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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.

Tommy Gun: For Shooting Dangerous or Delicious Animals

[ 46 ] July 2, 2011 |

Reading CJ Chivers’ The Gun, which is more of a history of automatic firearms than of the AK-47 itself. He mentions this advertisement, which is just 95 kinds of awesome. The idea of fighting off rustlers and other miscreants with a Tommy gun is shockingly appealing to me.  It’s not quite the same as hunting deer with an AK on full automatic, but it’s still a very interesting cultural artifact.  The Tommy gun itself became a symbol of (ultra sexy) gangsterism shortly after its introduction, but Thompson first tried to sell it to gangsters by putting it in a cowboy/Western setting. A couple of thoughts:

1. Are there any Westerns that feature a Tommy gun?  I know we see automatic weapons in The Outlaw Josey Wales and A Fistful of Dollars, but I can’t remember any submachine guns, even ahistorical ones.

2. If the answer to the first question is “No,” does anyone else think that Clint Eastwood has the responsibility to direct and star in a Tommy gun themed Western before he dies?

UPDATE [SL]: The basis for the script is already out there!

Sunday Book Review: Area 51

[ 25 ] June 5, 2011 |

This is a guest post by Jonathan Gitlin of Ars Technica

A couple of weeks ago, there was quite a bit of press about a new book, ‘Area 51 – An Uncensored History‘ by Annie Jacobsen. As a self-respecting plane nerd, especially one that grew up reading too many Dale Brown books, it wasn’t a hard decision to read it. Sadly, what looks at first glance to be a readable and well-sourced history of secret aviation projects based at Groom Lake, NV ends up making such ludicrous claims that a reader with even the slightest grasp of 1940s science (or reality, for that matter) will find impossible to swallow.

In the late 1940s it became apparent to the US atomic weapons program that being able to conduct nuclear tests somewhere more convenient than remote Pacific atolls was probably a good idea. Thus was born the Nevada Test Site, an expanse of desert, mountains, dry lake beds, and other stuff that wasn’t important enough to prevent the government from detonating nuclear weapons there.  The test site is bordered by the even bigger Nevada Test and Training Range (nee Nellis Air Force Range), and Groom Lake is a dry lake bed that belongs to one or the other, depending on where you look.

In 1955, the CIA wanted somewhere they could test and develop a new spy plane, the U-2. Groom Lake offered them the privacy and security they wanted, and was designated Area 51 (fitting in with the naming convention for the test site). Development of Project Oxcart, the CIA’s A-12 plane that eventually became the SR-71, also happened at Groom Lake, as (presumably, since it’s not declassified) all the more recent work on stealth technology. Jacobsen recounts a history of these programs, based on published memoirs as well as interviews with people who were there, and if that were all the book dealt with it would be a welcome addition to the plane nerd’s library.

But no, Jacobsen couldn’t leave it at that. My first inkling that something was off was the first chapter and the story of Bob Lazar, who allegedly worked at Area 51 and gained notoriety for claiming that he saw alien technology being reverse engineered there. Thanks to its veil of secrecy, the nature of the weird planes that are tested there, and people like Bob Lazar, the gullible are happy to believe that Area 51 is where the US keeps all its crashed flying saucers and the like. Jacobsen evidently isn’t that gullible; even she rightly regards the idea of a secret lair full of alien technology as patent nonsense. For many of the following chapters this streak of nuttiness is absent. But later in the book it begins to creep back in, and end with such a preposterous claim that ultimately everything in the book has to be suspect.

After the war, the west and the USSR scoured up as many Nazi scientists and engineers as they could. The US program was called PAPERCLIP, and gave us Werner Von Braun and rockets. According to Jacobsen, the USSR got their hands on the Horten brothers, or at the least their flying wing research, and that what crashed at Roswell NM in 1947 wasn’t alien, but marked with Cyrillic script. So far, so relatively implausible, but it gets worse. You see, Stalin also got Joseph Mengele, according to Jacobsen, and Mengele allegedly created a crew of ‘grotesque, child-sized aviators’ who piloted this craft and whose bodies were recovered in the crash. Yes, you did read that correctly.

