Charles Cameron recently had a post here at Zenpundit, Which is mightier, the pen or the sword? Frequent commenter T. Greer recommended this volume in the comment section and I ordered immediately. My copy arrived this morning and I had some quiet time and a bit of commuting time to devote to Cook’s introduction and the first few chapters. This is a very good treatment of roots of Islam and how those roots affect today’s political climate. Cook divides the book into three large parts: Identity, Values, and Fundamentalism. The comparative element is his use of Hinduism and Latin American Catholicism when compared in scope and influence to Islam.
Here are a couple of good pull quotes from the Preface:
I should add some cautions about what the book does not do. First though it has a lot to say about the pre-modern world, it does not provide an account of that world for its own sake, and anyone who read the book as if it did would be likely to come away with a seriously distorted picture. This is perhaps particularly so in the Islamic case—and for two reasons. One is that, to put it bluntly, Islamic civilization died quite some time ago, unlike Islam which is very much alive; we will thus be concerned with the wider civilization only when it is relevant to features of the enduring religious heritage. (emphasis added)
Cook’s emphasis on shared identity is one of the best and most cogent descriptions I’ve found:
“…collective identity, particularly those that really matter to people—so much so that they may be willing to die for them. Identities of this kind, like values, can and do change, but they are not, as academic rhetoric would sometimes have it, in constant flux. The reason is simple; like shared currencies, shared identities are the basis of claims that people can make on each other, and without a degree of stability such an identity would be as useless as a hyperinflated currency. So it is not surprising that in the real world collective identities, though not immutable, often prove robust and recalcitrant, at times disconcertingly so.”
In the same comment thread where T. Greer recommended this Ancient Religions, Charles called Cook’s work his opus. Based on the few hours I’ve spent with the volume and the marginalia, Charles was characteristically “spot-on.”
Published in March of this year, this is a new and important title. With any luck, I’ll complete the book and do a more proper review sometime soon.
The strategist Colonel John Boyd described the purpose of fighting at the moral level of war as follows:
Essence of moral conflict
Create, exploit, and magnify • Menace: Impressions of danger to one’s well being and survival.
• Uncertainty: Impressions, or atmosphere, generated by events that appear ambiguous, erratic, contradictory, unfamiliar, chaotic, etc.
• Mistrust: Atmosphere of doubt and suspicion that loosens human bonds among members of an organic whole or between organic wholes.
Surface, fear, anxiety, and
alienation in order to generate
many non-cooperative centers of gravity, as well as subvert those that adversary depends upon, thereby magnify internal friction.
Destroy moral bonds that permit an organic whole to exist
To be a politically attractive force at the grand strategic level while doing morally reprehensible things at the tactical level on a regular basis is no small strategic feat. Not a unique or impossible one though; both the Nazis and especially the Communists were able to continue to attract credulous Western supporters despite voluminous evidence of crimes against humanity and genocide (Communism still has western apologists in the media and academia). ISIS uses extreme violence but does so strategically with a vision of Caliphate to – 1) to split Iraqi society into Sunnis vs. everyone else and split Sunnis into those who support ISIS and those who are “apostates” like the Shia, and are deserving of death; and 2) to destroy the Western concept of nation-states, replacing Iraq, Syria, Lebanon with a borderless Caliphate to rule over the Ummah.
The ISIS message is simultaneously highly exclusive (extreme Salafi version of Sharia) as well as wholly universal. This – along with identifying the Shia as the enemy force -allows ISIS to fold in a large array of disaffected, angry, rival Iraqi Sunni factions under the aegis of their movement while still attracting a global swarm of jihadi volunteers. Compare this with the self-isolating messaging and behavior of HAMAS who, despite fighting the “Zionist enemy” Israel, are thoroughly despised in the region by most of their natural Arab state allies, the Palestinian Authority and even the radical jihadi groups. Nor is HAMAS able to escape moral damage from committing war crimes in the eyes of the international community the way ISIS escapes harm from committing worse ones ( Not only do they escape moral costs, ISIS flips their atrocities into a net positive by terrorizing the potential opposition and looking self-confidently defiant of world opinion in Islamist eyes).
In ISIS, Global Guerrilla strategy is fusing with the penultimate radical jihadi ideology.
….Second, many scholars appear to be resistant to the conceptually, perhaps even morally, necessary recognition of the implications of the fact that all ‘policy’ is made by political process, and that that process, everywhere and in all periods, is run and dominated by the people who succeed in being influential over others. The substantive content of policy is made in a process of political negotiation among the people and organizations who contend for power, as they must. Decisions on national defence are taken politically, usually with input from subject-specific experts and interests. But, in all systems of governance politics ultimately rules. Prudent assessment concerning the maintenance of their preeminent popular influence flags to political leaders where the limits of the politically tolerable most probably lie. This is not to be critical, it is simply to recognize that we humans run our affairs, including our security affairs, by the means of a political process that is geared to generate power as influence, not prudent policy. Policy does not emerge, pristine and unsullied by unduly subjective emotions, as the ever dynamic product of objective expert analysis.[xviii] This is not to claim that political process will be indifferent to arguments that are armed with evidence of apparent national danger. But it is to say that strategic theorists and defence analysts (like this author) need to appreciate the humbling professional truth that their contribution to debate on public policy can always be trumped by politics.
