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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…

Sunday Book Review: Indignation

[ 9 ] April 25, 2010 |

The first two Philip Roth books I read were Portnoy’s Complaint and Sabbath’s Theater. These make for a rather abrupt introduction, but Roth quickly became my favorite from the post-war generation of American authors. My favorites swaths of Roth are the early, pre-Portnoy works and the late Zuckerman (starting with American Pastoral and moving forward), although I also quite enjoy the early Zuckerman works. I haven’t been all that pleased with his recent work; Dying Animal is solid enough, but as the best of his post 2000 work it leaves much to be desired. Life intrudes, and I’ve been slow to pick up his most recent works. A couple months ago, however, I cranked up the trusty Kindle for iPhone app and attacked Indignation. It went… okay.

Roth is at his most satisfying when he successfully subsumes his plottish concerns into character construction. American Pastoral, for example, doesn’t bother to rant at the excesses of the New Left; rather, it dwells on how Swede Levov tried to negotiate the exceedingly difficult family terrain of the late 1960s. It shows Roth’s disdain for the politics of revolution, but doesn’t waste time telling us what he thinks. Similarly, Sabbath’s Theater is a much more compelling novel than the Human Stain, even as both are preoccupied with the pieties of leftish academic culture. The former internalizes the critique within the character of Mickey Sabbath, while the latter relies on a much more plottish set of events in order to tell its story. Unsurprisingly, I found The Plot Against America virtually unreadable, as Roth abandons character in favor of plot.

Indignation does a reasonably good job of maintaining focus on the character of Marcus Messner. The plot unfolds as a consequence of Messner’s personality disagreements with his father, his roommates, his girlfriend, and his Dean. Apart from the bizarre and not-terribly-necessary character of Flusser, the authorial interventions are kept to a minimum. Nevertheless, I found the novel unsatisfying on a couple of levels. First, I just wasn’t sure that I had a handle on Messner. His argument with the Dean about Bertrand Russell was undoubtedly entertaining, but it was also quite surprising; nothing about the character to that point had really indicated that he (spoiler alert!) was the sort to yell at his Dean about Bertrand Russell for fifteen minutes then throw up his lunch. Revealing different facets of a character halfway through a novel is fine, but after that scene I felt like I knew less about Messner, not more.

Second, I’m just not certain that Indignation covered much in the way of new ground. This is an odd critique; Roth’s best work has always been somewhat limited in scope (indeed, I think it has greatly profited from such limitation). Still, there didn’t really seem to be much here that Roth hadn’t covered better in other places. The path of Roth’s career (and his relationship with Nathan Zuckerman) has been interesting in that it has tended to remain resolutely focused on experience and locality; even Human Stain and I Married a Communist are told through Zuckerman, even as they have relatively little to do with him. American Pastoral is the same way; Roth is interpreting Zuckerman’s interpretation of the forty year old experiences of an old friend. Indignation remains true to the Newark Jewish scene (and returns to the tension between that scene and the Midwest), and is, in staging, a throwback to Roth’s 60s novels. It just doesn’t tell us much more about that scene than Portnoy’s Complaint. Messner isn’t Portnoy, to be sure, but the comparison doesn’t particularly work to his advantage. In its best moments the novel does productively play up the Newark-boy-in-Ohio tension, but beyond the use of Anderson’s Winesburg as setting, this doesn’t amount to much more than a fish-out-of-water narrative.

The two novels that Indignation reminded me of the most are Plot Against America (which it certainly exceeds), and (believe it or not) Stephen King’s Hearts In Atlantis. The latter (apart from the first novella, from which the terrible movie was made) covers much the same plot ground as Indignation (young men, terrified of dying in an Asian land war, struggle through college) but does a better job of conveying both the raw terror of the draft and of the resignation in which many approached it. This may simply be because I’m more attuned to think about the nexus of college and military draft in the context of the Vietnam War, but it may also be because King simply had a better sense of letting the story go where it would.

Sunday Book Review: The Culture of Military Innovation

[ 6 ] April 4, 2010 |

Dima Adamsky’s The Culture of Military Innovation is a very recent contribution to the literature on culture, military innovation, and the Revolution in Military Affairs. Adamsky’s question is this: Why did theorization of the RMA begin in the Soviet Union, while the practical technological developments associated with RMA first took hold in the United States? What explains how and why and state adopts RMA technology and doctrine? Adamsky’s three case studies are the Soviet Union, the United States, and Israel, but these aren’t independent observations. Rather, they’re three narratives within the larger story of how RMA doctrine has developed across the international system.