Obviously this is all complete bollocks. She alleges that Mengele used organ transplants and genetics to create these poor buggers, but organ transplants weren’t feasible until the development of immunosuppressive drugs in the 1960s. As for the genetic engineering, it’s even more risible. Thanks to Stalin’s patronage of Lysenko, Soviet science had been, and continued, down the wrong tracks for decades. Watson and Crick only worked out the mechanism behind DNA in 1957, and genetic manipulation started in the 1970s. Futhermore, we’re supposed to believe that in 1947 the USSR had advanced flying hover planes that could cross continents, but which somehow utterly failed to influence postwar Soviet aviation as we know it. Oh, and despite the fall of communism, not a single word of this has managed to leak out of Russia? Um, yeah…

The story about soviet child pilots isn’t even a new one. Bill Sweetman at Aviation Week recounts that it was the plot of a 1956 story by James Blish, and in his review gives a possible explanation as to why Jacobsen went down this ludicrous alley:

I know exactly why this happened, from personal experience. A couple of times I have taken Area 51 ideas to agents and had the same response: You need something that will make headlines.

As a form of disinformation, Jacobsen’s book works brilliantly; the batshit insane stuff does enough to poison the credibility of everything she alleges that hasn’t appeared in other, more respectable sources. I’m reminded a bit of Nick Cook’s book, The Hunt for Zero Point, in which a respected reporter at Jane’s makes the case that zee Germans unlocked the secret of antigravity and that the US got hold of this technology. Except that, if anything, I find Cook’s book slightly more plausible.

Wider Impact

[ 4 ] April 30, 2011 |

Cameron McWhirter on the impact of the Mortenson scandal:

Grass-roots nonprofits across the country now find themselves under intense scrutiny because of the Mortenson scandal. Many are considering going to new lengths to demonstrate to potential donors that they are on the up-and-up. All are bracing for an impact on giving. Many foundations and wealthy donors now are cautious because of “reputational risk” if they give to an organization that falters.

The scandal is the talk of the nonprofit community—though many won’t talk about it on the record. More extensive auditing is likely to result, according to Jim Zoiklowski, founder and president of BuildOn, a nonprofit that runs afterschool programs in American cities and builds schools abroad.

“Anything like this out there in the media can shake stakeholder confidence,” he said. “It’s going to elevate the scrutiny, elevate the expectations.”

Several groups that rate charities are rethinking the way they assess organizations, and others are working hard to get the word out about their rankings. Charity Navigator, one of the largest charity-watch sites, gave Mr. Mortenson’s institute four stars—its highest rating—but now has a large “donor warning” label in red for the group, with links to the recent stories.

For what it’s worth, we’re keeping Mortenson on our summer reading list at Patterson. The reasons are to indicate the difficulty of monitoring NGO behavior, as well as to familiarize students with the controversy over Mortenson’s work. We’ll certainly be supplementing with a selection of articles about Mortenson and CAI.

Least Contrarian Contrarianism Ever

[ 21 ] April 16, 2011 |

I have no idea if the jacket copy is an accurate description of the contents, and the book seems interesting anyway, but this made me laugh when I came across it in a bookstore recently:

In 1868 Congress impeached President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, the man who had succeeded the murdered Lincoln, bringing the nation to the brink of a second civil war.

David Stewart challenges the traditional version of this pivotal moment in American history. Rather than seeing Johnson as Abraham Lincoln’s political heir, Stewart explains how the Tennessean squandered Lincoln’s political legacy of equality and fairness and helped force the freed slaves into a brutal form of agricultural peonage across the South.

My question: who the hell thinks Johnson was Lincoln’s political heir? Perhaps I’m wrong, but my impression is that the Dunning School didn’t think that Lincoln and Johnson shared a vision; they just preferred the latter’s.

Anyway, back to work on my book that uses Marbury v. Madison to challenge the conventional view that Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall were best friends working together to implement a common vision of national government.

Imaginary Stones to Imaginary Schools?

[ 4 ] April 16, 2011 |

This is one of those things that is disappointing, but not at all surprising:

“You would hope that they would be spending a lot more on the schools in Pakistan than they would on book-related costs,” says Borochoff. “Why doesn’t Mr. Mortenson spend his own money on the book-related costs? He’s the one getting the revenues,” Borochoff tells Kroft.

