Postmodern classic?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

On the bedside table- Machiavelli's Discourses on Titus Livy

I learned some interesting things in college, but I didn’t feel as if I learned anything until I began to read the books of the Classics (roughly defined as the Canon of history and philosophy written by mostly Greek and Roman sources influencing European thought for the past 2 millenium). I had picked a few up before, but as a senior one of my professors led me to explore them in a fuller fashion to great benefit.

Now, my background interests in military conflicts and history prejudice me towards an uncommon fascination with the affairs of early European history, true enough. But I feel now that it is a shame how their valuable lessons are so undervalued today- in the height of what we call ‘Western power’, usually referring to the dominance of European nations, a Classic education was the foundation for the gentleman, or any other aiming for esteem and power in our world. I’m afraid that most people seem unaware of the treasures hidden among these books, much less the cultural heritage. Even worse, in what I can only call post-modern conceit, there seems to be an active agenda to discredit this way of thinking as archaic and (take your pick) parochial, patriarchal, oppressive. A healthy discussion on the history of Rome would quickly illuminate the flaws and weaknesses of this great and influential nation, but the aim doesn’t seem to be this. Rather more often, I’ve encountered a blanket condemnation of anyone who would seek to emulate or praise the customs of our ancestors and cultural forebears. Condemnation and denigration of the martial virtues extolled in these books.

As a military man and now as a security professional, I’m consistently curious and sometimes worried about the viability of the warrior culture in our wealthy country, as mentioned previously. Surely, the man of the 21st century is capable of being a great warrior, even as circumstances differ and technology changes. The fundamental similarity is the primacy of human nature in relation to human interactions.

At the moment I’m working my way through Machiavelli’s Discourses- commentaries of his on Titus Livy's famous history of Rome. I understand why his works are so academically troubling and inconsistent- among his generalizations he places little importance on an empirical framework to support his claims. His support comes more from the assumptions of his culture and education. But his conclusions are so articulate and biting- he really gets to the essence of his topic. And his vision of the inherent difficulties of statehood and an honest appraisal of the hypocrisies of their administration. Quite a great book.

There's an interesting chapter here on fortresses, rather how despicable and useless they are. Should be a significant chapter in any counter-insurgency manual, how walls insulate and isolate, making people do things they wouldn't otherwise do in getting along with the locals. This and many other things make it such an interesting read.

Makes you wonder though, why is that the writers of some of these great books, like say- Confucius, Socrates or Machiavelli, books of great importance- written by someone who was unsuccessful in their chosen aims? Confucius always wanted to find the perfect prince of virtue, so did Machiavelli even if his prince would have been different, Socrates wanted to find the Truth and Plato recorded him for posterity. All basically failed- but in that individual failure their students or their writings lived on.

The world would have been a drearier place without them. I suppose at best, the victors themselves would have written tracts like Caesar. You know, okay- but dodging all the controversy, a few shades from self-supporting propaganda. So perhaps it's good they do. You probably don't want novelists to be world leaders, if certain 20th century notaries such as Hitler, or even Mao and Stalin, exemplify.

Well, I'll crack on then-

Violence and popular culture

Movie box office receipts have been slipping in the recent years. Profits are going down- some attribute this to copyright infringement and other competitive aspects of the international movie market. But as far as Hollywood USA is concerned- I think intellectual property rights is probably not the most important. When 'Brokeback Mountain' is credible as Oscar material, one has to say hmmmm.... who's out of touch?

I wonder what our friends abroad in places like Israel think of Hollywood when lauded director Steven Spielberg makes a film like 'Munich'. Just reading reviews and seeing the trailers has relieved me of the urge to see it for myself. VDH takes a good bash at it- 'Hollywood's Misunderstood Terrorists'. Spielberg seems to have been trying to make a point of moral equivalency between the Israeli Mossad agents and the terrorists they tracked down. Is that a defensible argument? Is all violence supposed to be morally reprehensible and unjustifiable? That's what I am left with, unless I'm way off point here.

