For much of the ‘Third World’ the Cold War was the Good Old Days


Nonaligned Meeting

When looking at the potential for future multi-polarity in world affairs it becomes important to consider what kind of multi-polarity is preferable and what is not. Surely, no one but the most diseased wiki-youtube edgelords of the alt right and neoreactionary movements pine for the days before World War II, where the entire planet was either exploited by rapacious colonial powers or had to live in fear from the periodic eruptions of late-comer powers with a world war or two in tow. But between the endless devastation of the first half of the Twentieth Century and the increasingly schizoid overreach of the dying post-9/11 neoliberal consensus, and the foul upswing in religious and ethnic identitarian non state actors it has unintentionally spawned, lies a far more instructive period of history to what our near future could learn from.

The Cold War, like any era, was a time filled with horrors of its own. It should never be the point of the serious historian or strategist to grow sentimental, idealistic, or above all become afflicted with that disease of critical thinking…nostalgia. But some time periods are simply more constructive for examples of this issue than others. Then, as now, the world lived under the threat of nuclear weapon armed powers. Now, perhaps as then, such enforced great power stability could give smaller and more independent countries the room to grow both diplomatically and developmentally. If they are up to the task anyway.

There were epic disasters in that time period, of course. The Khmer Rouge, the multiple attempts by outside powers to subjugate and divide Vietnam, the rule of Idi Amin in Uganda, Apartheid South Africa, Pakistan’s attempt to retain Bangladesh, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and many more. But none of that outshines the vast achievements in human economic development made across the planet in this time-achievements that would slow or even reverse with the end of the Cold War and the triumph of neoliberalism. This is because the end of the Cold War also led to a diminishing in the power of small states diplomacy for the omnipresent dictatorship of a globalized market. We see the results of this now.

In countries like America and Britain we sigh at the decadent boomers who think with hard work and gumption you can get a college degree for the price of a used car and view hoarded wealth as a sacred entitlement. We rightly condemn that generation’s war on the postwar consensus of their actually hard working forefathers for the sake of tax breaks while gutting civil society and the planet itself with no regard for future generations This effect, however, is still restricted to the victory addled Anglosphere more than the rest of the world. While North America and the North Atlantic lived off the accumulated fat of times past, and even made some gains with it, other places actually did have to build from nothing. Many succeeded.

In much of the rest of the world the destruction of the final colonial powers (Japan, Britain, France) as well as the large scale stability of the situation between the United States and the USSR and the removal of the perennial German threat saw a massive wave of development guided by various modernist visions of a future for newly independent states. Perhaps more importantly, the ability to extract aid, technical advisers, and good deals from the major powers was increased by the fact that they were in a constant state of rivalry. Egypt under Nasser was particularly adept at using diplomacy to aid development and to grow living standards, but others would soon follow suit.

When the paranoia of the immediate post-Stalin Soviet Union and post-McCarthy United States started to peter away, more and more of the astute started to realize that this too was simply more of a great power competition than any ideological battle. In addition to the loosely affiliated nations of the so-called Non-Aligned League, it became more and more possible with time to seek a more fluid status in the international realm by rejecting the thinking of binaries. France, despite its pro-western tilt, made concerted efforts to reach out and develop connections with Eastern Bloc nations, while communist Yugoslavia maintained both NATO and the Warsaw Pact at equal distance-which in turn helped it extract better aid and trade deals from both as well as boost its international position with other independent states. Technological developments too were spread not just from the defense budgets of the competing powers (a la space exploration) but also in a desire to show off what they could do and how they could be of use to the Third World. Nowhere was this more apparent than the Green Revolution in agriculture whose spread was assisted by experts being encouraged to come to other nations. While both Washington and Moscow often tried to compete with technologies and aid in a way framed as a competition between capitalism and communism, the truth was they were using their technological advantages to buy influence and allies. And this was often a net boon for many newly independent countries. This was not a company hiring a few locals as it extracts raw materials for profit. This was genuine developmental assistance.

With the end of the Cold War, this favorable conjunction for national development would also end. While new opportunities would open up to a select few who had reached a level of development strong enough to take advantage of the changes that came in the late 80s and through the 90s (mostly, and perhaps tellingly, in already partially developed post Soviet countries such as Kazakhstan and Estonia), the majority of the Third World effectively lost its bargaining power. Even leaving aside that the collapse of living standards in much of the former USSR was the largest peacetime loss of human development in recorded history, the consequences for the Third World would often be quite dire as well.

Much aid dried up almost immediately. The US lacked a need to compete with anyone. Meanwhile, the type of economic exchange between the North Atlantic plus Japan and the rest of the world moved towards a more unchecked and predatory phase. Many developmental and technological advisers were replaced by voluntourists and vulture capitalists. While trade increased, development often slowed or stopped at the same time more and more resources were extracted. While the most extreme forms of poverty has continued to reduce since 1991, the majority of the people who experience that boon are in China, a country far less tied to neoliberalism than most others. Many other successes come from nations who had already set up a path to success before ’91. Meanwhile, the countries targeted for regime change such as Libya and Syria have seen an utter collapse of living standards in systems that once two were somewhat independent and working towards developmental success. To further this, the very pioneers of the present economic order are now facing rising poverty rates, especially in rural and post-industrial areas.

In a world were all gains are temporary but can at least be made somewhat long term in the right circumstances, it behooves us to think about what opportunities could be returning to developing countries as the Chinese economy reaches out to challenge America’s. For all the various dangerous multi-polarity can bring, there could be a bounty of opportunities for the independent nations of the world…ready to open a bidding war of experts and assistance between the great powers.

Its either that or give in to nostalgia as the only refuge.


Alcibiades: Trickster and Folk Hero of the Classical Era


Victorian death portraits, like those above, are always so full of melodrama. But in the case of the historical figure of Alcibiades he would surely have appreciated such portrayals.

One of my original objectives was to regularly have a historical figure who meets the description of the mythological trickster as an entry. Well, it hasn’t been quite regular at all…in fact I believe the last time I properly did this was in 2015, but there is no one more deserving of coming back to the theme than Alcibiades.

I just recently finished David Stuttard’s excellent ‘Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens’ , which is a book I have been waiting for years to be written by someone. The book is chock full of citations and facts as you might expect from a university publication, but reads like a page turning biography. What Stuttard doesn’t know he doesn’t tell us and he leaves the many ambiguities of this famously amorphous figure as they are. What is known though, or can be surmised, is written up in both an educational and accessible manner. You really do get a feel for both the strangeness and later fascination for this most mercurial Athenian. In his time it was said that ‘in youth he enticed husbands from their wives, as a young man wives from husbands.’ He still entices historians to this day, if in a different way.

For a full biography read the book, but in what follows I wish to touch upon Alcibiades trickster like attributes as illustrated by key themes in his career.

Born into a wealthy if declining family of the Athenian aristocracy , Alcibiades was hardly someone who scrapped up from nothing at first but with his many massive changes of fortune he would come to prove his immense ability (and immense flaws) time and time again. Meritorious service with his mentor Socrates in the Peloponesian War would cause his star to rise as many of Athens’ elected and older warriors stumbled into death or obscurity. The war itself was a time for all kinds of varied fates, as Athens and its allies and vassals struggled with Sparta and its allies and vassals for mastery over Greece. The common front posed by a Persian threat had long since departed (or so was thought), and Athens had benefited the most from their withdrawal from Europe, building its own wealthy commercial empire founded on a core of naval prowess. Eventually, Athens overreached, and the city states not wanting to bow her way looked to Sparta.