“60 Minutes” also checked on schools that CAI claims to have built in Pakistan and Afghanistan and found that some of them were empty, built by somebody else, or simply didn’t exist at all. The principals of a number of schools said they had not received any money from CAI in years.

Krakauer says a former board member of CAI told him he should stop giving money to Mortenson’s charity years ago. “In 2002, [Mortenson's] board treasurer quit, resigned, along with the board president and two other board members…he said, in so many words, that Greg uses Central Asia Institute as his private ATM machine. That there’s no accounting. He has no receipts,” says Krakauer.

“60 Minutes” asked Mortenson several times for an interview, but he has not responded. CAI’s two other board members also did not respond to phone calls and e-mails requesting comment.

Obviously it doesn’t look great for Mortenson, but I’ll be interested to see if he has any kind of response. The position of Stones into Schools on the Patterson Summer Reading List may be in jeopardy…

Sunday Book Review: Matterhorn

[ 13 ] January 9, 2011 |

Matterhorn is the Das Boot of the Vietnam-era Marine infantry company.  Two tips when reading Matterhorn: Do NOT get attached to any of the characters, and have NO hope that things are going to get better.  The plot is fairly standard, with a young lieutenant from an Ivy League college is sent to Vietnam to serve in Bravo Company in 1969.  The story isn’t told solely from the viewpoint of our hero (such that he is), but he receives more attention than any of the other characters.  The action is… harrowing, and is centered on efforts to hold, take, and hold a couple of hills near the DMZ in 1969.

It isn’t quite right to say that Bravo Company is the victim of middle management incompetence, but the vagaries of middle management play a large role in the action.  Bravo Company suffers, in no small part, because several mid-career officers can’t quite manage to pull things together.  Still interested in moving up, but lacking either the talent or sobriety to act effectively, these managers find themselves bound up in their own promises, leaving Bravo dangling.  Marlantes does a fantastic job of explaining the situations that these officers faced, and why they made the decisions that they did.  Empathy for Bravo Company simply didn’t pay.  Moreover, Marlantes avoids resort to the Peter Principle, instead having a somewhat different account of competence, middle management, and promotion:

Blakely would have performed a lower-level job just as well as he performed his current job- competently, no perfectly, but well enough to get the work one and stay out of trouble.  He’d make the same sorts of small mistakes, but they’d have a smaller effect.  Instead of sending a company out without food, he might place a machine gun at a disadvantage.  But the Marines under him would make up for mistakes like that.  They’d fight well with the imperfect machine-gun layout.  The casualties would be slightly higher, with slightly fewer enemy dead, but the statistics of perfection never how up in any reporting system.  A victory is reported with the casualties it takes to secure that victory, not the casualties it would have taken if the machine gun had been better placed.  There was nothing sinister in this.  Blakely himself would not be aware that he’d positioned the machine gun poorly.  He’d feel bad about his casualties for a while.

The account of middle management in Matterhorn is reminiscent of both Mailer’s Naked and the Dead and Terrance Malick’s film version of Jones’ Thin Red Line, but is better than either.  Marlantes further emphasizes that modern (Vietnam era) communications exacerbate the middle management problem.  Decisions about the capability and fate of Bravo Company are made with only minimal knowledge of the company’s actual situation, as information only flows one way; the leaders of Bravo Company can’t communicate their own difficulties (it would be professional suicide for them to say “we can’t”) while the managers can communicate new objectives and requirements without any sense of the hardship afflicting the Marines. Our protagonist feels almost afflicted with a desire to move up the ranks, win medals, and win acclaim, even as he doesn’t envision a long career in the Corps.

A recurrent conflict within Bravo Company involves tension between white and black marines.  The Black Power conversations sometimes strike a discordant note.  I genuinely can’t tell whether this is because they’re not well written (Marlantes writes from many viewpoints in Matterhorn, and it would be understandable if he couldn’t master all of them, or if the moment in which such language made sense has passed.  In his introduction to Killer Angels, Michael Shaara suggested that he had considerably toned down the earnestness and sincerity of the soldiers political discussions, because the language that they used simply rang false to modern ears.  Gettysburg is a good deal more distant than Vietnam, but I wonder if the same phenomenon doesn’t introduce the discordant note; we are so distant from this particular form of political rhetoric that it rings false even as it expresses a truth.  Whatever the case, I would say that Marlantes is rather less successful in conveying the verbal expression of racial tension in the Vietnam era Marines than Shaara was in describing the conversations of the combatants at Gettysburg.

