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American Caesar — a reread after 30 years

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

[by J. Scott Shipman]

American Caesar, Douglas MacArthur 188-1964, by William Manchester

Often on weekends my wife allows me to tag along as she takes in area estate sales. She’s interested in vintage furniture, and I hope for a decent collection of books. A sale we visited a couple months ago had very few books, but of those few was a hardback copy of American Caesar. I purchased the copy for $1 and mentioned to my wife, “I’ll get to this again someday…” as I’d first read Manchester’s classic biography of General Douglas MacArthur in the early 1980’s while stationed on my first submarine. “Someday” started on the car ride home (she was driving), and I must admit: American Caesar was even better thirty years later. Manchester is a masterful biographer, and equal to the task of such a larger-than-life subject.

MacArthur still evokes passion among admirers and detractors. One take-away from the second reading was just how well-read MacArthur and his father were. When MacArthur the elder died, he left over 4,000 books in his library—both seemed to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of history and warfare. Highly recommended.

PS: I visited the MacArthur Memorial, in Norfolk, Virginia, recently while in town for business and would recommend as well.

More Books and Bookshelf Musings

Sunday, June 30th, 2013


Mussolini’s Italy:Life under the Fascist Dictatorship by by R. J. B. Bosworth 

Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott

Been busy writing a book review and a long and serious post, so here is something more lighthearted and tangible in the meantime.

Having recently purchased the Bosworth bio of Mussolini, I went back and bought his history of Italian Fascism. While doing that, I came across Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which had either been highly recommended in a discussion over at Chicago Boyz blog or perhaps in an email by one of the Chicago Boyz themselves ( maybe Lex will help me out here).

However, a long discussion by my amigo Adam Elkus on Facebook about his emerging organizational system for his books coupled with an hour long search to try and find a book I needed to cite in the review I was writing have made me realize something: I no longer have any organization to my books.

Sure, there’s still a semblance of a core – a Soviet/Russian bookcase, an antique/antiquarian bookcase for collectible editions 80-130+ years old, three shelves of strategy and war, two and half on Nazi Germany, two on Richard Nixon, an “Ummah” shelf on Islam, al Qaida, Central Asia and the Mideast but after that it starts getting messy. Once methodically organized, diplomatic history and diplo memoirs are spread across two rooms, four bookcases and three packing boxes in the garage; the Vietnam War is on two shelves in two different bookcases plus a half dozen or books so shelved at work; ancient history and classical philosophy have metastasized to occupy parts of three shelves in two different rooms; American history, European history, Japan and China,  sociology, general science, politics, biographies, neuroscience, intelligence community, economics are everywhere and anywhere. Your guess is probably almost as good as mine.

And then there are book piles randomly stacked horizontally on top of shelved books and bookcases or stacked by my computer desk or on/under/next to my nightstand. I no longer recall what books I have loaned out or to whom vice given away as gifts.

Bibliomania….A Gentle Madness …..


Heavy breathing on the line: Boyd and the hare

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

[dots connected by Lynn C. Rees]



? 1 ?

? Raises question ?

? 2 ?

What did Lucius Aemilius Paullus know and when did he know it?

? 3 ?

Ask Colonel John Boyd, USAF (1927-1997)

? 4 ?

Namedrop John Boyd

What do most respondants think?

? 5 ?

Naive OODA Loop

? 6 ?

Uncritical Insight

John Boyd is a cheerleader jumping up and down on the sidelines chanting “faster! Faster!! FASTER!!!”.

? 7 ?

Uncritical Insight (cont.)

This reduces Boyd to:

  1. Go fast.
  2. Go faster.
  3. Go ludicrous speed.
  4. Profit!!!

? 8 ?

? – Raises Question  – ?

Is this man a cheerleader?

? 9 ?

? and ?

? and ?

? 10 ?



? 11 ?



? 12 ?

Key Asymmetry

When Boyd smiles, he’s 100 million light years away from being a cheerleader.

? 13 ?

Key Asymmetry (cont.)

If a Boyd particle barely brushed a cheerleader particle, it would annihilate it, leaving behind nothing but:

  1. a tremendous burst of energy
  2. plans for a better fighter plane than the F-35 at 1/1,000,000th the cost.

