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Tag: "books"

LG&M Podcast: Ari Kelman & Erik Loomis on A Misplaced Massacre

[ 4 ] April 2, 2013 |

[ERIK SAYS] This podcast discusses Ari Kelman’s new book, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek. It explores how different groups contest the historical meanings of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado. We then go on to talk about the contested memory of Howard Zinn and the contentiousness within discussions of his famous A People’s History of the United States.

[SEK SAYS] There is an outtake at 1:12:00 and that is all.

Download Erik and Ari’s this podcast here.

….EL–The Zinn stuff starts at about 45 minutes if anyone is interested.

Sunday Book Review: Viper Pilot

[ 35 ] December 2, 2012 |

DoD photo by Senior Airman Greg L. Davis, U.S. Air Force.

Dan Hampton, author of Viper Pilot, doesn’t sound like a pleasant man.  This requires qualification; I suspect he’d be a lot of fun for a night of drinking, but he doesn’t sound pleasant to work with for a prolonged period of time. It’s not just that Hampton has contempt for people who aren’t pilots; he has contempt for just about everyone who doesn’t fly an advanced, single seat fighter-bomber specializing in “Wild Weasel” or SEAD missions. The reviews over at Amazon are interesting to read; some of the one stars seem to be written by people who disliked Hampton personally. If you’re fine with this (and frankly, the arrogance is mildly charming) then Viper Pilot is a pretty interesting read.  Hampton is convincing on the point that it is extremely, extremely difficult to become a single-seat fighter pilot in the United States Air Force today. As simple arithmetic this isn’t surprising, but Hampton explains how he made it through ever cull along the way, and explains why it was necessary to use such a fine toothed comb.

The Wild Weasel plays one of the most critical roles in modern airpower operations, the defeat of enemy air defenses.  In context of a balance of technology and military power that heavily favors modern Western airpower, advanced air defense systems, most often purchased from Russia or China, represent the only effective defense for second-tier states. The most important enabler for modern airpower operations isn’t the air superiority fighter, because modern Western air forces rarely have to fight air-to-air combat. Rather, it’s the SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) team, which kicks the door open and holds it open long enough for all the other elements of an air operation to do their jobs.

Hampton’s battle accounts are genuinely gripping.  He never becomes involved in actual air-to-air combat, but he’s very convincing on the danger and excitement of the Wild Weasel mission, not to mention the close air support runs he occasionally has to make.  Moreover, Hampton’s battle accounts connect well with his earlier discussion of training.  An F-16 pilot needs to be able to conduct an enormous number of intellectual tasks simultaneously, from managing his fuel to assessing threats to organizing her command to paying attention to where all the weapons are going, all while flying an aircraft that, aerodynamically, would prefer to be on or in the ground. Hampton suggests that flying an F-16 under combat conditions is akin to playing several musical instruments at the same time, which sounds about right. Hampton’s accounts of non-combat missions (coordinating the landing of a squadron during a sandstorm, test-piloting a poorly maintained Egyptian F-16) are equally compelling.

At the same time, Hampton admits not the faintest grasp of or interest in grand strategy or international politics. He only occasionally comments on the geopolitical realities of the wars that he fights in, and then usually without much insight. In this he fits the stereotype of the Air Force fighter pilot who is interested, above all, in flying fighter aircraft in wartime conditions.  The rest (why he’s there, what he’s doing) is relatively incidental. He enjoys utilizing the killing power of the F-16, even on missions (such as close air support) that the Air Force as a whole is altogether unenthusiastic about.

Viper Pilot is a quick read; Hampton is a good writer, with a sound grasp of what should and shouldn’t become part of the narrative.  He knows that no one has bought Viper Pilot to read about family. There’s a fair amount of interesting trivia about the Air Force and about F-16s; I’ll confess that I had never quite understood the Viper vs. Fighting Falcon debate, or the role that the original Battlestar Galactica plays in that conversation, but it makes sense in context.  If you like fighter pilot narratives, you’ll probably like this book.  If you don’t, you won’t.

Roth

[ 67 ] November 9, 2012 |

Philip Roth, the greatest American writer of his era, claims to have retired.

In the end, this might be a good thing, assuming he really retires. While his 90s and early 2000s resurgence was brilliant, his last novels were, uh, not very good. I had a couple of hours to kill in a library this summer and so I grabbed The Humbling off the shelves. To say the least, it was the worst Roth I’ve ever read. I mean, it’s one thing to be a misogynist in a brilliant novel. But in a bad novel, the misogyny is just unacceptable. That doesn’t take anyway from his 10-15 very good to amazing books. But maybe it is time.

Dunham

[ 86 ] October 11, 2012 |

Ta-Nehisi Coates is correct. The attacks on Lena Dunham as the ultimate purveyor of white privilege in the arts are utterly bizarre. This isn’t to say Dunham doesn’t benefit from white privilege or shouldn’t think of casting non-whites in her show, but she hardly benefits more than anyone else and is hardly more guilty than anyone else.