I don’t believe I’ve ever read a better description of an infantry assault against a defended position in either fiction or non-fiction.  Bravo Company has to launch two assaults against prepared PAV (People’s Army of Vietnam) defenses, and Marlantes gives a bravura account of the difficulties of such an assault.  Terms such a dead ground, empty battlefield, fire and movement, and suppressive fire will make much more sense after you read this book.  I am curious whether a film version is forthcoming; IMDB doesn’t indicate so, but I’ll be surprised if someone doesn’t try to make a movie of the book.  In this case, close fidelity to the battle scenes will be absolutely essential.  This should be possible, as battle scenes are one case in which chapters of text can be fairly rendered in a couple minutes of screen time.

Although I’ve decided to assign Matterhorn as a quasi-optional reading in my COIN course, it really isn’t precisely about counter-insurgency as we’ve come to appreciate to term.  This is to say that it isn’t about population-centric counter-insurgency; the only Vietnamese we see are either PAV regular or defectors.  The Marines of Bravo Company don’t protect any helpless villagers, but then they don’t burn any villages, either.  The descriptions of the actions bear more similarity to Iraq than to Afghanistan, with formations operating distant from base and encountering regular contact. The plot (and much of the frustration of the characters) is built around the abandonment of a particular hill and fixed defense in preference for the fruitless pursuit of PAV units in another part of the country.

Matterhorn isn’t an anti-war novel, or at least not in the same sense as Small Wars.  It’s difficult to read Matterhorn and come to the conclusion that the Vietnam War was a sensible war fought sensibly, but it’s not clear from the text that Marlantes has any particular view on war as such.  He’s keenly aware of the tension that war places on both young people and on society; Matterhorn certainly doesn’t romanticize conflict, even accidentally. Unlike Full Metal Jacket, I doubt that many young men will read this and decide that the Marines are for them.  Indeed, Marlantes makes reasonably clear that Marine machismo and esprit de corps often serve simply as an excuse for senior officers to engage in brutal abuse of junior officers and enlisted men.  Wounded, no food for a week, and facing harsh Vietnamese opposition?  No problem; it would be an insult to the honor of the Marines of Bravo Company to suggest that they need resupply or reinforcement.  But, and this deserves emphasis, for the most part the Marines do what is asked of them, even when the things that are asked are absurd or impossible.

Matterhorn is a great book.  I highly recommend that you give it some of your time.

Sunday Book Review: Small Wars

[ 3 ] January 2, 2011 |

Sadie Jones’ Small Wars is a novel about British efforts to put down the Greek Cypriot insurgency in the mid-1950s. Jones concentrates on the Treherne family, including Hal, a British military officer, his wife Claire, and their two children.  It’s not quite right to say that the settlement of British military families in the war zone is shocking, but for readers accustomed to the American counter-insurgency experience it’s certainly different.  With Cyprus (as with many of the other conflicts that characterized the dissolution of the French and British empires) there is no pleasant “we’ll stand down as they stand up” light at the end of the tunnel.  The British expect to be in Cyprus for the foreseeable future, and settling the families of officers and soldiers seems a natural way to maintain the empire.

Jones skillfully contrasts the domestic tension of life on the British military base with action in the field against Cypriot rebels.  At times, the action on the base can be more harrowing; the Treherne’s have twin girls about the same age as my own, and I found following their intense illness more difficult than following the pursuit of Greek Cypriot insurgents.  The plot is driven by the interference of war in the domesticity of the British base, resulting in three rapes, one of a British woman and two of Cypriots.  One of the rapes drives the domestic side, while the other two provide the matter for the institutional story of the British Army’s effort to quell the Cypriot insurgency.

