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“No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” – Madhu

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

As mentioned recently, I’m reading Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, by Jon Tetsuro Sumida. Chapter 2 is complete, however Sumida included one sentence at the end of the Introduction that has been nagging me. Professor Sumida said, speaking of Alfred Thayer Mahan:

“It remains to be seen whether readers exist with the mind and will to accept his guidance on what necessarily is an arduous intellectual and moral voyage into the realm of war and politics.” (emphasis added)

The phrase “whether readers exist with the mind and will” jumped off the page. Over the last few days I’ve seen several articles of warning of the West’s decline, and while many shed light on symptoms that would indicate decline, most are tired old bromides masquerading as “new thought.” For instance, a few days ago, a friend on Twitter (an Army officer) shared a Tweet from The New Atlanticist of an article called, “Why We Need a Smart NATO.” He tweeted, “Call me a cynic, but haven’t we ALWAYS needed a smart NATO?” Good question. In my estimation, “smart NATO” is yet another venture into sloganeering. While it may call into question my judgement, my first thought on reading “smart NATO,” was a line from the cult movie Idiocracy (if you haven’t seen it, get it) and one scene where the time traveling protagonist is attempting to explain the importance of water to plants to people of the future who use a sports drink instead. Here is the clip:

but it’s got electrolytes…

We’re living in a world of unprecedented availability of information, yet our meta-culture seems indifferent to anything that takes more than a few minutes to consume. Among too many military colleagues I know, it is not uncommon to hear the phrase, “I’ve not read Clausewitz through….nobody does…” And I respond, “But if not you, then who will?” If the practitioners of a profession as serious as the profession of arms don’t read and think deeply, who will? And what will become of the timeless principles learned and recorded at the cost of blood and treasure and how those principles translate into how we fight? I have an abiding fear our military, not out of malice but neglect, is cutting the intellectual cord with the past by making it culturally acceptable to be intellectually indifferent and incurious, to sloganeer instead of think, allowing slogans and PowerPoint as woefully inadequate substitutes. There is no app for intellectual development.

We can’t afford to allow the profession of arms to be anything but intellectually robust and challenging. Zen wrote an excellent summation of the recent posts on disruptive thinkers (which may for some have the ring of sloganeering). However these posts are evidence a lot of the young guys “get it” and want more. Good news, but recognition of the problem is not enough; action is required. Action that may damage a career.

I’m a member of the US Naval Institute, and an on-going concern of the Institute is relevance to the young folks. Yep, relevance. Relevance with a mission statement like this:

“To provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense.”

Reading, thinking, speaking, and writing requires what Sumida referred to as “mind and will.” Leaders create this condition and desire by example, unambiguous expectations, and by listening, adapting, and sharing their knowledge with subordinates and encouraging them to push their intellect. Good leaders will create a space where deep thinking is expected, where curiosity isn’t the exception, but the rule. Many of our folks in uniform compete in the physical fitness arena and do the hard work necessary to be the best physically, but we need more intellectually rigorous competition in both formal schools and at the unit level. Leaders create this environment, for the best leaders want their people to think. Robert Leonhard in his excellent book, The Principles of War for the Information Age said it best:

“The greatest legacy that a leader can leave behind is a subordinate who is not afraid to think for himself.”

While we can’t pretend to be in good condition or physically fit, some may be tempted to pretend on the intellectual front. Which brings me back to Madhu’s quote: “No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” Doc Madhu, a blog friend and frequent commenter at zenpundit, was commenting on an excellent essay by Mike Few at Carl Prine’s Line of Departure. The essay was titled Finding Niebuhr, and Mike reminds us of Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer:

“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Courage and wisdom are virtues enabled by a well-developed, well-rounded, curious intellect. “Pretending” in the profession of arms can have deadly consequences, and more often than not, the pretenders are trying to “be someone” instead of “doing something.” More often than not, this is a group effort, enabled by a crippled culture dominated by groupthink.

Boyd’s challenge continues to ring true:

“To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?”

This is cross-posted at To Be or To Do.

On the Mythic and the Historic

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

My amigo Sean Meade ponders:

Notes: The Problem with Sparta

So here are some of the ideas and notes, for posterity.The Problem with Sparta (and Greece)

300 (original graphic novel by Frank Miller and better-known movie)
Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield
The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides
A War Like No Other, Victor Davis Hanson
Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, Thomas Cahill

The fiction glorifies Sparta while the non-fiction is more critical than laudatory. I was struck by how much the fictional Sparta, in three stories I really love, did not match the history I’d been studying.

Did Pressfield make his story more palatable to his readership by soft-pedaling Helot slavery, radical conservatism and aristocracy, oligarchy and homosexuality and pederasty?

We moderns are very critical of the real, historical Sparta. Insofar as it stands in for Greece in the fiction above, it’s an inaccurate portrayal. To say nothing of all the problems with our view of the Golden Age of Athens…

Ah, the tension between history and myth. 