The Evolution of Blood Meridian

[ 11 ] October 10, 2012 |

Must reading for all you McCarthyites out there.

Graduate Reading List for The American West

[ 68 ] September 7, 2012 |

This fall, I am teaching graduate students for the first time. I am teaching our senior capstone course, which graduate students can sign up for. My course in on the history of the American West. Usually 1 or 2 graduate students sign up, but I have 6 for whatever reason–my charming personality no doubt. So I’m having them meet separately (in part) for a mini-seminar. As Farley does with the Patterson reading list, I thought people might be interested in the readings I chose. Some of you will disagree with some of the readings, or I hope so anyway.

In a normal graduate seminar, I’d assign a book a week. This isn’t quite that, so some weeks there are books and other weeks a couple of book chapters or articles.

The theme of the course is power. Of course power relations define all history, but because of aridity, racial tension, and the dominance of the region by extractive capitalism, power relations in the West take on a special tone. I can’t truly provide a comprehensive history of the topic in a semester, but this is what I have. There are only 11 weeks of readings because of holidays and plans on other days, so it’s more limited than I’d like.

Week 1: Overview
Richard Etulain, Did the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional?
This is my coverage of Turner’s frontier thesis and his critics. Get it out of the way and move onto something more interesting. I always hated dealing with these debates but it’s inevitable I suppose.

Week 2: The Indigenous West
Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire

Week 3: The Incorporation of the West
William Cronon, “Annihilating Space: Meat” from Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
Richard Maxwell Brown, “The Gunfighter: The Reality Behind the Myth,” from No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American Society
William Robbins, “An ‘Equilibrium of Chaos’: External Control and the Northern West” from Colony and Empire: The Capitalist Transformation of the American West

Week 4: Tourism and Conservation
Theodore Roosevelt, “The Vigor of Life,” “In Cowboy Land,” and “The Natural Resources of the Nation,” from An Autobiography
Chris Wilson, “Romantic Regional Architecture, 1905 to 1930,” from The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition
Louis Warren, “’Raiding Devils’ and Democratic Freedoms: Indians, Ranchers, and New Mexico Wildlife,” from The Hunter’s Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America

Week 5: The Working-Class West
Richard White, “Workingmen” from Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America
Cecilia Tsu, “’Independent of the Unskilled Chinaman’: Race, Labor, and Family Farming in California’s Santa Clara Valley,” Western Historical Quarterly Winter 2006
Gunther Peck, “Manhood Mobilized,” from Reinventing Free Labor: Padrones and Immigrant Workers in the North American West, 1880-1930

Week 6: Water, Natural Resources, and the West
Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s

Week 7: The Gendered West
Virginia Scharff and Carolyn Brucken, Home Lands: How Women Made the West

Week 8: Urbanization and Suburbanization
Read: John Findlay, “Sun City, Arizona: New Town for Old Folks, from Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940
Mike Davis, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn” from Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster
Quintard Taylor, “Facing the Urban Frontier: African-American History in the Reshaping of the Twentieth-Century American West” Western Historical Quarterly Spring 2012

Week 9: Postwar Social Movements in the West
Josh Sides, Erotic City: Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Modern San Francisco

Week 10: Environmentalism and the Modern West
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, p. 1-67
Darren Speece, “From Corporatism to Citizen Oversight: The Legal Fight over California Redwoods, 1970-1996,” Environmental History October 2009
Jake Kosek, “Smokey the Bear is a White Racist Pig” from Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico

Week 11: Migration and Borders
Monica Perales, Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community

Week 12: The West Today
Students search out recent articles and make short presentations connecting to the historical themes of the semester.
Given that this is the last day of classes, I don’t feel I can really assign real readings in this week. Particularly since they will be in the hell of writing their 20-30 page historiographical paper for me.

I see the strengths of this syllabus as a real focus on the relationship between diversity and power and that the major themes are woven through the weeks and not just confined to one week.

Weaknesses include not enough on Native Americans in the second half of the course, the lack of a specific week on the rise of conservative politics (if I had one more week, I’d solve this problem), and not enough works by women, which is annoying and snuck up on me as these things will. But what would I cut out?

Thoughts? I’m actually open to suggestions since I don’t have to teach until Monday afternoon and won’t print off the syllabus until a couple of hours beforehand. The books can’t change obviously, but the articles and book chapters certainly could.

Book Review: Pakistan: A Hard Country

[ 4 ] July 30, 2012 |

This is the third in an eight part series on this year’s Patterson School Summer Reading List:

  1. Jason Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters
  2. CJ Chivers, The Gun
  3. Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country

Anatol Lieven’s Pakistan: A Hard Country tries to change the extant Western narrative on Pakistan. Lieven has travelled extensively in Pakistan over the course of several decades, and is familiar with virtually all of the major political factions. Lievan’s most important point, made repeatedly for emphasis, is that the social structures that undergird Pakistani society (primarily kinship structures, along witha  melange of tribal and ethnic affiliations) are far too robust for either radical Islamists or the Pakistani state to disrupt. While Pakistan may in some ways resemble a “failed state” (itself a dreadfully over and mis-used term), there is little prospect for any kind of transformational change of state structures. Pakistan is here to stay, and will likely remain genuinely “Pakistani” for the foreseeable future.

