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

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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

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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.

‘The Great Leveler’: A Review

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‘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.

 

Reclaim Military History!

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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:

Ibn Khaldun vs Washington DC

 

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Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was a historian and social science theorist from Tunis most famous for writing the Muqaddimah, a work of historical theory which sought to explain the cyclic nature of politics, its benefits and drawbacks, and how best to ride these changes for certain fields like medicine and scientific exploration to keep growing even while the regimes they required to support themselves kept inevitably declining and/or collapsing. He traveled widely, found employment in many places, and even directly discussed Emir Timur’s role in history with Timur himself during the siege of Damascus. There are few examples of primary source research so direct and enviable as that.

He was a bit of Gray and a bit of Marx and a bit of Smith and a bit of Diamond and even a bit of the contemporary IR theories of both neoclassical realism and world systems theory long before any of those things existed. He pioneered materialism in historical research and advocated political policies ahead of their time for his context. His work is widely available and translated in many languages so I need not go over it in detail. It merely needs to be stated that he is probably the single most important social theorist in my life. No one individual has ever, to me, made more sense of history and politics on the macro scale. I read and cited him extensively while I was working on my doctoral thesis.

For the sake of this post we need now only deal with one of his thesis, perhaps his most famous. That all regimes and governments become corrupted with incompetence, nepotism, and laziness with time. The longer they are around, the worse it becomes. They lose all their ‘asibyyah’ (group-feeling) while forces opposed to them will unite and therefore gain asibiyyah. In Khaldun’s world these were nomadic and tribal people, be it Bedouin, Turks, or Mongols. They had the practical skills and solidarity enough to eventually capitalize on the rotten empires, come in, and take over. For a few generations the new ruling class would re-invigorate society combining the best of the outsider’s abilities with the resources and learning of the establishment. Then, they too would begin to be subsumed into the conventions, rote thinking, and petty factionalism of the society to which they had integrated into to rule. Then the cycle would begin again.

Demographic changes over centuries ending in the industrial revolution abolished the power of nomadic societies but kept the privateering naval oriented ones going strong in this way, though states that survived industrialization became too strong to fall to outsiders so easily unless said outsiders were more powerful established states themselves or were internal mass revolutions. This in no way invalidates Khaldun’s thesis to be a relic of the medieval past, however. I would argue it merely shifted who the outsiders were. One could bring in Marx here and say it was the working classes who could play this role now. Mao would say it was the rural peasants. Marxism, however, at its core remains an often Hegelian and almost always eurocentric philosophy (particularly when discussing history-just look at the farce of Hobsbawm being taken as a great insightful thinker for a more modern example) in both theory and historical assumption. Perhaps Marx’s theories would have been better off at the bat had he been able to  engage with figures like Khaldun. As it is, the promise in Marxist theory has yet to be fully realized and work there still has to be done by those so inclined. Still, the fact remains that the ‘lower orders’ of society might very well be the invigorating invaders we need to topple the status quo.

Or just as easily, perhaps not. Perhaps the people who have the luxury to not have direct regional attachments will be such a force, or perhaps disaffected and disillusioned former establishment operators will be it. Or an alliance of some or all of the above. Perhaps an anti-populist reaction against purist movements will one day grow and demand to seize the power from the complacent classes which in America have certainly built around them webs of true believers and ideologues capable of nothing but posturing their supposed purity in front on each other like Calvinists and Wahhabis at a theological convention.

Edward Gibbon once theorized that Christianity itself was the root cause of the decline of Rome (at least in the west). While I am far too much a materialist to agree entirely, I would say a values system that prioritizes feelings over action and moral posturing over civic duty is surely no positive introduction to society. We have seen waves of this moral absolutism and internal purge-culture throughout societies since that time, and now in the form of faith based economic models and appeals to identity politics of all stripes it still rides a high horse through the land, motivating politicians obsessed with election cycles to harness this ignorant mass in order to ensure little gets done while their positions (and book deals) are secure. It is a government by the elect, for the true believers. Thus, it is really no government at all.

One of the many disturbing things I have learned since I moved to DC is that the more insider to DC culture one is and the more educated they are, the more likely they are to adopt rote thinking on major issues since they have lost the ability to see any issue as anything but a well-oiled cog in the machine which is exposed to a very small array of mandatory socially acceptable opinions. Most of these people are liberals and centrists and feel that merely by being more intelligent or well read than a Trump supporter or a Tea Party fanatic means they are in fact extremely enlightened and virtuous guardians of rationality. It would be much the same as an uncoordinatated dweebus such as myself who has no aptitude for sports claiming to be a better basketball player than Stephen Hawking. I mean, yes, it is technically true, but it effectively says nothing of substance or offers an interesting comparison.
 