Adamsky’s narrative of the Revolution in Military Affairs begins (or should begin) with the Yom Kippur War, where the Egyptian Army demonstrated the effect that precision guided munitions could have on a conventionally organized army. PGMs helped close the tactical capability gap between the IDF and the Egyptian Army by allowing the poorly trained Egyptians to destroy the much better trained Israelis at stand off distances. The Yom Kippur experience was taken very seriously in Western and Soviet military circles, as it challenged doctrine and force structure in both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The rate of attrition on both sides of the Yom Kippur War would have quickly exhausted the belligerents in Europe. Both the Americans and the Soviets began thinking through solutions, with the Americans initially deciding on the Active Defense doctrine combined with a quantitative increase in PGMs, and the Soviets reconceptualizing “deep battle” concepts that went back as far as the 1920s.

Adamsky argues, however, that the most important efforts to reconceptualized warfare in the context of precision guided munitions and advanced information technology happened in the Red Army. Red Army theoreticians, inclined towards seeing warfare as a series of revolutionary cycles, argued that information tech and new PGMs would lay the material foundation for a military-technical revolution. Traditional distinctions between offense and defense, as well as territorial demarcations between conventional armies, would cease to exist between PGM equipped military organizations. Long range PGMs gave a defender the capability to cause serious, mission-killing losses to an attacker before an attack even developed. Similarly, such weapons made possible preparatory attacks on defender staging, mobilization, headquarters, and supply areas. The prevalence of PGMs and information technology would necessitate major changes in doctrine and force structure for any army that wished to avoid virtual annihilation. Future battles would be less about the ability to penetrate, create a breakthrough, and exploit than about disrupting the enemy system of movement, mobilization, and communication.

Adamsky’s key empirical insight is this; the Russians developed the doctrine for the MTR/RMA, but they lacked the material capacity to put its lessons into effect. Soviet technological capacity was more impressive than is oft remembered, but the United States was far, far ahead in the very technologies that made the MTR/RMA possible. By the time that sufficient consensus had built around the MTR in the Red Army, the Soviet Union was politically and economically incapable of providing the material foundation for the new doctrine. In the United States, on the other hand, military theorists were way behind on thinking about PGMs as anything other than force multipliers. This is to say that Americans conceptualized PGMs in terms of quantitative effect rather than qualitative transformation. It wouldn’t be until the early 1990s that Americans began to think seriously along the same lines that the Russians had developed in the 1970s and 1980s. In the American case, of course, the technology would not contradict the doctrine, but rather preceded it.

Adamsky also tells the tale of the RMA in Israel, a story which is simultaneously fascinating and confusing. Adamsky argues that the IDF picked up the overarching RMA/MTR theory around the same time or slightly after the US military, and that the technology-doctrine relationship was similar to that seen in the United States. However, the IDF was carrying out “RMA lite” campaigns in Lebanon prior to the full integration of theory and practice. Integration of doctrine and technology took place in the late 1990s, in the wake of the Gulf War and in very close collaboration with the United States. However, Adamsky’s story about the IDF and RMA becomes a bit more confusing after this. She argues, for example, that the IDF considered its reaction to the Second Intifada to be based primarily on RMA principles (even if this didn’t involve high intensity warfare), and suggests a high degree of intellectual ferment within the IDF. However, he also notes the IDF’s (somewhat deserved) reputation for anti-intellectualism, and suggests that many of the key precepts remained controversial as late as 2006. Perhaps out of necessity, he treats the 2006 war very briefly, arguing that some of the Israeli failure can be laid at the feet of a still-incomplete doctrine/technology synthesis and ongoing conflict in the IDF about the proper transformational impact of RMA. This part of the account is more than a touch confusing; on the one hand the IDF gets credit for RMA doctrinal adaptation, while on the other hand intra-organizational conflict excuses poor IDF performance in Lebanon. An alternative interpretation of Lebanon might go as follows: The precepts of MTR/RMA are, at the very least, insufficiently developed in the context of low intensity warfare, and the use of “effects based operations” against non-traditional military organizations remains a problem for theorists and practitioners. MTR/RMA doctrine is was conceived of as a way to cut apart, paralyze, and destroy a modern, high technology military system. Effects Based Operations makes sense in the context of such an organization; rather than focus on simple destruction, key nodes which enable organizational operation are attacked. Non-traditional organizations such as Hezbollah either lack such nodes, or have different vulnerabilities that haven’t been sufficiently specified by the theory.