The imagery of violation similarly informs the story of the British Army’s efforts to gather intelligence on the insurgency.  One unfortunate (and not fully developed) character witnesses two rapes, guesses at the other, and is a principal cog in the ongoing violation that the torture operations represents.  Perhaps the most affecting passages relate the apprehension of a juvenile terror suspect along a dirt road.  Two British officers drive past a couple of young Cypriots on bicycles when one of the boys panics.  The British officers, who wouldn’t have given the bicyclists a second thought otherwise, of course pursue and apprehend the boy, who is carrying a revolver.  The situation then develops in a predictable way; the boy is arrested, questioned, interrogated, and finally tortured by British and Cypriot authorities.  No “intelligence” results from this, but from the moment the boy panics the machinery of the state has to roll forward.

Jones certainly gives good account of how organizations defend themselves against embarrassment and humiliation.  It really isn’t as if the British Army doesn’t recognize that rape is a problem, or that the soldiers in question ought to be disciplined; almost everyone in the chain of command appreciates both the moral horror and the political damage of the incident.  However, the first impulse is protection of the service; the perpetrators can be dealt with internally, careers can be destroyed, men can be transferred, but a public reckoning must be avoided at all costs.

Our protagonist is no Colonel Mathieu; he graduates from Sandhurst in 1946, firmly believing in King and country but with perhaps a different vision of what it means to defend the Empire than what he eventually performs.  The events which lead him to set aside his duty are believable, even if the concluding chapters seem a bit rushed and rote.  As the novel comes to a close, Jones edges toward broad implications which don’t fit on the narrow workspace that she’s chosen.  Small Wars is a good novel, but not a great one.

Sunday Book Review: The Plundered Planet

[ 3 ] August 15, 2010 |

This is the sixth installment of an eight part series on the Patterson School’s Summer Reading List.

  1. Hide and Seek, Charles Duelfer
  2. The Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen
  3. The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich
  4. Huang Yasheng, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics
  5. Walter Laqueur, The Last Days of Europe
  6. Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools
  7. Paul Collier, The Plundered Planet

Although Paul Collier’s The Plundered Planet purports to be about environmentalism and economic growth, it really has very little to say about the concerns of environmentalists.  Invoked only as part of some ritualistic denunciations of anti-capitalist traditionalists, environmentalists really exist as a foil for Collier’s extractive resources case.  His first chapters involve a set of philosophical meanderings that are embarrassing, tendentious, and altogether boring.  Collier’s main interest is in the resource curse, and he argues that while the resource curse creates substantial problems, it can be tamed by sensible state policy.

The resource curse is not, I should hasten to note, a theory about how brown people can’t manage their natural resources.  Rather, it’s about how the exploitation of resource wealth can have negative economic and political implications, especially in states without diverse economies and with weak governance.  Resource bonanzas create lots of problems.  First, the export of high value extracted resources causes currency appreciation, making agriculture and other industries less competitive on the international market.  Because of the influx of foreign currency, local industries also face greater competition from imports.  The best paying jobs tend to center around resource extraction, meaning that human capital gets allocated in an inefficient manner; people who could become doctors or educators become miners or oil workers.  The state, suddenly flush, is tempted to borrow against future earnings and spend heavily on a variety of programs that it may not be able to support.  Moreover, resource bonanzas produce high levels of corruption, in addition to drastic income inequities across class and region.  Added up, the “resource curse” often means that resource rich states grow poorer in the long run because of their “good luck”.

Like the Bottom Billion, Plundered Planet attempts to set forth a template for how states can manage their natural resource wealth without either completely plundering resource stocks in a short period of time, or yielding to destructive political effects.  He gives advice for how to deal with extractive corporations that provide the capital, equipment, and expertise necessary for most such extraction.  The nature of interactions with these corporations is complex, because the corporations have the best sense of the value of the resource bonanza.  This creates obvious problems for states negotiation extraction contracts.  On the other hand, the corporations do take on considerable risk, both in terms of the uncertainty of commodity price and local resource size (the bonanza may be quickly exhausted), and because states can renege on their obligations more easily than companies.  On the financial question, long story short states need to be very careful about how they spend and save the money generated by a resource bonanza.  Now, this should be read in the context of Collier’s skepticism of health and education programs, and his general disdain for human capital.  Poverty alleviation can pay off in growth terms (in addition to moral terms) if it generates healthier, smarter, more economically capable individuals.  However, Collier is correct to caution that such programs must be designed with an eye towards sustainability and metrics of effectiveness, and that the influx of cash following a resource bonanza makes this difficult.

