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The Freikorps Revival

Monday, September 14th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen”]

One of the signs that the Westphalian state system was approaching its zenith was the gradual extinction of legal private warfare in Europe (and in America , east of the frontier). While this trend predated the French Revolution with divine right absolutism monarchs taxing and regulating their nobles once formidable feudal armies into harmless personal bodyguards and ceremonial companies, it was enforced in earnest after the Napoleonic wars by now bureaucratic nation-states. To the sovereign power of the state jealously guarding its monopoly on the legal use of force, in the late 19th century were added the weight of international law.

While once it was commonplace for heavily armed “Free Companies” to roam Europe’s battlefields, hiring themselves out or pillaging on their own, neither the Lieber Code nor the Hague Convention took an indulgent view of the professional mercenary or the provincial partisan, proscribing their historic role in warfare and condemning them along with spies and saboteurs to death. By the time of the First World War with the exception of Tsarist Russia, which still had vestiges of pre-modern feudalism in their Cossack hosts that supplemented the Russian Army, all of the great and middle powers entered WWI with national armies based upon mass conscription, run by a professional officer corps. Even America saw its long established military tradition of locally raised volunteer units of the States abolished by President Wilson, who instituted a draft. Wilson it seems, feared the political effects of an aging Teddy Roosevelt leading a new band of Rough Riders on the Western Front.

This situation shifted dramatically in the aftermath of the Great War. Communist revolution and civil war in Russia, Hungary and Bavaria spawned a rebirth of private militarism; right-wing and nationalist “white” paramilitaries composed of ex-soldiers  battled anarchist and Bolshevik “Red guards” made up of factory workers and party militants. In defeated Germany, a vigorous and heavily armed “Freikorps” movement of embittered veterans led by charismatic officers arose and fought engagements in the Baltic states, in Polish and Czech borderlands, in the Ruhr and in Bavaria, where they crushed a short-lived Soviet republic.

Partially suppressed by the weak Weimar state, partially covertly subsidized and organized by the leadership of the German Army which saw the Friekorps as a “Black Reichswehr” strategic reserve against French attack, the Freikorps degenerated, pillaged, mutated into terrorist  organizations and gradually merged with and militarized Germany’s extreme nationalist and volkisch (racialist) political factions, including the nascent National Socialist German Workers Party. Ex-Freikorps fighters became the backbone of the Nazi SA and nationalist Stahlhelm armies of brawlers, thugs and hooligans. They even had their own newspapers, sports clubs, artists and writers, among whom Ernst Junger was a favorite of that generation.

The reason for this long historical prologue is that it is happening again. The fascinating article below from VICE gives evidence of what should be called a Freikorps Revival. Note the connection to the French Foreign Legion veterans with the Azov Regiment; the Legion once welcomed almost as many German Freikorps men as did the Nazi Party.

Meet the European Fighters Who Have Gone to War in Ukraine

….”I spent all day with a pistol in one hand and a grenade in the other, wondering how I was going to kill myself and how many [separatists] I could take with me,” said Chris “Swampy” Garrett, a British citizen and a member of the squad of Europeans fighting in Eastern Ukraine for Azov Regiment.

Garrett had just returned to Kiev after a failed mission behind enemy lines in the small village of Shyrokyne. His team had been surrounded and cut off from Ukrainian positions before the men fled. He spent over 14 hours trapped behind an enemy advance, fighting in close quarters and taking shelter from friendly artillery fire, before sneaking out of the village under the cover of darkness.

For Garrett, who has served in the British army and done humanitarian de-mining work in the Karen State on the Thai/Myanmar border, the decision to join the Azov Battalion was a simple one: “One day they posted up on the [Azov Battalion] Facebook site, asking, ‘We need people who have any kind of knowledge with first aid, volunteering, with basic military skills, de-mining, anything. If you have any skills at all, to any level, can you come and help?’ So I kind of saw that as my route in, even if I didn’t stay with the [Azov] Battalion. [It was] my surest way to get into the country—get into the east and then be able to see the bigger picture from there.”