It must be apparent to an outsider that this limited multiple choice test of right-on opinions as the baseline of public discussion is increasingly the problem rather than the solution, the defensive entrenched class circles the wagons even further. They admonish us to be ‘centrist’, ‘sensible’ and ‘not to rock the boat.’ Of course, they never say that to the far right, useful idiots and all, but now they have let the asp into the bed and cannot control it. But we should still trust them to be ‘sensible’ anyway.
 
Leaving aside for now the quite obvious counter-point of pointing out what a thin substance-free gruel ‘centrism’ and ‘sensibility’really is by merely asking them questions like ‘what is a sensible centrist in Saudi Arabia?’ ‘What is a sensible centrist in Iran?’ ‘What is a sensible centrist in North Korea?’ And ‘What was a sensible centrist in the Axis Powers of World War II or during the times of the Inquisition?’ ‘What was a sensible centrist in the vote to invade Iraq?’ We should move on to another point-why are you all so short cited? The obvious answer is addiction to fashion and the need to posture rather than to act. Needless to say, these are all symptoms of a regime in decline which-technology adjusted-Ibn Khaldun would have recognized in a heartbeat.

It is the shame of the legislative branch of the United States that so many people can be part of such a powerful institution with access to so many resources-including intellectual ones, I became an official card carrying ‘Reader’ at the Library of Congress just last week-is so short term and factionally driven. Much like the nonprofit sector which grows around the establishment and feeds off of its divisions, petty media-driven battles are considered good politics in America rather than the act of actual governing or planning beyond an electoral cycle. Otherwise thoughtful people tow the line on ideological package deals when cherry picking would be more admirable and honest of a course to take.

Just take one sad, sorry, drawn out example is that of the US response to the Syrian Civil War, to look at how much nonsense such a dysfunctional regime can produce. In a zealous quest to overthrow a government of the country where Khaldun once met Timur the establishment found itself arming effectively Al Qaeda affiliated rebel groups and even ‘moderate’ rebels who have no room for sectarian and ethnic minorities in their new order. This toxic combination helped lead to the rise of Daesh, which now is every (sane) person’s enemy. And yet, an accommodation with the (relatively secular and multicultural) regime is still avoided because the Washington Consensus from congress to its mindless town criers and prophets by the names of Dowd, Friedman, Kristol, and Will somehow believes the fundamental values of not rocking the boat of the establishment is worth upholding. Indeed, even extolling in moral terms.

To say that the building forces of accumulated history which may as well be the ghost of Ibn Khladun himself will one day lay down the vengeance on this order is to be as polite as humanely possible. And not just the United States. I feel like we are living in a collection of powerful societies unwittingly and even proudly reenacting the death throws of Late Imperial Russia.

But even within this sad state of affairs, one heroic figure has emerged from the most unlikely place-inside of congress. Outside of shunted aside realist academic thinkers and a kooky quixotic Rand Paul presidential campaign, no one has come from the inside to really challenge the ossified orthodoxy on foreign policy-until Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard that is.

From challenging the internal incompetence of the Democratic Party (currently seeming to be throwing away all its collective advantages and surrendering all power locally simply to hold on to the presidency-a bad long term strategy if ever there was one) to the inability of people to state that radical Islam itself is a problem, to the neocon establishment that lurks in both parties, she takes them all on. Here is someone who made it to the inside but retained the more sober and less fashion-prone perspective of the outsider. If Americans do not make a concerted effort to support people like her in government they may as well give up on retaining opinions or participation with the government as it is in any shape or form. People like her are our last best hope in the system as it presently is.

The question is, where do we find our own new outsider-based regime? This is ‘The outsiders guide to geopolitics’ as a blog after all, but I am still trying to figure this out. We need more tricksters. We need an Age of Tricksters. And not just hovering outside poking fun-though that is always necessary-but inside. We have to figure out how to remake governments with those immune to its faddish complacent tendencies directly in power. Inevitably, over time, they will integrate and the process will has to be repeated of course, just as Khaldun said. But only fools think history progresses along a linear path to a predetermined end point after all.
That is the challenge to ponder for the future.

 

 

 

Interview

I did an interview today with a friend of mine who has a locally themed radio show. Despite the fact that the topic of my book had very little to do with the locale, we justified it by the fact that if I ever do a pseudosequel one of the case studies will in fact be very relevant to Michigan.

My more historically and Central Asian tinged interests-arguably the largest part of all of my interests-has largely gone unremarked upon in this blog so far due to the fact that I worked on both a dissertation and a book in that field and wanted to use this to show how I could branch out. Still, I might as well do some self-promotion. I promise not to make a regular habit of it.

Ever since I engineered a month in Mongolia as my graduation present to myself for getting through high school alive I have also always been really into Mongolian, Tuvan, and other regional forms of music from those locations. Throat singing is amazing, as are horse-head fiddles and other things.

But being a metal head the star band to me in this field in none other than Tengger Cavalry. One of the greatest bands of all time as far as I am concerned.