I’ll confess that I find Collier tremendously annoying for a variety of reasons.  He’s an arrogant writer and researcher, less interested in making contributions to the development literature than in inventing his own literature.  Nevertheless, just as Bottom Billion set forth a few sensible thoughts on how states, NGOs, and IOs ought to approach development in poverty-stricken states, Plundered Planet includes some reasonable suggestions about how poor states facing a resource bonanza should approach managing their fiscal futures.  Those who focus on development and resource extraction will find this book useful, if hardly the last word on the issue.

Sunday Book Review: Stones into Schools

[ 2 ] July 25, 2010 |

This is the sixth installment of an eight part series on the Patterson School’s Summer Reading List.

  1. Hide and Seek, Charles Duelfer
  2. The Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen
  3. The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich
  4. Huang Yasheng, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics
  5. Walter Laqueur, The Last Days of Europe
  6. Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools

Stones into Schools is Greg Mortenson’s follow-up to Three Cups of Tea, a book depicting his experience in southwest Asia building schools for girls.  In part because of his locale, Greg Mortenson’s efforts came to several US military spouse book clubs, which helped spread the argument to officers serving in Afghanistan.  The book continued to receive publicity (in part because of Mortenson’s speaking tours), and eventually led to Stones into Schools, a follow up volume.

You need to come to this book with certain expectation.  Although the subject matter is engaging, Mortensen is not a particularly sophisticated author.  Academics will find this interesting, but not very analytical; Mortensen starts with the assumption that women’s education will be transformative (a position that has some support in the academy) and doesn’t try to prove the argument or evaluate it in any very rigorous manner.  It would be wrong to say that Mortenson comes off as pompous, but there is a certain sense of self-importance, and the narrative is, of course, structured around the “white guy helps the primitives civilize themselves” idea.  All of this is forgiveable.  Mortenson has made an enormous sacrifice of his own time and money in order to help build schools in some of the world’s least accessible locations, and this has helped him produce a good book on development in southwest Asia.

Mortenson also includes some practical advice for non-governmental organizations.  In the wake of the Kashmir earthquake, for example, refugees received massive donations from the West, particularly the US.  Many of the donations included high end camping gear, which, while lovely, often caught fire when people tried to cook near it.  He also describes what can only be called the inefficiencies of frenzied disaster relief efforts.  I suspect that the response to the Haitian earthquake suffered from the same problems.

Mortenson has an instinct for negotiating local power structures.  He does a good job of identifying local power brokers, and isn’t bothered by the necessity to adapt to local cultures and decision-making practices.  His experiences indicate not only how difficult building relationship are in the area, but also how personalist.  One of Mortenson’s biggest deals nearly fails because of the illness and death of an important local powerbroker.  Indeed, Mortenson himself suffered a severe illness while traveling in Afghanistan, which was particularly troubling because many deals would have been imperiled by his death.

Mortenson is open about his failures.  Although most of his efforts at establishing schools have been successful, and few of his schools have been destroyed, he does detail several individual cases in which he failed to convince a family to send a young girl to school, or in which he was unable to bring together the resources needed to put a school in a particular area.  He also doesn’t describe the effort as likely to pay off in the short term.

In a couple of places, Mortenson discusses his relationship with the military.  Mortenson is impressed with the dedication of the US military, and at least its surface interest in humanitarian endeavor.  However, he’s skeptical of short term military success in Afghanistan.  This isn’t surprising, as his own work expects change on a much longer time frame. He also worried a lot about civilian casualties from air strikes.  However, Mortenson appears to have had good relationships with notable US military officers, including Mike Mullen.  Shortly before he was fired, Stanley McChrystal sent Mortenson a note, expressing the hope that Mortenson would continue his work even if McChrystal could not.

Mortenson’s book is both interesting and readable.  We don’t know yet whether Mortenson’s strategy will have any long term effect in Afghanistan and Pakistan, at least on the geopolitical scale.  We do know that peoples lives have been improved.  However, Mortenson’s perspective is particular; there are many questions of development and NGO operation that he can’t shed any light on.  This doesn’t make Stones to Schools less worthwhile to read, however.