Lieven makes clear that a surface analysis of Pakistani politics, even one that takes into account the interplay between the major political parties and ethnic groups, lends little understanding as to how the political system actually functions. He makes clear that party politics fails to adequately describe the interactions of the Pakistani political class, and that the extant parties are themselves little more than broad-based patronage networks with a thin ideological veneer. Not all parties are equally part of this system, although most of those that see any kind of prolonged success find themselves in a system which strongly rewards a kinship-patronage based program. This makes it difficult for political parties to take advantage of broader identifications, including ethnic attachment or class consciousness. These attachments surely exist, but their impact is muted by the deeper social structure. For example, even parties interested in agrarian reform have rarely had much success penetrating the networks of obligation, and have earned enduring hatred from what amount (in some ways) to feudal agrarian lords. However, Lieven makes clear that the feudal model also misses much; rural conditions are less drastic than statistics indicate because the upper classes are themselves bound by these systems of obligation.

State capacity problems extend to tax collection, infrastructure projects, management of the local police, and basic governance of the more restive provinces. Nevertheless, Pakistan has managed to construct a well trained, technological advanced, competent army, albeit one that consistently rejects civilian supremacy. Pakistan has also managed to build itself ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, both of which are centralized, capital intensive endeavors. Consequently, Pakistan only approaches being a “failed” state on certain metrics of domestic governance; its central government can consistently draw on the resources necessary to projecting a powerful international image.

Lieven rejects the argument that Pakistan is likely to fall to the Taliban, or to undergo an Islamic revolution similar to Iran’s.  It’s not just that secular institutions are too strong, although in the case of the Army this is surely true.  More importantly, the network of identities that bind Pakistani society together are too strong for revolutionary forces to tear apart.  While the Taliban has prospered in some parts of Pakistan and has periodically won certain forms of official sanction, it has also discovered hard limits on its appeal, not to mention the tolerance of Pakistani security institutions. The Army and intelligence services have been happy to make limited use of the Taliban and Taliban allies to conduct proxy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir, but have moved quickly to crush any serious threats to the Pakistani state.

Lieven repeatedly returns to concerns about climate change.  He argues that climate change could destabilize Pakistani society in ways that neither the state nor the Taliban can match, by undermining the fundamental economic substructure. Indeed, next to climate change Lieven sees only a US or Indian ground invasion and occupation as events that could bring about revolutionary change in Pakistan.

The weak state, strong society dynamic helps explain the problematic nature of Pakistani civil-military relations.  Built on a British model perfected during the Raj, the Pakistani Army is a strong institution, capable of managing itself in a more or less meritocratic fashion, of building a security strategy that informs (and to some degree constitutes) Pakistani foreign policy, and of commanding all of the resources necessary to a modern, effective military organization.  It is nearly the only institution in the country that operates on such a Weberian logic. Thus, the military tends to hold a great degree of legitimacy (although this varies across region), and tends to have strong attitudes about the nature and conduct of the civilian Pakistani state.  At the same time, the civilian state remains remarkably corrupt and incapable of reforming either itself or life in the countryside.  Consequently, the military often had both an interest in political intervention and the social capital to undertake such intervention.

Lieven notes on several occasions that the Pakistani public sphere is rife with conspiracy theory.  These include a widespread belief that Jews were behind the 9/11 attacks, that the United States and India support Al Qaeda, as well as a few others.  Lievan makes a good case that these beliefs go beyond what we might account as typical nationalist/political paranoia (such as American beliefs on climate change, President Obama’s religion, etc.) and have a detrimental effect (although perhaps not a significant detrimental effect) on Pakistani public life and foreign relations.

Pakistan: A Hard Country isn’t quite “everything you know about Pakistan is wrong,” but rather “most of what you know about Pakistan needs to be viewed in different context.” To be sure, while Lievan makes certain that his readers get the point, the argument occasionally comes across as repetitive. In part this is because Lieven previews certain discussions in the course of engaging other topics; given that national political problems are often inter-related, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this. However, there’s a degree of truth to the claim that you can get most of Lievan’s argument from his first chapter. You’d miss out on a tremendous amount of supporting evidence and detail, but nevertheless could probably get a grip on his key assertions. Altogether, it’s a worthwhile volume.

Sunday Book Review: Mind of War

[ 9 ] April 8, 2012 |

When I assembled a syllabus for this semester’s Airpower seminar, I noted that there appeared to be a pair of biographies of John Boyd; Grant Hammond’s Mind of War, and Robert Coram’s Boyd. Brief reading of reviews and cursory investigation didn’t reveal much in terms of how the differed, so I sought the last refuge of the scoundrel: twitter.  My twitter people told me that both volumes were solid enough, with Coram concentrating more on Boyd the airman and Hammond on Boyd the man.  Given that this was an Airpower seminar, there were obvious reasons for choosing Coram.  However, I thought that after a long semester of delving through the dry texts of airpower theory, my students might have preferred a more personal approach.