Adamsky’s story isn’t simply empirical. His explanatory framework focuses on psycho-cultural tendencies in Russia, Israel, and the United States. The argument is that cultural milieu breeds a certain way of thinking that affects how individuals conceptualized the relation of the whole to its parts, and of the present to the future. In the Soviet Union, a holistic theoretical method prevailed that allowed Russian military theorist to grasp the forest even in the absence of the trees. In Israel and the United States, a more practical manner of thinking allowed the planting and cultivation of the trees prior to the conceptualization of the forest, so to speak. I’ll confess that to a reader suspicious of simplistic cultural explanations, there is an element of “Russians drive this way, but Americans drive this way” to this account. It’s unclear, for example, how well such a theoretical framework could predict, as opposed to explain, the adoption of MTR/RMA theory, technology, and practice. Nevertheless, while I found the empirical story more interesting, Adamsky at least makes a serious effort to wed the narrative to a theoretical account.

There’s a lot to like here. Although the story of Soviet military theorization of the RMA has certainly been told before, Adamsky’s account lends analytical clarity to the project, and evokes interesting questions about the relationship between doctrine and technology. Most (although not all) political science work on military doctrine tends to assume that technology precedes doctrine, and that the central difficulty military organizations face is the integration of new technology into existing doctrinal constructs. The offense-defense balance literature is particularly guilty of this, although the situation is improving. Adamsky rejects and even reverses this formulation, observing that theory sometimes precedes technology, and even develops in the latter’s absence. From a common sense point of view this is not particularly shocking; in order for military organizations to identify and push for new technological innovations, they must have some ideational foundation to precede the technological development. Adamsky also gives a relatively short, highly lucid, and quite readable account of the development of RMA in the USSR, the US, and Israel. It’s a worthwhile book for anyone interested in modern military doctrine, military learning, and the application of cultural models to organizational behavior.

Sunday Book Review: God’s War

[ 14 ] March 28, 2010 |

Back in early 2008, partially in preparation for my visit to Israel, I read Christopher Tyerman’s God’s War: A New History of the Crusades. I had not previously been familiar with anything more than the broad outlines of the Crusades, including the seizure of Jerusalem, the arrival of Saladin, and so forth. At 922 pages, God’s War is an exhaustively detailed exploration of the social and political meaning of the Crusades, with sufficient strategic action to appease those interested in the military history. Tyerman places the Crusades firmly in the context of early second millenia Christianity, either rejecting or heavily modifying materialist explanations for the extended military campaigns. Tyerman also details the enduring effects of the Crusades, most of which have little to do with the repeated efforts to seize and hold Jerusalem.

I have long been interested in the theological justification of the Crusades. This statement needs to be prefaced in three ways. First, I’m interested in by not at all puzzled by the development of Catholic just war theory as a way of managing conflict among Christian monarchs and between Christian monarchs and the outside the world. The reasons for the development of this body of theory are pragmatic, even as the theory itself was influenced by Christian doctrine. I’m also not particularly puzzled by the 19th and 20th century union of nationalism and Christian theory (God marches with the Germans, the Americans, etc.). Finally, I appreciate that group affiliation dynamics will tend to override any specific doctrine; even pacifists will learn to kill when they feel their group is under threat. Nevertheless, I’m fascinated (although not surprised) by how Christians theologians developed doctrines that would justify the killing of a foreign and distant enemy in the name of Christ. Christianity differs from Islam and Judaism in that there is no clear duty to defend the community of the faithful. Indeed, Christ seems fairly clear about the not wanting to be “avenged”; he didn’t call out from the cross “I hope someday we can take back Jerusalem!” Tyerman opens with a discussion of militancy in the Christianity of the ninth and tenth centuries, and argues that the mediated nature of the medieval relationship with Scripture (few Christians could read Christian holy texts), and the pragmatic body of Just War theory interacted with the Germanic warrior ethos to produce a new understanding of the role of the warrior in Christian society. This understanding came to be centered around the idea that the responsibility of the warrior (and most rulers were warriors) was not simply to defend his subjects, but also to defend the entirety of Christendom. In the eleventh century this concept was fully delineated by the Vatican, and the papacy began calling for “holy wars” to liberate the formerly Christian lands of the Eastern Mediterranean. As always, material interest interacted with ideational narrative, but Tyerman argues that it is impossible to understand the Crusades in strictly material terms; many Crusaders made enormous financial sacrifices with little hope of material reward, acting in the understanding that they were defending the faith and “avenging” Christ. Similarly, while Christian and Islamic states were engaged in an endless series of wars from the seventh century on, the Crusades cannot be understood as retribution or retaliation for any single instance of Islamic aggression. Jerusalem hadn’t been on the table for four centuries, and the Crusaders were committed to “redeeming” the Holy City.

