zenpundit.com » empire

Archive for the ‘empire’ Category

Book Review: Thucydides:The Reinvention of History by Donald Kagan

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Thucydides: The Reinvention of History by Donald Kagan 

Donald Kagan, who has been a professor of history and classics at Yale University almost as long as I have been alive has written a provocative book about Thucydides that challenges both conventional scholarly wisdom regarding the man who shares the title of “The Father of History” and the purpose of the book Thucydides meant to be “a possession forever”, The Peloponnesian War. In Kagan’s interpretation, Thucydides is the father of historical revisionism whose careful methodology furthered a political agenda: to defend the record of the Periclean state in Athens, where democracy was moderated by the wise statesmanship of the old aristocratic elite; and lay the blame for the downfall of Athens at Spartan hands on the vulgar hubris of radical democracy of mob and demagogue.

Thucydides is tightly focused argument about Thucydidean omissions, juxtapositions and treatment of sources and bias in his analytical rendering of military events and debates in the Assembly, not a comprehensive examination of  The Peloponnesian War. Specifically, the treatment of Pericles and Nicias (whom Kagan argues Thucydides favors and whom Kagan blames for failures of strategy and execution, especially the latter) vs. that he meted out to Cleon, Alcibiades and Demosthenes. Kagan criticizes Thucydides for the deliberate omission of speeches of Periclean opponents in debates where he  had been present and purporting to know the thoughts of actors where definitely had been absent, in exile; of faulty military analysis of the situation of the Spartan garrison besieged on Sphacteria due to personal enmity with Cleon and of the original expedition to Syracuse, because of favortism toward Nicias.

On Nicias in particular, a fellow aristocrat in favor of strategic restraint whom Kagan ascribes blame for the disaster in Sicily, did Thucydides seek a radical revision of the contemporary Athenian opinion. It was Thucydides belief that the post-Periclean democracy was a reckless, superstitious and greedy mob that led him, Kagan argues, to craft his narrative as an apologia for the inept statesmanship and incompetent generalship of Nicias that brought Athens to utter ruin in Sicily. Kagan’s accusations of bias on Thucydides part are more persuasive than his contention that the original expedition to Syracuse of sixty ships was a justifiable and sensible endeavor.

Kagan’s charges against Thucydides indirectly raise the larger question of politics in postwar Athens. A democracy shorn of it’s empire, long walls and fleet, defeated in external war but triumphant in brutal civil strife over it’s internal oligarchic enemies, was in all likelihood a dangerous place. Xenophon felt as a follower of Socrates, who had been associated with the reviled Alcibiades and Critias, that it was politic to leave Athens for his march upcountry under the banner of Cyrus. Socrates was unjustly put to death by the democratic faction. Writing from retirement in the luxury of a distant estate was a wiser option for a man of Thucydides’ opinions in that era than a return to the political fray in Athens and in part, would explain his supposed “revisionism”.

Strongly recommended.

A Multi-Disciplinary Approach?: Coerr’s The Eagle and the Bear Outline

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Here is something for the learned readership to chew on.

As you are probably all aware, in the hard sciences it is common for research papers to be the product of large, multidiciplinary, teams with, for example, biochemists working with physicists, geneticists, bioinformatics experts, mathematicians and so on. In the social sciences and humanities, not so much. Traditional disciplinary boundaries and methodological conservatism often prevail or are even frequently the subject of heated disputes when someone begins to test the limits of academic culture

I’m not sure why this has to be so for any of us not punching the clock in an ivory tower.

The organizer of the Boyd & Beyond II Conference, Stan Coerr, a GS-15 Marine Corps, Colonel Marine Corps Reserve and Iraq combat veteran, several years ago, developed a very intriguing analytical outline of thirty years of Afghan War, which I recommend that you take a look at:

The Eagle and the Bear: First World Armies in Fourth World Insurgencies by Stan Coerr


There are many potential verges for collaboration in this outline – by my count, useful insights can be drawn by from the following fields:

Military History
Strategic Studies
Security Studies
COIN Theory
Operational Design
Diplomatic History
Soviet Studies
Intelligence History
International Relations
Area Studies
Islamic Studies
Military Geography
Network Theory

I’m sure that I have missed a few.