Third, civil-military relations may well be said to lie at the heart of strategy, as Eliot Cohen claims, but it would probably be more correct to argue that public political tolerance is as, if not even more, vital.[xix] As a very general rule, people will go only whither they are content to be led. Great leaders always require willing, even if somewhat politically passive, followers. Civil-military relations vary in detail, of course, given the breadth of unique historical circumstance that is their particular foundation in every polity. However, this critically important subject does allow authority to an elementary golden rule: the military power of the state must always be subject to authority that is accepted very widely as politically legitimate. The substantive reason for this is that the well-being of society and state cannot prudently be entrusted, or surrendered, even to their coercive instruments. It is only common sense to deny those coercive instruments the opportunity to be more than they should be, given the temptations to organizational mission creep that can come opportunistically to soldiers. Military culture often differs from public and private political culture(s), and it would be imprudent to have one’s national security policy and strategy decided by professional military experts (or their civilian defence analytical associates and frequent functional allies). The price one pays for insisting upon civilian political authority over defence matters is, naturally, necessarily an acceptance ultimately of the sovereignty of a public political will that is ever likely to be inadequately understanding of security problems. It is worth noting that the danger of undue military influence over the policy realm is understandably enhanced when the polity is committed to war (even only to ‘armed politics’ or ‘politics with arms’). However, the peril to civilian (political) supremacy in war lies not only in the scope and weight of the burdens of actual armed conflict, but also in the nature of war itself. By this I mean that the balance of relative influence between the civilian and the soldier is likely to alter simply because of the dynamic and ever unpredictable course of a (necessarily unique) particular war. Whatever the constitutional niceties and formalities in relations, in wartime the state can find itself serving the present and near-term future apparent necessities of a conflict that has evolved beyond expectation, let alone confident anticipation. There is in effect a natural and inevitable tendency for the needs of an on-going conflict to subordinate and even subvert civilian society so that national priorities are reordered more and more in practice in favour of the plausible necessities of war. Not infrequently in strategic history, this re-prioritization in favour of the military security interest has occurred with good enough reason. My point is that even when military leaders are not seeking to reduce or subvert civilian political authority, a context of armed conflict may itself achieve that end.
I think in the second paragraph Gray is correct in the broad historical sense of major wars and existential conflicts. As violence escalates, the war tends to become a Darwinian (or Clausewitzian) ratchet turning in the direction toward “absolutewar“. We can see examples of this tendency in historical conflicts as diverse as the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars,the Thirty Year’s War and of course,the Second World War, which culminated in nuclear fire.
Curiously,the United States since the end of WWII has had the exact opposite tendency than the one described by Gray: the politicization of war as a mere prop for or tool of civilian domestic politics -and strategy being subordinated to (increasingly trivial) political matters- without regard to combat effectiveness, the external strategic effects or the ultimate outcome of victory or defeat. There are, in my view, many reasons for this. Most of them are particular to the sad state of American culture and our current generation of “leaders”, but some are intrinsic to the epistemological natures of strategy and politics themselves.
Strategy, if it is to be done well, requires a clarity of vision that is willing to strip away cherished illusions, unfounded assumptions and more intentional forms of intellectual dishonesty. This is because making effective strategic decisions depend upon having a realistic calculus of actual and potential power, situational probabilities, material resources, psychological frameworks and other variables with which to work. In a trite and overused phrase, strategy has to be “reality-based” in the sense of being empirical, to the greatest extent feasible, even as it tries to shape future outcomes. As strategy is an iterative process and in warfare something done by tactics, the feedback provided by combat (“lessons learned”) and intelligence about the enemy needs to be understood in context as accurately as possible. This means that enforcing party-lines, shooting the messenger, “not-invented-here” syndrome, putting turf battles over real ones and bowing to ideological fantasies (“the Slavs are subhumans”, “they will greet us with flowers”, “they are only agrarian reformers”) in making strategic assessments is inherently a form of self-defeating intellectual derangement, a willful blindness likely to bring loss or even ruin.
By contrast, Politics is not harmed by expressions of fabulism, mythmaking, self-delusion or the construction of elaborate, closed systems of thought predicated upon ideological fantasies. Arguably, such visions are empowering and inspiring by helping to craft an attractive narrative that men find compelling, unifying and motivating to action, including the will to power or a call to arms to stand, fight and die in a “higher” cause. That political ideas may only bear a passing resemblance to reality or may be entirely composed of ahistorical nonsense, irrational hatreds and conspiracy theories is not always relevant to their memetic success or failure. To a degree, the process of political radicalization itself, as ideas become more extreme and demanding, tend to attract the kind of true believer personalities given to turning the ideas into violent or even apocalyptic action. Furthermore the intensity of belief or the closed system nature of the ideology tends to make the followers anti-empirical – highly resistant to information (or even the outcomes of physical reality) that run contrary to deeply held beliefs, as seen in the historical examples of die-hard Communists, Imperial Japanese ultranationalists and fanatical Nazis.