Admiration for ancient Sparta was imprinted into Western culture because Sparta’s Athenian apologists, including Xenophon but above all Plato, left behind a deep intellectual legacy that includes a romantic idealization of Sparta that contrasts sharply with the criticisms leveled by Thucydides against Athens in The Peloponnesian War. The Melian Dialogue remains a searing indictment against Athens 2,500 years later but no equivalent vignette tells the tale of the Helots living under the reign of terror of the Spartan Krypteia. Plato’s Republic upholds oligarchic authoritarianism inspired by Sparta as utopia while Athenian democracy is remembered partly for the political murder of Socrates and the folly of the expedition to Syracuse. Somehow, ancient Athens lost the historical P.R. war to a rival whose xenophobic, cruel, anti-intellectual and at times, genuinely creepy polis struck other Greeks as alien and disturbing, no matter how much Sparta’s superb prowess at arms might be applauded. 

The fact that the vast majority of the ancient classic texts were lost, or as Dave Schuler likes to note, very selectively preserved and edited – at times, invented – by later peoples with agendas, may account for some of the discrepancy.

Guest Post: Sean Meade Reviews The Illiad

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

The Illiad by Homer

Sean Meade, in addition to being my good friend, is the Web Editor for Aviation Week’s defense and space content and is the former longtime webmaster/editorial assistant/right-hand of Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett. Sean blogs at ARES for Aviation Week and at his personal blog, Interact:


by Sean Meade

What makes ‘The Iliad’ a classic? Why is it classic?

I think the primary answer is simple: it’s the characters. If you can hang tough through all of the idiosyncratic flourishes and ornaments and repetitions, the characters are compelling: Achilleus, his anger and character; the comparative nobility of Hektor and Patroklos (both of whom we know are doomed); the vagaries of the gods and their adolescent machinations; the supporting cast of Agamemnon, Menelaos the wronged, two very different men named Aias (Ajax), Diomedes, Aeneas, Odysseus, Nestor, Paris, Helen and Priam. Take these characters and others and mix them with an interesting story and you have a classic that reaches out to us from about the eighth century BC (when it was likely ‘composed’ (with heavy use of previous, oral sources) by Homer), maybe from as far back as the 12th century BC (maybe the original setting of what has come down to us as The Trojan War). ‘The Iliad’ still resonates with us today.

One reason ‘The Iliad’ can still move us is that Homer has done a masterful job of relating the ‘accidents’ of life. ‘Time and chance happen to all men’, and people who lived 3000 year ago couldn’t deceive themselves about their ability to control life the way we ‘modern’ people do. Human experience and emotions are often inscrutable. ‘Love’ (baldly called ‘lust’ by Homer) can easily destroy. When it occurs in the most influential levels of society, it can draw whole nations into its whirling vortex. Even the love between men in ‘The Iliad’ can seem illogical (no matter where you come down on the homosexuality question): why does noble Patroklos honor Achilleus literally to the death?

‘The Iliad’, of course, focuses a lot on war in ways that have become shockingly remote for most of us. Nothing is so susceptible to ‘luck’ as war. One ‘good’ soldier gets hit by stray friendly fire and dies instantly. Another ‘bad’ soldier comes through the whole war unscathed. Consider the hazards of love, life and war in ‘The Iliad’. Consider them in our own experience. It makes more sense than many theories to conclude that arbitrary and capricious gods can powerfully affect us.

My final guess (for the purposes of this mini-review) at why ‘The Iliad’ is a classic is that the poetry is timeless. This is, of course, nearly impossible to take in from one read-through in translation. My friend, Jason, listened to the abridged version and talked about its power. The commentators discuss it quite a bit, from what I can tell. Most of us (who aren’t going to pay the price to really test it) are going to have to take this on faith and rate it as we will. Poetry is a dying art, and poetry appreciation is probably in an even worse state.

I wonder what role foreknowledge plays in ‘The Iliad’. Many of us know the broad outline of the story going in. If we don’t, Homer spills it in short order. Does knowing Achilleus dies shortly after this episode in The Trojan War change our view of him? Do we cut him more slack? How does  knowing that Hektor and Patroklos die within the bounds of this story affect us? Or that Odysseus lives? Or that Agamemnon will be murdered in his bath by his wife (he had it coming ;-)?

Something else that stands out about ‘The Iliad’ is the graphic war imagery. Homer’s descriptions almost seem gratuitous when he goes into detail about how one soldier killed another, where the spear penetrated and where it came out, what muscles were severed, what happened to the bowels, teeth or brain. It’s probably distasteful to many of us in the 21st century, but I think we can just chalk that up to cultural differences.