It would be interesting to crowdsource this doc a little and get a discussion started. Before I go off on a riff about our unlamented Soviet friends, take a look and opine on any section or the whole in the comments section.

Trial of a Thousand Years, by Charles Hill—a review

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

 trial of thousand years

by J. Scott Shipman 

Trial of a Thousand Years, World Order and Islamism, by Charles Hill

Ambassador Charles Hill’s Grand Strategies, Literature, Statecraft, and World Order was the best book I read in 2010, so I had high expectations for this volume and was not disappointed. Ambassador Hill provides a 35,000-foot view of the relationships between the West and Islam in history focusing on the subtitle of his earlier work in the form of “world order.”

Unsurprisingly, as in Grand Strategies Hill goes back to the roots of modern order in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). He provides a brief review of the world ushered in by the men who negotiated, and quotes another historian who said, “men who were laboring, each in his own way, for the termination of a terrible war. They had no idea of progress. The word “innovation” was anathema to them. The last thing on their minds was the creation of a new system of sovereign states…” Here we are 363 years later and “from the seeds sown at Westphalia” the system they set in place is has grown, but has been under siege many times from many fronts.

Westphalia was distinctive because it was “procedural, not substantive” and required a minimum number of procedures/practices to which to adhere and allowed disparate parties with different, “even mutually antagonistic, substantive doctrines and objectives” to work together. Hill points out four distinctions:

  • Religious arguments were not allowed in diplomacy.
  • The State was the fundamental entity.
  • Interstate/international norms and laws were encouraged, absent “divine sources” but based on mutually beneficial/positive agreements.
  • Use of professional military and diplomats with “its own set of protcols.” [Personal note: In another life, I was an arms control inspector enforcing the START I and INF Treaties—protocol was very serious and the true measure of the actual treaty language. There was also a strong and consistent application of reciprocity that made each party think before stretching protocol—this happened to my teams more than once.]

For Hill a central mission of the United States is the defense of the Westphalian world order. In less than 165 pages and six chapters, he outlines the origins of modern Western order and correspondingly covers Islamic order. From the beginning to the end Hill provides ample evidence of challenges to Westphalia, often from indigenous Western sources, but focusing mostly on our trials with Islam.

Hill sets the sources from whence the Western and Islamic world orders arose, where the West was grounded in Christianity, and the Islamic in the Caliphate. For two religions claiming Abrahamic roots, their worldviews were, and in many instances remain diametrically opposed. Central was the question of duality or unity. For the West, the State and religion were two complementary systems/powers—following the teaching of Christ ““Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (St Matthew’s Gospel 22:21) For Islam there was no distinction, and the very thought was hateful to Islamists. Islam’s “unswerving devotion to monotheism” continues to this day among those groups and states using terror to upend existing world order.

I am sympathetic to Hill’s ideas; however recognize with globalization and the internet tweaks may be required. And I’ll take this segue to introduce an idea for consideration.

Westphalia’s removal of religion made trade possible among former religious enemies. Unambiguous rules for contracts and dispute resolution evolved. What if we could bridge the gap between Western jurisprudence and tribal, or non-Western legal systems? What if, instead of insisting our way or the highway we design a solution that would allow both sides to keep their respective legal processes and procedures, thereby opening untapped markets?

At least one person has already considered these alternatives. Michael Van Notten (1933-2002) was a practicing lawyer in the Netherlands and married into a Somali tribe. Van Notten used his legal training and insights gained as a member of his new family to design a method of contracting where tribal law and Western jurisprudence could peacefully and prosperously coexist. Van Notten recorded his ideas in a book called The Law of Somalis, A Stable Foundation for Economic Development in the Horn of Africa. I’ll not review this book, but wanted offer this as a teaser alternative.

After reviewing the history of the West and Islam, Hill identifies seven Clausewitzian centers of gravity for both: legal, military, the State, women, democracy, nuclear weapons, and values. Hill makes the distinction between the use of diplomacy by Islam and the Islamist (the fundamental variety). No surprises, to the Islamist a secular State is an “apostasy,” as is international law (Sharia being the single source), democracy and the rights of women.