Well….

Mind of War isn’t an awful book.  There are compelling elements to it, and it certainly paints an interesting picture of John Boyd Polymath.  It describes elements of his thought in great detail, and ably presents his contribution to a number of important projects. But it’s also obvious that the biographer was, in this case, far too close to his subject.  I hasten to add that this was an assessment that my students shared; they still joke about how Boyd was kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being etc. etc.

John Boyd surely did some phenomenal things in his career.  He was a remarkable fighter pilot, both in tacit and explicit senses.  He was able to draw sufficiently robust lessons from air combat to integrate them with physics and engineering know how, thus producing the foundations for two of the most impressive fighter aircraft of the 20th century.  The OODA loop remains a genuinely fascinating and productive theoretical device; for my own part, it helps me understand the effectiveness of the Oregon Ducks offense under Chip Kelly.  For the most part, Hammond doesn’t bother apologizing for the fact that Boyd was apparently a colossal asshole; I’ve read few biographies (short of the obvious, Mussolini et al) where I had less interest in meeting the subject in person.

Hammond goes into a great deal of depth about Boyd’s ideas regarding warfare, competition, conflict, and systems integration. There’s a lot to be learned, unfortunately Hammond often seemed more interested in telling the reader how edgy and insightful Boyd was than in showing it.  To be sure, he did a lot of the latter, but there’s so much of former that it sometimes feels as if we’re getting an argument from authority regarding the genius of John Boyd.  Another way to put it is that Hammond doesn’t seem to trust that the reader will be smart enough to understand just how smart John Boyd was, and therefore he needs to reaffirm the genius of his subject at every turn.  Again, there’s something to this; the reader probably won’t ever produce work as insightful as Boyd’s, but there needs to be a limit to the commitment of a biographer to the subject’s legacy.  It doesn’t help when Hammond carefully concludes, in the final chapter, that Boyd met all of Clausewitz’ criteria for “military genius.”

Here’s a question.  I’m sure that some would disagree with the suggestion that John Boyd and John Warden are the two pre-eminent American airpower theorists of the post-war age, but there’s at least a compelling case to be made for the prominence of each. Part of the point of creating an independent air force was to give aviators and enthusiasts the freedom to develop platform, doctrine, and strategic insight regarding the utility of airpower.  Only by freeing the air force from its support role for the Army, the logic went, could the true potential of airpower be reached.  I have to wonder, then, why both Boyd and Warden had such rocky Air Force careers.  Neither made flag rank, and Hammond argues that Boyd was persona non-grata with the Air Force until very near his death.  Comparatively, the most important theorists of the USAAC and USAAF period seem to have done very well; Billy Mitchell was court marshaled (after reaching flag rank), but Hap Arnold and many of the others associated with the Air Corps Tactical School continued to play very important roles into the Second World War.  Off the top of my head the only really important USAAC officer to resign/get chased out was Claire Chennault, and his fight was more against the bomber mafia than the ground army.  I’d be curious to see whether people think a) I’m misreading the history, b) a maverick career always comes with a cost, service independence notwithstanding, c) there’s a genuine problem with how the USAF approaches innovation, or d) some of the above.

Hammond hedges a bit on Boyd’s legacy. He certainly wants to argue that Boyd had a critical impact on a wide variety of affairs, from corporate governance to military doctrine to aircraft design.  However, the lines are often sketchier than Hammond appears to draw. the story Hammond tells about Boyd’s impact on the Army and the Marine Corps is far too simple; Boyd surely supplied some of the ancillary logic for the return to maneuver warfare after Active Defense, but then the latter was never popular in the Army, and in both the 1980s and 1990s there were many sources of innovation.  By Hammond’s own account the military reform movement failed to bring about much reform. If we are to believe the rest of the Fighter Mafia, Boyd would have loathed both the F-22 and the F-35. Moreover, it’s interesting that the primary utility of F-15 and F-16 now appears to be in their multirole capability; they surely remain excellent air superiority platforms, but they now act mostly as fighter-bombers (and even light strategic bombers in the service of the IDF).

Mind of War is perhaps the only biography I’ve ever read that has made me really, really want to read another biography of the same subject.  It’s not a bad book, exactly, but it works best as a useful supplement for those already deeply steeped in the history of late Cold War airpower, and the fighter mafia in particular.  If I had it to do over again, I’d assign the Coram book in a heartbeat.

Scalia and the Reactionary Mind

[ 15 ] October 20, 2011 |

I promised to say more about Corey Robin’s assessment of Antonin Scalia in The Reactionary Mind, some of which is excerpted here. Before I get to that, I should say that it’s an excellent book I strongly recommend. And one initial complaint notwithstanding, the Ayn Rand chapter (“St. Petersburg in revolt gave us Vladimir Nabokov, Isaiah Berlin and Ayn Rand. The first was a novelist, the second a philosopher. The third was neither but thought she was both…”) is particularly good. Since Bernstein uses both the “could you do better?” and the “but Rand sells lots of books!” arguments, I suppose this goes without saying. You think Dan Brown is a hack? Sorry, but unless you’re Alice Munro I’m afraid you’re not allowed to say it.

