‘The Great Leveler’: A Review

four horsemen

‘You could listen to the endless promises of scientists, engineers, and politicians and believe we lived in a golden age that would last forever and a day, where all men were free from want. But those men and women were arrogant, and we swallowed their hubris and made it our own. {…} They didn’t talk about the working conditions in the mines and factories, or the Red Indian reservations, the people who suffered and died so that a few of us could live our lives of plenty. Most of all, though, they didn’t talk about how nothing lasts forever-not coal, not wood, not oil or peat-and how one nation turns against another when it starts to run out of the resources it needs to power the engines of progress.’

~Kailtyn R. Kiernan, ‘Goggles (c 1910).’

It is not Kiernan’s excellent short story that parodies the euphoria of much of modern steampunk fiction that brings me to you this night, though the quote above is eminently apt, but rather something of the nonfiction variety which overlaps with the sentiment of that passage. I wish to give full justice to a book I just finished, Walter Scheidel’s ‘The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality.’ If you don’t want something elaborate I can give you the short version: This is what Piketty would have been like had he the courage of the historian who can set aside their era specific values to look at long term trends in a truly dispassionate and realistic way.

The more elaborate take of this book follows.

Scheidel is a historian of the classical world, with prior studies in the Roman Empire as well as its opposite-Eurasia counterpart the Han Dynasty in China. It was apt that with these two examples of early continent straddling superpowers that he opens a quite large and dense study of civilization’s cycles of boom and bust. Not economically speaking, but rather of class. The boom and bust cycles of the elite and the commons, as one makes relative gains at the expense of the other, only to concede to an eventual reversal. Usually, this comes in the form of technology enabling the rise of an aristocracy which is at first a patron (herding, agriculture, industry, possibly electronic information), which then rapidly outpaces its once modest accumulations and becomes parasitic on its own order, leading to either revolt or overreach which causes ‘leveling’, or some re-assertion of some economic fairness in reset, and eventually starts the process over again. The events that can cause these seismic shifts which partially undo the gradualism of the growth of the ruling class in any stable order are varied. They can be large scale warfare, state collapse, internal revolution, or pandemic. Obviously, there are many instances in history where more than one of these factors meet, sometimes one touching off another.

The conclusions he draws are stark. So far, leveling is an inevitable reaction to either the complacency, hoarding, or misrule of the rulers. It is also often a devastating process leaving mixed results. To live in such times is undesirable for most, but often necessary for a future where problems do not simply accelerate ad inifintum. He comes down on neither ‘side’, admonishing either who might be too partisan on these questions to be careful what they wish for. I would somewhat quibble with this final note of caution, however, as I feel that the present environmental calamity we find ourselves in strongly tops this balance towards one side more than the other. Despite this, I find this book to be a remarkably robust addition to non-doctrinaire materialist history, and thus utterly necessary for our time. It makes a case with historically reconstructed data from the classical era to the present day, tying in events that fit with the ‘four horsemen’ of leveling and showing success stories, failures, and everything in between in a list which includes numerous governments of the most varied geographic, cultural, and ideological persuasions-which further strengthens the case of circumstantial materialism above that of both intent and innate inheritance. Issues of class as well as epidemiology and both domestic and foreign power politics weave together to create a story of the costs and benefits of civilization itself.

Naturally, I realize this makes me sound like a broken record here, but I would have liked to have seen a shout out to my boy Ibn Khaldun. After all, he came up with the cyclic civilizational analysis working in material factors all the way back in the Fourteenth Century, including the necessity for new governments to have large amounts of group solidarity before the inevitable rot set in if they were successful bringing stability and prosperity to the land, leading to the gradual weakening of their society and the resurgence of new outsiders who resembled what the current ruling class once was. Despite not seeing one of my favorite historians mentioned in this very topic relevant piece, I must give Scheidel a massive amount of credit for not indulging in typical ideological pique when looking at modern history. He speaks of the positives and negatives of all kinds of governing orders, from early modern transition economies to capitalist and communist orders alike. In an era where economic idealism is treated as sectarian dogma, this is a great thing to see. When one’s central thesis is crisis leading to opportunity-at great risk-it makes sense to consider all the variables. Naturally, in a study of this scope, many interesting case studies are left out. The early Turkish Republic compared to the late Ottoman Empire, for instance, would have been welcome. As could the turbulent post-WW2 history of rapid economic policy change shown at multiple stages in Chilean history. But obviously, and I know this personally myself, to work in big picture requires parsing ones examples down to the bare necessities to make the point lest one drag into repetition.