Most of the history of the war was a stalemate, but as the Greek city states in Sicily began to enter the periphery of the conflict (especially by supplying food to Sparta) many of the leaders came to imagine a knockout blow against the Spartans. An invasion of Sicily, a seizure of Sparta’s biggest trade partner, and the empowerment of Athenian allies. Sparta could then be starved and blockaded into submission and the groundwork for expansion into the western Mediterranean would be laid. Overly ambitious perhaps, but the only navy that could challenge Athens at this point was Carthage, who also hated Syracuse was was too far west to yet matter.

Alcibiades had proven himself a strongly divisive figure, a hateful hot head to his enemies and a great benefactor of his friends. He was known for stealing fancy silverware to pass as his own and then sneaking it back to the owners once an esteemed guest was gone. His bravery on the battlefield was matched by his legal and social perfidy. Not everyone wanted him in command of the attack on Syracuse, and furthermore, not everyone wanted a risky attack on Syracuse in the first place.

Before he left, various statues of Hermes were vandalized. People whispered he, as a notorious indifferentist to the gods, had done so. Most likely it was either someone trying to stop the invasion in general (be it Spartan agent or Athenian who feared the results) or trying to sabotage Alcibiades in particular. Of course, there really is no real known motive here. A bad omen is bad for him as well as the city, but the tongues flapped. Before more could be made of it, Alcibiades left Athens with fleet and invasion in tow, seized a coastal town in Sicily, and began to lay out a plan to take Syracuse and link up with her enemies on the island. That is when the news came that he was going to be recalled for trial. If found guilty he would be executed, if not he would still lose command and possibly never be given another one. He escaped.

He was an outlaw on the run now. And at this point when most might give up and disappear into obscurity, that he really began to shine. He defected to Sparta. He had, after all, intimate knowledge of the Athenian plans and dispositions in Sicily. The Spartans sent a general, armed with this information, to aid the Syracusians, and soon the entire Athenian force of troops and ships alike was killed or captured.

Alcibiades was a dashing presence at the rustic Spartan court and soon he seduced the Spartan King’s wife and fathered a son by her (not as bad a thing to have happen in Spartan culture as you might think, but Alcibiades rankled many nonetheless). He was able to recommend ways to best use Sparta’s fledgling navy to conduct raids on Athenian holdings that just so happened to belong to his wealthiest rivals back home.

This gave him Persian contacts with local satraps in Anatolia as Sparta and Persia were now growing closer as the war dragged on. Once the tide of ruling class opinion in Sparta turned against Alcibiades, he was able to escape once again to Persia, where he befriended the satrap Chiththarna. For over a year he tended gardens and lived in luxury while advising the Persians on how to drag out the war as long as possible to weaken both parties to the point that Persia could get its lost coastal and island provinces returned.

The Athenians, meanwhile, made moved from disaster to disaster. They had finally seen how effective Alcibiades was as a commander but mostly from the wrong side. Internal turmoil enabled some to put out feelers to him about returning. When the Athenian navy off the coast of Anatolia broke out in revolt against the government Alcibiades rode to take command of them and proceeded to defeat the Spartan navy and seize several ports from them. When the regime changed at home he could sail back, a hero. Naturally, he had waited to see which faction came out on top.

Back in Athens he would alternate between naval command (and taking back and securing the Bosporus to secure grain supplies) and living his decadent life back in the city. He campaigned with and secured an alliance from Thrace as well. All this made him more popular than ever before-and this bothered his enemies whom he had both humiliated and also directly attacked before with the Spartans. He was so popular people would beg him to the street to take charge of the city as a tyrant. The forces against him would surely act the second a chink in his armor was made. Finally, luck swung their way. Alcibiades’ led a campaign that deadlocked for him and ended in catastrophe for his subordinate. The war had swung back in the Spartan’s favor now that Persian gold flooded into their coffers. Alcibiades was banished-again.

He had come to hate the buzzkill Spartans and could not trust the Persians who were now firmly in their camp, but he still had one last trick up his sleeve. He now defected as a mercenary commander to Thrace, the one kingdom that still had love for him. He proceeded to expand the kingdom and take some fortresses for himself, amassing great wealth at the expense of conquered tribes there. The situation was ripe for a perfectly solid retirement. Many of his friends, lovers, and family had joined him and the government was friendly. He even got to see Athens final naval humiliation from one of his forts in a battle where he either rode down and offered to take command or just to give advice. He was jeered off and the Athenians would go on to lose.

But with the end of the war others turned to settling scores. The Athenian puppet government under Spartan command demanded the death of anyone who would rally opposition, and Sparta obliged by sending a request to the Persians as it had been learned he was traveling in their territory. He was set upon and killed in the night.

Later figures, especially in the future Roman Empire, would take quite a shine to this bizarre figure. The reasons I take a shine to him are as follows:

Balls of Steel: Trickster type figures are often stereotyped as cowards, but this is not always the case. Alcibiades personified this with his commended service as a hoplite and then as a cavalry commander who always led from the front. He developed a loyal following based of his ability to take personal risks, including diplomatically. Often, he would take a city by offering to negotiate solo within their walls and convince the place to surrender without a fight. One time he stormed a city with an inferior force. Realizing as the enemy bore down that they outnumbered him he pretended to issue orders to units in the dark which were not there and then called on the enemy to surrender for they were surrounded. It worked.

Loyalty to the Art First: Considering he only left Athens when he had to and was still willing to come back to it, one cannot consider him a straight out traitor per se. He was Athenian first but flexible. He followed his skills-the art of strategy-above regional loyalty. This was a practice common among many talented generals and diplomats all the way up to the 19th Century. It barely exists today. The trickster is always ‘moving along’ and retains few if any loyalties that get in the way of personal gain or getting one up on one’s enemies.

Undone by Appetite: Alcibiades was often undone, like most tricksters, by a voracious appetite. Be it sex, food, luxury goods, fame, revenge. He checked all the boxes.




The Modern Pandavas: 20th Century Leadership and the Mahabharata


I recently completed a reading of a condensed English translation of the Indian epic The Mahabharata. This is not the first time I have engaged with a version of the text, but it does happen to coincide with a building desire to write a post on three interesting examples of leadership from the 20th Century.

This comes with the realization that three of my favorite state leaders and revolutionary cliques from the 20th Century-a century that more often than not resembles an utter breakdown of leadership and the most dramatic examples of state failure-all share a similar journey to the Pandava Brothers in the Mahabharata.

An incredibly brief summary of the political-military main story arc of the work follows. Two branches of a royal family reigning in the ancient state of Kuru begin to struggle for the future of the throne. The treacherous and decadent Kauravas use a variety of clever (but sometimes too-clever-by-half) schemes to attempt to murder, and then exile the Pandava branch. The Pandavas, humiliated, wander in the wilderness where they acquire numerous allies, weapons, and skills during multiple adventures. Most importantly, they acquire the patronage of the god Krishna. When the Pandava’s return to claim their kingdom, they begin with negotiations. The Kauravas refuse to give an inch, quite literally, and declare war. Given the greater levels of empathy and thinking the Pandavas have learned in their exile, they, especially Arjuna, have a crisis of conscience on the eve of the battle. Is it worth it to fight in this rotten world? But Krishna, serving as Arjuna’s charioteer, gives him a pep talk about duty and dharma (the Bhagavad Gita) about how he is involved in forces far greater than himself and his family connections (among other things) and has no choice but to act. He is here now with a job to do. You can always renunciate when the job is done. A massive battle is fought leading to immense slaughter and the eventual triumph of the Pandavas who claim back the kingdom entirely.