My second big question is: what does ‘The Iliad’ mean? I’m very snobbish about exegesis, especially concerning the Bible (my training, as a former pastor), but including any suitably worthy literature (with concomitant training in British Lit and Analytic Philosophy). Exegesis, in principle, is simple: what was the author trying to communicate to the audience? (So why is good exegesis so hard to find? 😉 If we are to make any meaningful connection to the original work, this is where we have to begin. You can deploy your Reader Response Theory on ‘Twilight’ or some such drivel, but keep it off my Homer (I told you I’m a snob ;-).

We come to ‘The Iliad’ at a loss because Homer’s values are very different from ours. His presuppositions are vastly different from ours. I have touched on some of these already. The gods can show up at any time and throw any wrench in the works for almost any imaginable reason. We have to take the role of the gods seriously to take Homer seriously. What did their role say about the responsibility of people? Humans retain some responsibility, almost paradoxically. Helen isn’t completely off the hook for running away with Paris. Achilleus does not get a complete pass for his anger that causes the deaths of so many Achaean comrades. Agamemnon is not excused for his overbearing pride that contributed to the disagreement with Achilleus. And even noble Hektor faces bouts of inaction and cowardice for which he is not wholly exonerated.

Another value we find hard to understand is the ancient Greek concept of nobility. It’s just born there. If you’re a shepherd who’s not the natural-born son of King Priam and Queen Hekabe, that’s all you’ll ever be: a shepherd. The main characters are noble; many are first-generation half-deities and most (all?) have divinity in their bloodline somewhere. From our standpoint, Achilleus behaves like a monster, especially in his repeated attempted-desecration of Hektor’s body (the gods protect Hektor’s body and Achilleus’ ultimate honor by preserving Hektor’s corpse inviolate in almost the perfect proverbial deus ex machina). He’s sacrificed any claim to nobility as far as we’re concerned. Not so for Homer and the ancient Greeks; Achilleus retains his nobility, though it is clouded by sins. He receives partial pardons and rationalizations. From our perspective, we view him as maybe the original anti-hero. Homer’s view is much less ambivalent, and Achilleus gets away with things for which lesser men would go straight to Tartaros without passing ‘Go’. It’s a far cry from our 21st century Western concept of nobility and our love of ‘rags to riches’ fables. It’s only riches to riches here (though maybe no one knew through the rags that you were really rich).

So what is Homer’s message? The conclusion of my barely-better-than-cursory reading is: Given that nobility and greatness are natural, almost literally gifts of fate (the Fates); and that humans are subject to the whims of the gods; it is best to be brave and seek glory (within reason–with a glance forward to Aristotle’s middle-way ethic). How’s that going to help you with your job or family? Not much. It’s fodder for thinking about societal values and a long way from whether or not to stick it out in your mediocre, going-nowhere job. (It might possibly apply to whether or not you should run away with your neighbor’s spouse.)

For most of us, ‘The Iliad’ is probably a test in proper exegesis more than someplace we should or will go to look for meaning. But maybe that’s just my soap box 😉

SWJ: My Interview with Tom Barnett

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

The Small Wars Journal has published an interview I conducted with Dr. Thomas Barnett regarding his new book Great Powers: America and the World After Bush.

Ten Questions with Thomas P.M. Barnett

…. 4. In Great Powers, you delve deeply into American history. What lessons did you find in our nation’s past that the diplomat overseas, the Army colonel in Afghanistan or the U.S. Aid worker in Africa should know to navigate their mission today?

This is all about frontier integration. Globalization is like America’s rapid and aggressive push Westward across the 19th century: a lot of the same bad actors and a lot of the same tools applied. So don’t be surprised when the Pinkertons show up, or when the covered wagons are attacked, or when the Injuns head to the Badlands for sanctuary. Thus, the goals of our frontline players are fairly straightforward: create the baseline security to allow the connectivity to grow. Focus on social trust and institutions as much as possible, but co-opt existing structures whenever and wherever you can. It doesn’t have to be perfect and it sure as hell doesn’t have to measure up to America’s mature standards. This is a frontier setting within globalization-treat it as such. The good news is, the settlers are already there, with more uncredentialed wealth than we realize (see Hernando DeSoto), if you respect their existing rule-sets and realize they will change only when the locals see the need themselves, so no instant rule-set packages applied by outsiders, please. Finally, acknowledge that with growing connectivity with the outside world, you will see more nationalism, more ethnic tensions, and more religious identity. These are all natural reactions, and not signs of your failure, so patience is the key.

Read the whole thing here.

Special thanks to Dave Dilegge for providing the forum and to Sean Meade and Lexington Green with editorial assistance and astute advice.

Meade on Halsey’s Typhoon

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

Blogfriend Sean Meade has had an excellent review in Defense Technology International  of the book Halsey’s Typhoon:The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm and an Untold Rescue.

As the PDF like format defies easy quoation, I strongly encourage you to read Sean’s review in full here.

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