An extremely important and heavily recommended book.

 

MSNBTroll

Hello, my name is Rachel Maddow and I have exclusive never before seen video of Russian agents inside the White House.

But first, what is Russia? And what is the White House?

In 6,241 BCE, the descendants of Cain, brother of Abel, settled in a peat bog. The peat bog was known for its production of aromatic soaps. Soaps that caused divergence from the rest of the human evolutionary tree. These soaps were called Krokodil, and you probably have it in your house RIGHT NOW.

In the Middle Ages, this peat bog was invaded and conquered by the Mongols. The Mongols were decidedly un-woke, and engaged in many actions which contravened Immanuel Kant, who was so far up to this point the dominant influence on Russian culture aside from Krokodil soap. This was the final break, and in their humiliation an entire nation swore to conquer the world.

Fast-forward to the 1950s, great liberal democrat hero and ultra-woke Joe McCarthy discovered the the Union of Krokodil Addled Soviet Russian Oligarchs (USSR in Russian) had begun their plan to infiltrate the United States to begin the final phase of their wicked plot.

This brings us to our second topic, the White House. Built by the British in 1814 under my own Oxford Scholarship, the White House was long the abode of Andrew Jackson who shat in the lawn’s garden pottery. After the American Revolution of 1992, when all stamps were deregulated by our national founding parents, Bill and Hillary Clinton,who also invented the internet, decided to bravely stand up to this assault.

Enraged by this turn of events, Russian agents did everything they could to bring down this new benevolent order. They invaded Libya and framed the Clintons for it. They bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and framed America for it. They created Trump in a Krokodil Clone Farm and installed him upon the American people at gunpoint with the help of the Syrian army.

And now, *licks lips, swallos, gesticulates in pantsuit*, we have proof of collusion between the White House and the Krokodemlin. Actual direct footage from inside the Oval Office:

Confederation in Anarchy: The International Relations of Redwall

Well, I promised a lighter post more like my earlier entries, did I not? So let’s talk about  80s/90s children’s book series Redwall.

redwall-party

Redwall Fanart by the extremely talented chichapie, who also did many of the illustrations for the great possibly somewhat Redwall-inspired game ‘Armello’)

Redwall came into my life around third age 7 and remained (tied with Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’) the top tier reading material for me until I found Lovecraft at age 15. Even after its demotion I still kept up with the series until I went to college, making Taggerung the last entry I ever read. Still, as part of the inoculation in my childhood making me immune to the culture homogenizing adverb abusing virus that was ‘Harry Potter’it will always remain a part of my life. The best entry in the series, ‘Mossflower’, I even re-read only a few years ago to see if I still got the same kick out of it. I did.

Seemingly unrelated, in recent months I have also gotten into the Chapo Trap House podcast. Because being the opposition to all mess makers who got us where we are now requires not tone policing and pedantry but a crass sense of humor and disdain for the pundit class that positively drips. Clearly, fellow travelers to Geotrickster. Anyway, episode 82 was an interview with an American volunteer fighting with the YPG in Rojava in Syria, who corrected some inaccuracies in his more well known coverage in a Rolling Stone article. Most notably, he mentioned how what often is internationally defined as anarchism is really a functioning pseudo-state in Rojava, with portraits of its imprisoned founder everywhere and a fair amount of group discipline along with the egalitarianism.

You know what that reminds me of? Redwall Abbey. But since I talk about Syria and Iraq enough on this blog, while that may have been the spark that led to this post initially, it is not the real world comparison I am going to end up using. But first, a series primer.

Redwall, the name of the first (published, not chronological) book in series and also the name of the Abbey where most of the stories take place in, was the creation of the now deceased Brian Jacques. They consist of stories of woodland creatures, the majority of which are endemic to his native Britain. The woodlands (mice, moles, hares, badgers, otters, squirrels, etc), who try to live lives of peace and equality in a chaotic and unstable low fantasy world which seems to be around the technology level of the early Dark Ages. Their frequent enemies, roving bands of vermin (rats, stoats, foxes, weasels, etc), are also sentient and bipedal but their lives are governed by near constant conflict and territorial pissing matches. Some vermin command from daunting fortresses while others rove as nomadic bands, looking for loot or a fixed place of their own to take (usually Redwall).