? 14 ?

Critical Insight

To understand Boyd, understand the battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.)

? 15 ?


? 16 ?


Boyd argued victory came by creating of a fatal disconnect between enemy and reality through:

  • mental isolation
  • moral isolation
  • physical isolation

? 17 ?

Message (cont.) 

All three are critical to the originality of Boyd’s thought:

Boyd was thinking outside the box.

? 18 ?

Message (cont.) 

This box:


? 19 ?

Message (cont.) 

More particularly, this box:


? 20 ?

Message (cont.)

Battle of Cannae (216 BC)

Hannibal Barça put 50,000 or so Roman legionaries inside the box.

? 21 ?

Message (cont.)

Few Romans ever thought outside that box again.

? 22 ?


The physical kill box of Cannae became the mental kill box that military thinkers of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century kept their brains in.

? 23 ?

Problem (cont.)

This is your brain:

Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini

? 24 ?

Problem (cont.)

This is your brain on Cannae:


? 25 ?


Schlieffen, Chief of the Great General Staff of the Second Reich from 1893-1906, was obsessed with Cannae.

He even wrote a book on it.

? 26 ?

Worse (cont.)

Schlieffen used an exhaustive checklist when planning future military operations.

? 27 ?

Worse (cont.)

  1. Does my plan destroy the enemy army like Buonoparte?

? 28 ?

Worse (cont.)

Satisfying those stringent requirements led to the Schlieffen-Moltke Plan:

Schlieffen Plan

? 29 ?

Worse (cont.)

Its results were mixed.

? 30 ?


Schlieffen’s plan failed because it only aimed at physical annihilation of Franco-British forces.

? 31 ?

Critique (cont.)

It’s moral and mental isolation (or annihilation) components were few or vestigial.

This absence dominated the Western Front for the next three years.

? 32 ?

First Cut

Boyd suggested that the German development of infiltration techniques in the later half of the war countered this.

Instead of the long bombardments château generals thought would physically annihilate the enemy trench line, barbed wire, and fortifications…

? 33 ?

First Cut (cont.)

The artillery barrage that accompanied German infiltration attack was sudden and unexpected…

…providing suppression as much through sudden mental or moral disorientation as through physical destruction.

? 34 ?

First Cut (cont.)

Instead of the physical impact of large ranks of infantrymen trudging across No Man’s Land…

Small teams of infiltrators dribbled across the lines in small groups, causing moral and mental derangement by attacking the enemy from the flank or rear in unexpected places at surprising times.

? 35-36 ?

Traditional Greek Order of Battle vs Leuctra’s Order of Battle


? 37 ?

Battle of Leuctra

Boyd referred back to Leuctra rather than Cannae as a guide:

Epaminondas‘ seemingly simpler act of stacking his left 50 deep and weakening his right was just as effective as Hannibal’s more technically complex but brittle double envelopment at Cannae.

? 38 ?

Battle of Leuctra (cont.)

Epaminondas created a fatal disconnect between Spartiate and reality through a balanced attack:

  • physical isolation (more husky Boeotians to beat on the Spartan right)
  • moral isolation (that’s against the rules!)
  • mental isolation (the best Boeotian troops were on the left, not, as was tradition, on the right)

? 39 ?

Key Take Away

Epamimondas won a more efficient victory than Hannibal:

He mauled the Spartans just as effectively as Hannibal mauled the Romans …

Without the enormous luck and complexity involved in pulling off a double envelopment.

? 40 ?

And that’s why the NSA records (meta)data on all Americans.

Octavian Manea interviews MIT’s Roger D. Peterson

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Another installment of Octavian Manea’s excellent COIN interview series at SWJ. This one focuses on social science and varieties of insurgency:

Breaking Down “Hearts and Minds”: The Power of Individual Causal Mechanisms in an Insurgency 

….OM: In your research you pointed out to a spectrum of conceivable individual roles in an insurgency. What is the methodology behind this typology?