Hill concludes, “Islamic civilization entered the international system under duress,” which he believes has contributed to the current situation of failing states and lagging economies that establish conditions where radicalized Islam can flourish. The radicalized elements reject the secular Westphalian world order, however Hill points out that some in Islam insist that sharia imposed by the state “cannot be the true law of Islam. It is not possible to apply sharia through the state; it can only be applied through acceptance by human beings (An-Na’im).” Another alternative is the Medina polity established by the Prophet (“later called the Pact—kitab—of Medina) “guaranteeing each tribe the right to follow its own religion and customs, imposing on all citizens rules designed to keep the overall peace, establishing a legal process by which the tribes settled purely internal matters themselves and ceded to Muhammad the authority to settle intertribal disputes…Although this document has been called the first written constitution, it was really more of a multiparty treaty” (Ansary).

Hill convincingly demonstrates that more often than not, rulers have co-opted Islam as a way to dominate the people (Iran comes to mind.). He quotes Professor L. Carl Brown of Princeton, “nothing exclusively “Islamic” about this Muslim attitude towards politics, any more than the politics of feudalism or of imperial Russia was distinctly “Christian.” It is the political legacy of Muslims, not the theology of Islam…”

For the Islamist, secularism is the booger man, but secularism in the Westphalian order has its own set of problems. Hill writes, “A new phenomena arose: wars motivated by religious convictions were replaced by wars driven by ideologies—surrogates for religion—each aimed to oppose, undermine, destroy and replace the Westphalian system. The greatest of these was international communism, the latest is international Islamism.”

In many respects, Trials is as good as Grand Strategies. Ambassador Hill is to be commended for his insight, courage, and conviction—this little book packs a big, enlightening punch. Strongest recommendation.

References you may find of interest (links to quoted authors above are links to the respective reference):

The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Abu Hamid Muhammed Al-Ghazali

The Crisis of Islamic Civilization, Ali A. Allawi

The Caliphate, Thomas W. Arnold

Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism, John Calvert

Crimea: The Last Crusade, Orlando Figes —Figes’ The Whisperers was very good.

The Morality of Law, Lon L. Fuller

The Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun (Translated Franz Rosenthal)

The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making, Lydia H. Liu

The Government of the Ottoman Empire in the time of Suleiman the Magnificent, Albert Lyber

Byzantine Civilization and The Fall of Constantinople, both by Steven Runciman

The First World War, Hew Strachan

Mozart and the Enlightenment; Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas Nicholas Till

Muslim Intellectual: A Study of Al-Ghazadi, W. Montgomery Watt

Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno 



Book Review: The Profession by Steven Pressfield

Monday, July 25th, 2011

The Profession by Steven Pressfield

We should begin this review with “Full Disclosure“:

I just finished reading The Profession by Steven Pressfield, which I enjoyed a great deal. Steve sent me an earlier draft doc of the book and I consider Steve a friend. Furthermore, in an extremely gracious gesture, Steve granted me (or at least zenpundit.com) the novelist’s equivalent to a walk-on cameo appearance in his book. Therefore, if you the reader believe that I cannot review this book objectively…well….you are right. It’s not possible 🙂 . Here are some other reviews by Shlok Vaidya, Greyhawk of Mudville Gazette and Kirkus if you want greater impartiality.

Nor am I going to delve into the mechanics of the plot structure and action sequence in The Profession. For one, I think too much of the story in a review of a work of fiction spoils the enjoyment for the group of readers who would be most interested. And you can get the blow by blow elsewhere.

Instead, I would like to draw your attention to how Pressfield has written this novel differently. And why that matters.

There is plenty of action in The Profession and the book really moves. It is violent, but not at a Blood Meridian level of cruelty and the murky political intrigue that surrounds the hero, the mercenary’s mercenary and “pure warrior” Gilbert “Gent” Gentilhomme, is a nice counterpoint to physical combat and technical military details. Many people will enjoy the novel on this level and The Profession would make for an exciting action film. Or perhaps a series of films along the lines of The Bourne Identity or those Tom Clancy movies with Harrison Ford. All well and good. But that is not why The Profession is worth reading – that’s merely why it is fun to read.