Book Review: The Last Days of Europe

[ 13 ] July 11, 2010 |

This is the fifth installment of an eight part series on the Patterson School’s Summer Reading List.

  1. Hide and Seek, Charles Duelfer
  2. The Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen
  3. The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich
  4. Huang Yasheng, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics
  5. Walter Laqueur, The Last Days of Europe

In the past, the Patterson School has included some truly terrible books on its Summer Reading List. The most notably awful, to my recollection, was Parag Khanna’s Second World, a manifestly reprehensible pile of garbage that should have embarrassed its publisher. I suspect, however, that Walter Laqueuer’s The Last Days of Europe is even worse.

As a scholar, Laqueur has always been a bit all over the place. He wrote several books about central Europe in the 20th century, a volume about fascism, did some work on the Holocaust, and more recently has focused on terrorism and Middle Eastern politics. Unfortunately, in The Last Days of Europe he expresses no interest in any historical method beyond the cranky, unmeasured rant. Despite making wide ranging empirical claims (and basing his policy recommendations on those claims) he cites no actual evidence, and gives readers no clue as to where he mines the “data” that he purports to provide. Footnotes don’t necessarily indicate serious scholarship (see Ann Coulter), but their absence contra-indicates it.

Laqueur’s story is very simple. Europe, or at least the part of Europe inhabited by well-behaved white folks, is in terminal decline. In short order it will effectively be replaced by uncouth, poorly educated, thuggish Middle Easterners. These Middle Easterners hate the West for some reason with a burning hatred than knows no hateful hatey limits, except for those Middle Easterners who don’t hate the West and want to continue living there. Moreover, because Polite White People are unwilling to breed in sufficient numbers, these uncouthy surly “Muslims” (he regularly argues that European Muslims actually know nothing of their faith) will soon sap and impurify Europe’s bodily fluids. Moreover, the EU sucks, and European is both militarily weak and anti-American.

To be excruciatingly fair, Laqueur’s alarm about European demographics is in the neighborhood of elements of truth (for a much more sensible take, see here), and his contention that the EU is fatally disconnected from popular European preferences could be made to make sense by a much better author. The rest is a waste; it says far more about Laqueur’s particular prejudices, and the paranoia of the contemporary American right, than about Europe.

A sampling:

In Germany the sharp decline began with the Genera-tion of 1968 and the Frankfurt School, with its Critical Theory, which belittled the function of the family from both a social and an economic point of view. But the family declined also in other societies in which the year 1968 was not an important turning point.

Really? So the claim that the sharp demographic decline began with the Frankfurt School and its Critical Theory is demonstrably empirically false?
We also get more than a dose of what really irritates Walter Laqueur; surly, dark-skinned teenagers:

Muslim youth culture varies to a certain extent from country to country. Common to them is the street sports gear (hooded sweatshirts, sneakers, etc.) and the machismo; their body language expresses aggression. They want respect, though it is not clear how they think such respect is earned; perhaps it is based on the belief that “this street (quarter) is ours.” In France and the United Kingdom hip-hop culture plays a central role; the texts of their songs express strong violence, often sadism.

We learn that these thugs commit lots of crimes, and that European cities are now as unsafe as American (except for the murder rate, of course, which remains more than triple that of any country that Laqueur discusses).

Unfortunately, he feels the need to make comparisons between European muslims and African-Americans:

Socioeconomic factors have been blamed, and in this respect there have been interesting similarities to young black males in the United States: If only more jobs would be offered, it is often maintained, everything would change for the better. But many studies have shown that when such jobs were offered (as in the Clinton years in the United States), the takers were predominantly immigrants from Latin America and the Far East.

It’s hard to know where to start with this. It would have been nice if Laqueur had actually cited a study, rather than say “studies have shown,” but that’s really not the point; African-American unemployment at the beginning of the Clinton administration was 14.1%, and at the end was 7.3%. When the jobs were “offered” (and it’s unclear how exactly he thinks Clinton produced jobs), many of the takers appear to have been African-American. Either Laqueur doesn’t know this and doesn’t care, or he’s simply lying; I report, you decide.