Martin the Warrior, an escaped slave who liberated an entire pirate plantation and crushed the slavers drifted from far away into Mossflower Country after the tragic death of his love and his many friends in their war for freedom. To make a long series of stories short, he ended up falling with a guerrilla resistance who fought some local tyrants in the region, and after gaining allies and a new meteorite forged sword helped the locals drive out the occupiers and claim their former stronghold. Most books after this event take place in Redwall Abbey, the woodlander’s own structure built atop the site of their former enemies castle. After Martin’s death, he would go down as the patron protector and symbol of the egalitarian and consensus driven society he helped make possible by defeating the militaristic occupation of the Wildcats and their henchmen. Redwall and the surrounding woods filled with other woodlander factions seems like a type of anarchist expression. But it is not the political theory of anarchy with which they most traffic with, but rather the International Relations (IR) definition of a world with no overall governing structure, which we also call anarchy, with each political unit an autonomous entity onto itself. Besides, the closer one looks at Redwall Abbey, the more apparent it becomes that this is indeed, a cohesive political entity with the territorial demarcations, division of labor, and iconography of a state.

Despite being called an ‘Abbey’, there is no apparent religion in this crew but their own civic model of local forest and farming communally acting as a guiding virtue. An abbot or abbess really comes across as a chief mediator or town mayor who can be from almost any animal type, with the various species representing different functions such as engineering for the moles, scouting for the squirrels, farming for the mice, etc. There is no ethnic hierarchy, despite the seemingly strict workplace divisions on ‘ethnicity’, and all share resources equally and are liable, if adults, to serve as militia in times of defense. Redwall has local alliances with otters and shrews, some of whom also live within the abbey, and when it needs to it, it can project its militias offensively or an behalf of its allies on expedition. Many critics, my teenage self included, tend to see the good/bad species split as a kind of creepy fantastic racism, but I actually now view the animals as different personality and professional types. When you realize Redwall and many (but not all) of the warlord villain groups seem to not really have any type of stable or absolute species hierarchy, it becomes obvious that this not really a racial divide we are seeing here but rather a professional and cultural one.

Importantly, perhaps critically for this society to exist, it is not alone. Neither next door nor too far away is the highly militarized society of Salamandastron, a hollow extinct volcano lorded over by hereditary badger lords served by a highly trained caste of warrior hares. Redwall and Salamandastron, who Martin once brought together before the building of the Abbey itself, stand together as allies, one a power, the other a resource based enterprise. You could say Redwall is Canada to Salamandastron’s America, but perhaps more critically in the same continent, that they are strongly allied tribes who are domestically autonomous in a politically uncertain and dangerous world, but utterly unified towards any exterior threat. In this way, the real way to explain the IR of the Redwall series with a real life example is to look at the native confederacies of the Great Lakes regions. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), the Wyandot (Huron), and the Anishinaabeg (Three Fires) confederacies were groupings of tribes who came together for mutual defense. The first two formed as common Iroquoian fronts against surrounding Algonquian peoples, the Three Fires, in turn, coalesced more westerly Algonquians due to the expanding power of the Iroquois after they became the hegemonic power in the eastern North American interior in the late 17th Century following their defeat of the Huron.

For the sake of simplicity, let us focus on the Iroquois. Also, they were the subject of my capstone thesis paper for my undergraduate degree in history. Briefly, the Iroquois were an alliance of squabbling tribes in upstate New York who were brought together by the teaching of Hiawatha, himself inspired by the prophet Denangawida, who traveled the 5 tribes, eventually with many allies, winning over an alliance of the Mohawk, Seneca, Onandaga, Cayuga, and Oneida. Each tribe had an assigned task, such as the Mohawk being the guardians of the eastern door, or the Onandaga being the keepers of the council hire, or seat of governance. The tribes were basically governed as semi-autonomous pseudo-matriarchies by the elders in times of peace, but the league appointed temporary military leaders and diplomats in times of negotiation and peace. With their strong bedrock of support at home and their fighting skills, they grew, and outlasted several conflicts with Algonquian and various European enemies until different tribes of the alliance split over who to support in the American Revolution and the system collapsed. But for centuries, the league stood, navigating the tempestuous waters of Native and European politics alike on a continent upended into chaos by mass spreading of Eurasian disease and economic reorientation.