But I'm not content to leave it there. One of the undercurrents of this trend is an overall attempt to deligitimize violence through various means- 'gun control', 'mediation', all these other high minded efforts to overrule human nature. One of the side effects is the marginalization of the warrior culture- those who would protect the ability of these 'high-minded intellectuals' to produce their work and safeguard the market to sell it in. Unless you thought that every place in the world has a Best Buy or a movie theatre... reality alert, these things don't come easy. They are secured by the stability provided by the efforts of others. And unfortunately at times, that requires more violence.

But when you get film after film highlighting this emasculation, you have to wonder.... and wonder some more, since my incomplete thoughts won't be that satisfying. So I'll defer to someone saying it better than me, a la 'The Belmont Club'-

"Implicit in the model of Western warfare is that the warrior should never seek to persuade. That job has been assigned to the diplomats and civilians -- including the press. The most subversive thing imaginable is a military as good with words as it is with guns. That division of labor has been coextensive with the origins of uniformed armies. As old as the distinction between men in uniform and franc tireurs. Men under discipline might be allowed the occasional inarticulate "hoo-ah" but politics was to be left to civilians. But in the second half of the 20th century a strange thing happened. The neat division between uniformed and un-uniformed combatants collapsed; and the firewall between man-at-arms and man of letters disappeared."

He was writing about the problems the military has in countering enemy propaganda through what are called 'information operations'. I would point to something else, the ability of a society to produce warriors for its preservation, content to fight for a righteous cause. Fighting together, across lines of class and ethnicity. The converse being avoiding those who might otherwise protect degrade into thugs when their secular identity no long pulls weight, and no one dares question them. I believe this is what we see going on in Europe with the rejection of militancy and the moral corrosion of socialism. Tough words, I know! But I've yet to be convinced otherwise.

The question is open, shifting and changing. But I reckon it won't be too long before more people are asking what role do they want violence to play in their life, and what are they willing to do to achieve it? Can we just ignore it and deligitimize it, hoping it will go away by shame? Perhaps the ideal of a warrior might be useful, as it has in the past. Not perfect, but able and willing to defend what's important.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Day to day

The sunsets here are really quite nice, a sort of purplish haze. Makes you forget there are people trying to kill you. And all the lights go out at night, so you can clearly see the sky and all the amazing stars. Nature and it's simple delights...

The speakers went off yesterday afternoon when we had some incoming, but there hasn't been any in a while out here. No big deal. Had some out on site the other day but it was a dud- Thank God, it landed 50m away. EOD was trying to defuse it, but probably ended up blowing it. Another day...

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas!

Got put on call for the next couple of days, so can't post the normal things. Seen a couple friends and family out here, which is nice. Just wanted to send a shout out to friend and fam from over here-

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


In theatre, in the box, whatever... a few flights, some jetlag and I'm back. Kind of crazy, almost like I never left, life is back to normal in a way. I guess it would seem that way to someone who chooses to be here.

Saw a cousin of mine yesterday, good to hear from him. He's here as a soldier, a little different perspective but good. Funny how things work.

I'll put up a post here in a few days. All is well.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Review of Ralph Peters 'New Glory'

Ralph Peters recent book 'New Glory: Expanding America's Global Supremacy' is a thoughtful, if overly emotional book. With some big problems, I believe it will still stand as a prescient look at America's strategic future and the choices which we face, even if it is ignored by most people.

Ralph has the intelligent and informed perspective of the military professional, although his prejudices (of which I share more than a few) undermine what I believe are coherent arguments outlining the problems of the future we face. If I was to simplify the book into one thought, it would be: America must move away from Euro-centric paralysis we are currently in to embrace our strengths and achieve our ideals in the world abroad. Failure to do this will just prolong the political and military battles of the future.

Tigerhawk was right in calling this a 'patriotic book'. Mr. Peters correctly points out the material and intellectual contributions America has given the world. It is refreshing in one sense, this glowing portrayal. However, it does the book discredit to gloss over our failings and hypocrisy so completely- while we shouldn't spend our time in constant 'mea culpa' for these mistakes, we need to acknowledge them as natural and show how we would improve them. Perfection is not the American ideal, but the opportunity to do better in a changing world.