This statement, and statements like it, are depressingly common in the book:

It was not just a case of rejecting France and its values but of hating French society and its institutions, as spokesman of the young generation repeatedly declared.

Really? How were these spokesman selected by the young generation? Were they representative? Were there other “spokesman” who made counter-claims? Maybe, maybe, and maybe, but I have no idea, because Laqueur doesn’t provide any citation to any spokesman saying anything about anything. Nevertheless, Laqueur knows that these swarthy young men with the hoodies and the hip hop HATE FRANCE AND ITS INSTITUTIONS AND ITS WELL BEHAVED WHITE PEOPLE.

On the danger of Angry Swarthy Turkish People in Germany:

According to German officials, their [the Islamists] number is not formidable- 3600 in Berlin- and it has not grown significantly over the years. But this refers to militants, professionals, or semiprofessionals, and seen from this perspective they are stronger than any other group. Milli Goerues, which has been categorized by German officials as “extremist,” has hundreds of groups based in its mosques. It aims (without mincing words) to replace the secular order in the country in which they live by an order based on the sharia, first in the regions in which Muslims are the majority, or a signficant minority, and subsequently in the areas in which their space has expanded.

Well, I guess we’re fortunate then that there are 5 million people in the Berlin metropolitan area; otherwise that 3600 number (not growing, by the way) would be cause for concern.

On European anti-terror laws:

In most European countries (as well as in the United States, Russia, and India), antiterrorist legislation was somewhat strengthened after 9/11 and subsequent terrorist attacks in other countries. But even then the authorities were largely powerless to arrest of sentence suspected terrorists. If they did so, they were denounced as acting illegally by no only local human rights watch organizations, Amnesty International, and so on, but also European political institutions- usually with reference to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Again, some citation of actual cases would have been helpful; I suspect that Amnesty has at some point complained about something that’s happened in Europe, but I certainly wouldn’t have the faintest idea what that was from reading Laqueur. More to the point, Laqueur’s contention about the insufficiency of anti-terrorist law enforcement in Europe is almost surreal. Every country that Laqueur mentions give vastly greater powers to its police apparatus than is enjoyed by their US counterparts; Patriot Act notwithstanding, the average Briton, German, and Frenchman is subject to considerably greater scrutiny than the average American. This is the legacy not only of the strong security states that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but also of the anti-terror campaigns that the major European states waged in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Laqueur doesn’t bother to grapple with this, because he wants to describe weak anti-terror laws as a peculiarly European problem, with the namby pamby and the EU and the Amnesty and the welfare state et al.

And then he messes with political science:

There are more no-go zones in France than in Britain, and political scientists believe that France faces balkanization in the not too distant future.

Really? Which political scientists? Are there other political scientists who disagree? How would you characterize the argument? I dunno, I dunno, and I dunno, because Laqueur simply invokes the majesty of political science in support of his hypothesis that France is disintegrating, without telling us which political scientists he’s citing.

I could go on. He rambles nonsensically about the perilous weakness of the European military establishment, without mentioning that two of the top five, four of the top ten, and seven of the top twenty in defense spending belong to the EU. He rants about “pundits” and “think tanks” that keep arguing about European predominance, without citing precisely who makes these arguments, in what context, or with what caveats.

In a sane and just world, the editor, publisher, and author of this volume would be permanently excluded from polite society; to call this book pernicious, dishonest, ill-informed dreck is to do a disservice to genuine, quality dreck. Unfortunately, Laqueur suffers no sanction; the book exists in the alternate reality of right wing hackery, in which no argument can be so stupid, so poorly supported, and so dishonest to earn general reproach, as long as it expresses concern about the darkies and the welfare and the foreign policy weakness.

Patterson Summer Reading

[ 9 ] May 3, 2010 |

The Patterson School 2010 Summer Reading List has been released:

  1. Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power
  2. Charles Duelfer, Hide and Seek
  3. David Kilcullen, Accidental Guerrilla
  4. Paul Collier, The Plundered Planet
  5. Walter Laqueur, The Last Days of Europe
  6. Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools
  7. Stephen Cohen and Brad Delong, The End of Influence
  8. Huang Yasheng, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics

I consider it a victory that Parag Khanna was banned from the list for life…

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