What surprised me initially about The Profession was how unlike Killing Rommel it was. Killing Rommel also had war and adventure, but it was a deep study in the character development of Chap, the protagonist, who had enough of a textural, cultural, authenticity as a young gentry class British officer of the WWII period as to make Killing Rommel seem semi-biographical. As a reader, I didn’t much care if Chap and his men succeeded in killing Rommel, only that I would be able to continue to see the story unfold from Chap’s perspective. Many artists believe characters and character interaction are the most important element in a story, from Saul Bellow to Quentin Tarantino. Their stories are captivating even though their narratives are not always particularly logical or centered on a grand conflict.

The Profession is not like that at all. In my view, Pressfield turned his creative energies, his knowledge for military affairs and his formidible ear for history away from character development and toward theme. This difference may or may not explain his own reports of difficulty in wrestling with this novel.

Reaching back to the lessons learned from late Republican Rome, Thucydides, Xenophon and seasoning it liberally with Machiavelli, Pressfield’s 2032 near-future is also jarringly allegorical with America of 2012. Like Rome of the 1st century BC or Athens after it’s defeat in the Peloponnesian War, America in The Profession is strategically paralyzed, politically polarized and teetering on the precipice of decay and decline. These historical inspirations have been mashed up with a dystopian 4GW world, filled with mercenary PMCs like Force Insertion and The Legion, terrorists, drones, tribes, criminal corporations and and a devious and cowardly global financial elite. A future more evenly distributed from the present.

The antagonist against whom the plot is structured is not the story’s nominal villain terrorist, but Gent’s Homeric father-figure, former Lieutenant General James Salter, USMC,  “the crawling man” who was martyred, disgraced, exiled and redeemed as the new master of Force Insertion’s Mideast deployed “armatures” (combined arms divisions) and the book’s geopolitical apex predator, who boasted:

” I was obeying a more ancient law” 

This marks a drastic shift in Pressfield’s use of characters from people existing in themselves with humanistic nuances to their use as philosophical archetypes to better express the theme, more like the technique of Fyodor Dostoyevskii, Victor Hugo or Ayn Rand.

The interplay between the kinetic Gent and the increasingly totemic Salter elucidates a theme that is creating tectonic political shifts in America and the world; a theme which is expressed explicitly to Gent at one point by the ex-Secretary of State, Juan-Estebaun Echevarria. The ex-Secretary plays Cicero to Salter’s Caesar, but Gent is ultimately cast in the role of a very different Roman by the manipulative Salter. Pressfield, in honing the various characters, including AD, Maggie Cole, El-Masri and others, is also drawing on Alcibiades, Critias, Livy, Homer, Robert Graves, Joseph Conrad and the pattern of mythic epics. Salter is at once a pagan chieftain and a philosopher-king, a civilized Kurtz or a barbaric John Galt, who after continuous dissembling, in a brutally honest speech, gives his followers, his enemies, Gent and even himself, no opportunity to morally evade what he has become or his reasons for what he proposes to do. A speech that resonates with the negative trends we see today.

The Profession is a cautionary tale outfitted in kevlar.

Genghis John

Friday, May 27th, 2011

Not John Boyd this time, but John Robb.

John recently gave me a preview of this idea in a much more specific context:

….Here are some of the economic reforms that turned the horde of Genghis Khan into a steamroller than flattened most of the world’s kingdoms/empires.*  He:

  1. Delayed gratification.  He banned the sacking of the enemy’s camp/city until all of the fleeing soldiers, baggage, etc. were rounded up.  This radically increased the loot accumulated and ensured it could be shared among all of the participants (he confliscated the wealth of those men that cheated by looting early).
  2. Systematically shared the loot based on contribution and merit.  He disregarded title or status and systematically rewarded loot to everyone in the horde that earned it (the traditional approach was to let a few take it all — sound familiar?).  Of course, that fairness pissed off the nobility since they were used to backroom dealing and hereditary rights.  However, the benefits of this system, were far greater than the costs.  To wit:  He cemented the loyalty of the men and was able to attract thousands to his banner for every noble lost.
  3. Protected those that make sacrifices.  For men killed in the campaign, he paid their share of loot to their widows/orphans posthumously.  

*of course, the first unsaid lesson is:  attack the places with the most loot.

Switch to our mobile site