RDP: This methodology comes from my 2001 book (Resistance and Rebellion: Lessons from Eastern Europe) which focused on Lithuanian resistance to Soviets in the 1940’s. Insurgency is a complex phenomenon, especially in how violent organization and networks are created and sustained, and the methodology of that book involved breaking down this complexity into component parts and then building back up into a coherent whole. At the base of this process is the way individuals position themselves relative to the dramatic and violent events of insurgency. Most people may wish to remain neutral and just take care of their families but events push significant numbers of individuals into roles of unarmed support of insurgents, or local armed position of a militia, membership in a mobile non-local organization, or equivalent positions in support of the government.  Furthermore, individuals may move back and forth along this spectrum of roles. If one is skeptical of broad and vague theories at a high level of aggregation, as I am, then you need to get down and observe dynamics at a basic level. Observing movement along this spectrum of roles is one way to do that. 

…..Is it FM 3-24 and the whole contemporary Western COIN discourse too narrow, too much focused on rational, cost/benefit models of decision-making? Is it too restrictive when making this inventory of driving motivations or causal mechanisms?

RDP: I think there is a tendency in the Western academic analysis to focus on rational theories. Those theories are straightforward.  But they also might be too straightforward, too simple.  In Iraq, the coalition did not plan on the emotion of resentment stemming from a status reversal affecting Sunni calculations in the beginning stages of the conflict. We did not understand the revenge norms that exist in some of the places. We did not fully understand the social norms that helped to produce the tribal militias in Anbar province.  We did not understand the psychological mechanisms underlying the Sunni view of the new world they were living in. 

The last part is a curious lacuna.

The incompetence of the planning for the occupation of Iraq has been amply recorded – the high level disdain of General Tommy Franks and Secretary Rumsfeld for what befell the day after victory, the keeping of professional Arabists at arms length in preference for Beltway contractors and college kids with AEI connections, the haplessness of Jay Garner and the political obtuseness of Paul Bremer ad so on. This is not what I mean about lacuna.

I mean something more fundamental, in terms of understanding human nature as the root of political behavior and therefore political violence. We are all familiar with the Clausewitzian trinity (or should be) but less attention is paid to the motivational factors that make men decide to stand, fight and die or stand aside. Thucydides also had a trinity that did not attempt to capture the nature of war but rather explain why wars happened and it seems to me to be of particular use for evaluating the decision in small wars to pick up a gun or not, to side with the government or join the rebellion:

“Surely, Lacedaemonians, neither by the patriotism that we displayed at that crisis, nor by the wisdom of our counsels, do we merit our extreme unpopularity with the Hellenes, not at least unpopularity for our empire. That empire we acquired by no violent means, but because you were unwilling to prosecute to its conclusion the war against the barbarian, and because the allies attached themselves to us and spontaneously asked us to assume the command. And the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principal motive, though honour and interest afterwards came in. And at last, when almost all hated us, when some had already revolted and had been subdued, when you had ceased to be the friends that you once were, and had become objects of suspicion and dislike, it appeared no longer safe to give up our empire; especially as all who left us would fall to you. And no one can quarrel with a people for making, in matters of tremendous risk, the best provision that it can for its interest. 

Fear, honor and interest are ever present in “calculation” both by men and by the political communities they compose and the factions that threaten to tear them apart. All the more so in a defeated and broken country divided by ethnicity and sect where all parties were uneasily eyeing the conqueror. No special knowledge of Arab culture should have been required to anticipate that Iraqi men, if made desperate by uncertainty and circumstance, might have at least seen it in their interest to achieve some measure of security with the gun and to enact policies of carrots and sticks a priori to discourage that, before the insurgency gained critical mass.

Awareness of the universality of the Thucydidean trinity would not have in itself guaranteed success in Iraq but knowing it is a rudimentary minimum of political competence upon which you can at least build.

Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lector and Simonides

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — the art of memory, with a sidelong glance at swans, typhoid and theodicy ]

Thomas Harris (and by extension Hannibal Lector) has been interested in memory palaces for a long time. We can begin to infer this this because Lector describes his hobby in Red Dragon (1981) and again in Silence of the Lambs (1988):

So — church collapses?


As you can tell from that last comment in the Silence of the Lambs quote — to my mind the most brilliant presentation of the problem of theodicy for our day — if there’s a God worth defending, it has to be a God who allows sparrows to fall, typhoid to accompany swans in the vast ecology of existence, churches to collapse on worshipers, and “bad things to happen to good people” from time to time.

