Wednesday, March 2, 2016
Kilcullen (2013) Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla.
David Kilcullen was an Australian infantry officer with tours in East Timor and Iraq. He was seconded to the US Army and worked with Petraeus as one of the intellectual forces behind the revised American counter-insurgency doctrine. In 2009 I heard him speak at the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society in Chicago; I was not impressed by his advocacy of a 400-thousand strong army and police for Afghanistan. Afghanistan is an impoverished country of about 30 million, and couldn't afford to keep paying 400 thousand armed men. You would think we could learn that arming and training large groups to be abandoned when the money runs out isn't a good idea. Kilcullen has learned. Since leaving uniform he has worked for Caerus and other NGOs, and shows a much more nuanced understanding of political, economic, and social factors in this book than one finds in FM 3-24, the US Army Counter-Insurgency Field Manual (2006).
In five chapters there are three big ideas that are worth exploring - none original, but accessible and well connected here by Kilcullen. The first is that the world is becoming more urban and littoral. This hearkens back to US Marine Corps futures studies of the 1980s, and to UN and EU projections and planning from as early the 1960s. The second big idea is that cities are interconnected through people and new communications technologies, and that this interconnectivity is transnational and cannot be managed or regulated effectively by states. Again, this is an idea that has been explored elsewhere, and Kilcullen notes some of the work, but doesn't seem to be aware of the Metropolis Project, which has been actively studying networked cities since 1996. Soldiers really should read more, but we get distracted by firefights, literal and figurative. Kilcullen's contribution on the second point is to map out and illustrate the implications of urban connectivity in the context of the third big idea - competitive control.
Competitive control was an idea expounded by Bernard Fall in 1965, who Kilcullen describes as a classic COIN theorist. Fall described a competitive system of control over the population - a spectrum of means ranging from persuasion through administration to coercion. A stable state, Kilcullen argues, has uncontested control, but an insurgency or criminal organization is able to compete with the state for control. Kilcullen's description of brittle (coercive) control, and robust full-spectrum control is very useful, but omits insights from Tilly (2003) The Politics of Collective Violence, or Bernadette Berti's work on armed political organizations. For Kilcullen, competitive control is the key concept that makes sense of emerging struggles in networked urban littoral areas.
The problems Kilcullen describes in the final chapter are problems of managing populations, and this is where the premise goes awry, with too much talk of, "what are we going to do about it?" implying Americans, or at least the West, "Obviously, we go in on the ground..." (emphasis added). But the premise is wrong - only locals can find solutions to corruption and disfunction in criminal- or insurgent-infested littoral cities, even when locals don't have a complete view any more than outsiders. His final observations are astute, but may lead us (the West) in the wrong direction. Yes, there will be fewer expeditionary wars fought in the mountains, but if they give way to expeditionary wars in the urban littoral, we are in serious trouble! Yes, the ebb and flow of cities, and the "dynamic disequilibrium" that militates against "stabilization" must be studied, but it cannot be played as part of a military strategy. I think Kilcullen understands that there are no military solutions to the problem of competitive control, and I think he understands the utility of a joined up political-economic-social strategy to support the most functional local actors, but I think he is missing a vital piece: civil organization independent of, and sometimes in opposition to, the forces of coercive violence. He cites the organization of Liberian women in opposition to the civil war (who took a leaf out of Lysistrata's book, Trojan Women!), but misses the larger point that the solution to violence is civil organization. I was skeptical about that until I found pioneering work by Chenoweth and Stephan (2011) Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Non-Violent Conflict. Kilcullen's book, Out of the Mountains, is a good read, and might help understand the operational logic of non-violent conflict.