One wonders if in the ancient history of the Redwall world something happened to introduce mass depopulation and migration. Given the plethora of ruins found in the stories, the many roving and rapacious bands, and the somewhat stagnant technology level of a book series taking place over many, many generations, one cannot help but wonder from what prehistory the scribes of Redwall Abbey’s ancestors descend from. ‘Martin the Warrior’, chronologically second, implies all or most woodlanders were either enslaved or quite primitive to how they would be later. The recovery is clearly taking place though, as in later books it seems that Redwall and Salamandastron also have much stronger advantages against vermin than before when they were very clearly the underdogs. With the epic and bloody battle (for all sides) that closed out ‘Salamandastron’ (the book) as the first big unified fight with the two in one place, it seems that since then the allies have forged a better world for their, dare I say, socialist vision? Like the Iroquois, this is a confederation of pseudostates into a state-like alliance. A necessary coming together in the face of constant anarchic adversity, invasion, and danger whose longevity turns the alliance into a de facto national entity of its own with time. Ironically, the policies that make these societies sucessfull and brotherly are the very same ones that make them such a tempting target for the many vermin hordes, who seek their riches and security of place. Perhaps it is for the best then after all, without the common vermin threat someone more cynical than the target kid audience might assume that these two lights of the woodlands would then, like the Iroquois and Huron, or the late term tribes of the Iroquois themselves, inevitably turn on each other.

In times of great upheaval and rapaciousness we should remember the woodlanders of Redwall, who could carve out their own little place in the sun despite all the uncertainty around them with group solidarity and geographic awareness.

From Whence Come Refugees? They Come From You

blogusarmy

I have a small but somewhat regular audience for this blog. WordPress is kind enough to give me view stats and though I am overjoyed to see over 40 countries so far have taken a peek, I do get more from the United States than elsewhere. Since I live in DC and this often guides me to write about directions in U.S. foreign policy, this is no surprise. I do, however, miss my earlier focus on more historical and sometimes even fictitious hypotheticals and do plan on moving back in that direction soon. Nonetheless, when something is topical its topical.

No doubt you have heard about the capstone of the raging shitstorm that is Week 1, President Trump. I speak of course of the temporary executive order banning migration from certain countries. This move actively harms U.S. foreign policy and undermines its position at working effectively with allies on the ground to combat extremist movements and build diplomatic bridges. It unjustly harms people and is a rank hypocrisy from a nation which is 98% descended from immigrants. It has also directly harmed those who have served U.S. interest abroad more than most American citizens have. But you don’t have to take it from me, the internet is flooded with outrage on this issue, and rightfully-for once-so. Because of this widespread condemnation, however, I do not feel it would be useful to add to an already common opinion. I would like to bring up something else, something specifically addressed to many, but by no means all, of the outraged:

I am happy you are so empathetic to refugees. But why, if you support these people so much, were you so content for so long to launch military operations in their countries, at least when your party was in power anyway? Operations not made necessary by major security concerns and operations which often resulted in furthering a crisis rather than alleviating one?

On social media I have noticed that so many of those who are first to proclaim themselves righteous defenders of Muslims are those who were either silent or tacitly supported various misguided American actions in the Middle East which resulted in thousands of casualties. We had legions of ‘woke’ partisans actively shrieking for a presidential candidate who promised, on multiple occasions, an expanded regime change war in Syria. These are the same people now, after this disastrous first week for a new administration, who blithely and smugly proclaim, ‘we were right, see?’ While ignoring that we could just as easily have been in an equally damning crisis a bit further down the line, with Syria as a new Somalia, hemorrhaging even more displaced people fleeing sectarian genocide in a power vacuum through the region and setting off radicalization like never before. Not to mention the resulting explosion in even more right wing populism in reaction to this in Europe and eventually America. The most effective means to counteract the refugee problem is to deal with it at the root and de-escalate military options in the region. Not inflame them. But no one, and no major party in America, seems to consider this an option. Despite all the money, time, and lives it would save. No one even seems to care about this issue that lies at the heart of everything from the rise of the right to the refugee crisis. The thought that the United States (and others) plays a major role in creating the refugee situation in the first place barely enters the equation. ‘We are the light of the enlightenment, shining forth in Buzzfeed Listicles, attracting only The Elect from their Hell of being born outside the glow of the North Atlantic World.’ Of course, being one of the tacit causes of these conflicts, the least liberals can do is take the refugees in.