The implication is that the kingdom is now better and more justly governed. After several decades this golden age fades, it is the last gasp before the Kali Yuga, the age of degeneration which, by implication, recorded history belongs to. The heroes of old are gone, and they leave only their examples until the cycle begins anew.

If you want a more interesting summary see Wes Cecil’s excellent lecture on the philosopher’s view of the text.

The three state leadership cliques this most resembles in the 20th Century follow in chronological order:

1. The founding of the Turkish Republic:

ataturk secularistprop

At the end of the First World War the defunct Ottoman Empire became a puppet rump state with most of its territory going to be carved up between the victorious Allied powers. Though hardly bothered by the loss of the rebellious Arab provinces, the well educated clique of military officers that had been long advocating reforms of state saw even the chance for a Turkish state to survive start to vanish. Britain occupied Istanbul and the surrounding straits, France took Iskenderun, and Greece wholesale invaded hoping for massive territorial annexations in Anatolia and Thrace.

These officers, under the command of Mustafa Kemal, the best Ottoman general of the war, organized a rival government in Ankara to the puppetry of the Sultan in Istanbul. They hoped to gain at least a guaranteed territorial integrity for the Turkish homeland of the state. But when the Sultan declared them traitors they declared a rival republic from their new base. Kemal halted and then decisively crushed the Greeks, swept west to cause the British occupation to flee along with their puppet government, and moved to abolish the Sultanate-and soon after-the attached caliphate as well. What followed was a new reign that swept aside over a century of Ottoman decay for a state that prized development, education, and modernization. Anatolia and Turkey, about to be obliterated in 1919, had bought itself a new lease on life against the odds.

Then of course the Kemalists, Turkey’s Pandavas, left the stage and Erdogan eventually arrived, ushering in the Kali Yuga.

2. Communist Yugoslavia:



Fortunately for everyone a few months ago I made this picture of Tito as a Hindu God for no particular reason and now its suddenly perfect.

The state of Yugoslavia was also formed in the aftermath of World War I, though it was originally a monarchy. The fragile new state was an attempt to unite all Southern Slavs who had been traditionally been divided by the Austrian and Ottoman Empires and their traditional sectarian divisions. When this state faced joint invasion and occupation by Axis Italy and Germany it was quite literally carved up and under German influence, the Croatian Ustasha embarked on a massive genocide of Serbs and Bosnians. Surely, such a young and weak state could never be reformed now?

Two dueling partisan bands formed, the more conservative Chetniks and the left wing Partisans. Josip Broz Tito’s Partisan’s turned out to be the far more clever and tough of the group and managed to eventually convince both western and eastern Allies to direct the lion’s share of aid to them. Once they had undermined the Chetniks enough to be secure, the Partisans began retaking the hills and outlying regions, leaving Axis forces increasingly in isolated urban areas. They had in fact liberated most of the country by the time the Soviets arrived, who helped clean up much of the remainder of forces around Belgrade. This success meant that Yugoslavia would not become a satellite Soviet state and retained a large degree of independence from the beginning.

Tito’s partisans became the new government of a socialist Yugoslavia, which rose like a phoenix from the ashes. The state made enormous, if unfortunately ephemeral, gains in reconciliation after thoroughly purging fascists from the war. Considering the context, this was no small matter in one of the most devastated states of World War 2. It made far more lasting gains in the realms of female empowerment, human development, and making a previously minor country a major diplomatic player on the world stage which held influential sway in the Non-Aligned Movement.

But just a bit over a decade after Tito’s death the old and ever-present tensions would tear the state apart again. With the coming of Slovene and Croatian separatism as well as Serb chauvanism, the Kali Yuga would descend upon the Southern Slavs.

3. Post Genocide Rwanda

On the sixth anniversary of the Liberation of Kiga

To say that Rwanda spent most of the Twentieth Century as an incredibly troubled nation would be to barely scratch the surface. Colonization by Germany and then Belgium, who both propped up an unsustainable system of built in ethnic strife gave the nation an already bad hand after independence. The revolution in the 60s removed the Tutsi aristocracy from power but did little to remove still existing tensions. The new government made many enemies and the Rwandan Patriotic Front became an exile army and government which made allies with Uganda and served in the Ugandan Bush War.

Meanwhile, back home, the crumbling situation took the government in famously genocidal directions. Like the Croat Ustasha, the Hutu radicals took to ferreting out rumored weak links by waging a no-holds-barred campaign of extermination against the Tutsi minority and anyone opposed to their rule. But while they bloodied their machetes against the defenseless, the RPF, battle hardened and unified by their exile, swept in and against the odds disposed of the government.

Since that time tiny Rwanda has made enormous strides in recovery, development, and re-orienting its foreign relations. It has become arguably the most powerful state in Central Africa and one still working hard to abolish official ethnic division. Time will only tell what the real results will be, but the fact that they have made it here from the 90s is nothing less of a miracle.

What are the recurring themes of these (and more) examples and the journey of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata?

1. In-group solidarity (such as Ibn Khaldun’s assabiyya) is made in adversity and exile, and can be a more effective tool of revenge than numbers. All three of the above real life examples were against the odds and against entrenched power. When Krishna was approached by both sides of the coming Kurukshetra War he could not deny either, despite his preference for the Pandavas, for he can deny no one that seeks his aid. He offered himself to one side and his army to another. This makes him much like a symbol for the vagaries of fate and power. But Arjuna chose wisely, and chose Krishna himself over his armies. This would be the linchpin of victory in the coming war.

2. The only way to stave off political degeneracy and reactionary ossification, at least awhile longer, is to have a political upset in the form of a dramatic upheaval or bloodletting. The necessary reforms and re-organization of the ruling classes can only occur with the extermination of the miscreants, be it through exile, prison, or death. This may include fighting former friends and allies. No doubt, Kemal, Tito, and Kagame all had moments where they, like Arjuna, paused before taking the necessary action. But the balance of forces were moving in games more relevant than individual feelings and there was no choice but to see it through.

4. Women too will get their revenge. Much like Kaurava rule in Kuru, where they tried to humiliate and denigrate Draupadi only to have her enthroned and washing her hair in the blood of her enemies, the women of these three former reactionary regimes would go on to have an elevated position in the new governments. The Turkish government made enormous strides in female education and enfranchisement, as did socialist Yugoslavia (where women had fought with the partisans as equals of the men). Rwanda in turn has gone on to surpass all other nations of the present in percentage of female lawmakers.


All of these lessons and more are worth keeping in mind as we enter into an era of ecological catastrophe. After all, those of us who live in the Anglo-American sphere of things have been dwelling in the Kali Yuga for many decades now insofar as leadership is concerned.


Ibn Khladun: An Intellectual Biography-a Review


I mention Khaldun enough so it is about time I review a book about him.