If politics trumps strategy then strategy can only prosper if the political mind is rationally sound.
[ by Charles Cameron -- describing one of two books I am currently working on -- your comments invited ]
I’m currently working on two book proposals for a publishing start-up a couple of friends of mine are putting together, and wanted to keep interested ZP readers informed. One proposal is titled Landmines in the Garden: religious violence and peace-making, and the other Coronation: the magic of monarchy. In this post, I want to say a little about landmines in the garden.
Ali parlays with Amru bin Abd al Wudd prior to their duel, illumination from Bal'ami MS
What I find so fascinating about the story as Rumi and others tell it is that is shows us what are called the “greater jihad” or struggle against one’s selfish nature happening in the context of the “lesser jihad” or war to defend the fledgling Muslim community. It is often claimed that the ahadith which depict these two jihads, with Muhammed obseerving that warriors returning from battle are returning from the lesser to the greater, are of late date and/or dubious provenance, and (tho no expert) I am inclined to accept that claim. Nevertheless, this story vividly illustrates the relation between them — and is one that has been used by Muslim sources more than once to restrain potential and wannabe jihadists from a foolish and dangerous impulse…
The story of the duel between Ali ibn Abu Talib and Amru ibn Abd Wudd is one in which a great Muslim warrior, Ali, interrupts an act of war (killing an enemy in the course of the “lesser jihad”) because he finds himself filled with angry pride (a condition that is unacceptable in terms of the “greater jihad” of the struggle for purity).
I strongly recommend the sermon and subsequent discussion that Kamran Pasha puts into the mouth of his visiting Imam in that episode, which can be seen here:
— and note in particular how Pasha explicitly connects this story of Ali with the issue of the greater and lesser jihads.
If both the writers of a scholarly treatise and the writer of a popular television series use the same story to convince their fellow Muslims, it seems plausible that the story in question may in fact powerfully and appropriately serve such a purpose as deradicalization — while emanating from within the culture and context of Islam itself.
I shall be using that story as the narrative heart of my book, which will explore both religious violence and peace-making.
The cover I’d like for the book is this one, since it emphasizes the peaceable side of things — the terrorist side is only too clear, and in my view requires balancing from the side of the peace-makers:
My over-arching theme will be that religions offer us Pardes, Paradise, Firdaws — a garden or orchard of peace — but that buried within their scriptures and narratives there are texts which, if triggered, can be interpretetd as offering divine or transcendent sanction for violence — hence, landmines in the garden.
I am all for the identification and avoidance of landmines.
Here, then, is my “executive summary” for the book:
War and peace are getting more, not less, religious as we move from the second into the third millennium.
Somewhat to the surprise of those who felt sure the world was growing ever more secular as time went on and the marvels of science and technology prevailed over myth and magic, it seems as though religion is enjoying an upswing — and while this might seem no more than a mild sociological curiosity for many of us, for those concerned with threats to national and international security and peace, it’s a major problem.
And it’s a far more intractable problem than it needs to be, because we have a blind-spot with regard to religious violence: we either don’t see it at all, thinking it’s all just politics as usual, wearing a religious mask — or we think it’s all religion’s fault, or all the fault of one religion in particular — someone else’s religion, one we don’t much like at all. What we don’t see is the whole picture.
There are robust industries proclaiming that religion is responsible for all the woes of our times, and that Islam is responsible for terrorism in particular — and a powerful lobby, backed by US presidents of both parties, that argues that Islam is a religion of peace and that al-Qaida and its offshoots have “hijacked” that peaceable religion for purely political reasons.
In truth al-Qaida is but one expression of Islam — a religion as widespread and diverse across centuries and continents as Christianity or Buddhism — but by no means representative of all that Islam has to offer the world.
In this book, we shall explore the strands of violence, warfare and terrorism to be found across all the major religions — Buddhist killings of Muslims in Myanmar, Sikh separatist assassinations in India, Christian vs Muslim militias in Africa (with touches of cannibalism on both sides), Hindu mobs razing a Muslim temple, Jews attacking the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron… and the call, in each of these religions, for moderation and peace.
Christian contemplatives, Islamic Sufis, Taoist masters, Hindu yogis, Tibetan lamas, and Jewish mystics find common cause in a self-surrender to a power greater than themselves, a power which offers love as its highest goal, seeks justice balanced with mercy, and has compassion as its practical expression in the world. These religions do not merely teach peace, they show us how to find it in ourselves, and how to practice it in our lives.
The great and glorious beauties that the various religions have brought into this world offer us fruits of that contemplative love, foretastes of the Garden, the Paradise all religions proclaim. But there are landmines in that Garden. If we are to come to grips with the perils of religious terrorism and hate, we must understand religion’s potential for both violence and peace.
My book will refute the myths, expands our horizons, and offer reconciliation, beauty and hope.
Your comments and suggestions for the book are most welcome.
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 fromColonel 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 inPatterns of Conflictall 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.
Zenpundit is a blog dedicated to exploring the intersections of foreign policy, history, military theory, national security,strategic thinking, futurism, cognition and a number of other esoteric pursuits.