But perhaps this is to overthink more simple motives. Most likely its that in their world of snarky op-ed pieces, ‘zingers’, childish fantasies of living in a world where The West Wing is real, and understanding everything through Harry Potter analogies- the American liberal simply does not care about anything that happens outside of their heavily domestic-oriented media consumption. Maybe the people who fancy themselves cosmopolitan are in fact merely putting on a show to cover up their superficiality and provincialism. Sometimes, a cause becomes fashionable and a status symbol, but until you see the human suffering on a screen and know it is in your country now, then, and only then, can you take a stand. Since our media barely covers Yemen, this would explain by no one outside of the foreign policy field seems to be even be aware of its existence as a major battlefield. The same once happened in the Congo. The more photogenic breakup of Yugoslavia, however, got all the attention. And naturally, when a Democrat launches a ill-conceived war, its not a problem. Its not even a war, but rather a kindler, gentler, ‘intervention’. Being opposed to a war is only popular with such people when the other party launches it.

I don’t know about you, but I was happy to see such a large turnout for the women’s march here in DC. A crowd much larger than the inauguration took to the streets to assert themselves against the looming shadow of a government potentially hostile to their interests. But I could not keep a sneaking and depressing suspicion out of my mind…had the election gone the other way, what percentage of these people would have shown up to protest an attack on Damascus by another new administration? Even after knowing everything that comes from such policies and how they come back to haunt us later. Even after Iraq, which has if anything a less toxic combination of internal factors than Syria does, ended up widely acknowledged as the biggest policy blunder so far of the 21rst Century? The answer? That crowd protesting in the National Mall would not be in the hundreds of thousands, but rather the hundreds.

But these are all speculations. So the question remains open: Why is it, for the average American liberal, more acceptable to drop bombs on someone than to ban them from entering the country?

 

Thanks, Obama, for Avoiding the History We Almost Had

johnhillary

So the Obama era is almost totally over. I don’t really want to get into domestic politics as I have been doing that enough recently on this blog due to the upset election and which is contrary to its main purpose-but it should also be obvious from past entries that I have not always seen eye to eye with this administration on foreign affairs. If the Democratic Party is to have any future, however, either in domestic or foreign affairs, it is my sincere hope that it embraces the wing of Tulsi Gabbard and rejects that of Corey Booker and the Clintons.

So why, talking about a party that had all the signs of winning big in 2016 and lost to a meme candidate, am I saying ‘Thanks, Obama?’ on my foreign policy focused blog? Let me present you with a horrifying alternate history scenario that should chill your spine no matter what your politics looks like:

Hillary Clinton or John McCain wins the presidency in 2008. 3 years later, the Arab Spring Happens and ‘it’s 3AM in Tehran, who do you want picking up the phone?’

The neocon establishment is fully entrenched and unchecked, US military interventions in all affected countries including ground troops ensue. This further increases the horror and refugee crisis, spilling over the chaos into yet more countries. An entire region of military command is effectively immersed in something that makes Vietnam look like a playground fight.The U.S. is so weakened and possibly working in tandem with Islamists to pick up the on-the-ground slack that other powers jump in, backing more sustainable sides and gravely increasing the likelihood of great power conflict even beyond US-Russia rivalry in Syria today. Soon the fighting spreads south of the Sahara, overwhelming countries with poor counter-insurgency infrastructure.

To be a bit less serious:

‘Day 86 of the Siege of Nouakchot and while 250,000 US troops remain trapped amidst a sea of the rapidly growing Boko Haram Army, Islamist forces continue to advance northwards further east, pledging to exterminate all Copts and other minorities. Secretary of State, Michele Flournoy said ‘the march of democracy is full of broken eggs to make a Freedom Omelette. We will direct forces eastward and encourage the moderate opposition while we hold off the radicals in Mauritania.’

‘We will kill all infidel scum’ said obstensive U.S. ally Abdhul Al-Jihadi, ‘god willing they will all die by the blade like pigs.’

‘Don’t worry,’ added Flournoy, ‘They will calm down once they have an election.”

That’s why I say ‘Thanks, Obama.’