I have to admit, Robert Irwin’s ‘Ibn Khladun: An Intellectual Biography’ did not immediately meet with my approval. One of his earliest statements is that the great historian’s views of the cycles of nomadic Bedouins coming and going in power in North Africa is not applicable to many other places on Earth. I disagree entirely-with the added proviso that as long as one is aware of the local histories in detail-and I myself came to Ibn Khaldun through matching his thinking up with my first historic love: the Turko-Mongolian world. Though the author later quantifies that to some degree. But I would add also that Khaldun’s thought does in fact become more universally applicable to the cycles of history if one looks for the equivalent of nomads in these settings-potentially powerful outsider groups with strong in-group cohesion. A society with no nomads still has the underclass, highly traveled professional workers, diplomats and mercenary generals for hire as was common in Enlightenment Europe, privateers and upstart naval powers, and the like. One could, and in fact I feel like perhaps later I should, write the history of naval power from a Khaldunian perspective. All show the upstart but well organized outsider taking over the decadent wealth which often was not made by its present adherents but rather inherited by them, setting up their new, more youthful, and vibrant regime in its place or at its expense, and then succumbing, with the passing of generations, to the same maladies of their former foes and who are in turn replaced by new upstarts on their own periphery. So did it go with Venice, Spain and Portugal to the Dutch and then the British and then the Americans. So will it be again.

But this criticism aside, the overview Irwin gives us of both Khaldun’s career and the life his works have taken on since his death are both critical and laudatory, and put the man in context. As a thinker who is often projected by moderns to be one of them, it is important to see his historic context and actual views (including now laughable ones about sorcery and supernaturalism) restored to discussion of his record. Additionally, Irwin retains enough detachment to be able to postulate about the normal human foibles that Ibn Khaldun suffers from. He also retains a very even overview of later thinkers, both modern and not, who interpreted the thinker for their own ends. Most interestingly was his apparent growing popularity in the Ottoman governing and thinking classes that showed they were far more aware of the potential of their decline than most empires at their height are. I am very tempted to think that the nomadic Turkic background of the state contributed to this self-awareness and critical openness. It was also interesting having his time in the Mamluk Sultanate covered, as it was both a government that reflected some knowledge of the need to keep the ruling class recharged with fresh blood (Mamluks were imported Turko/Circassian/Balkan slaves who had been raised as nomadic cavalry who were then drawn into the military of Egypt under Sultans also descended from such stock) but also one which by Khaldun’s time was starting to degenerate even despite this caution.

Still, all things political being either in a state of rising and falling-with falling more commonplace-one can say that the Mamluks were in fact enormously successful compared to most of their contemporaries as well as a rare medieval state that could long term sustain being both an art patron and a vigorous military power. And its fall had more to do with the technological changes elsewhere invalidating the nomadic cavalry focused military than internal factors when the chips were down. Firearms matter and it was the Ottomans who jumped on that wagon first as a way to organize the core of their armies.

The best part of Irwin’s work, however, is in recognizing the pessimism of Ibn Khaldun. Here was a man born and raised in 14th Century North Africa who all around him saw signs of ruins of richer and more powerful civilizations long dead in the past. If Carthage and the Almohads could fall, why not the Hasfids who he worked for? Why not everyone else until the end of time? Though nomadic regime change could bring in fresh blood for a time, it would only be for a limited amount of it. Meanwhile, the Sahara grew and prestige of the region shrunk. This was the core of Ibn Khaldun’s work…work that would go on to influence such fiction greats as Asimov’s Foundation and Herbert’s Dune. And in a remarkable in-person meeting years after most of his writings, Ibn Khaldun would meet Emir Timur outside of Damascus during the very siege that the Turkic conqueror was conducting, and in so doing get to see the only example of rising in his lifetime and discuss theories of history with him-an academic case study made real in the flesh.

Would all us scholars be so lucky.

Navigating the Beringian Age of Geopolitics


I have written numerous Eurasia geopolitics articles, North America articles, and a South American article on here so far. It was my plan to do Africa next, but instead it seems first comes one which is both Eurasia and North America together. Go figure.

Eurasia is what is often referred to as ‘The World Island’ in classical geopolitics. The closest thing our present geological era has to a supercontinent. For much of history land power was easier and cheaper to wield than sea power-though obviously this has changed since-and Eurasia, being directly connected to humanity’s birthplace of Africa and the birthplace of both agriculture and animal domestication was the location of the strongest and most technologically advanced states. Up until the rise of the United States this was almost always true, with a one off in Carthage, a possible economic Malian interlude in the Middle Ages, and Egypt really being the only periodic exception (and even then just barely as it straddled two continents). Having the majority of Earth’s population and societies, Eurasia was the natural laboratory of state formation and warfare innovation, especially connected as it was with other parts of its own massive expanse due to a plethora of natural harbors an an ‘inland sea’ of sorts in the grasslands of the Eurasian steppe that stretch from Hungary to Manchuria.

The first geopolitical thinkers to really get into this World-Island thesis were people like Halford Mackinder, who came of prominence in a time when the British were still top dogs but knew their time was running out due to the rapid rise of German, Russian, and American power. He was the first to postulate that the rapid industrialization of these powers and the expansion of their railroad networks would return the logistical and military initiative to land powers for the first time since the decline of the steppe nomads who had once been the qualitatively dominant military force in world history. It would become a British obsession, soon to be inherited also by the Americans, French, and Japanese as well, to hinder any one power from exerting this level of dominance over Eurasia, the continent-of-continents. The French would use alliances and dominance of Africa to attempt to be a secondary player in this game, the Japanese would attempt to carve out their own exclusive sphere, and the Americans would use their fortunate geography to sit around, sabotage everyone else from a distance, and then come roaring in with economic power and naval power. Russia, the second place player, had become the Eurasian colossus always feared in the form of the Soviet Union. But a rising China and a hostile Western Europe and Japan kept it safely in check and America secure. Eurasia was still too big and too diverse to become someone’s private world-island. Even in the face of the power and prestige of the largest an most mobile army the world had yet to see.

But this very falling of the dice called into question the Eurasian presumption. It was a North America, dominated by one power which also in turn dominated South America, that became the first truly global maritime power. As I wrote about on here previously, this leads to many factors to reconsider the concept of the ‘world island’: be it the very concept itself or which continent it might be. I argued that North America makes a better case if the concept is to be used.

What is clear, however, is that great power rivalry in the near future will more heavily involve North America and Eurasia as the central poles of alliance networks. This does not mean that major conflicts and powers will not arise elsewhere, but for the time being the changes that will matter most will happen on these two land masses. Their past interactions have already had a massive import on the world we live in causing spillovers across the planet, even pre-dating modern humanity when a more Eurasia-connected North America wreaked disproportionate devastation on South America.

There is nothing mystical or obscure about this. These are the continents with the largest East-West widths which enable an easier and more rapid spread of flora and fauna within climate zones, something that quite possibly helps the spread of human technology and infrastructure as well. Both have long productive coastlines, vast stretches hospitable to life but also diverse in biome, and connecting interior highways of grasslands and big navigable rivers. Due to the movement of plate tectonics and shifting sea depths due to ice ages, both continents would periodically compete and exchange life forms in evolution in more recent history than many other continental collisions. For most of history Eurasia was clearly the place to be for humans maximizing their power. The horse, a North American creature originally, would die out there before being reintroduced by the Spanish but thrive in Eurasia. Eurasia was bigger, most diverse, more connected with other places. It had the good fortune to have a larger span of dray-maritime real estate for agriculture and the most animals situated for domestication. North America lacked this critical large pack beast advantage. It was also, of course, settled by humanity significantly later than Eurasia was due to simple reason of location and distance from Africa.