On Robin and Scalia, a few reflections:

  • Paul has also discussed this recently, but the relish Scalia often takes in getting things to come out wrong is a particular trademark.   As Robin says, one of the things that make Scalia a more interesting figure  (as well as a marginally better Supreme Court justice) than Alito is that he doesn’t always relish unpleasant results in a conservative direction.   His confrontation clause jurisprudence is another good example.  There is a certain conservatism inherent in Scalia’s distinctive preference for struggle and tough choices based on clear rules, as John Holbo’s classic review of Dead Right reminds us vividly.  But sometimes it actually constrains what we might expect are his policy preferences.   (Just as, for that matter, Frum is a lot more interesting that Bill Kristol.)
  • It should be noted, however, that there are distinct limits to Scalia’s duresse oblige.  This is most visible is most visible in his Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence, which is a complete mess even if we leave Bush v. Gore out of it.  (Which we shouldn’t; as Robin says Scalia’s telling people to “get over it” as if his lawless expedience represented a tough choice required by law is a defining moment.)     When the amendment that defines the post-Civil War constitutional order is concerned, Scalia makes sure everything comes out right — in the sense of preserving traditional racial and gender hierarchies.
  • To the extent that I have a different take, then, it’s that I don’t think that originalism is very important to Scalia’s jurisprudence at all.  Tradition, yes, but not originalism.   Scalia’s dissent in U.S. v. Virginia has a lot to say about how discrimination against women is deeply rooted in American political culture (and is, therefore, constitutionally self-justifying) but very little to say about the text, structure, and purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment.   Like most  “originalists,” Scalia has rarely shown a deep or sustained interest in constitutional history.   Even the law-office history in Heller isn’t all that common to his jurisprudence.    Much more instructive is his conduct in the follow-up case McDonald v. Chicago, in which both at oral argument and his separate opinion Scalia was contemptuous of Thomas’s arguments that the Court should try to correct the hash the Court made of the privileges and immunities clause in the Slaughterhouse Cases.
  • To put it another way, Robin argues that “Scalia’s philosophy of constitutional interpretation — variously called originalism, original meaning, or original public meaning — is often confused with original intention.”   As I’ve argued in more detail before, I think that in practice this is meaningless distinction; essentially, “original meaning” involves consulting the same sources of evidence and making the same types of arguments as “original intention.”   The only difference is that the former is superficially more plausible.   It’s relevant only because 99% of the time invocations of originalism are a rhetorical strategy — a way of implying that opponents are just ignoring the Constitution — rather than a grand theory that governs judicial interpretation.   Scalia — who gets credit for being a principled originalist even though originalism doesn’t have a lot to do with his actual jurisprudence — is a case in point.

At any rate, almost any part of the book inspires a lot of thought, so it’s definitely worth checking out.

Sunday Book Review: The East Moves West

[ 3 ] July 17, 2011 |

This is the fifth of an eight part series on the 2011 Patterson Summer Reading List.

  1. Paul Collier, The Plundered Planet
  2. Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools
  3. Jason Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters
  4. CJ Chivers, The Gun
  5. Geoffrey Kemp, The East Moves West

Geoffrey Kemp’s The East Moves West is not written in a particularly engaging manner, nor does it have much of a core narrative.  Kemp argues that energy economics will force East Asia and West Asia to maintain closer economic ties in the future.  He exhaustively demonstrates that East Asia and Southwest Asia already have substantial economic ties, centered mainly around resource extraction. He details some of the social and geopolitical implications of these ties, including their relevance for the relationships between US East Asian allies (Japan, South Korea) and Middle Eastern states that have difficult relations with the United States.

As a book, The East Moves West has all the charm of a collection of wikipedia entries.  There are a few interesting stories, including the tale of Saudi Arabia’s purchase of useless ballistic missiles from China, and the chapter on Israeli relations with East Asia is pretty good.  Read this book, and you’ll know more about the economics of Asia.  Beyond that, there are no earth-shattering insights or hypotheses, or revelations of particularly interesting data.  East Asia and South Asia are becoming more dependent on Middle Eastern oil, and the Middle East is becoming more dependent on East and South Asian money.

 

Sunday Book Review: The Gun

[ 31 ] July 10, 2011 |

This is the fourth of an eight part series on the 2011 Patterson Summer Reading List.

  1. Paul Collier, The Plundered Planet
  2. Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools
  3. Jason Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters
  4. CJ Chivers, The Gun

The Gun is the second book in four years on the topic of the AK-47. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read Larry Kahaner’s AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War, but readers and reviewers generally seem to prefer Chivers account. Although billed as a book about the AK-47, The Gun is really more of a history of automatic weapons, with particular attention paid to the Kalashnikov and its design process.

