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A running commentary on Thucydides

Saturday, May 18th, 2019

[ posted by Charles Cameron — originally posted on post-online by Katherine Long ]
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Knowing the Zenpundit blog-circle’s interest in all things Thucydides, I’m delighted to be able to introduce Katherine Khashimova Long, guest-posting here with a piece she wrote on Athens and, well, running.

  • KKL’s original posting is here
  • Zenpundit’s Thucydides round-table is indexed here
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    notes from: athens: a running commentary on thucydides

    article by katherine long, originally pub’d september 2014, © 2019 Post-
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    For a city-state that invented the sport of distance running (cf. Battle of Marathon), Athens displays a surprising antipathy towards runners.

    It’s a summer evening—sun setting behind the Parthenon; al fresco hubbub in cafes; awestruck tourists; chattering cicadas; the whole nine yards—and we’re jazzed about doing a run so historic it would make any ivied Classics department proud: from the base of the Acropolis to the port of Piraeus, five miles southwest, along the route of the wall. This is THE wall: the Thucydidean wall—the one that was the spark for the whole shebang called the Peloponnesian War; the wall that will be discussed in every military strategy class until the end of time—but we have a problem! We don’t know what direction Piraeus is in.

    The next, wholly unanticipated problem: No one will tell us. “You’re running to Piraeus? ON FOOT?!” (Shock, awe, opprobrium, etc.). A man kindly directs us to the nearest bus stop, where we can catch the 40 to Piraeus because “please,” he chuckles, “my children, it is too far to walk, let alone run.”

    It is not. It is five miles.

    Eventually we find the way, navigating off a laconic gesture—“Piraeus? Over there.” The run, while not exactly scenic—the view is foreclosed apartment blocks and graffiti-ed benches—awakes within us the flame of history and for a few glorious miles we are running with the ancient Athenians, running to defend the city walls, to defend the spirit of democracy and the Periclean majesty of our Sacred Rock and to get those murderous Spartans until we are stopped dead in our tracks. A woman, taking issue with our running attire, specifically my shorts and Patrick’s bare chest, screams in Greek while trying to pull down my shorts to cover my lower thighs and gesticulating ferociously at Patrick. So we’re basically like “See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya,” but she’s left us with a frightened, frenetic energy that becomes harder and harder to shake over the next two miles—a cloud of tradition and respect that dogs us through the city.

    We’re dashing along the sidewalk, dodging spindly little café tables, and Athenians walking their spindly little dogs, and glares from spindly little women, and it becomes harder and harder to think—no, harder and harder not to think, to disentangle thoughts from action and from one another. It’s overwhelming, this city, packed to the brim with the detritus of a few hundred centuries and the acquisitions of the present generation; this city that never throws anything away but keeps it embalmed and enshrined, a testament to the glory of its citizens—an antique shop or a rubbish heap, take your pick—tumbling gently towards the sea, prompted now and then by earthquakes and financial crises to slouch even further in its worn, comfortable chair.

    God! What we wouldn’t give for a breath of fresh air, an Alcibiadean vinegar to cut through the soup of stodgy self-indulgence.

    We keep running, and running, and running, and a week later we find ourselves running in the hills of the Mani Peninsula, a handful of miles away from the city formerly known as Sparta and now known as Sparti, though it’s really just two streets and a flat place in the road. We never go inside because, what’s the point? We’re here for the cliffs and the trails; the goat paths lined with cobblestones meandering between one-room churches and sandstone monasteries, recent relics, only a few centuries old; pirouetting around brooks; dodging olive trees; slip-sliding over a carpet of eucalyptus leaves; whispering through the tall grass; always with the sea, far below, lapping against the rocky coast, to guide us. No monuments, no walls, no half-standing temples to the gods’ munificence. Just our breathing—in, out—in, out—and the sound of pebbles skipping down the trail as we pass. We’re machines now, arms and legs working thoughtlessly.

    What do you think about when you run? That’s the wrong question. I run in a void; I run in order to acquire a void, Murakami said. What don’t you think about when you run?

