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“Sin, Death, and Hell have set their Marks on Him”

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

King Richard III 

The bones of Richard III, Shakespeare’s greatest villain and the last King of England to be killed in battle have been discovered and identified by DNA testing:

….There were cheers when Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist on the hunt for the king’s body, finally announced that the university team was convinced “beyond reasonable doubt” that it had found the last Plantagenet king, bent by scoliosis of the spine, and twisted further to fit into a hastily dug hole in Grey Friars church, which was slightly too small to hold his body.

But by then it was clear the evidence was overwhelming, as the scientists who carried out the DNA tests, those who created the computer-imaging technology to peer on to and into the bones in raking detail, the genealogists who found a distant descendant with matching DNA, and the academics who scoured contemporary texts for accounts of the king’s death and burial, outlined their findings.

….Richard died at Bosworth on 22 August 1485, the last English king to fall in battle, and the researchers revealed how for the first time. There was an audible intake of breath as a slide came up showing the base of his skull sliced off by one terrible blow, believed to be from a halberd, a fearsome medieval battle weapon with a razor-sharp iron axe blade weighing about two kilos, mounted on a wooden pole, which was swung at Richard at very close range. The blade probably penetrated several centimetres into his brain and, said the human bones expert Jo Appleby, he would have been unconscious at once and dead almost as soon.

The skull of Richard III

Injuries to the skeleton appear to confirm contemporary accounts that the king died in battle. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The injury appears to confirm contemporary accounts that he died in close combat in the thick of the battle and unhorsed – as in the great despairing cry Shakespeare gives him: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” 

Richard III, usurper and probable regicide of his nephew the boy King, was the last truly medieval King of England. Had Richard lived to rule, his reign would have been characterized by the same bloody uprisings and civil strife that marked the War of the Roses. England was fortunate in his successor who had bested him in battle, Henry Tudor who became King Henry VII was an energetic and far seeing monarch who restored a war-wracked and bankrupt England to peace and fiscal health and set the foundations of the modern United Kingdom and the future world-spanning British Empire. It was Henry who started the Royal Navy and curtailed the ability of the nobility to wage war as they pleased with large private armies, by taxing them for each man at arms, thus ending bastard feudalism ; recalcitrant rebels were executed and justices of the peace established in every shire to enforce the law of the realm rather than the corrupt whims of manorial courts.

Richard III has his devoted fans as well his detractors. Except for his impatient ruthlessness, Richard probably was little worse, morally speaking, than his fellow medieval monarchs in an age when brutality and the rule of the strong was the norm.  However, unlike the brilliant Henry, Richard would have done little to improve the situation and might have made life in England more savagely violent.

Anonymous and Master Roger, a review

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

 by J. Scott Shipman


Anonymous and Master Roger, Anonymous, Notary of King Béla The Deeds of the Hungarians, Master Roger’s Epistle to the Sorrowful Lament upon the Destruction of the Kingdom of Hungary by the Tartars

 Back in June Zen posted a couple of mini book reviews, and David Schuler posted this comment: 

 “For moderns inclined to romanticize war in antiquity may I recommend The Epistle to the Sorrowful Lament upon the Destruction of the Kingdom of Hungary by the Tartars?  It became available in English translation fairly recently and constitutes a first-hand account of the Mongol invasion of Hungary.  The violence, not only against persons and property, but against the land itself is notable and eye-opening.”

The title was enough to pique my interest, and since I knew very little of this period I went to Amazon UK and purchased a copy (US versions are prohibitively expensive) . That said, I didn’t expect to get around to reading for some time, but if I don’t “buy” a book while it is still on my mind, I’ll likely forget as the pile continues, “without ceasing” (to wax Biblical) to grow. For an obscure text, the introduction drew me in and I was hooked enough to read a few pages a day.

The book has ample and informative introductions to each work. The stories are presented in Latin on one page and English on the facing page.

The narratives are very different, Anonymous was a Notary to King Béla (circa 1196), and he recounts the deeds of Hungarian royalty, and the behind the scenes machinations of the royal court. Anonymous’ account was laced with both biblical and classic texts and was quite tedious, predictably obsequious but while at the same time offering up little snippets here and there—and often in the notes. A note in the section titled 40. The Victory of Prince Árpád, Anonymous wrote: “…for thirty four days and in that place the prince and his noblemen ordered all the customary laws of the realm and all its rights.” The editors included the following footnote with respect to “rights.”

 “The translation of ius (in contrast to lex, “law”) is a problem that is not only linguistic. Translators of Roman legal texts often retain ius, as it implies law, justice, rights along with all their connotations. Modern English does not distinguish lex from ius, Gesetz from Recht, or loi from droit, which may explain the generally supine Anglo-Saxon attitude towards the law and authority in general…”

Schuler was right in his description of Master Roger’s first hand account of the Tartar invasion (1241/42); horrific comes to mind. There is no romance. The brutality and ruthlessness of the Tartars is awe-inspiring and fearful 900 years removed. The tactics of the Tartars are textbook examples of psychological warfare before the term was coined—and their ability to “get inside” their adversaries decision-making loop (OODA, anyone?) was remarkable.

The ancient Sorrowful Lament story was reassuring of the power and resilience of the human spirit. The deprivations experienced by the Hungarians were not unique in human history, but serve to illustrate how resilient a people can be when things truly go to hell in a hand basket. When their leaders failed, the Hungarians found way to live in spite of their feckless unprepared leaders, and in spite of a ruthless, blood and booty thirsty enemy.

Anonymous and Master Roger is recommended to anyone wanting to understand the human condition, whether royalty, peasant, bureaucrat, or barbarian. This is an important book…for a “sorrowful lament” has much to teach us about the human condition and how little man changes. This highly eclectic little title comes highly recommended and many thanks to Dave for sharing.

Postscript: One remarkable thing about this book, printed in Hungary, is the high quality construction using good paper and string.

There are no references to share for this volume, however if this volume is indicative of their work, Central European Medieval Texts are to be commended and followed.

BTW, Joey recommended Millenium by Tom Holland and I’m about half-way through—excellent thus far!

Britain and Future Conflict

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

From the auspices of The Warlord, an interesting paper:

UK Ministry of DefenceThe Future Character of Conflict (PDF)

Deductions from Themes in Future Conflict

  • Future conflict will not be a precise science: it will remain an unpredictable and uniquely human activity. Adversaries (state, state-proxies and non-state) and threats (conventional and unconventional) will blur. The range of threats will spread, with increased proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), cyberspace, and other novel and irregular threats.
  • Even during wars of national survival or the destruction of WMD, conflict will remain focused on influencing people. The battle of the narratives will be key, and the UK must conduct protracted influence activity, coordinated centrally and executed locally.
  • Maintaining public support will be essential for success on operations. Critical to this will be legitimacy and effective levels of force protection.
  • Qualitative advantage may no longer be assumed in the future. Some adversaries may be able to procure adequate quality as well as afford greater quantity, whereas we will be unable to mass sufficient quality or quantity everywhere that it is needed.

I have a great fondness for the British.

They are culturally our close cousins and are a greater people than their recent governments would imply ( the same can largely be said of Americans as well). The current and former administrations have not nurtured the “special relationship” as they should have.

This is of course, an gross understatement: the Obama administration has been at special pains to kick British Prime Ministers in the groin in public ever since they came in to office in 2009. Now, in a fit of ill-considered budgetary niggardliness,  the British are merging part of their military power projection capability with that of France, in order to form something that will be, in case of “future conflict”, completely undeployable. Great.

Just wait, by 2012-2014, the cry in American politics will be ” Who Lost Britain?”

Perhaps we will be too consumed with Mexican narco-insurgency in Texas, Arizona and California  by then to care.

Britain in Search of a Grand Strategy

Friday, October 1st, 2010


The United States is not the only Western power suffering from strategic uncertainty. James Frayne, a British political consultant who is a friend of this blog and an avid student of strategy, drew my attention to his post at The Campaign War Room:

“Who Does UK Grand Strategy?”

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee – under the leadership of Bernard Jenkin – has been running a very worthwhile investigation into “Who Does UK Grand Strategy?” The uncorrected evidence has begun to be put online and it’s worth taking a look at. Peter Hennessy, Julian Lindley-French, and Hew Strachan gave evidence on 9 September, which you can read here. Foreign Secretary William Hague and National Security Adviser Sir Peter Ricketts gave evidence on 14 September, available here. Various figures from the MoD gave evidence on 16 September, available here.We have no meaningful national conversation in the UK on national strategy, so we owe Bernard Jenkin one for pushing this investigation forward. I haven’t had a chance to go through all the evidence yet and will post something longer on it further down the line.

Seems straightforward enough, but the quality of the links are really good; senior British officials in frank discussion of grand strategy. Here’s an example:

Q54 Robert Halfon: Would you make the distinction between a Grand Strategy and a National Security Strategy and do you agree that if there is that difference, a long term strategy needs to look forward 20 years plus?

William Hague : I think a National Security Strategy is an important component of it. I do not think a National Security Strategy is the entire strategy of the country, because there needs to be a strategy not only for maintaining our security, but for advancing our prosperity. These things are closely linked; it is only on strong economic foundations that it is possible to build an effective foreign or defence policy. But it cannot just be a defensive strategy. Was it not a Napoleonic maxim: “The side that stays within its fortifications is beaten”? I think one has to have a strong sense of how the country is going to extend its influence and reach out into the rest of the world, using whatever, to use the jargon, using soft power as well as hard power. So there is something more to the strategy of the country than the National Security Strategy.

Q55 Robert Halfon: Once you have devised that strategy, how does it withstand political pressures and a change of government?

William Hague : If it is good, of course, it will withstand a change of government not by seeking prior agreement across political parties but by being something that has been clearly demonstrated as something the country should pursue. I think that is really how consensus and cross party agreement works in this country. Of course, we are in a period now where it works in a different way between the two coalition parties, because since we are in government together, we have to formally agree things together. But I think if an approach to the future of the nation is shown and understood to be working, it will be something that is continued by other governments in the future.

Some thoughts:

First, there’s a substantial difference between the committee hearing in the House of Commons and what would transpire over here in the US House of Representatives or especially in the Senate. The seriousness of the exchange in this inquiry is evident, conversational it may come across at times, the MPs led by Bernard Jenkin appear genuinely interested in the opinion of the witnesses and the Commons seems to be exercising oversight in a meaningful sense of the word. The Brits also use adult vocabularies, unlike most American politicians. It would be hard to imagine Congressmen saying “otiose” in a hearing. Or, in a few instances, knowing what it meant ( too self-referential, I suppose).
At a Congressional hearing on grand strategy, the witnesses would submit prepared statements that would be read only by junior staff and the MoC would use the opportunity for grandstanding speeches on C-Span and prosecutorial questions aimed at scoring polemical debating points. Winesses in America might not be forthcoming and could possibly bring their own lawyers due to the risk of being boxed in by questions that could later be construed as perjury. Real oversight by Congress or interest in the granular subject matter of national security is limited to a small number of MoC, basically the leadership (majority and minority) of each house, and a few distinguished members like Rep. Ike Skelton, Sen. Richard Lugar and so on.

Secondly, I have to wince at the perception senior British officials have of American governmental capacity for strategic thinking or the effectiveness of institutions like the National Security Council, which the British govenment seeks to imitate. To be brutally frank, the NSC has been a dysfunctional apparatus for most of it’s existence and operated at peak performance ( in the sense of assuring the president’s control over foreign, defense and intel policies and bureaucracies) only under Eisenhower and Nixon with relatively decent performance as “honest broker/enforcer” under Ford and Bush I. and select years here and there of other administrations. The apex of strategic thinking in the USG, interestingly enough, was during the presidencies of FDR, Truman, Nixon and Reagan; the NSC did not exist under the first, was a work in progress under the second and a roman circus during the tenure of the last until Carlucci and Powell became successive NSC advisers.
If the US seems to have given greater thought to strategy of late, it was because the downward spiral of Iraq beat the living hell out of the Bush administration politically into opening the policy door to outside voices like General Jack Keane, Kalev Sepp, the Kagans, David Kilcullen, John Nagl, General Petraeus, General Mattis etc. Even then American COIN is an operational activity of the US military, not a whole of government strategy, that serves to kick the ball of grand strategy down field (which politicians like because grand strategy can raise controversial questions of values and political economy).

Third, With some amusement, unless I missed it in my quick read,  senior British leaders appear to be unaware that Britain’s postwar choice under Clement Attlee to build a robust welfare state was a seminal act of grand strategy. British voters in 1945 made a strategic choice of butter over guns – or empire, or high levels of capital investment. As strategy is essentially a matter of ways, means and ends, devoting very high levels of GDP to public consumption puts narrow parameters on what a country will be able to do in the world. Or for that matter, at home in the future. American politicians clearly do not realize this either. Socialism in Europe has brought not the withering away of the state, but instead a withering away of the state’s military power.

Fourth, In reference to the second doc, Q215 Chair: Grand strategy is far more important to small or medium states than to a hegemon or an empire because their margin for error or waste is much smaller. The United States government can afford, relatively speaking, to gratuitously waste geopolitical opportunities (at least for a time) which it has been doing with gusto since 1991. Singapore, by contrast, cannot waste any of it’s chances if it wishes to remain prosperous and free. Britain needs a grand strategy if it’s leaders value and seek to pass on to posterity a British identity. The same can be said over here for America and some of the visceral anger inherent in the Tea Party arguably seems to come from their realization that American elites do not place too much importance on an American identity or sovereignty.

I sincerely hope the British can find not only a grand strategy, but the correct one. The world needs a strong and capable Britain and America does too.


James Frayne delivers his verdict – Q: “Who Does UK Grand Strategy?”, A: “Nobody”:

There are three big things that stand out for me from the evidence. The first is that there was a strong consensus from the academics and the former defence officials that Britain has no real capability either for the creation of Grand Strategy specifically, or for competent strategic thinking more generally. They suggested that we do not have the institutional framework in place to create Grand Strategy and we do not have the functions within Government to train people – officials and politicians – in strategic thought.

Crucially, it was also suggested by the academics and former defence officials that we have actually got out of the habit of thinking strategically. In the past, when Britain had a more obvious formal global role, we were forced to think strategically. With relative decline and the consequent attachment of our foreign and security policy (to say nothing of our economic policy) to the US, NATO and the EU, we lost the capacity for independent thought. It was suggested by some of the former defence officials that Britain has something of an “anti-intellectual culture” which makes them sceptical about strategy-making; people prefer pragmatism.

Dr.Patrick Porter castigates the Tories:

Major war capability did not become obsolete with the end of the Cold War. The ‘north German plain’ symbol is the cliche and soundtrack of a dangerous complacency. Other states like China, India and Russia invest heavily in the kind of ‘kit’ that Osborne finds absurd. Russia recently fought a land war in Georgia, and puts its Blackjack bombers in British skies.

In fact, the dismissal of Russia as a has-been military power who went into history with the end of the Cold War is symptomatic of a complacency about power politics and major war, and we are still living with the consequences of our recent failure to take Russia seriously as a geopolitical heavyweight.


Some Anglospheric Multimedia

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

A BBC podcast on Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War. Perhaps the most sublime work on strategy of all time ( Hat tip to The Warlord)

Next, and unrelated: 

Via blogfriend Robert Paterson, a new talk by educational and creativity thought leader, Sir Ken Robinson. The ritual TED bowing to Al Gore notwithstanding, if you are interested in education issues, this is a must see video.

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