Chivers story effectively begins with the development of a series of different models of automatic weapon in the US Civil War.  The US Army (usually for good reason) was unwilling to entertain adopting most of these weapons, although the Gatling Gun would become part of the official US inventory at the end of the war (several early models had found their way into unofficial use).  Gatling’s crank system then found its way into other armies, including British and French colonial forces and Russian Far East and Caucausus units.  Chivers describes the (sometimes painfully) slow realization by major armies of the utility of the weapon, but then relates how effective the crank automatic became in colonial fighting.  Later, the smaller and more reliable Maxim gun would give colonial forces an insurmountable advantage over subjugated populations,whether in Africa, Central Asia, or the Americas.  The machine gun pushed its way into continental European warfare with a false start in the Franco-Prussian War, and then with full maturity by the First World War. Chivers gives a fantastic account of how individual lines of automatic weapons matured across the industrial production process.  The first Gatling guns were startling effective, but also quite troublesome; even if the US Army had been more visionary regarding their use, it would have faced the teething troubles associated with immature weapon systems.  The same issues would face the Maxim gun, the AK-47, and eventually the M-16.

Chivers places the AK-47 firmly within the context of the Soviet military-industrial complex.  In doing so, he tries to dispel many of the myths that have developed (and been constructed) around Mikhail Kalashnikov, the most important member of the design team that created the rifle.  Kalashnikov has become a legendary figure, treated in some accounts a an isolated genius discarded by a system uninterested in individual achievement.  Chivers shows that this picture is wrong, although he sometimes veers close to the building and burning of strawmen regarding the legend of Kalashnikov.  Towards the end of  World War II, the Red Army recognized the promise of a weapon with characteristics broadly along the lines of the AK-47, combining the characteristics of an infantry rifle with a submachine gun. Various teams were invited to compete to submit designs, with Kalashnikov leading the team that eventually won.  The AK-47 differed from many (but not all) in its durability, ease of construction, and ease of use, characteristics which helped it win the competition.  Kalashnikov’s team freely borrowed innovations from other designs, a practice that was both extremely productive and completely in line with Soviet industrial practice. The initial production models provide the foundation for what we now know as the AK-47 family of rifles.

Chivers is also careful to place the spread of the AK-47 in the context of Soviet foreign and industrial policy.  The Soviet economy, as we now, was exceedingly adept at certain tasks and very bad at others.  For example, it was good at building lots of simple machine equipment, and bad at assessing market demand.  Consequently, the USSR would dramatically overproduce the AK-47 and its brethren over the course of the Cold War. It would export the technology to build AK-47s to many foreign countries, many of which would also overproduce the gun. The USSR would use the AK-47 as a foreign policy chit, exporting it to whichever countries or rebel groups were willing to pay lip service to Soviet foreign policy goals.  Consequently, the AK-47 became the weapon of choice across a vast family of countries, rebel groups, and terrorist organizations.  Chivers makes clear that this development was the result of Soviet foreign and industrial policy, rather than a “market driven” process; as an independent entrepreneur, Kalashnikov could not have invented, produced, or exported the rifle on anything approaching the scale that has been seen since 1950. The collapse of the Soviet bloc made a tremendous number of rifles available, swamping the market (although, Chivers carefully points out, never to the extent that you could trade a Kalashnikov for a chicken).

As I suggest earlier, there’s an element of anti-hagiography to Chivers’ discussion of Kalashnikov.  Chivers points out the considerable ambiguity regarding both Kalashnikov’s biography and his contribution to the weapon.  Kalashnikov himself tells many different stories of his origins, and his account of the development of the AK-47 differs in key details from those of others present in the process.  Nevertheless, even in Chivers’ account it’s hard for me to see how anyone (besides perhaps Stalin) has more of a claim to be the “father” of the AK-47 than Mikhail Kalashnikov.  Chivers points out that Kalashnikov’s work has hardly gone unrewarded; he was the Soviet equivalent of a star celebrity, and now lives a comfortable retirement on the pension of a lieutenant general.  Given that Kalashnikov grew up in Stalin’s USSR, I’m willing to cut him more than a little slack on honesty issues.

For the sake of comparison, Chivers gives an account of the M-16, arguing that both the American weapon (at least in its first decade) and the American process of procurement were inferior to their Soviet counterparts. The US Army was slow to recognize the threat and promise of an effective assault rifle, then leapt to the M-16 almost in a panic when it recognized the vulnerability created by the AK.  The selection of the M-16 was also affected by private economic interest, as well as a series of misunderstandings about technology within the McNamara Pentagon. Consequently, the United States entered the most intense parts of the Vietnam War with a weapon that simply wasn’t ready for prime time.  Over time the M-16 improved, just as later models of the AK improved on early defects and manufacturing issues.