His emphasis on human rights is more balanced to me, since he shows the military cost that we would pay in enforcing this ideal implies. When we can, we have to act- but not everywhere. We have to have a moral goal, for ourselves as well as the rest of the world and their hypocrisies. We too have shortcomings, but must not get bogged down with the misbegotten justifications of others failures- of which the Europeans are the leading example.

The book is consistent in it's criticism of Europe- France and Germany in particular, for good reason. The UK is treated differently, and there is much mention of the promise offered by the newly emerging Eastern European states. To me this is unbalanced. There is much truth and blame to go around, and I am in complete agreement there should be devastating consequences to those seeking to actively undermine our objectives (ie France). A more 'nuanced' view of Europe would not change my criticism of this- but we must accept their failings and make something more from it. Yes, NATO is a joke only dwarfed by the UN and other outdated zombies, but we were successful in dealing with Russia. Even in the worst of these offenders, there is a hope for a newborn commitment to international freedom, despite the feverish rants of an outdated bureaucratic elite trying to keep Communism alive.

Regarding Asia, he doesn't seem to know that much. Can't blame him for it, most don't and anyone who claims to is probably mistaken. Simplistic conclusions about the Koreans, Chinese and Japanese just don't cut it. Might've been better to avoid that.

Regarding the military-industrial complex and the insidious influence of 'contractors'; over the top. I'm a contractor myself, so I'm obviously sympathetic to that, but he doesn't even try to get a balanced perspective on their role. The Air Force's political maneuvers and acquisition accomplishments are rightly criticized as a travesty of corruption, but to paint everyone in that light is unbalanced. If I understand his portrayal accurately, the only reason anything still works is due to the 'saintliness' of NCO's and officers who persist amidst the decadence in Washington. My interpretation: when I was in the military, I wasn't around a lot of saints- we were hard workers focused on a common goal, but not saints. I might not've signed up were that the case. And among the workers 'on the outside' most are focused on the bottom line somehow, but wouldn't be there if they didn't think it was helping. Ultimately they do a job that the military shouldn't do or do it better- deal with it. There are some structural problems in how the military works with the private sector, but I don't think he really means that he would want it all run by the military... he hasn't thought that one through.

Regarding 'Rumsfeld and his civilian elite', a one-sided bashfest is all I can use to describe this. There is more than enough legitimate criticism of this guy and the workings of the Pentagon, but if you want a balanced assessment of what is going on there as the world changes- don't look here. Just one contemplation of oh, maybe a Kerry or Dean administration is chilling enough to rein in harsh invective on the problems encountered by the Department of Defense in the last year. But if we do address these problems, well, there is enough to go around outside of these scapegoats. Hate to say it, but some of those politically appointed generals have to take the blame for the ineptitude in Iraq. Oh, but they're 'saintly', and the civilians are 'corrupt'. Not buying it. We have a professional military, but there is a problem when it takes such a bureaucratic mess to support it- makes you wonder how much is just there to support itself in the typical self-perpetuation of bureaucratic infighting. I sometimes think when we fought the Cold War we ended up adopting the methods of the Soviets to understand them better, in that weird way armies mirror each other when trying to counter their opponent... but I digress. End result: it takes 10 men to support 1 warfighter. That seems a little out of balance. Can't blame that on the contractors or the shortsighted politicians who spend time in the Pentagon. That's part of the American constitution- the military is subject to civilian authority, and most of the time this works by keeping us involved in important affairs of the state. Mr. Peters leaves that little snippet of information out, resulting in a lopsided condemnation which undermines the purpose of otherwise legitimate complaints and criticism.

Conclusion: some good thoughts and important things to think over, but hamstrung by a one-sided evaluation of current events. Obviously a smart and dedicated officer, but not the grand vision of America's future I wanted, and frankly, kind of expected.