The human version of the Great American Interchange would begin in 1492, though the uneven nature of it would not be apparent until the fall of the Aztec Empire to the Spanish decades later. Spanish iron, gunpowder, pack animals, and sea power would be decisive despite the fact that North America had on average even larger cities than Europe in Mesoamerica and just as-if not more diverse-agricultural crops and practices. Despite their late comparative peopling and isolation, Mesoamerica (and the Andes) had numerous inventions and highly advanced urban planning, irrigation systems, and in the Aztec and Mayan worlds specifically, written bureaucracies.

The technological disparity forged in the furnace of Eurasian state formation was an obvious advantage to the invaders, but it was not the most important one. Technology can be adopted and copied. The Spanish were few and far from home. It was the pathogens they brought from their long contact with pack animals that were truly decisive. The labor saving animals may have jump-started resource collection and travel, but for the point of the Columbian Exchange, the most important part was the diseases the Eurasians had partial immunity to that the Native Americans did not. On reading in this topic I have seen estimates of death rates due to disease anywhere from 80%-95%. It remains an open issue, but this was a far deadlier outbreak of pestilence for the western hemisphere than the Bubonic Plague ever had been in Eurasia. It also led to ridiculous myths about Native Americans being backward as many of their societies had been fatally weakened if not outright destroyed before they had ever even been seen by the newcomers. The western hemisphere had become a post-apocalyptic tableau of societal collapse. Spain had the keys to be the pre-eminent world power, the only country in that era that realistically could have equaled or surpassed Ming China.

And yet the technology was still too young. Spain squandered its gains by using pillaged gold in galleon convoys to basically drive up inflation. Its infrastructure would remain largely feudal at home and in the colonies. Meanwhile, piracy on the high seas of these easy Spanish pickings by British, French, and Dutch privateers would in fact end up benefiting those countries more at Spain’s expense. The cauldron of Eurasian competition was offshore to the oceans and outside of Europe, relocating to the Americas. By having to hack out self-sustaining colonies out of the blue these more northerly powers would end up getting more of the benefit from the new world with tobacco, cotton, furs, and timber. Native Americans north of Mesoamerica were less ‘advanced’ and lesser in numbers than those further south, but this in fact made them far more difficult to conquer. They were mobile, more open to adaptation in war, and could not be simply overrun by a specific region or city. Plus, they now had competeing powers to play off each other for weapons, horses, and supplies. For about a century, from the mid 17th to mid 18th Century, the Natives of North America would in fact be equal partners in the great power rivalry that dominated the continent. Either way, the Spanish unipolar moment in the hemisphere (and thus the potential of bringing that power home as well) was over. Even without the arrival of the new European powers, the Pueblo Indians and the Comanche had already rolled back the Spanish frontier in the north, and the Mapuche had stopped it in the southern cone of South America.

In many ways the European nations could only thrive in North America if the natives were fighting each other. But many of the natives gained when European fought as well. The Iroquois would destroy their long tong rivals, the Huron, and then go on to roll back Quebec’s frontier with their musket-armed forces. Hudson’s bay firearms-for-fur trading would empower the Blackfoot to heights previously unheard of for them, and the previously mentioned Comanche basically ran their own horseback empire in the southwest for a century at Spanish expense. This was a multipolar world. Then British naval power took Quebec and expelled the French from the continent. A defensive Spain could only play catch up as British goods and settlers flooded the continent. Unipolar domination of the Western Hemisphere, an explicit goal of William Pitt the Elder, then Prime Minister, once again looked in sight with London-rather than Madrid-its true heir. Demographics had now tipped in favor of the settlers. Europeans outnumbered Native Americans in their own continent. Despite the partial rolling back of the frontier in Pontiac’s War, Native solidarity could not survive the American Revolution and the subsequent Northwest War where the US army was born after its largest ever battlefield defeat at the hands of the Shawnee, Miami, and Lenape-but critically from the geopolitical (if not cultural) perspective, neither did Britain’s North American empire. The first independent country of the colonial era had arisen in the Americas, it would soon be followed by many others. Events in Europe were about to give the Americas a big break.

Napoleon upsetting Europe’s apple cart turned out to be the most important thing. Haiti would be the next country to fight for and gain independence. With Spain reeling from French occupation, its colonies in Central and South America would soon follow. Kicked out of North America south of Canada (aside from Caribbean Isles and Guyanas of course) and much more into India these days anyway, the British would pull a 180 degree turn after the stalemate of the War of 1812 and thoroughly support the independence of Spain’s former colonies in order to keep them out too and open the markets of these new countries to British goods. It was in this world that North America’s first diplomatic counter-blow to the dominance of Eurasian-based states would come: The Monroe Doctrine.


At the time of its formulation in the early Victorian era the United States most certainly did not have the power to enforce the claim of the doctrine, which was to oppose European re-colonization or re-establishment of spheres of influence over their former territories. Britain or France could have swept the American navy aside had they so chosen. But now Britain was the secret enforcer behind the American declaration. They weren’t going to take Latin America directly for themselves, so they would make damn sure no one else did, either. After the US-Mexico War it was obvious the U.S. was growing in power to one day enforce it on its own, however.

The doctrine had only one failure, the American Civil War. With the one great power of the western hemisphere divided against itself in a death struggle, and the secondary power of the region (Brazil) involved in a surprisingly costly war with a delusionally expansionistic Paraguay and without much of a navy, France moved in to establish a proxy-state in a weakened Mexico. Though the Mexicans would hold their own under Benito Juarez, the French would not be evicted fully until the American Civil War was over and the US army was redeployed on the border to threaten them and ship weapons directly to the Mexican forces.

The Civil War made a federation of squabbling pseudo republics into a proper nation. This nation was the empire of the west in all but name. With growing modern naval power and a final bookend of sweeping Spain from its remnants in 1898, the last vestiges of the old order had been relegated to a few isolated enclaves and Canada, itself already beginning the process of unofficially turning south. The worlds biggest economy and industrial producer now lay there, after all. Available resources and land along the wide continent were fueling a growth in power rapid beyond any previous one in recent history.

In this light of viewing the poles of conflict as geographic, it was now time for the power or North America to come to benefit from the misfortune of Eurasia. This time it would be neither disease nor technology but Eurasia’s multitude of great powers that would spell the reversal of the location of the world-island. From a large and removed scale much as multiple conflicts could be viewed as different phases in one grand struggle for mastery in America (Piracy and the Beaver Wars in the late 17th Century through the Mexican-US War), so too would the rise of new and fall of old powers in Eurasia set up a struggle for master in Eurasia which would last from 1902-1945 (the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, Russo-Japanese War, First World War, Russian Civil War, Turkish War of Independence, The Second World War). Britain sought to sure up its declining position by breaking its ‘splendid isolation’ and joining with Japan. Japan put the brakes on Russian expansion in southern Manchuria and its eventual dream target, Korea, eventually taking these things for itself and starting its own growth as a new power. This made Germany more a threat to the maritime alliance than Russia and made Russia more bellicose in its European objectives towards German allies. France, already in danger of being eclipsed, linked with with Russia and Britain to stave off this threat. The dying old empires of Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans would hitch a ride on German power in order to reverse their decline and ensure survival. They would end up the biggest losers of all in eventual Allied victory.