Chivers also has an interesting story to tell regarding American and Russian understandings of military technology.  His account conforms broadly with that set forth in Dima Adamsky’s The Culture of Military Innovation; the US military-industrial complex has been particularly adept at perfecting technologies within a specific understanding of how military force can be used.  The Russians (then the Soviets, then the Russians again) are better at realizing the potentially revolutionary aspects of particular weapon technologies than they are at developing the advanced technologies themselves.  Indeed, it could be argued that the most effective Soviet weapon systems (the AK, the T-34, the MiG-21) were the fruits of integrating relatively mature technologies guided by a clear vision of the military and political impact of the weapon.

Near the end of the book Chivers has an interesting aside on the question of how and why the AK-47 will become “obsolete.”  He points out that even the AK deteriorates over time; although fighters in Afghanistan are still using weapons built in the 1950s, the parts don’t last forever, and we can envision a world (perhaps some fifty years after the last AK has been built) when the last AK will be fired in anger.  I wonder, though, what factors could motivate an “end” to the AK-47.  It’s not a perfect weapon, but then no gun can be.  It’s difficult to imagine what could replace the AK, and in so doing make the AK no longer useful, in the sense that a sword is no longer a useful weapon of war.  The invention of cheap, portable phasers? Or perhaps this is the wrong way to think about it; the end of the AK-47 will be brought about not by a change in technology, but rather by a change in the political and social factors that made it such a useful tool in the first place.

The Gun isn’t perfect.  Chivers includes some discussion of the impact of the AK-47 in wars, brushfire or no, across the world, but doesn’t bring the same satisfying level of detail that he provides regarding the production and design of the weapon.  Indeed, he gives a tighter account of the effect of machine guns in the trenches in World War I than of the AK in the jungles of the Cold War and post-Cold War eras. Those seeking a technical account of the AK and its various models will be, Chivers is careful to assure the reader, disappointed.  Nevertheless, The Gun is an excellent, useful account of the development of automatic weapons, and in particular of the most commonly employed automatic weapon of the past fifty years.

Sunday Book Review: Dancing in the Glory of Monsters

[ 9 ] July 3, 2011 |

This is the third of an eight part series on the 2011 Patterson Summer Reading List.

  1. Paul Collier, The Plundered Planet
  2. Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools
  3. Jason Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters made almost everyone’s short list for inclusion as a 2011 Patterson Summer Reading.  Stearns, who blogs at Congo Siasa, has written a relatively concise history of Congo wars of the 1990s and early 2000s.  It is now commonplace to describe these wars as “Africa’s World War I,” although this phrasing does violence to the actual causes, course, and conduct of the war in Congo.  The first war was mostly featured Rwanda and Uganda fighting against Mobutu’s Zaire, with the former getting an assist from Zaire’s neighbors and the latter from Hutu refugees of the RPF’s conquest of Rwanda.  The second war initially pitted Rwanda and Uganda against Laurent Kabila’s successor state, although the anti-Kabila alliance eventually broke down.

Stearns managed to get a fantastic set of interviews with individuals from all aspects of the conflict.  These include conversations with characters who go rather beyond the descriptor “shady”; Stearns talks to people who have both perpetrated and been the victims of brutal massacres.  Stearns is interested is debunking the idea that the brutality of the Congo wars was something dark, mystical, and quasi-mythical, and to put the violence in the understandable political terms.  The obviously horrific (and Stearns includes many horrific details) nature of the fight tends to make Western audiences uninterested in probing the political, economic, and social determinants of the conflict, as well as to ignore the possibility of productive resolutions.  In short, Stearns wants to humanize the conflict, and he begins by talking to human beings.

Stearns account of the development and collapse of the Congolese Army is particularly well done.  He explains that the refusal of the Belgians to allow Congolese to serve as officers or senior non-coms left the post-colonial army entirely bereft of a leadership cadre. Congo lacked the kind of cohesive, experienced rebel group that could have been integrated into the Army, but in the long term this might not have mattered, anyway.  Mobutu had little to no interest in maintaining a strong, cohesive officer corps, as such an institution would have threatened his control of the state apparatus. While Zaire had plenty of well trained, well educated officers (mostly through foreign training programs) but these officers were never able to develop the institutional core necessary for a well-functioning organization.  The fact that Mobutu displayed little interest in the training, upkeep, or even paying of conscripts didn’t help matters.  By the time the war came, Zaire’s army was badly outclassed in terms of training and morale by Rwandan and Ugandan forces. As it became clear to individual officers and soldiers that the chances of success were iffy, the entire institution collapsed.

How did the war become so large? Stearns explains that Mobutu never really feared foreign invasion, and felt free to give sanctuary to whichever foreign insurgent groups suited him at a given time.  This created a fair degree of animosity with many of Congo’s neighbors.  Stearns mostly rejects the idea that foreign intervention was geared toward seizing Congo’s resource wealh, preferring political explanations.  The difficulty that foreign powers faced in maintaining control of Congolese territory, as well as the general reluctance (other than by Uganda and Rwanda) to maintain long-term deployment on Congolese soil, supports this argument.  Foreign intervention in the war was generally designed to accomplish specific political goals, rather than to establish permanent presence.