    We come to a valley-in-miniature, a wide crevasse, an indentation between two spiraling cliffs filled with pine and cypress shrubs and laded with damp. It’s dark and quiet, except for the whooing of doves, and so still. Even the wind has stopped. Nobody but us. Us, and whoever came before us. They’re in the glade too— there, and there!—heroes or helots, hoplites or who knows—whoo-WHOO, who say the doves—all of us there, in halcyon days.

    Kill them all, said the Abbot, and Saddam said much the same

    Friday, January 4th, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — personally, i don’t at all mind the fact that both saddam and the abbot are no longer around, given the brutality of their acts ]
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    Saddam reveals himself {upper panel] to be plausibly mediaeval [lower panel]:

    He also puts himself in the judgment seat the Abbot reserves for God…

    **

    The massacre of Béziers, and the Albigensian Crusade of which it was the opening salvo, came about, I’d suggest, fundamentally because the good people of Languedoc — home of the Troubadours as well as the Cathars or Albigensians — found the leaders of the Cathars, known as the Perfecti, to be humbler, poorer, and less ostentatious than the Abbots and Bishops, leaders of the Catholic Church, who tended to be among the “fat cats” of their day.

    Understandably, the Church disliked this almost unavoidable comparison, but was unwilling to relinquish its personal and institutional wealth — hence the Abbot’s instruction, Kill them all, God will sort out his own, which somehow made the massacre tolerable, theologically speaking.

    **

    Reading, for the Cathars:

  • Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error
  • Max Boot on a subtly strategic game..

    Thursday, July 12th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — by thinking of soccer as strategy I see how to make it relevant here ]
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    That time when Germany and Argentina faced off in the final of the World Cup 2014 —

    — Germany’s Mario Götze scored the match-winning goal in the 113th minute. That’s drama for you. That was last time..

    **

    France will face off against Croatia Sunday for the World Cup, soccer’s peak and pinnacle — but that’s not to say all the excitement this year is yet to come. Strategist — well, military historian — Max Boot has been unexpectedly riveted by the lead-in to the Cup Final, and explains why:

    I have thrilled to every dramatic turn:

    The 70th-ranked Russian side getting to the quarterfinals by beating Spain on penalty kicks, only, in a bit of poetic justice, to lose on penalty kicks to tiny Croatia. South Korea, another underdog, defeating top-seeded Germany, thereby allowing Mexico to advance. (Delirious Mexicans showed their gratitude by buying drinks for every Korean they could find.) Lowly Japan leading mighty Belgium by 2-0, only to have the brilliant Belgians storm back and win on a last-second goal. (The well-mannered Japanese players were heartbroken but still meticulously cleaned out their locker room and left a classy “thank-you” note.) Powerhouse Brazil, the favorite after Germany’s defeat and the winningest team in World Cup history, losing its quarterfinal match in part because of an improbable own goal. England, a perennial disappointment that won its only World Cup in 1966, exceeding expectations by advancing to the semifinals — only to lose to Croatia (population 4.1 million ), which became the second-smallest nation to reach the final.

    This, of course, only hints at the drama that has enthralled much of the world’s population

    **

    Boot backends his power paragraph, as you see, with the word “drama” — and goes on to speak of poetic justice, an undergog, delirium, gratitude, lowly Japan, mighty and then brilliant Belgians, a last-second goal, powerhouse Brazil the winningest team, an improbable own goal, a perennial disappointment — that would be England — and Croatia, the second-smallest nation..

    Drama, which is emotion.

    Underdog is the key word here, indicating that which we instinctively support as decent humans. And decent humanity is the inner nature of the game here, as subtle strategy is its outer formalism.

    With all your elbow pads and helmets, America, you failed to make the true “World” Series, the World Cup — oh yes, Boot is suitably humble about that:

    I assumed that, as the greatest country in the world, we must have the greatest sports. It never occurred to me there was anything commands my attention, sympathy and praise. about using the term “World Series” for a contest in which only U.S. competitors (plus one token Canadian team) take part, while disdaining the true World Cup.