International Flexibility Theory: A Proposal

Academia, government, the corporate world. They all like to have neat little theories with neat little acronyms averaging out to around three letters. Sometimes these are helpful classifications and sometimes not. Often, they seek to bring order to a chaotic world by creating an archetype for specialization.

When it comes to international affairs, we certainly have our own list of such categories. As with the other fields, some are actually useful and simplify things, and others fail in this regard. Not enough, however, accurately reflect the level of division and divergence which really are some of the biggest features of the international landscape.

I would like to introduce what I think (and hope) is an original contribution to the field: International Flexibility Theory-henceforth for simplicity’s sake to be referred to as ‘IFT’. IFT is not to be considered as an entire comprehensive theory of international relations, nor is it necessarily attached to any previously established school of thought. It is, rather, a kind of strategic observation which could be added to a variety of topics. Its very nature, however, probably jives with some topics and backgrounds better than others.

The key point of IFT is a very simple one: (1.) The ability of a state to rapidly change for pragmatic purposes, and thus re-mold its core values, the better the international performance of that state. Building off of that idea, we can follow up with (2.) the more flexibility a country has in its internal structure, the more flexibility it will have in its foreign relations. To put the negative side of it simply, if the core value of a state is survival, be it of the governing class (regime) or of the geographic entity, the sweet seductions of retrenchment or ideological uniformity are a false siren song luring the ship of state to be dashed upon the rocks. This means that the governing class cannot be allowed to grow complacent, be it with their own civic ideology or that of one being internationally faddish. (3.) Since the contexts of different states, (historical, geographic, political, etc) are obviously dissimilar, the lack of uniformity and divergence as different states compete against each other by following different paths is actually internationally useful for the political scientist, as it means that observation of this creation of new models may contribute new ideas of governance or diplomacy to those who otherwise would not experience them. Since the context of each countries’ or alliance network’s existence cannot be replicated, it goes without saying that any new ideas which one might want to adopt must be re-tooled to a new context-but to accept that there is no universal political model still opens the door for more creativity for the theorist and practitioner alike as well as the innovator learning from the experiences of others.

None of these points may seem particularly insightful or new, and in fact they are not on their own. But in an era of the contested breakdown of the grand alliance of global capitalism, liberalism, and humanism-after they themselves outlived international socialism, and both had replaced Victorian colonialism and made significant inroads at the expense of divine right monarchies, it seems important to remind scholars and policy makers alike of the deficiencies of a universalist approach to international political theory.

It has become common place enough to seem trite to cite the utter failure of ‘The End of History’ type theories. The fact is, outside of triangulating centrists and the New York Time’s op-ed page, no one really believes in these things anymore. But among certain influential chattering classes, some scaled down (and often militarized) version of this neoliberal fantasy is still validated. Furthermore, once we acknowledge that it is precisely this order (or its remnants) which has held strategists back from really engaging in civic flexibility (as stipulated in IFT) it becomes relevant to observe that whatever one makes of the recent upswing in nativism (I am, personally, not a fan) it holds the advantage of being more beholden to local circumstances, and more willing to diverge rather than being a movement with global pretentions. The common insult ‘globalist’ used by people of today’s right actually speaks a grain of truth, if sloppily applied.

To build off of that example, the liberal order itself came to defeat the socialist alternative not based off of ideological or economic superiority, but rather, according to IFT, because it was more flexible to adaptation than its primary competition. The political and economic systems of what was called the Free World were actually extremely divergent from one other, their common interest largely being either geopolitical opposition to the expansion of the USSR’s power or local opposition to the spread of communism in the near abroad. It really was an alliance of convenience, and only when things were clearly swinging in the direction of the United States did it start to become a proper ideological and international project. Compared to the explicitly international objectives of the socialist bloc, this gave a flexibility advantage to the goals of the alliance. Meanwhile, in the socialist bloc, the attempt to hold it together (under Moscow’s thumb) as a cohesive and more uniform alliance exacerbated the Sino-Soviet Split and the alienation of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia itself, most famous today for its messy breakup (I would add as an aside, inevitable since 1919 and hardly reflective of Tito’s government or even the Cold War) then went its own unorthodox way and succeeded, despite its many handicaps and being one of the most devastated states of World War 2, to make impressive gains in development and diplomacy. Cuba also, more isolated by geography than anything else, entered a path that kept its model sustainable long after the end of the Cold War.