Peace and War Centre
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Major General H. Wager Halleck of the US Army was born a year after the end of the War of 1812, and served in the American Civil War as Grant's chief of staff and as the senior commander in the West. This book, dating from 1862 reflects the state of "military art and science" in the New World on the eve of the American Civil War, penned by a cautious and defensively-minded military intellectual. It is a free book in the public domain, readily available online. What's remarkable is the extent to which it is overlooked, but it is in good company. There is a large body of books on military art and science, most reflecting the accumulated experience of serving officers and observers. Some, like Halleck's, include philosophical subjects like the justifications for war or the nature of the warrior, but most devote their chapters to organization, logistics, fortifications, artillery and transport - all the techniques and technology of the day. In fact, the large body of military art and science published in English and French (and probably other languages - see Gordin, Scientific Babel) from the 18th century on can be neatly divided into two categories: a few works of principle, which have survived successive republication and regular examination; and many works of practice, which have been quickly ignored and lost. Halleck's work is in the latter category, although some of his chapters may belong in the former. His chapter VI is "The Military Polity: the means of national defence best suited to the character and conditions of a country, with a brief account of those adopted by the several European powers." It amounts to a study of comparative political economy, options, and incentives, including tables of data on populations, budgets, armed forces manpower, growth rates, and the choice of armies, fortifications, and naval expenditures. But it's easy to see why anyone picking up the book even a decade later would be unimpressed. The world was changing too quickly, and the details Halleck offers are too specific to time and place, like the 1590 Wappenhandlungbuch, which was obsolete with the next generation of arquebus. The longevity of Sun Tzu, The Prince, On War, and even Jomini's Art of War is a consequence of generalization and abstraction. And that is the essence of professional knowledge. The specifics will always be overtaken by change; professions that advance and compete effectively for status and power in society do so by generalization and abstraction, which serves as the foundation for the next generation of pragmatic knowledge. But Foucault's archeology of knowledge and genealogy of knowledge and practice suggests that what survives is often attributable to happenstance more than quality or even utility. Google says Halleck has been cited by 44, and most of those citing him have been cited by more than 20, so the General dismissed as 'old brains' (according to wikipedia) casts a longer shadow than most of his contemporaries.
Monday, February 15, 2016
Charles Tilly (2003) Politics of Collective Violence, and people who should have read him.
Charles Tilly was a prolific writer in history, sociology, and political science, and I find myself returning repeatedly to his work on violence and the state. His 2003 book, The Politics of Collective Violence lays out the most useful analytical scheme for thinking about the different kinds of organized violence that afflict society, and his 1985 essay, "War Making and State Making as Organized Crime" should be taught along with it in staff colleges, in the same way that doctors and lawyers are introduced to the debacles and failings of their professions. We often have exaggerated ideas about our social utility, but if we understand the dynamics of violence and self-interest more clearly, professions can do something to improve this over time.
What has been bringing me back to Tilly has been the echoes of his work in new thinking, including a recent collection by Barkony and de Guevara (2012) on the Microsociology of Violence, in which almost every chapter cites Tilly (2003). More often, however, I find myself reading new or recent work whose authors should have read Tilly, perhaps did read him, but inexplicably don't cite his insights, even when they seem to be close to similar ideas.
Kilcullen's (2013) Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla is an excellent piece of work, particularly chapter three on competitive control, but Tilly isn't mentioned. I think this is a good case of those farther from the front understanding more than those on the front lines, although the reverse is perhaps more often true.
Berti's (2013) Armed Political Organizations: From Conflict to Integration is another superb set of case studies - Hamas, Hezbollah, and IRA - in the context of a very useful organizational framework. But I think it could be improved by reference both to the state-making functions described by Tilly (1985) and the forms and functions of collective violence articulated in Tilly (2003).
I think the difference between the authors in Barony and de Guevara (2012) on the one hand and the authors Kilcullen and Berti on the other is that the latter are more practically oriented; they are more concerned with pragmatic action than scholarly theory, and have read less theory. But for me, Tilly's work and its implications reinforce an old soldier-scholar's observation: the most practical thing in the world is a good theory, because it gives you a useful way of seeing the world. (Thank you, Ken Eyre).
