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Lizz Pearson on Boko Haram & gender, BBC4

April 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- burn the boys & let the girls get married? -- ]
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Federal Government College, Buni Yadi, Nigeria, torched by Boko Haram Feb 2014. Photocredit: AP

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Lizz Pearson pulls all the right details together to paint a vivid and nuanced picture of Boko Haram and their actions and attitudes with regard to gender differences in an interview with Woman’s Hour on BBC4. It’s a stunning story:

This is something that has developed really in the last year, and it’s an explicit evolution, really, in the tactics of Boko Haram. The abductions earlier this week in Chibok have made the headlines because of the scale which is particularly audacious, but they have been kidnapping and abducting schoolgirls and other women really since 2013. [ … ]

The Nigerian government began at the end of 2011 to arrest and detail women and children related to senior leading members of Boko Haram. This is perceived by Boko Haram as a very provocative act. Women are not regarded as combatants by Boko Haram, but they are a way of getting at an enemy, of humiliating an enemy, and they have become pawns, really, in this conflict, in a way that they have been used, both by the Nigerian government security forces in terms of the arrests of women related to Boko Haram — there’s no reason to arrest them for anything they’ve done themselves — and in Boko Haram’s response.

For Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, this has been a real grievance, and has motivated him in making many statements in video messages of his intention to, in retaliation, kidnap and abduct Christian women and women related to government officials.

So far the strategy is different. It’s right that the Taliban has been explicitly targeting girls and with execution. With Boko Haram it’s a bit different. They have in fact been sparing women from execution in contrast with the Taliban policy. There was an attack, for example, on a school in Yobe state in February in which they similarly drove into the school in a convoy of jeeps, very heavily armed, everyone was asleep, they were very vulnerable. They locked the dormitories of male students, set fire to those dormitories, and then slit the throats of many men that they found escaping through the windows — but in this instance they spared the women, they said explicitly, Go home, get married, don’t come back here. In that sense they’re not executing them, but they do have this policy now that Shekau has explicitly ordered, of abducting women instead.

That’s some excellent background — and surprising nuance — to bring to our understanding of the 107 young women recently abducted from their school in Borno State by Boko Haram.

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Ms. Pearson doesn’t mention it, but I suspect there’s a Qur’anic verse somewhere in back of Boko Haram’s notion of retaliation — the same verse which I noted provided the framework for a major bin Laden speech, Qur’an 2.194:

For the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.

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The “western” mindset sees certain actions as acceptable and others as unacceptable, and international law and various treaties set forth the accompamnying ruleset. Much of Islamic law sets similar limits, eg concerning the treatemnt of prisoners of war, but this verse — like Torah verses about “an eye for an eye” — specifies a diferent method of assessing what is and is not permitted — one which permits the otherwise impermissible on those occasions on which it has been visited upon one.

In essence, the rule becomes mirroring — with moderation.

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That a particular class of actions taken by one party in a conflict may in this way serve as a grant of permission for the same treatment to be returned is a feature of human psychology as well — and may be something worth bearing in mind in considering the introduction of any new class of methodologies or targets in warfare or politics. Do as you would be done by…

What I do may appear to me to be an action: what I may miss is that it is also a potential invitation.

I’m not sure whether that’s so obvious as to be a tautology, or so obscure as to bear frequent repetition. It’s certainly an aspect of human nature, variously formalized as tit for tat or proportionality — and in Islam, it is embedded both in scripture and in cultural understanding, in Qur’an 2.194.

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The flute that sets Kurosawa’s Kagemusha in motion

April 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- also the battle of Gaixia, 200 BCE, with an echo late in the Korean War -- and a tip of the hat to Emlyn ]
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Kagemusha, the flute call:

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There’s a sequence near the start of Akria Kurosawa‘s masterpiece, Kagemusha, when a flute player on the ramparts of a besieged castle belonging to Tokugawa Ieyasu so captivates the men of the daimyo Takeda Shingen‘s besieging force that everyone listens for the flute each night:

Our men are impressed. They can’t wait for night to come.

This flute, in turn, becomes the primary indicator of whether the besieged castle will or will not fall after the besiegers cut its water supply. The daimyo’s general and close confidant suggests whe asked:

The castle can stand longer. The garrison leader is a fine warrior. He lets us hear the flute at night. …

If we hear him tonight the garrison will hold. The castle will not fall. But if we do not hear the flute, the castle is doomed. Its fall is near.

To which the daimyo responds:

I want to hear if the flute is played tonight. Prepare my seat.

The daimyo’s seat is prepared, the flute plays, a shot rings out… the daimyo is mortally wounded… and the narrative of the film unfurls.

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I was watching Kagemusha with son Emlyn last night, saying how close the film seemed to come to my current interests, and remarked on the scene with the flute because it illustrates so perfectly the ideas that morale may prove more powerful than materiel, and the arts as valuable in coflict as ballistics.

Emlyn spent a short while at the computer, and found two web-pages he thought might interest me.

The first page pointed me to the battle of Gaixia in 202 BCE, in which Han Xin trapped Xiang Yu‘s Chu forces in a box canyon,

To further break the Chu army’s spirit, Han Xin employed the “Chu Song from Four Sides” tactic. He ordered the Han soldiers and captured Chu troops to sing Chu songs. The Chu songs made the Chu troops remember their families back home, greatly reducing their will to fight.

Increasingly homesick, the Chu soldiers began to desert, Han Xin’s brilliant tactic gave him the vistory, and the Han dynasty was established.

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The second page Emlyn pointed me to was titled The Use of Music in Psyops. In it, SGM Herbert Friedman takes a long (67 pp.) and detailed look at this general topic, and made a fascinating “DoubleQuote” style connection with the first in its near-final paragraph:

The Communist Chinese used music against American troops on several occasions during the Korean War. Soldiers from the U.S. Army 2nd Infantry Division recalled that when the enemy played Joni James’ rendition of Hank Williams “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” on dark and foggy nights it gave soldiers some reason to pause and think of home.

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For your edification and delight, Joni James sings Hank WilliamsYour Cheatin’ Heart:

Here Liu Fang plays the celebrated pipa solo that depicts the stages of the battle, The Ambush from all Sides:

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For what it’s worth, the banner and motto of the Takeda clan, Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain — given in the subtitles as —

Swift as the wind
Quiet as a forest
Fierce as fire
Immovable as a mountain

— which adds much to the poetry of our understanding of Japanese warfare, is known as the Furinkazan, and derives from Sun Tzu‘s seventh chapter:

Therefore the army is established on deception, mobilized by advantage, and changed through dividing up and consolidating the troops.
Therefore, it advances like the wind,
it marches like the forest,
it invades and plunders like fire,
it stands like the mountain,
it is formless like the dark,
it strikes like thunder.

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Beautiful film, great film.

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Commentary on Politics and Strategy

April 17th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Infinity Journal has a good article by eminent Clausewitzian strategist Colin Gray on the interrelationship of politics and strategy (free registration required):

Politics, Strategy and the Stream of Time

….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 “absolute war“. 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.

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Double shield

April 16th, 2014

[Charles Cameron of the Clan Cameron double-quoted by Lynn C. Rees ]

Double shield

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Marx repeats itself

April 16th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- an irresistible application of the DoubleQuotes method to a well-worn aphorism ]
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History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farceKarl Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire.

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remediesGroucho

With appreciation of the wit and skill of artist David Levine and the New York Review of Books

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