The United States played an important, but not decisive role in the First World War, but it was clearly now one of the big players at the global level. Though on the surface it seemed France and Britain had gained much from the conflict, the gains were of little long term value and their overall global position had actually been weakened. The British solider and poet Siegfried Sassoon ruminated that the only nations to gain from the war he fought in was the United States and Japan. Indeed, there were now three established naval powers by treaty, Britain, the USA, and Japan. Britain was part of a triumvirate that couldn’t get along. So much for ruling the waves. Not only that, but the Russians and Turks both, whose empires had utterly collapsed in the war, successfully fought to expel Allied backed foreign intervention in their lands leading to near immediate revisions of the postwar settlements made at their expense. Turkey would become an independent republic and the Soviet Union would reclaim most of the Tsar’s collapsed domains. Both would make rapid gains in development and education that would outstrip their less fortunate semi-colonized neighbors. More importantly, until WWII, they would be tacitly allied with each for precisely this end. The first tremors of independence movements started to rock India and Ireland. The colonial powers were living on borrowed time. Japan, having yet to experience a reverse outside of the Siberian Intervention, largely continued forward with that previous era’s policies of expansion, however, putting on a collision course with the United States.

World War II would settle Eurasia’s issue. Despite the ‘Great Game’ beginning due to fears of Russian domination, that would be exactly the outcome of all of this. Russian and American domination, that is. For all the death, destruction and misery The Second World War would cause a majority of the planet and especially the eastern and western edges of Eurasia itself, The Axis Revolt, as it could be termed, served much like the American Civil War only to delay the inevitable at great cost. In fact, it aided what was coming. The Soviets broke Germany, the Americans broke the Japanese, and each fought the other Axis powers at some time or another victoriously. But before this outcome it is relevant to note that the Germans had also now broken the French, and the Japanese had broken the British. There were only two powers. The Soviet Eurasian Heartland and the United States Western Hemisphere Dominion. The world was getting smaller due to technology, but the powers only got larger. When Britain and France tried to re-insert themselves as decisive actors in the great power game with the Suez Crisis, they found only embarrassment as the Russians threatened them and the Americans scolded them and offered no support.

But despite the one sided history in Eurasia’s favor, the Cold War would show that North America finally had the leg up. Naval power did still rule over land power despite Mackinder’s fears. Eurasia was too multi-polar and divided and it was harder for the USSR to export power when their Chinese proteges (now having replaced Japan to regain their traditional place as East Asia’s most strategically relevant country) could turn to their own interests once they were strong enough to stand up to a domineering partner. There was not, yet, an equivalent of this in the America’s to complicate the United States’ position-though if there one day were it would most likely be Brazil.

It was with deftness and skill that Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger saw that world that was coming out of a simple binary. The Cold War was a power struggle, in my opinion, and the ideology that marked so much of it on both sides was largely intellectual cover for competition in the ripe proxy combat ground of the third world and newly independent former colonies. Both feared the world hegemonic goals of the other. Mix and match any number of socio-economic models with globe-spanning powers that big and strong and you would have a rivalry no matter what. So it was that two pre-eminent wingnut cold warriors of their respected countries created the conditions for bringing China in as a third pole to the rivalry, one that would send the Soviets into a conniption and, in the end, fatal death spiral of defense spending. It was this, in my opinion, that decided the Cold War more than any of Reagan’s policies, which largely took effect when the terminal decline was already taking place in Moscow. But it is worth noting that in the 60s and 70s the growth of the Soviet economy and tech sectors made many people, Kissinger included, convinced that the future was theirs more than the USA’s. China sold the new alliance to its people with much the same thinking as rhetoric. ‘The Americans will decline, the Russians are more the threat.’ In geopolitics the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Cold Warriors of the smarter varieties could see that their societies were no different from others with interests like when the Catholic French supported the Protestants in the 30 Years War against their fellow Catholics in Hapsburg Austria. Its the traditional cost benefit calculation of Cardinal Richelieu.

nixon and me

With the breakup of the USSR this proved to be the opposite. Or, more accurately, the USSR declined *first*. The United States did not gain in power in the post-Cold War era so much as have all checks on its preexisting power removed. Now Washington would call the shots directly in Eurasia in places never before imagined. China had ways to go at that point to replace Russia as the bipolar competitor, but by now its safe to say it may well reach that point in my life time. But much like how the USSR could alienate China, so too could China alienate India, or one day even Russia.

This brings us to the present, and many topics I have and will go over again and have before in other entries. So, to go full circle, the fate of geopolitics in the foreseeable future relies on events in North America and Eurasia and their interaction with each other. Right now, North America still holds an advantage, though having foolishly driven Russia into China’s arms by its own hubris, (thus counteracting Brzezinski’s grand strategic advice) its an advantage rapidly being squandered. Meanwhile, China’s One Belt One Road initiative resembles another attempt to create the internal ‘world island’ where a dominant power in Eurasia is safe from the sea-power of its foes. Having learned many lessons from Soviet and, increasingly, American failure, a concerted buildup of this inland international interior could end up being a challenge the USSR never was. Or not. Eurasia’s multipolar and divided nature still counts against it and India seems to be solidly orienting towards the oceanic world for obvious geographic reasons. Still, there is nothing so complacent as assuming the present state of sovereign nations is in any way permanent. That never has been true in the past.

Something that I could see if things changed more drastically is a Beringian World. In a Beringian World, the geopolitical alliances that matter most are a dominant power or alliance network in one continent being opposed in its own hemisphere by a defensive coalition backed by the dominant power of the other continent, which in turn is opposed by its own local coalition backed by the dominant power of the other continent. What this might look like with the present international states would be a China-backed Brazil or even Mexico (though that is less likely I think) or collection of South American states under Chinese partnership which in turn is reciprocated by a US-backed India or even eventually Russia. If China and Russia somehow stay friends permanently, this will be manifest in bringing Japan, Indonesia, and India closer together, a project which, arguably, is already underway in those countries.

Should China experience a decline or a shocking sudden state failure, however, this may reverse. If Japan and India are close together they might take up the mantle of Latin America’s revisionist states and the US will have to find no friends to balance against them. This is, of course, all very long term and hypothetical.

The point is, once Eurasian countries divided up North (and South) America for their spoils. Then North America rode a wave of Eurasia dividing itself up to become the center of political power. But now the technological disparities have largely gone from between them and the world continues to shrink bringing both new allies and new enemies. In a future Beringian World the geopolitical center of gravity might be split between both continents, which will, strategically speaking, come together as part of the same world in a way not seen since the seas were low and the Bering Strait open, when wild canines left the Americas to colonize and independently evolve all over the world.

Of course, some new exclusive resource revolutionizing technology could always finally through the ball to another region. You never know.

In the more near future don’t be surprised if you see another Nixon-goes-to-China moment except more likely with another power being the recipient of the visit and no one as smart as Nixon to do the visiting. If you see it, I encourage you to follow it as it flies away, it will be relevant if it fails or succeeds.


James Graham, Marquess of Montrose: A Modern and Relevant Career


Montrose led to the gallows in Edinburgh by the Covenanter theocracy.