Going back to even further, the vast material supremacy of the Allies over the Axis was in part due to their more sprawling societies. Sure, someone like myself can say that the root of this is in geopolitical security, but geopolitical security can still make a state stable enough to handle dynamic pressures others cannot. The highly centralized ethnocentrism of the Axis, coupled with a single minded desire to upend the power of competitive states, made a brought coalition against them inevitable, not to mention fascism’s predilection for romantic ideals and smug sense of superiority for certain ethnic groups could be argued to have negatively affected strategic decision making from Barbarossa to Pearl Harbor. Such appeals to nativism and supremacy themselves become a rigid doctrine where people are too proud to admit error or a fate to be surpassed by another state. Pride and self-flattery are always the enemies of IFT. So too is triumphalism, as it exacerbates the dismissal of change and learning from the experience of others.

This is not a new idea. More of an experimental approach I want to throw out there and see where it goes as it evolves. In the future I would like to do a vigorous historical study covering many more eras and locations and see if a general trend emerges as theorized here. From what I know of history, I can already think of countless examples where the flexible power or group of powers had an innate advantage specifically because they were more open to change than their competition, and more willing to accept divergence from whatever their idea of the ‘norm’ was. From the Franco-Ottoman Alliance in the 17th Century to the Meiji Restoration of the 19th, it is societies willing and able to question their own status quos who have held the adaptable advantage over those who do not when competing in the anarchic inter-state system.

Reclaim Military History!

timurid-dueling-period-peice

Expect the unexpected. Prepare for collateral damage. Prioritize outcome over ideals. Fear the costs of war and so avoid it whenever possible, but when it is not avoidable prosecute it with the utter ruthlessness of one who knows victory wipes away all prior qualms. These are lessons that seem obvious to anyone with at least a passing engagement in military history. What is increasingly obvious to me, however, is that these are still things found baffling by most of the populations of nations in North America and Western Europe. By failing to take into account of the most important aspects of history, large segments of the populations who can afford such ignorance are often baffled by sudden and shocking current events. When they are told of a plan that fits with their preconceived ideological notions they assume this plan will work. When told of one they disagree with they assume it will never work. People who know the fragility of military plans in history might not be so easily taken in.

So why, if understanding military history has such obvious contemporary value, is it one of the more lost and relegated arts under the humanities umbrella? Why are we now living in a world where vast swathes of the population who fancy themselves ‘informed’ largely get blindsided by events, clutch their pearls, and scream what the year currently is in response?

Well, it’s the same reason when I was an undergrad so many people I was sharing a History major with did topics like ‘Peasant Festivals and Identity.’ It is also, interestingly enough, from the same origin as the present plague of right wing identity politics. More on that last example later, but needless to say, it comes from the hyper-individualistic and romantically affirming hegemonic influence of postmodernism in academia. In the post-Vietnam era studying war became something akin to being a slack-jawed neanderthal, studying ways to ignore it in favor of supposedly lost approaches to human behavior that prioritize emotional response and ‘identity’ took its place. Because of that, I would argue, political science and critical thinking lost a valuable asset in the tools it had to analyze the world around us.

It may not surprise anyone who reads this blog that Victor Davis Hansen and I basically come from nearly opposite perspectives on everything political. He is a hard core neoconservative who often interprets history along a Fukuyama-Hegelianesque path of societies fighting ‘for freedom’ against those who fail to imbibe the Freedumb Fries and also persists in one of my biggest pet peeves, the assumption that there is something inherently special about the ‘western’ world that can be seen throughout history. He often presents us with stuff written for low-information suburban dads who also read Tom Clancy novels style of military history, despite his obvious talents as a nonfiction writer. But one of his books I did really like, ‘The Father of Us All’, in which he argues that military history is engaging, informative, and under siege. It is by far his strongest work and one I enjoyed despite the inevitability of quibbles given the author. He talks at length of the class divide in appreciating military history, with working class students trending much more strongly in favor of it in class to their more economically sheltered peers. It resonated with those who had struggled in life and realized the lack of individual choices in real life and who fate sweeps us along via events much bigger than ourselves. He wrote also about history professors who looked down their noses at people with a war specialty as if they were some kind of ghoulish cabal of necrophiles just flicking through the pages of the past for a rush.