And such things, specifically including collapses of religious buildings atop worshipers, do indeed happen in fact as well as fiction.

And they don’t only happen to Christians, either… Bon is the shamanistic religious tradition of Tibet, prior to — and later, somewhat assimilated by — Buddhism


The thing is, when I read that Hannibal Lector collected church collapses, it not only made me start to take note of them myself, it also made me think of Simonides. As Frances Yates tells us in her book, The Art of Memory:

At a banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honour of his host but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him halfthe sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests to death beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the crash. And this experience suggested to the poet the principles of the art of memory of which he is said to have been the inventor. Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies, he realised that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory.

And by way of reinforcing my Lector-Simonides conjecture, Lector certainly had a remarkable interest in memory, as we learn from his dialogue with Clarice Starling:

“Did you do the drawings on your walls, Doctor?”
“Do you think I called in a decorator?”
“The one over the sink is a European city?”
“It’s Florence. That’s the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo, seen from the Belvedere.”
“Did you do it from memory, all the detail?”
“Memory, Officer Starling, is what I have instead of a view.”

A belvedere, from the Italian, is “a structure (as a cupola or a summerhouse) designed to command a view” — and a beautiful view at that. Belvedere is also, ironically, the name of the town in Ohio where Buffalo Bill, Lector’s serial killer ex-patient, lives…


So it didn’t surprise me to discover that in Hannibal (1999), the book that follows Silence, this brilliant man who as we have seen collects church collapses and has an exquisite memory in place of a view, is revealed as a practitioner of Simonides’ art:

The memory palace was a mnemonic system well known to ancient scholars and much information was preserved in them through the Dark Ages while Vandals burned the books. Like scholars before him, Dr. Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr.Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s own harp.

Hannibal Lecter’s palace is vast, even by medieval standards. Translated to the tangible world it would rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul for size and complexity.

We catch up to him as the swift slippers of his mind pass from the foyer into the Great Hall of the Seasons. The palace is built according to the rules discovered by Simonides of Ceos and elaborated by Cicero four hundred years later; it is airy, high-ceilinged, furnished with objects and tableaux that are vivid, striking, sometimes shocking and absurd, and often beautiful. The displays are well spaced and well lighted like those of a great museum. But the walls are not the neutral colors of museum walls. Like Giotto, Dr. Lecter has frescoed the walls of his mind.

Brilliant. And a delight, years later, to have my hunch connecting the church collapses and prison cell with only memory for a view with Simonides and the Art of Memory confirmed by the third book and film in the series…

You’ll note, btw, that the Lector (caveat lector) of the first two books has now become Lecter in alignment with the films starring Anthony Hopkins.


I love symmetries, so let’s move from the most monstrous criminal mind in literature, to the greatest detective…

Sherlock Holmes — in his latest television incarnation — builds memory palaces of a sort, though I’m not sure Simonides would recognize them.

I’m posting the clip from the series here to honor my son Emlyn, with whom I have been watching the series…


And then there’s the Jesuit whose use of the Art is explored in Jonathan Spence‘s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci:

In 1596 Matteo Ricci taught the Chinese how to build a memory palace. He told them that the size of the palace would depend on how much they wanted to remember: the most ambitious construction would consist of several hundred buildings of all shapes and sizes, “the more there are the better it will be,” said Ricci, thought he added that one did not have to build on a gradiose scale right away. One coul create modest palaces, or one could build less dramatic structures such as a temple compound, a cluster of government offices, a public hostel, or a merchants’s meeting lodge. If one wished to begin on a still smaller scale, then one could erect a simple reception hall, a pavilion, or a studio. And if one wanted an intimate space one could use just the corner of a pavilion, or an altar in a temple, or even such a homely object as a wardrobe or a divan.

You’ll note that in this early example of virtual reality as an pedagogical technology, Ricci doesn’t start with the easy stuff, the single wardrobe or divan — he begins with “the most ambitious construction”…

Enough for now. When I want to talk about in a follow up post is detail… the crucial importance of detail.

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