….Garrett is not the only member of the group of European soldiers who came to defend Ukrainian sovereignty. But while some came to protect Ukraine, others here came to fight for conservative and nationalist politics in Ukraine’s relatively open political space. For Harley, a 42-year-old from France who served in the French navy and later in the private security industry, involvement was two-sided: he came “to help Ukraine against Russia” and wears a “Fuck U Putin” bracelet on his wrist, but joined Azov because its politics were similar to his own: “Azov,” he said, propagated a political agenda that “was closer to my idea.” 

Azov’s politics have drawn fire for being far-right to the point of neo-Nazism; “If you want to find Nazis, [Azov] is the place to come,” one soldier told me on the way to the frontline. And yet, the political reality of Azov is much more complicated than that. One soldier in the European group told me he estimates that around 20 percent of the battalion could be considered neo-Nazis, while David Eriksson—a 48-year-old Swede who owns real estate and marketing businesses—said: “I think almost 100 percent of foreigners—it used to be maybe 90 percent of foreigners—are not Nazis. They are here to fight.”

Read the rest here.

This may be a meta-trend. Everywhere, rootless young (and some not so young) men are turning their backs on civilized existence and seeking out answers to life or a quick death in lawless conflict zones. Third generation European Muslims who leave families and communities to join ISIS in Syria while American and Dutch motorcycle gang members show up to fight with the Kurdish Peshmerga. Russian outlaw bikers by contrast are Putin’s Cossacks in the Crimea and Donbass while in Pakistan the ISI has made funneling angry young men into terrorist groups and militias something of a cottage industry

Some of these men will never return, but most will. If the lessons of history are to be reckoned, this bodes poorly for the future. They will bring a Darwinian outlook and a politics of the gun.

Takfir squared, Prisoners Dilemma and MC Escher

Friday, January 16th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — call it backlash, backfire, or blowback, somewhere they’re dclaring takfir on the takfiris ]

Ali Minai at BrownPundits has a worthwhile take on what he calls, paradoxically enough, Unreal Islam, from which I’ve excerpted this paragraph:

However, another version of takfir is now afoot in the world. Call it “reverse takfir”. Unlike the militant version, it is well-intentioned and self-consciously humane, but it is also dangerous. This “benign” version of takfir is epitomized by the idea that the acts of violence being committed by self-proclaimed holier-than-thou Muslims are not the acts of “real Muslims” and do not represent “real Islam”. In effect, it declares the terrorists to be infidels! The idea is widespread, and is espoused in three different contexts: By well-meaning non-Muslims (such as Presidents Bush and Obama) seeking to avoid stereotyping and the implication of collective guilt; by ordinary Muslims wishing to dissociate themselves from the beheaders; by Muslim sectarians wishing to separate their brand of orthodoxy from that espoused by terrorists; and – most ironically – by Muslim governments and security forces seeking an “Islamic” justification for attacking extremist fellow Muslims, thus implicitly buying into the central jihadi argument of apostasy as a capital offense. The urge to do this reverse takfir is understandable and not without factual basis: Most Muslims are indeed not violent extremists who wish to kill infidels. And it does help protect innocent Muslims from backlash, which is rather important. The problem, however, is that it also feeds the narrative of denial and deniability that allows the militancy to thrive.


Call it reversal, call it backlash, backfire, blowback, call it enantriodromia, eye-for-an-eye, tit-for-tat — the return of violence for violence seems both instinctual, in the sense that a desire for vengeance seems to spring unprompted in the individual, and culturally embedded, in that it can be found in Torah and Pashtunwali alike, and elsewhere, and elsewhere.

Whether the individual instinct can usefully be separated from cultural instinct is at least a question, perhaps a koan — but it was Axelrod‘s insight, working on the Prisoners Dilemma in game theory, that the “strategy” of tit-for-tat may best be considered as an iterative process, .. for-tit-for-tat-for-tit-for-tat-for .. rather than as an isolated instance, tit-for-tat-period.

Gandhi made the same leap to iterative thinking when he said:

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind

— or did he?


Iteration requires that we pull back, to see not just “my / our” response — which is probably self-evident, if not so all-consuming as to be omnipresent and invisible — but to see “both sides”.

We move from:

Escher one hand drawing

— which is the natural or “default” view, equivalent to the righteous indignation of one’s own side in a conflict, to:

Escher drawing_hands

— which definitely seems paradoxical on the face of it, and which notably doesn’t give preference to one side or one hand over the other — Doug Hofstadter‘s celebrated diagram illustrates the process thus:

Hofstadter Escher hands


Lincoln uses this strategy in his Second Inaugural, in describing the Civil War:

Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.

It is to a large extent the elevation of Lincoln’s comments above partisanship into inclusivity, surely, which gives that great speech its greatness.


For your further consideration:

Robert Axelrod:

  • The Evolution of Cooperation, 1984
  • The Complexity of Cooperation, 1997
  • The Evolution of Cooperation, revised 2006
  • Doris Schattschneider:

  • M.C. Escher: Visions of Symmetry
  • US Foreign Policy, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

    Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

    The Obama administration, though they would not characterize it as such nor have much desire to acknowledge it at all, have attempted  a strategic detente with the “moderate” elements of political Islam.

    This policy has not been entirely consistent; Syria, for example, is a quagmire the administration has wisely refrained from wading directly into despite the best efforts of R2P advocates to drag us there.  But more importantly, under President Obama the US supported the broad-based Arab Spring popular revolt against US ally, dictator Hosni Mubarak, and pushed the subsequent ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Libyan revolution against the entirely mad Colonel Gaddafi. These appear to be geopolitical “moves” upon which the Obama administration hopes to build.

    I would like to emphasize that there is one legitimate and valid strategic pro to this sub rosa policy; namely, if everything went well, it would provide the United States with powerful triangulation against revolutionary, apocalyptic, radical Islamism as expressed by al Qaida and various Salafi extremist movements. There are reasons, rooted in takfirism, strategy and the politics of lunacy that our terrorist enemies frequently hate and revile the Brotherhood as traitors, apostates or whatever. Isolating the most actively dangerous and violent revolutionary enemies from a large mass of potential allies is, at least, a good strategic goal.

    It is also my view, that this “outreach” is as politically sensitive  to the Obama administration as was the China Opening was to Nixon and about which they have been equally opaque and misleading for fear of a domestic backlash. The weird, foot-dragging, dissembling, embittered, kabuki drama inside the Beltway about public statements and intelligence on whether Benghazi was caused by obscure crackpot Islamophobic film makers or a well-orchestrated terrorist attack  is in my view due to a major foreign policy strategy never having been framed in public for what it is. I’m sure people will differ strongly with me on this (which is fine), but I would characterize detente with Islamists as a strategic shift on par with the “Pivot to Asia”.

    The downside here is that first, things are not likely to come out well at all, as unfinished revolutions tend to give birth to monsters; and secondly, any detente with “moderate” political Islam is an uncertain gamble based on certain exceptionally optimistic conceptions of not only what the Brotherhood might do, but about it’s very nature.

    While the removal of Arab dictators resonated with American values , it was questionable realpolitik while the administration’s de facto support of  Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faction over poorly organized secular liberal modernists was an act of realpolitik that required a compromise of the democratic values so recently invoked to justify abandoning Mubarak. This was cynical diplomatic flexibility worthy of Talleyrand.

    Unfortunately, the most democratic thing – perhaps the only thing – about Mr. Morsi and his Brotherhood supporters was his election.

    The Egyptian people who are subjected now to thuggery from both Morsi’s Islamist stormtroopers and from the security forces of the Egyptian military are less sanguine than are the Brotherhood’s cheerleaders inside the administration. The Egyptian people, in fact, seem to be in revolt against domination by the Muslim Brotherhood’s shadow government.

    The first question to ask in assessing if the Obama administration policy here is wise would be “What is the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood?” Americans love to personalize foreign policy, but if  Morsi were to be toppled or die, the Brotherhood will remain what it currently is, the best organized political force in Egypt and one widely influential throughout the Arab world and the West itself.

    I am not an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood, nor am I an Arabist by education. Most of us aren’t – a group that I fear includes most of the Obama administration officials involved in shaping this policy. Almost fifty years after King Faisal determined to export Wahhabism, more than thirty years since Khomeini’s Revolution and more than ten years since 9/11 the USG still has less in-house expertise related to Islam than it did about the Soviet Union and Communism a decade after the Berlin Blockade.

    Perhaps we all should begin learning more?

    Here is an analysis from FPRI; it is extremely critical but it touches on organizational aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood that I have not seen elsewhere (hat tip to David Ronfeldt). Feel free to suggest others, both for and against. The Brotherhood is a very large group with a long history that includes violence , terrorism and subversion on one hand and peacefully representing expressions of pious, middle-class, social conservatism in other places and times:

    Lecture Transcript: What Every American Should Know about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Delivered by Eric Trager 

    ….Two years ago when I was doing my dissertation fieldwork in Cairo, I sought out interviews with leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood, and I was referred to a man named Muhammad Morsi, now the President of Egypt. At the time, President Mubarak was ill and had gone off to Europe for operations amid a lot of mystery surrounding his health. I asked Muhammad Morsi whether the Muslim Brotherhood would run a presidential candidate if Mubarak died tomorrow. Here is what he said:

    [From an audio file played by Trager]

    Eric Trager: You don’t see the Muslim Brotherhood nominating a presidential candidate [if Mubarak dies tomorrow]?

    Muhammad Morsi: No… because society is not ready… Our society is not ready yet to really defend its worth. We want a society to carry on its responsibilities, and we are part of this society. Another thing, if we are rushing things, then I don’t think that leads to a real stable position.

    When he made that statement, I don’t think he was lying, and I don’t think he was being coy. I think that he didn’t expect that he would be faced with this reality in a mere six months. He did not expect that Mubarak would step down six months later and, to be completely honest with you, neither did I. My dissertation was entitled “Egypt: Durable Authoritarianism”—until the revolution.

    What did Morsi mean when he said that the Brotherhood was trying to build a society? Let me give you some background on the Muslim Brotherhood. It was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, who was a schoolteacher in Ismailia. The Muslim Brotherhood’s goal was then—and remains now—to establish an Islamic state in Egypt. The way it pursues this goal is by trying to Islamize Egyptian society. Through social services, education, and the mosque, it sought to make Egyptians more religious and more Islamic as a grassroots strategy for building an Islamic state. That’s very, very different from a strategy that says, “We’re going to run for president, run for the Parliament, and use that power to transform society.” Rather, the Brotherhood says, in effect, “We’re going to Islamize society to build towards power.” It was a long-term strategy; it took them 84 years before they ran for and won the presidency. So Morsi told me in 2010 that the Muslim Brotherhood was not going to run for the presidency because it was not done Islamizing Egyptian society….

    Read the rest here.

    Sow wind, reap whirlwind

    Sunday, December 30th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — on blowback, in praise of a Gregory Johnsen post, and literacy ]

    William Blake, The Lord Answering Job Out of the Whirlwind


    ED Hirsch and Joseph F Kett‘s New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy doesn’t appear to have an entry for the phrase “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” which is straight out of the prophet Hosea and is now something of a proverb in the form “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind”. Hunh.

    It’s an elegant phrase. The translators of the King James Bible were masterful in their singular ear for English, and no doubt Hosea‘s original Hebrew (Hosea 8.7) is no less pithy. Seed preceding harvest is about as basic a notion of cause resulting in effect as one can find in the lived world of agriculture, with the actual mechanism through which it comes to pass hidden in the “black box” between them where, as another biblical passage (John 12.24) puts it:

    unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.


    Sow the wind…

    It doesn’t sound like much, does it? Put an airy nothing in the ground…

    reap the whirlwind.

    If you were within media reach of the devastation that Sandy caused to New York and New Jersey — or Haiti (yet again) for that matter — you know what reaping the whirlwind is about. And the proverb, with the prophet behind it, tells us we get it by sowing the wind.



    Gregory Johnsen, in a recent Waq-al-Waq post, Sowing the Wind: Three years of strikes in Yemen, pulls together three recent news pieces on Yemen to give us a view from 30,000 feet — in which blowback is clearly visible as the “whirlwind” his title implies we are already beginning to reap.

    This sort of “here’s how the weather system looks from above” picture comes from the juxtaposition of key quotes, and since that’s one of my specialties, I’ll present two quotes that Johnsen selected in my own format devised with just that sort of exercise in mind:

    That first quote is from Letta Tayler in Foreign Policy, and the second from Sudarsan Raghavan in the Washington Post.

    As Johnsen puts it:

    This is clear: the US bombs, kills civilians and AQAP sends compensation – ie, helps out the families that have been killed – and takes advantage of the carnage the US has sown to reap more recruits.

    This is at once all too sad, and at the same time all too predictable.


    There’s plenty more in Johnsen’s post, obviously, and being a trawler for religious details, I myself was particularly amused, or maybe alarmed, by this sentence:

    That opening strike in the US’ war against AQAP in Yemen was a disaster, a strike so bad that the Pentagon lawyer who authorized it famously said later: “if I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession.”

    Indeed, as I hope to show shortly in a review of his book, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, Johnsen has a great deal to tell us, and he tells it with the added grace of a real appreciation for the language he uses.

    Which brings me to the reason why I singled this particular post for commendation, given that I read a number of insightful people on a number of interesting topics each day.

    Gregory Johnsen is literate, lettered.


    I can’t estimate for myself just how many people would know and recognize the Hosea quote, nor how many more would at least know the proverb “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind” well enough to recognize its first half and provide the second half from memory… That’s why I looked it up in Hirsch’s New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. And when I didn’t find it there, I have to say I wasn’t surprised.

    Way back in 19232, was it, TS Eliot was dropping snippets of already obscure (obsolete?) texts in English, Italian, Latin, and French — from Thomas Kyd‘s Spanish Tragedy, Dante‘s Purgatorio, the Pervigilium Veneris, and Gérard de Nerval‘s El Desdichado — into his poem The Waste Land, with the comment “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

    As Eliot would note later in Burnt Norton, “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place…”… And how much more so the myths, fables and proverbs made of them — myths, fables and proverbs which pass down the embodied wisdom of generations, as this proverb from Hosea passes down embodied wisdom about blowback — or negative positive feedback loops, as a latter-day Hosea might call them.

    Johnsen is, precisely in this sense, literate, and in addition to the benefit his analysis brings, it’s a delight to read him for that very reason.

    But there’s an even bigger issue here — the one Eliot was on about — the question of what happens when we lose the cultural underpinnings which, I’ll repeat, pass down the embodied wisdom of generations?

    Johnsen speaks to the present, to Yemen, to the Yemeni people and to American politics. But in quoting that fragment of a proverb in his title, and expecting us to recognize it, he also speaks to memory, to culture, and to wisdom — wisdom, the capacity to act wisely — to which memory and culture are portals.


    William Blake painted The Lord Answering Job Out of the Whirlwind, which I’ve placed at the top of this post, and it is said in Job 38.1, “the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind”.

    In a forthcoming post — how often have I posted those words, and how seldom do I manage to fullfil them? — I hope to address the other possibility, the one in which as I Kings 19 has it (verses 11-12):

    And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

    But the Lord was not in the wind — it might be nice if the evangelists of righteous doom would remember that verse, before they inform us that a hurricane like Sandy is simply God reproving Cuba, Haiti and the eastern seaboard of the United States!

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