Granted, that is how I got into it myself in a manner of speaking. When I first became interested in history it was to experience a whole new wonderful world of weaponry, armor, and battles that could not be found in the present day world. What can I say? I always liked action and horror movies. I wasn’t silly enough to think it was fun or glorious, far from it, it only confirmed my desire to never experience war directly. But interesting? You bet! I was also in my early teens, so this was in some sense the inevitable bridge to get me into nonfiction events. But even then it taught me valuable lessons like that things never go according to plan, a lot of strange borders make sense if you know the history behind them, geography and ecology are the ultimate determining factor in human affairs, and just how potent human hubris can be. None of these are lessons your average news junkie reblogger of today seems to have learned, but they are all lessons they need. As it was, I ended up diversifying my interests into cultural and diplomatic history just as much as military in adulthood, and my core interest in the militaries of present and past has not stopped me from being a constant agitator against unnecessary conflict, the neoconservative foreign policy status quo, and making a world better fit for a reduction in defense spending to focus on environmental and infrastructure issues as priority whenever possible.

Most tellingly, this kind of military history education could be used to allay some of the pearl clutching over the ongoing fall of Aleppo. Taking two seconds to think before commencing in pearl clutching would make people realize several things:

  1. An orgy of violence is most often better than a long drawn out perpetual stalemate and siege.
  2. In an era of urbanization war is more likely to come down to city sieges. That is more likely to affect civilians. It is an outcome of demographic and technological shifts and not a constant and intentional policy by everyone with explosives who uses them.
  3. Targeting civilians can indeed meet strategic ends. If it does so and shortens the conflict in the process (think Sherman’s March here) it is actually justifiable on ethical grounds.

I could probably list more, but that does for now. I also like to remind fans of hashtag slacktivism that ‘never again’ was always a silly slogan. ‘We’ did nothing in Rwanda, a huge scandal to humanitarian warriors of the 90s and probably a big reason ‘we’ took such a hawkish line on Kosovo later. The problem is that in Rwanda, remarkable leadership, which began on the battlefield by local actors, caused the persecuted side to recapture the country, defeat their enemies, and set an an infinitely superior and more stable government in its place. In Kosovo, where intervention was touted as a success and a way forward (before the various calamities of the 21rst century would rightly tarnish its image) we have a mafia run pseudostate which gave to its Serb minority as bad as once was given by them, and which furnishes no insignificant amount of recruits to jihadist groups in the Middle East. So…the ‘we must do something’ mantra *must* be questioned given the uneven results it gives. Ironically, this is a position most likely to caution against military action-and one it seems only adhered to by those who have some knowledge of the military past. After all, the most effective intervention against a horror show regime in modern history was almost certainly Vietnam deposing the Khmer Rouge, but since it is not a liberal democracy initiating the action it gets ignored. It was also an operation launched with clear geostrategic objectives in mind on the part of Hanoi. Often times, to see a conflict you need to question the dominant narrative. That becomes easier to do when you study the long-forgotten conflicts of history, where one’s present temporal location makes them less partisan. You start to seek not who is right and wrong, but why some won and others lost. Those are lesson that apply to all times and all fights. They are lesson which are easy to overlook when one is only a partisan of the present. ‘(It’s the [current year]!!!!!’ comes from this lack of depth in perspective.

I also want to mention that other side to the hippy horror show descended from the postmodern hegemony: the neofacist right. The natural people who would attach themselves to identity politics were of course the perpetually (supposedly) victimized white identity types. It is often these types of people who fantasize about a world of strong virtuous men and their manly deeds. No homo. Often, you see these kinds of people latch on to superficial elements of military history in addition to their bad Roman Empire analogies. With these type of people now clearly in the cultural ascendant, we must not let the utility of military history be claimed by those incapable of using it intelligently. Plus, in most nearly equal fights far right governments overall tend to have pretty terrible military records. There is a difference between knowing how to draw an analogy from many periods of history of many different cultures and how context-centering that can be, and some goon who can cite multiple youtube videos and Cracked articles. Don’t cede this ground to such unworthies.

A new group of young people entering the worlds of civic service with a strong and global understanding of military history, coupled with other forms of history and political science, would be a fearsome and potentially wondrous thing to behold. In an age of complacent breakdown leading to a time of fear and retrenchment it is now, more than ever, that we must reclaim military history!

And on that note, a fair goodnight with a song to perturb the pacifist: