The War Comes Home: A Book Review of ‘The Management of Savagery’


In the aftermath of the First World War there was a famous example of ‘the war coming home’ in the German Freikorps, which largely fought as anti-Bolshevik forces in the power vacuum of Eastern Europe before returning home and disproportionately joining far right movements that would be eventually subsumed under the Nazi Party. The famous and impressive Czech Legion which found itself stranded and forced to cross the length of civil war Russia to escape the other end in coastal Siberia experienced a similar phenomenon. Perhaps most analogous to modern day audiences, and the one with by far the most soldiers deployed abroad was the Japanese Army in Eastern Siberia. They were those who played the largest role in the Siberian Intervention and arguably did the most to secure the deliverance of the Czech Legion.

Japanese troops were kept fighting a low level guerrilla war of occupation in Siberia past the end of the rest of the intervening powers in that war. Although their presence succeeded in extracting oil and gas concessions in the region before departure, it was a failure in its main (if unstated) goal of making Primorye partially detached from the nascent USSR and open to business with Japan (see ‘Japan’s Siberia Intervention‘). A long and expensive intervention soured the public and domestic pressures brought the troops home. Some troops would terrify the home country with the influences they had picked up from the reds. Many others of those troops, specifically the officers, would go on to influence the growing cadre of right wing radicals in the army, a faction that would one day go rogue in the seizure of Manchuria and then go on to usurp the government, setting the Japanese Empire on an inexorable path towards self-immolation in World War II.

Max Blumenthal’s new book: ‘The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump’ is far more contemporary, but is charting a very similar process to these events that happened almost a century ago. But this time there is only one seemingly unstoppable world power and a host of non-state actors.

I was fortunate enough to attend the book launch where I purchased my own copy and had it signed by the author. You may recognize his name, along with his colleague Ben Norton, as the co-hosts of the podcast ‘Moderate Rebels’, which is my personal favorite podcast which I have referenced a few times before. At that event, Blumenthal referred to the book (whose release had to be delayed and relocated due to complaints from a combination of Beltway lanyards and Syrian rebel backers) as ‘the most dangerous book in Washington.’ Its not hard to see why this could be so.

The book charts the rise of American-backed Jihadism, a process that really swung into full action with the Soviet War in Afghanistan and the golden opportunity for the CIA to inflict revenge for Vietnam on the arch-foe. Though most people in DC know of this story and the reverberations of it (Steve Coll’s quite good book Ghost Wars is a common staple around Washington) there seems to be a collective cultural and political denial that this still happens. Not only that, but that this process, only really briefly interrupted by the immediate post 9/11 rush to combat the Taliban (itself a partial creation of these policies, if unintentionally) also has domestic blowback similar to the kind once experienced by multiple nations in the interwar era.

9/11 was used by many of the more hawkish elements of the American defense establishment, as well as a crisis hungry media (I was overjoyed to see I am not the only person who remembers that the top news panic story of summer of 2001 was the false claim of a rise of shark attacks world wide-its referenced directly in the book) to roll out an ambitious neoconservative plan of reckless expansionism. This parade of wars, botched operations, and flagging public support soon after Iraq turned sour in turn led to the rise of various media grifters seeking to make a buck (or a public profile) off of the War on Terror. Both Islamists often recruiting from the west to fight in regime change wars coming home to commit terrorist attacks (The Manchester Bombing for instance) as well as radicalized far right racist terror of a more indigenous persuasion not only fed off of the blasted detritus of American policy failures abroad but also each other directly in the domestic field.

The events are recent and many of them I have written about here before. But Blumenthal weaves a convincing narrative about just how interconnected all of this is, and how the neoliberal/neoconservative center is the ultimate enabler of the extremism it claims to be the bulwark against (see my last post for more on what I call ‘Trident Theory’). Right wing grifters and Jihadists alike feed off of each other. ISIS recruitment documents prove they intentionally provoke this as a strategy. The smarter people on the far right must know more terrorist attacks by Islamists are good for them electorally. Perhaps Steve Bannon himself wants to secretly and indirectly ‘adopt a muj’.

Much of this is enabled by conscious decisions by foreign policy elites in various countries. The grotesque tableau of the humanitarian warrior who loves refugees so much they want to make more of them by leveling their country allied with the Bolton-hawks who are just in it for the fireworks and the forceable opening of new markets abroad. For the specifics of this tale of woe we have all lived through, knowingly or not, I cannot recommend ‘The Management of Savagery’ enough. Especially as Representative Ilhan Omar faces critiques both by the xenophobic right and the increasingly pro-neocon center and center-left and the media does it best to drown out the necessary issues driven candidacy of Tulsi Gabbard.

To bring this full circle I am reminded of the first college essay I ever wrote that I could be genuinely proud of. It was a comparative study of a historical and (then) contemporary event, presaging what I often do now. It was an essay for a history class on the Japanese Empire taught by the excellent Professor Roden of Rutgers University. I first cleared with him that I could add contemporary elements and he graciously accepted.

It was about the Japanese Empire’s fall to radicalization to an extremist elite that festered in the military and intelligence services. It spoke about the connections of the rhetoric of the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ as compared to what was then Bush’s Second Term and ‘Freedom Dividend’. It spoke of traumatic events leading to sea changes in public opinion (The Great Kanto Earthquake, 9/11), the lack of a unified or bold opposition, and debilitating wars that only expanded with time-all under the ideological impetus of a form of national exceptionalism.

I was an undergraduate then and aside from its core ideas it probably wasn’t very good by my current standards. If it still exists anywhere its on an old computer in storage or a lost thumb drive. But I will say this: despite all the insanity of politics in our present time one thing that is decidedly different from both the interwar period and the early to mid oughts is that there really is opposition to this stuff. Perhaps not yet unified, but it is there. The effects of these policies, after all, are undeniable and all around us. There is more dissent today. Maddening as the present can be I know I felt far more alienated from discourse in the Bush Jr years. In very real material terms Bush killed far more people pursuing the quixotic dreams of American Exceptionalism, expanded far more of the surveillance state, and had more of a media lock than Trump-so far- has. People never would have believed back then that a common Middle Eastern moniker for extremist Islamic sects was ‘American Islam’, or that the Iraq War’s greatest beneficiaries was Al Qaeda, who was given a second wind by the chaos there, but the amount of people willing to hear such uncomfortable truths is far higher now.

I had no hope then. I have the modicum of some now. Take from that what you will.





Two Reluctant Cheers for Authority


In today’s discourse you will almost never come across someone self-identifying as ‘authoritarian.’ In fact, the word seems merely to exist as a straw man for half baked and childish libertarian ‘political tests’ which are superficial and designed to make literally everyone on the planet think they are secretly libertarian. Of course, my own test based on the same axis is much better as it captures the essence of everyone and everything in all times and places which ever once had a political opinion of any kind.

But maybe the term authoritarian requires at least a partial resurrection. Coming off of the heels of a century of unprecedented state-directed terror this may seem odd, but that was also then, and this is now. As John Gray so accurately points out in The New Statesman, it is the stateless parts of the world which are the problems now more than the overly-governed.

This is not to say we need an overreaction which apologizes for the excesses of the NSA or admires the more terrifyingly over-regimented societies on the planet. As Gray reminds us, this is not a question of good and evil and freedom versus slavery. All political stances are in fact the decision of who to regulate and who not to, rather than some simplistic quest for freedom for beautiful caged birds who write poetry standing at odds against regimented hordes of riding crop wielding jackbooted thugs. A regime which is free to one kind of person can be unfree to another and vice-versa. So if merely to call for a recognition that the state is still the best form of self-organization we have, and that we should not be so quick to topple those of others lest we threaten backlashes which can make our own less free is to be authoritarian, by all means, let us be ‘authoritarian.’

Personally, I fear the political backlash to terrorism more than the acts themselves. They are far more likely, proportionally, to affect me directly. But it also means we have to be serious about what kinds of freedoms we want and don’t want. And we also have to acknowledge that most likely we will not be the ones to decide. What is relevant right now is that authoritarianism may very well make a come back, and that doesn’t have to be *all* bad. And no, I don’t even think terrorism will be the main reason it comes back, but rather ecological catastrophe. Whatever terrorism brings us now in debates on state power is merely the prelude to a greater debate on responding to a rapidly changing planet.

And this is where authoritarianism might be selectively helpful. We have already seen how some kinds of regimes in sectarian-divided countries keep minorities safer than they would be otherwise by being undemocratic. We also know that authoritarian states have a pretty good record at crisis response. Particularly on environmental issues. The world’s largest polluter and most rapidly developing country, China, is also the one going through a crash course in large scale sustainable energy which puts its rivals and some developed countries to shame in ambition and hopefully effect. But let us go further.

When Jared Diamond’s book ‘Collapse’ came out in 2005 I was a sophomore history major in college and a fan of all things Diamond (in many ways I still am-this post was originally going to be ‘Hooray for Determinism’ after all before recent events changed its nature when I got around to it-though I might still write such a thing) ¬†and also a libertarian. Having that simple (and oh so American) world view, I found myself invigorated by the challenge he presented. The two large scale examples he presented of a state successfully responding to ecological crisis were both very authoritarian states. One, the Dominican Republic, a blatantly racist and fascistic government under Raphael Trujillo, and the other, the mega-centralizing hyper-bureaucratic Tokugawa Shogunate. These were the states which he lauded for foresight. Two opposite poles of me were in a delicious conflict over what position to take on this issue.

Well, in about three years I made a full recovery from libertarianism and I knew the answer. Though to be fair, the materialist always lurking inside me probably made this inevitable. Libertarianism is, at its core, a type of Taliban-style liberalism of just taking one non-material ideology and ramping up it to 11 with philosophical purity as its key point. With this discarded, I could acknowledge that Trujillo may have been one of the biggest dicks to ever live, but a broken clock and all that. One doesn’t have to endorse a Shogunate as an ideal type of government to acknowledge there are many things that particular one did right, from public health administration to education and infrastructure. And of course, a national forestry system with an eye on conservation-in the 17th Century no less!

Weak states and loose confederacies are better at doing many things than stronger more centralized states. And I will always defend federal style systems as ideal for learning about the divergences in policy execution in the laboratories of regions and adapting accordingly. But crisis response is not one of them. Terrorism is only the tip of the iceberg. It is the less media sexy but slow burning fuse of ecological collapse which will drive state reaction in the long term. And we might just find certain types of authority useful.

After all, many of the greatest periods of multicultural cohesion have been under monarchies and pre-victorian empires. Many on the far right betray their true colors when they imply that a society which can accommodate many kinds of people is a threat to the social cohesion of democracy. Maybe they are right in some instances, but the Roman Republic appeals much less to me than the Roman Empire does. I would give up the vote before I would give my access to material goods of diverse origin and interaction with people of greater backgrounds. I doubt there will ever be such a dramatic either/or choice and I am largely playing devil’s advocate here, but should such a turn come, I will chose multicultural authority over monolithic democracy. History makes a better case for it in terms of overall case studies. Sure, one can always say most people are political idiots in any context, as it is I have already railed against the naive cosmopolitanism of liberalism on this very blog. But as a lesser of evils, wouldn’t you rather have a variety of idiots than the same kind repeated over and over again? Awash in a sea of vatniks or their American or whatever equivalent is a future far too boring and horrible for any type of interesting person to even fathom.

Previously, I waxed poetic about my love of the Heavy Gear setting for looking an a non-utopian science fiction of international relations. One thing I always really liked about the setting is that the Southern Republic was the best representation of a complicated authoritarian order. It was a zero tolerance regime for criticizing the government, but in exchange it was a patron of the arts and a subsidizer of the common citizen. It also allowed social libertinism unseen in other competing states of the setting. This reminds me of the Tang Dynasty, the early Mongol Empire, High Rome or any other period of effective cultural flowering. Of course, being able to the criticize the government is a right I would loathe to lose, but let us be honest-for most people food, sex, and housing matters most. If one can’t have it all one can get their priorities in a proper hierarchy. Principles be damned in the face of impoverishment or even in compromising the epicure.

As I stated at the start, this isn’t a post glorifying state power. It is a post building upon Gray’s call for a mature discussion of what freedom and authority really are without devolving into enlightenment baggage of good and evil and free and unfree. The world moves fast and change is constant. State collapse increases the negatives of this and as our biodiversity collapsed and our rapacious need for resources grows unchecked, its time to move beyond lame establishment narratives of NGOS and hippie activists saving the planet through fundraising and talk about what might be necessary for states to do.

And not to do.

P.S.: I love the Shadowrun games and find them (and the original rpg setting) a pretty brutal look at what a technological yet stateless society would look like. It aint pretty, even with all the cool magic and creatures. Its a setting which is clearly influencing one of my present creative projects in fact so it is on my mind. So, I leave you with the most recent (and best) entry in the series very good soundtrack. It gets much better in the second half by the way.