    Me? I’ve probably never written about sports since I was forced into produce an essay on “goalposts” in my painful youth. But Boot’s conversion touches me. Amen, or its secular soccer equivalent!

    **

    I mean, there’s something in the tone here, an emphasis on emotion, with ecstasy even at least hinted at..

    And then you see the New York Times today commenting on body language in Brussels, again an emphasis on irrepressible emotion. Right at the heart of the NATO fault line..

    President Trump kicked off his trip to Europe with a biting critique of the United States’ longtime allies, declaring at a breakfast meeting that Germany “is captive to Russia.” Next to him, three of his senior officials seemed uncomfortable at times, pursing their lips and glancing away from the table.

    I mean, at breakfast.. pursing their tell-tale lips.

    We really need to focus our attention on the factor sometimes called “morale”. Call it esprit, spirit: it’s the better half of the battle, or of any contest.

    And then, here we go with the “underdog” again, in today’s WaPo:

    The Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, inhabited by 173 people, may seem unassuming, with homes made of wood and tarpaulin and surrounded by animal pens. But its strategic location puts it at the heart of the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

    What taste does that paragraph leave in the mind, the heart, decision-making?

    **

    And Boot didn’t even mention the small artificial earthquake detected in Mexico City “possibly due to mass jumping” when Mexico scored against Germany..

    New Book: Strategy, Evolution and War

    Sunday, May 6th, 2018

    [mark safranski / “zen“]

    Strategy, Evolution and War: From Apes to Artificial Intelligence by Kenneth Payne

    This book by Kenneth Payne of King’s College  is newly released by Georgetown Press. I saw it mainly by chance while perusing my twitter feed and ordered a copy. At first glance, it looks very promising, albeit I have a bias toward cultural evolutionary frameworks. Perhaps it will get me more up to speed on the implications of Ai for emerging warfare.

    Just thumbing through, Payne has a solid bibliography and some intriguing chapter and section headings. For example:

    The Hoplite Revolution:Warriors, Weapons and Society
    Passionate Statesmen and Rational Bands
    The Ai Renaissance ad Deep Learning
    Chimps are Rational Strategists, Contra Humans

    Enough to whet the appetite. May discuss Strategy, Evolution and War further after I finish it.

    What have you been reading in the realm of strategy or war lately?

    REVIEW: Commander of the Faithful by John Kiser

    Friday, March 30th, 2018

    [Mark Safranski / “zen‘]

    Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader by John Kiser  

    A while back, I received a copy of Commander of the Faithful from friend of ZP, Major Jim Gant who had been impressed with the book and urged me to read it. My antilibrary pile of books is substantial and it took a while to work my way towards it. I knew a little about Algerian colonial history from reading about the French Third Republic, the Foreign Legion and counterinsurgency literature but the name of Abd el-Kader was obscure to me.  The author, John W. Kiser, had also written a book on the martyred Monks of Tibhirine, a topic that had previously caught the eye of Charles Cameron and made a significant impression. Therefore, I settled in to read a biography of a long forgotten desert Arab chieftain.

    What a marvelous book!

    Kiser’s fast-moving tale is of a man who attempted to forge from unwieldy tribes and two unwilling empires, a new nation grounded in an enlightened Islam that transcended tribal customs ad corrupt legacies of Ottoman misrule while resisting encroachments of French imperial power. A Sufi marabout who was the son of a marabout, el Kader was the scholar who picked up the sword and whose call to jihad eschewed cruelty and held that piety and modernity were compatible aspirations for the feuding tribes of the Mahgreb. There are a number of themes or conflicts in Commander of the Faithful that will interest ZP readers;

    el-Kader’s political effort to build a durable, modernizing, Islamic state and Mahgreb nation from feuding desert tribes and clans