Uganda and Rwanda were, of course, different.  The Rwandans do not come off well in Stearns account.  While the insistence of the RPF on pursuing Hutu militias is understandable, Stearns makes clear that the Rwandans had little interest in facilitating the development of stability in Congo.  The RPF and its allies conducted many brutal massacres in both wars, often targeted against civilians who had played no role in the 1994 genocide.  The RPF used the memory of the genocide to shield itself from international criticism; the international community had effectively decided that the Tutsis were the “good guys” and that their behavior wouldn’t be overly scrutinized.  This decision had an exceedingly negative impact on the course of events in both Congo wars.

Similarly, the international community comes off poorly.  Stearns is highly critical of the dual decision to maintain Hutu refugee camps in  Zaire, while not separating the Hutu military and political elite from the population.  This decision facilitated the continued control of the old regime, including its ability to launch military attacks into Rwanda.  Mobutu cooperated with the Hutu elite, and eventual Kabila would try to co-opt Hutu soldiers and insurgents into his own national forces.  While it’s true that many Hutu suffered severe reprisals upon returning to Rwanda, Stearns is of the view that the bulk of the Hutu population was ambivalent at best about the refugee camps.  Freed from control of the militias, many returned to Rwanda more or less of their own accord.  Had the international community more carefully considered the consequences of establishing what amounted to insurgent safe havens in Congo (including a captive population upon which to draw on), Rwanda might have been less enthusiastic about pursuing war in Congo.

The Rwandans also took advantage of the norms and rules of domestic and international conflict.  They realized that the international community takes a very grim view of an invasion across established international borders, but that it’s almost indifferent to domestic insurgencies.  The Rwandan and Ugandan invasion quickly became cloaked behind a group of domestic insurgent groups that had long worked against Mobutu; thus the resurrection of the career of Laurent Kabila.  With domestic allies and the memory of 1994, Rwanda could carry out both the first and second wars without overmuch interference from the West.

Stearns military history of the wars is uneven, and will probably leave many unsatisfied.  I suspect that part of his problem has to do with anticipated audience; many readers will want a history of the past twenty years without having much interest in specific engagements.  Also, the two wars don’t lend themselves well to a history of decisive engagements.  Nevertheless, Stearns presents several outstanding set pieces of battles between the various parties. In particular, his account of the Battle of Pepa is wonderful, highlighting the expertise of Rwandan and Burundian forces in infiltration attacks against set Congolese defenses. Stearns also has a very good sense of the determinants of military effectiveness, as demonstrated by the careful attention he pays to the organizational characteristics of the Congolese and Rwandan armed forces.

Stearns story loses a little bit of clarity after the death of Laurent Kabila and the ascension to power of his son. Part of the problem is structure and timing; the old man’s death is followed by a series of unrelated events in other parts of the country, and then by a careful analysis of theories of Kabila’s assassination.   Stearns gives a good account of the strengths and weaknesses of Joseph Kabila, indicating that the current President has demonstrated unlikely skill in maintaining power and making peace, but that he has of yet demonstrated little interest or capability in developing the Congolese state or pursuing serious democratic reform.

Still, it’s hard not to be a bit more optimistic about the future of Congo after reading this book.  Stearns’ purpose was to render the combatants in the conflict human, to portray who they are and what they did in rational, understandable terms.  He mostly succeeds, even as he can’t fully explain the most brutal violence of the war. Resolving the conflict depends on the development of stable institutions and of trust, which is obviously exceedingly difficult.  Having a  sense of who the players are and why they do the things that they do, however, is an improvement on the notion that Congo is simply an irreducible, inexplicable mess.

Alongside the Patterson reading list I’ve been reading James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, which tells the story of state development across highlands and lowlands in Southeast Asia.  Reading anything while reading anything by James Scott is an intellectually productive exercise.  Scott’s account of the difficulty of exerting state control over changes in elevation explains much about the inability of Zaire to control its northwest borderlands, as well as of the general difficulty of building state institutions across the expansive state territory.  Scott points out that the last fifty years have seen the development of technologies and social structures that allow the modern state to exert control over heretofore impenetrable terrain. These include the airplane, good roads, railroads, and mass media penetration. However, few of these technologies are available to state-builders in Congo.  This makes me skeptical that any Congolese leadership can do much more than manage a broad alliance of ethnic groups and warlords.  Any model for the near future of the Congo would seem to have to take into account the serious difficulties of statebuilding, and might more resemble a quasi-feudal empire than a modern state.

In the next few days I hope to have a longish post on the prospects for South Sudan, which will necessarily include reference to the arguments made by Stearns.  One question that I’m interested in is the development of “best practices” statecraft, or of a set of rules, norms, and procedures that new states and rulers could follow in the process of building and maintaining state capacity.  In the context of Congo, this means asking questions like “What could Lumumba have done? Or Mobutu? Or Kabila?”  We have all kinds of tools for assessing the mistakes that post-colonial rulers committed, and rather fewer tools for thinking about how they might have done better.  Stearns is very good on the former, and I think he opens some useful space on the latter.

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