Sunday, June 14, 2015
Dartnell, L. (2014) The knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch. New York: Penguin. Written by a research scientist responsible for popularizing science, The Knowledge begins with ways the world might end. Nuclear war is the worst case because it would destroy so much infrastructure as well as people; a sudden depopulation by pandemic would be the best case “end of the world”. He proceeds from this best case to consider immediate survival, the preservation of knowledge and material during the “grace period” before it is destroyed by time and environment, and then describes in the style of a how-to manual the rebuilding challenges facing a small group of survivors: agriculture, food and clothing, substances (chemicals, energy, soap, lime, acids), materials (clay, mortar, metals, glass), medicine, mechanical and electrical power, transport, communication, advanced chemistry, and the scientific method. There is insufficient detail for this collection to constitute a genuine how-to manual for societal survival, but as a starting point to think about the problems, it is brilliant and thought provoking. One of the most important lines of thought to arise from considering a civilizational reboot, is, why do we live the way we do today? The answer usually has more to do with interests than necessity.
Sunday, August 3, 2014
Christopher Hitchens was a journalist, teacher, and public intellectual, who died in 2011. He seems to have been building up to this through much of his life, during which he was exposed through family and circumstance to Methodism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and Judaism. He investigated miracles for the Catholic Church, debated fundamentalists over the Danish cartoon imbroglio, and was repeatedly called to the barricades to defend secular humanism and the right not to believe – something about which he felt passionately. He was particularly outraged by the effort to insert creationism and “intelligent design” into school curricula in the US. He avows that he would be happy to leave others to their belief, if they would leave him to his atheism, but the religious believers cannot do so, and cannot abide a secular world, so there must be a counter-attack. All this is in here, which must stand as something of a capstone to his life’s work in service to the heritage of the enlightenment. It is a book that should be read by thinking believers, no less than skeptics, because it lays out in pitiless detail and relentless logic the sins of man-made religion and the absurdities of unthinking faith. I listened to Hitchens himself reading the audio-book, and he sounds clear-eyed and unsentimental, measured and reasonable, only occasionally outraged by justifiable outrages and sad at the pitiable consequences of organized religions’ assaults on humanity through its dysfunctional and manipulative belief systems. His criticisms are not reserved only for Christianity. He is erudite and eloquent in tracing back the plagiarisms, repetitions, deceptions, and shifting and contradictory revelations called into service of the interests of the priestly castes that have preyed upon the poor and poisoned societies for millennia. He knows his scriptures - more than can be said for many of the simple faithful.
He opens with both barrels. The five irreducible objections to religion are: it misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos; because of this misapprehension, it combines servility and solipsism; it is both result and cause of dangerous and dysfunctional sexual repression; it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking; and it is used by those in authority to manipulate and abuse the vulnerable. But he comes to these charges with humility. He is as certain that he doesn’t have the ultimate answers as he is that they do not reside in religious belief, and he is therefore much more convincing than more arrogant intellectuals like Dawkins or Dennett, who are confident in our inevitably limited knowledge. He is convincing about the extent to which religion kills, with personal anecdotes from Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad. It’s an impressive testimony. His short digression on why heaven hates ham is amusing but illustrative of the problematic logic of belief. He demonstrates the false metaphysical claims of religion, which set back scientific and social progress. The illogic and absurdity of “intelligent design” claims are easy to dispel in the light of science, in which he places his faith, but here it seems to me that humility in the limits of our knowledge can leave the door open to unfounded faith, in which there is no harm if it is not imposed on others. More difficult to dispel is the logic of Epicurus: “Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” Of course, every religion has explanations, and the eighteen chapters covering wars, the Old Testament, the New Testament, the borrowed and plagiarized Koran, the tawdriness of the origins of the Book of Mormon and nineteenth century sects, the manifest failures of religion to make people behave better, the awful impact of religious beliefs crafted to scare children, repress or distort sexuality, and stunt intellectual growth, the absurdity of original sin (he is particularly harsh on Calvin), and the equal inadequacy of Eastern religions amount to a powerful argument for his thesis that religion poisons everything. Two of the best chapters are the last-ditch case against secularism (Ch. 17), and the finer tradition of rational resistance (Ch. 18). In the first, he argues that the worst of the secular atrocities – Hitler’s fascism, Stalin’s Communism, Pol Pot, and so on – either had the trappings of a religion, or the support of the religious, or both. In the second, he traces the cautious resistance of rational free-thinkers from Plato and Epicurus to Galileo, Spinoza, Hume, and Jefferson, arguing that they had to pull their punches and couch their insights in language acceptable to the religious ideologues of their day – something which retarded human progress immeasurably. Religion has run out of justifications, and it is time to know the enemy and to prepare to fight it, says Hitchens. He has certainly done his part.