    Abd el-Kader struggled to unify disparate Arab tribes and subtribes through piety, generosity and coercion while integrating Turco-Arabs and Algerian Jews who had a place under the old Ottoman regime into his new order. Jews like the diplomat Judas Ben Duran and Christian French former military officers and priests became  el-Kader’s trusted advisers and intermediaries alongside Arab chieftains and Sufi marabouts.

    el-Kader the insurgent strategist and battlefield tactician

    As a military leader, Abd el-Kader demonstrated both a natural talent for cavalry tactics as well as the organizational skill to build a small, but well-disciplined regular infantry with modern rifles on the European model. It is noteworthy, that while Abd el-Kader suffered the occasional reverse (the worst at the hands of a wily Arab warlord loyal to the French) the French generals fighting him all came to grudgingly respect his bravery, honor and skill. Never defeated, Abd el-Kader made peace with the French and surrendered voluntarily; all of his former enemies, Generals Lamoriciere, Damaus, Bugeaud and Changarnier interceded on al-Kader’s behalf to prod the French government to keep its promises to the Amir, who had become a celebrity POW in a series of French chateaus.

    el-Kader the Islamic modernizer and moral figure

    The 19th century was a time of intellectual ferment in the Islamic world from Morocco to British India with the prime question being the repeated failures of Islamic authorities in the face of European imperialism of the modern West. El-Kader found different answers than did the Deobandis of India, the Wahhabis of Arabia, the later Mahdists of the Sudan, the followers of al-Afghani or the Young Turks who began turning toward secularism. Educated in the Sufi tradition, el-Kader’s vision of Islam, while devout and at times strict, encompassed a benevolent tolerance and respect for “the People of the Book” and general humanitarianism far in advance of the times that is absent in modern jihadism.

    It was Abd el-Kader, in retirement in Damascus, who rallied his men to protect thousands of Christians from being massacred in a bloody pogrom (the 1860 Riots) organized by the Ottoman governor, Ahmed Pasha, using as his instrument two local Druze warlords who were angry about their conflict with the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon and Sunni Arabs and Kurds enraged about the Ottoman reforms that had ended the dhimmi status of the Maronite Christians. It was the Emir who faced down and chastised a howling mob as bad Muslims and evildoers and by his actions thousands of lives were spared. Already honored for his chivalrous treatment of prisoners and his banning of customary decapitation as barbarous, the 1860 Riots cemented Abd El-Kader’s reputation for humanitarianism and made him an international figure known from the cornfields of Iowa to the canals of St. Petersburg.

    Kiser, who it must be said keeps the story moving throughout, is at pains to emphasize the exemplary moral character of Abd el-Kader. As Emir, he “walked the walk” and understood the connection between his personal asceticism, probity and generosity to his enemies and the poor and his political authority as Emir. When some Arab tribes betrayed Abd El-Kader in a battle against the French, consequently they were deeply shamed and ended up begging the Emir to be allowed to return to his service. On the occasions when harsh punishments had to be dealt out, Abd el-Kader meted them not as examples of his cruelty to be feared but as examples of justice to deter unacceptable crimes that he would swiftly punish.  This is operating at what the late strategist John Boyd called “the moral level of war”, allowing Abd el-Kader to attract the uncommitted, win over observers, rally his people and demoralize his opponents. Even in defeat, realizing the hopelessness of his position against the might of an industrializing great imperial power that was France. el-Kader retained the initiative, ending the war while he was still undefeated and on honorable terms.

    In Commander of the Faithful, Kiser paints el-Kader in a romantic light, one that fits the mid 19th century when concepts of honor and chivalry still retained their currency on the battlefield and society, among the Europeans as much as the Emir’s doughty desert tribesmen (if there is any group that comes off poorly, it is the Turks, the dying Ottoman regime’s pashas and beys providing a corrupt and decadent contrast to el-Kader’s nascent Islamic state). The nobility of Abd el-Kader shines from Kiser’s text, both humble and heroic in a manner that rarely sees a 21st century analogue. It is both refreshing and at times, moving to read of men who could strive for the highest ethical standards while engaged in the hardest and most dangerous enterprise.

    Strongly recommended.

     


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