I just finished C.V. Wedgewood’s short biography on James Graham, Marquess of Montrose. Though I had previously read her seminal work on The Thirty Years War, I had no idea she had written a book on Montrose until I randomly discovered it in my local used book store. By the way, please patron your local used book store. Mine is Second Story Books in Washington DC, and it absolutely rules.

Montrose is my favorite military commander of the British Civil Wars (more famously but erroneously called ‘The English Civil War’ even though it began in Scotland and ended in Ireland). Unlike many unjustly lionized loser-generals (ahem, Lee, Hannibal, arguably MacArthur), Montrose was a guy who lost in the end, but showed immense skill and daring in an impossible situation practically no one would be expected to pull off a stalemate in, much less a succession of improbable victories.

Montrose originally began the war on the rebel side, finding the overreach of the King and his neglect of his Scottish birthplace galling. As is so often the case both in our world and that of the past, rebels have a real reason to pissed. But as is also the case, when rebellion jump the shark loyalties change. Montrose served successfully as a commander in the rebel forces to seek negotiation with the King. When it became obvious that the rebels were no longer interested in negotiation now that they had a window to establish a theocracy of their own and a chance to force Presbyterianism on the population of Scotland by fiat, however, Montrose defected to the monarchy as the lesser of evils and began to set up a resistance within the very country he had just cleared of pro-Stuart forces. Perhaps he had been naive to believe in ‘moderate rebels’, certainly many can be. But few at the earlier juncture could have seen the unexpected rise of Archibald Campbell, First Marquess of Argyle and the leverage he would give to fanatics once he wormed his way into Scotland’s body politic as the chief powerbroker.

With a class of theology nerds, the 17th Century equivalent of alt right neckbeards and the tumblrgelicals of today but guided by all the screeching antireason of the modern day evangelical right, ensconced in power in Edinburgh, Montrose raised and led a tiny and ramshackle coalition of all those opposed to the rule of a single theocratic faction. With Irish Catholics, disaffected Scottish Protestants, Stuart royalists, and those driven to extremity by the Covenanter occupation all serving as one, Montrose’s small band darted in and out of the Highlands, scorching Campbell’s home bases, liberating Aberdeen  and numerous small towns, and defeating much larger Covenanting forces with shock, surprise, deception and maneuver which led their tiny band to have an outsized effect on the conflict. Scotland, which had been entirely won for the rebel cause before the war was yet decided in England, now teetered in uncertainty before a truly crushing set of victories by Montrose liberated the country and put anti-Covenanter forces in power again, with Argyle fleeing the country he had once sought to rule.

With such an emergency on hand, the Scottish rebels fighting under David Leslie in England were recalled and Montrose finally defeated by a numerically and technologically superior force. Seeing the war was basically over in the decisive theater of England (this stage of it anyway) Montrose negotiated terms from his Highland bases, ensuring escape for many of his band before they were declared outlaws. He made his way to Norway, and then, later when the rebels executed the King and the Covenantors broke with the English Parliament over it and other issues, he raised exile support from the new heir-in-exile, Charles II. Montrose would land in Orkney and raise a new army in support of Chucky, but would be double-crossed in negotiations of that monarch with the restored Argyle. Eventually, he would be captured, put on a show trial, and executed in Edinburgh and Charles II would flee after failing to make a compromise with the ruling fanatics. All accounts of the humiliating parade of Montrose on his way to execution state he was calm and composed, even staring down Argyle who then elicited the jeers of the crowd for looking away. The way things were going, he knew history would vindicate him and not his opponents. In the end Cromwell would invade and take over Scotland before all the kingdoms got fed up with his Puritan rule and after his death invited back Charles. The Covenanters would go on to be hunted to near extinction, and total suppression, in the coming well-deserved revenge.

Montrose’s legacy in his homeland, however, would only soar. In a messy and complicated legacy left by the Stuarts, he showed what was best and what could have been under their arrangement had things worked out differently. A multi-confessional and multi-ethnic reign but under contract. This would indeed be what Scotland would eventually become, if in a very different way and time period. Even the Scottish National Party of today, despite its seemingly nativist name, courts the votes of minorities and immigrants and had the independence referendum apply to those who lived in Scotland and had residency no matter their background, while denying it to those who lived outside of Scotland. It was the land itself, and the governance thereof, that was what was important over sectarian absolutism, now as it was under Montrose tiny band of anti-theocracy fighters.

Since it is my personal opinion that opposition movements both to tyranny and fanatacism should learn to work with, rather than against, national movements I feel that this example of leadership, and those like it, are worth revisiting today. We live in a world bifurcated between a collapsing and flailing global ruling class who views finance, unsustainable resource extraction, and endless peripheral war as the key to everything on one hand and extreme identitarian nutjobs on the other (be they called ‘moderate rebels’ to describe sectarian jihadists in the Middle East or ‘alt-right’ /white nationalist fascists in the developed world) and the rest of us are just waiting for everything to get worse as these fools hiss at each other over the scraps of a dying planet.

But beyond that vaguely similar situation of needing to cobble together motley coalitions, its Montrose’s battlefield leadership itself that I feel would be illustrative as instructive to the future. Likely, many groups of people forced to fight and survive in the conflict zones of our world will begin as small bands unable to take or hold territory but merely showing that an opposition still exists. The leaders will share hardships with their followers. Then with success and greater recruitment come more conventional operations and the dangers of multi-faceted factional politics and shifting alliances. His life and complicated results serve as an illustrative example of both what once was, but also what might be again-and already is a reality for many in the world. More modern examples of this form of leadership, which I would like to discuss in a later post, are Paul Kagame in Rwanda and Tito for the former Yugoslavia.

Plus, Montrose is a fellow St Andrews University alumnus, so of course I want to claim him. Not to mention that as someone who lived in Edinburgh for years any enemy of the grotesque theocracy that once occupied it and ruled it in a manner similar to how Saudi Arabia is governed today is a friend of mine. The Stewarts, like the Assads, had their huge flaws and helped create the circumstances that led to conflict against them, but the alternative was so much worse. When it comes to the dying present order and the extremist alternatives to it, however, environmental concerns mean such a dynamic of lesser evilism may no longer apply. Another option is needed. I do not know what it is but I do know that like Montrose’s band it will start small, have to cast a very wide tent for supporters, and combat destructive ideology on behalf of the land itself and those living in it rather than specific sectarian or ethnic grievances. I also know that, unlike Montrose, in the end it must not fail.


Odious Romanticism vs Material Victory


I want to talk about some Civil War generals, and no, not the rightness or wrongness of their statues being in public spaces.

What I have always found bizarre about the myth of Confederacy is not its blatant rise with attached romantic artwork convergent with the last gasp of segregationist politicians in the public sphere-that is perfectly logical in its own way-nor even the memorializing of the United States’ greatest act of treason by segments of the population most chauvinistic and flag-waving on most other issues (though that is bizarre), but rather the myth of Robert E. Lee himself as this amazingly seminal general and leader of men. This is often combined with a myth of the Confederacy as a uniquely impressive battle against the odds akin to Finland’s Winter War or the Norman rise in Sicily.

In a time where America realizes it still must reckon with the painful wounds of its past by bringing up the public status of Civil War era issues, I feel it’s time to turn a critical gaze to the military part of this odious romanticism.