A little disappointed actually, but there still is Kaplan, whose 'Imperial Grunts' was nothing short of genius. Along with 'Coming Anarchy' in 1994 and 'Warrior Politics' in 2003. Looking forward to the next of his works. Might as well list my other favorites: Kagan's books also are standing the test of time and vision, 'Of Paradise and Power' along with his father Donald's 'On the Origins of War, and the Preservation of Peace'. Not all lost, by any means. Or Martin VanCrevelds 'Transformation of War'. Enough book porn- you get the picture. Open to any recommendations.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Ramadi news coverage, December 2005

It's pretty hard to get news this wrong, but when you're hiding in a hotel- anybody supplying video and pictures will probably seem credible. And this is what passes for Iraq war coverage.

I will link to right-wing news sites, because they appear to mirror my indignation at the propaganda passed off as news. I know their bias- it is clear, 5 years ago I would probably be ashamed to be so associated with the 'right-wing'. But since when has it been a right-wing attribute to want honesty and context, or even what is loosely called 'patriotism', or at least not openly rooting for the other side?

I can only conclude that I am out of touch in some fundamental way. I read this crap and it is surreal how they get it so wrong.

Here is the story on Reuters, BBC and AP, compare with a report from someone 'actually there', and some other indignation running around the blogosphere. Some commentary on Blackfive and other milblog sites. You tell me.

Another time-burner, which historic general are you?

Via Tigerhawk, pretty fun. If unexpected, evidently I would be....

King Edward I

You scored 70 Wisdom, 73 Tactics, 58 Guts, and 41 Ruthlessness!

Or rather, King Edward the Longshanks if you've seen Braveheart. You,
like Edward, are incredibly smart and shrewd, but you win at any
costs.... William Wallace died at his hands after a fierce Scottish
rebellion against his reign. Despite his reputation though, Longshanks
had the best interests of his people at heart. But God help you if you
got on his bad side.

My test tracked 4 variables How you compared to other people your age and gender:
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 74% on Unorthodox
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You scored higher than 55% on Tactics
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You scored higher than 63% on Guts
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You scored higher than 29% on Ruthlessness

Link: The Which Historic General Are You Test written by dasnyds on Ok Cupid, home of the 32-Type Dating Test

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Gay controversy

Right now there's a vibrant debate underway at Blackfive, initiated by Uncle Jimbo, on the role of gays in the military. I left a comment, but I felt it was insufficient so I'm expanding on it here. There is a lot of disagreement, but the ultimate consideration should be that of readiness: would it undermine morale or effectiveness? The military is there for one reason, to protect our nation, not to serve as a laboratory for social experimentation. I have to say yes, making it legal for open service would undermine readiness. Clearly, there have been many successful militaries which had (or even encouraged) homosexuals. Only the big ones like say- the Greeks, Romans (possibly the Brits, from what we know), among others. Alexander the Great thought it was good for unit cohesion and made them fight harder. They had a system which worked.

Enter the 21st century American military. I will have a hard time with this argument if I can't explain the large role of American Christianity in the military, some would argue a central role. Like it or leave it, it is the guiding morality for many, if not most, of our serving military personnel. A sense of common values is an important part to building the cohesion of a fighting force, and the good old-time religion still does the job. Unless you think vague ideas of multicultural unity or other ineffectual post-modern blather could be a successful substitute for developing the moral courage to defend our nation abroad, reference: most European military institutions following WW2.

But that's a tradition that's not imposed on all, despite criticisms. What gay rights seems to threaten is not Christianity, but the primary institution of it: the ideal of a monogamous marriage. Obviously not achieved in many an instance, but I would argue, still the ideal. To me it seems that, (as un-PC as it may seem) to be a successful NCO or officer one needs to be married. In the old days it was seen to be essential, now it's more recommended, but still important. Just the financial aspect, alluded to in the thread, of determining how to decide marital benefits, would be a bureaucratic nightmare. However difficulty and cost should not be significant factors in determining what is the right thing to do. But doesn't the idea of radically redefining marriage kind of scare you? It does me!

We're all sinners, and gays are no different. But let's see if this country could continue to produce fighters if our families are no longer supported by society. It wouldn't happen overnight, well past the attention span of our 'progressive media'. But I believe that as a matter of principle. Maybe that's a bit harsh, but I'm unimpressed with the claims otherwise. We'll see.