At the end, as a skeptical believer (faith consisting of belief despite the absence of evidence) I’m left paraphrasing Solzhenitsyn: perhaps the line between good and evil does not run between religions, or between faith and atheism, but through every human heart. If religion helps some people stay on the right side of that line it can still serve a purpose, but to the extent that it oppresses and generates evil and violence, it should wither in the face of a new enlightenment.
David Last, 3 Aug 2014
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
David Rothkopf was in America’s political inner circle in the Clinton Administration, putting him in good company with Philip Bobbitt, Tom Reich, and Joe Stiglitz. Each had a front-row seat on the evolving relationship between the world’s uncontested superpower of the 1990s, and the growing power of corporations operating outside the control of states. Bobbitt’s Shield of Achilles postulated evolution towards something that he called the market state; Reich’s Work of Nations focused on the importance of educating citizens for the survival and prosperity of the state; Stiglitz, in several books, points to bad policies, American errors, and corporate depredations. But a theme running through all of them is that states may be slipping from their dominant role as international actors. This is the problem tackled squarely in Rothkopf’s book.
Like Bobbitt, Rothkopf begins with his interpretation of history. The first part of the book is structured around four revolutions: the origins of the corporation in the Europe’s emergence from the middle ages; the origins of the state in wars of religion (1648 and all that); the political revolutions and enfranchisements of the American and French Revolutions, with different trajectories; and the industrial revolution and class struggle (1848 and changing role of government). His historical sketches are more lightly drawn and less lavishly sourced than Bobbitt’s, but nevertheless compelling, and richer for the thread of corporate evolution running through the narrative. He uses the label “the Great Transformation” but there is (surprisingly) no reference to Polanyi, though the arguments resonate.
Part 2 of the book chronicles the constraint of the state and the rise of corporate power, beginning in the 19th century, then bouncing back and forth to make the point that constraining government to preserve property rights was good, but giving the rights of an individual to a corporate entity put the state in a bind. This is a point missed by Acemoglu and Robinson (both 2006 and 2012). Rothkopf covers four vital pieces of contemporary political economy: the legal ascendancy of the corporation; its global reach and transcendence of state control; the decline of monetary sovereignty; and the declining utility of force. All these developments reduce the power of the state as the preeminent international actor. Throughout this, Rothkopf keeps the tone of the analytical observer, treating Marx, Rand, and Hayek with the same courteous objectivity.
In Part 3, the tone starts to be more concerned, and Rothkopf is revealed as a fan of the state and its protection of individual freedoms, probably more US “blue state” than “red state”. The final two chapters address the competition between weakened states and muscled corporations, and the varieties of capitalisms. Rothkopf cautions against oversimplification: we need the energy and innovation of the marketplace, and we need the protections of the state and its regulation of the corporate super-citizens bestriding the world. Which of the five capitalist models is likely to triumph and how will governments respond. Ultimately, the problem is that the viral form of the corporation is agile and adaptive, but governments have been less so.
David Last, June 18, 2014
This is the first film I have included in this list of non-fiction reviews, but it should to be here because it illustrates protracted social conflict, the personal costs, and the ultimate antidote in forgiveness at a personal level. I have often thought that the political genius of Christianity is twofold, particularly in the context of conquest and official oppression. In the first place, it offers rewards in the next world, but that just qualifies it as the opiate of the masses. More importantly, it prescribes forgiveness and turning the other cheek, both empowering and subversive. It offers the empowerment of the victim, and the subversiveness of James Scott’s weapons of the weak.
Denis Villeneuve takes Wadji Mouawad’s play as a starting point, and spins a gripping tale between Montreal and Lebanon, from the 1970s to the present. It can be seen as an anthropological study of personal loyalties and choices, and the intergenerational effects of protracted social conflict, in which forgiveness is rare. Particularly hopeful is the idea that a new country like Canada can foster the reconciliation necessary to live together in an old one like Lebanon. The actual data on diaspora support for conflict is not so optimistic, but the vision is seductive.
David Last, June 10, 2014