Let us begin with Robert E. Lee. A great tactician, surely, but as the ghost of Hannibal could tell you, this does not necessarily equate a great strategist. Lee’s rise to prominence came about first by skilled junior officer actions as an engineer in the U.S.-Mexican War of 1848, and then by accurately reading the psychology of General McClellan as he advanced on Richmond in 1862 and pummeling his forces with offensives to cause the famously timid general to retire despite getting the better of most of the engagements…convinced as always he was outnumbered. So far, so good.

We then can witness Lee run roughshod over several ineptly led Union armies. Despite the poor quality of leadership of these forces, we can still give Lee a hefty dose of credit in this period. And yet, amongst this time of Confederate triumph (in the east anyway) came Lee’s first botched invasion of the north, which undid many of successes when he was checked at Antietam (by McClellan, of all people) a battle whose strategic implications enabled the Emancipation Proclamation which in turn would fatally undermine the southern war effort by both enabling Union armies to legally liberate slaves in secessionist states as well as sabotage British and French efforts to directly aid the Confederacy.

Even including Antietam, up until now it would still be a fair point to consider Lee the best general of the American Civil War, but the Union was just getting started-and it would be there that the best leadership would actually emerge. It was also, in 1863 and flush with hubris after Chancellorsville, that Lee would once again commit the mistake of invading the north.

As someone whose favorite army in history is that of the medieval Mongols and whose favorite navy in history that of late 16th Century Korea, I am hardly the one to take a universally critical view of taking the offensive when your forces are outnumbered if the opportunity looks promising. The problem with the Civil War context is that Lee himself had proven time and time again that this was an era where defense held clear battlefield advantages. Indeed, superior Union industrial and material strength were for much of the war totally offset by facing the most difficult challenge of having to reconquer a third of a continent in an era of defensive primacy. It had been such on the battlefield starting in the Crimean War, where a Russian army armed with outdated firearms and a piss-poor logistical system had managed, at least temporarily, to stymie two of the best armies of the time, even if they lost (barely) in the end. It would remain thus until the Brusilov Offensive in WWI when that same Russian army would innovate the interplay between offensives and artillery use to restore mobility to the battlefield-a process later honed by the Germans and then perfected by Foch and Allenby. Even Lee’s boldest moves in previous battles had been often paired with a key defensive element. His smaller army could move faster to seize the better terrain, and in an era where the minne ball merged with the last gasp of linear field formations, this made a huge difference. And in Gettysburg it was the Union who held the high ground and the defensive posture, and it was the Union that won. Soon after, Meade was superseded by Grant, and Grant would be the superior general to Lee. Not because he was a brilliant commander nor because he simply ended up winning in the end, but because he was a general of the times who truly understood the nature of industrial warfare. Lee’s many victories could be undone by a few missteps, but Grant could suffer multiple reverses at Lee’s hands and still win the campaign.

The true genius of the war, however, was Sherman. William Tecumseh Sherman understood the material nature of war in the industrial age like Grant, but had a much greater sense of terrain and maneuver. His command of the western front, once Grant moved east to take command there, was the true decisive campaign of the entire war.

The west had been the mirror opposite of the east from the start. Union forces performed generally better than their enemies and capably used riverine naval forces to advance consistently along the vital Mississippi River. Winfield Scott (in my opinion, the greatest of all American generals, but that is another story) correctly saw that blockade and securing the central river systems of the continent were the key to victory in the war, rather than a quick advance on Richmond. Generally, Union forces under both Grant and Rosecrans at first (in Appalachia) made advances in this theater wisely using ships and a less pro-Confederate population in general. Yet, not until the fall of Vicksburg did this front’s decisiveness manifest itself.

Sherman up until now had been a subordinate commander of no great distinction. But when turned loose on his own to command the west in 1864 would prove to be the stand-out general of the war and, in my opinion, the second greatest of all American generals. Unlike Lee, Sherman did not set out to win set piece battles, but rather to crush the Confederacy’s ability to resist. Granted, Lee did not have the numerical option to do such to the Union, but that is precisely why he should have stuck to a more Longstreet-type plan of cautious attrition as the only realistic path to southern victory was exhaustion through casualties of the north. Where Lee gambled rashly, Sherman coldly calculated.

Sherman also maneuvered with the big picture, rather than individual battlefields in sight. As he advanced out of Tennessee and into Georgia through immensely difficult terrain and against the skilled defense of Joseph Johnston, he became the master of flanking movements to dislodge Johnston from favorable terrain and forcing him to open up more and more of the vulnerable heartland of the Confederacy. Even after battlefield reverses, Johnston would be forced to retreat by maneuver, gradually driving him towards less formidable defensive terrain.

By the time Confederate forces were entrenched around Atlanta, Sherman had already won in a way. While the disposition still favored the defender, now the Confederacy’s most industrial city and arguably second most important (after New Orleans, which had already fallen to the Union navy) was locked down on siege mode and its ability to assist the war effort already partly curtailed. And then the leaders in Richmond made the most fatal error they could have, they assigned John Bell Hood to replace Johnston.

The successive offensives against Sherman’s army led to disaster for the Confederacy at every step to the point where the previously defensible Atlanta had to be abandoned. Raw militia and crack units alike were thrown against veteran Union units increasingly starting to be armed with breech loading weapons like the Spencer rifle and carbine which held trenches and field works. Knowing there was no way to avoid being crushed by Sherman after a few of these failed battles, Hood tried to pull a reverse-Sherman and drive north in a bid to take Nashville. Of course, with a beaten and demoralized army this would have opposite the intended results and his entire army would eventually be liquefied by reserves sent after him.

Atlanta fell, and burned. Sherman cut his baggage train and took off across Georgia, feeding off the enemy territory and crippling their food production and morale all at once. He ‘marched to the sea’ and took Savannah before the end of the year. Concerned for their families, soldiers in the Confederate army began to defect in record droves from all fronts. The lowlands-gulf south was cut off from the east. Then Sherman turned north wreaking devastation across the hotbed of secession itself, South Carolina, before taking a more moderate tone towards the conduct of his pillaging troops in North Carolina-which was a less gung-ho about secession state.

By the end of the war he would make it to Virginia, where the looming advance of his forces played no small role in Lee’s surrender in the east.

It is easy to play up the Confederate romantic mythology here and state Sherman’s material and often numeric advantages. This is to ignore the far greater challenges of waging a truly continental scale long-form campaign of offense in an era that favored defense. This is also to ignore Sherman’s full grasp of total war, and the desire to crush an enemy in as many ways at once to create a collapse of both morale and logistics, which are the true sinews of war. He was in many ways the first great modern-industrial general. He fought not for flashy victories to be studied in microcosm but rather for war ending long term objectives. He accurately assessed the enemy’s weaknesses and responded accordingly. There have not been many generals or admirals in history who have so thoroughly understood how to crush the opposition-which is exactly a general’s job.

And that is something worth considering as a million Fox News Dads send up a simultaneous howl of ‘don’t erase our history that we can only apparently learn from statues, how will people at West Point learn tactics if they can’t idolize Lee?’

The answer is not to waste your time studying Lee when you could be studying Sherman instead. Hell, if you need a Confederate general to study take Forrest. Sure, the politically correct *really* won’t like that, but if your point is battlefield command ability…The problem is, most Fox News Dads and Basic History Bros don’t even know any commander who is not famous-and therein lies the problem of romanticism over materialism in the study of history.