The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries. Taking a constructivist view of irregular military conflict as the means by which insurgents weave an enduring political narrative of mythic power and shape historical memory, Bolt eschews some cherished strategic tenets of realists and Clausewitzians. The ecology of social media, powered by decentralised, instant communication platforms and the breakdown of formerly autarkic or regulated polities under the corrosive effects of capitalist market expansion, have been, in Bolt’s view, strategic game changers “creating room to maneuver” in a new “cognitive battlespace” for “complex insurgencies”.  Violent “Propaganda of the Deed”, once the nihilistic signature of 19th century Anarchist-terrorist groups like the People’s Will, has reemerged in the 21stcentury’s continuous media attention environment as a critical tool for insurgents to compress time and space through “…a dramatic crisis that must be provoked”.

As a book The Violent Image sits at the very verge of war and politics where ideas become weapons and serve as a catalyst for turning grievance into physical aggression and violence. Running two hundred and sixty-nine heavily footnoted pages and an extensive bibliography that demonstrates Bolt’s impressive depth of research. While Bolt at times slips into academic style, for the most part his prose is clear, forceful and therefore useful and accessible to the practitioner or policy maker. Particularly for the latter, are Bolt’s investigations into violent action by modern terrorists as a metaphor impacting time (thus, decision cycles) across a multiplicity of audiences.  This capacity for harvesting strategic effect from terrorist events was something lacking in the 19th and early 20thcentury followers of Bakunin and Lenin (in his dalliances with terrorism); or in Bolt’s view, the anarchists “failed to evoke a coherent understanding in the population” or a “sustained message”.

Read the rest here.


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