When the goal of the Crusades is thus defined as “We need to get back at the people who killed Christ,” you know that things aren’t going to work out well for the Jews. The story of Christian depredations against Jews in the Holy Land is familiar; Jews had been allowed to return to Jerusalem following the Islamic conquest in the 650s, and were slaughtered wholesale (along with everyone else) once the Crusaders conquered the city in 1099. Jews were then banned from Jerusalem until Saladin retook the city a century later. Less well known are the pogroms which were associated with mobilization for the Crusades. In the process of whipping the faithful into a fury sufficient to get them to give up their lives, sons, and money, more than a few Jews got killed. In some cases, local princes protected (or tried to protect) the Jewish communities from Christian mobs. In other cases, princes were happy simply to seize all Jewish property in order to fund their own Crusading activities. I do wish that more people would understand that enthusiastic, violent Christianity tends to be bad for the Jews.

I also find it interesting that Christianity, as a whole, pretty much abandoned the idea of retaking Jerusalem just as it became clear that the Christian states had the capacity to reconquer the Holy Land anytime they wanted. Jerusalem isn’t quite irrelevant to the international politics of the early modern period, but it’s pretty close; even the Russians were more focused on Constantinople than on the Holy City. I don’t doubt that Allenby and the men of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force felt a chilling sense of awe when they entered Jerusalem on December 11, 1917, but the moment paled somewhat in comparison to the events on the Western Front. Moreover, Britain made clear in fairly short order that Jerusalem would not be governed as a Christian city. The moment for Christian revaunchism had passed, apparently. I suppose you could argue (as some Christian Zionists certainly would) that the Jewish reoccupation of Jerusalem is the fulfillment of the vision of the Crusades, but I think it’s fair to say that a Jewish dominated Jerusalem wasn’t exactly what the men of the First Crusade had in mind.

Tyerman makes the crucial point that the serial invasions of the Middle East were not the only, the most important, or the most lasting part of the Crusades. Using the same justifications that they used to retake Jerusalem, Christians in Iberia and Germany waged war against Muslims and pagans on their frontiers. In Iberia this had the long term effect of driving the Muslims (and the Jews) off of the peninsula, as well as setting the stage for the conquest of the New World. In Eastern Europe and the Baltic, the result was the more or less permanent expansion of the frontiers of Christendom. Imagine the surprise of the typical pagan in his Baltic village when Crusaders came to town, sacking and burning, and explained that they were there to “avenge Christ.” In Central and Western Europe, the Crusades had long term cultural effects that remained after the military aspect had become irrelevant. Even in the very late medieval period monarchs were “taking the cross,” which is to say taking responsibility for reconquering Jerusalem.

The concentration on social and intellectual history shouldn’t obscure the fact that Tyerman also treats military and political history at considerable length. He explains the fraught conditions that afflicted the First Crusade, and the unlikely path that it took to conquering Jerusalem. He further explains the basic military situation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, as well as its political dysfunction and dependence on the largess of Western monarchs. The collapse of the Kingdom is explained in terms of political changes within Islam, brought about to some extent by the Mongol invasions. If you read this book and pay attention, you’ll know which Crusade involved Richard the Lion Hearted, which Crusade got lost and conquered Byzantium, and which Crusade failed when the Emperor fell off his horse. You’ll also have a sense of how the Crusaders benefited from control of the sea in the Eastern Mediterranean, and how the growth of the Ottoman Empire foreclosed the possibility of additional Crusades.

On a personal note, as noted I read this book shortly before leaving the Israel in 2008, and I found it enormously helpful in terms of interpreting the Christian impact on the Holy Land. However, there was another, not terribly welcome, effect; I felt a certain tribal kinship with the Crusaders. It is difficult to wander around Israel/Palestine without having a strong sense of tribal identification; such identification pretty much oozes from the terrain, and is a critical part of the manner in which people define themselves. In part because of this book, I had the strong sense that the Crusaders might have been bastards, but that they were MY bastards; I had something essential in common with them that I did not share with the other residents. Recognizing the absurdity of this feeling didn’t make it go away. I even got a bit defensive about the series of jokes Israelis would tell when acting as tour guides around Crusader sites. “Feel free to mock the Crusaders when Israel turns 193″ I wanted to (but did not) say. The reasons for this were unclear; I’m not Christian, and while it’s certainly possible that I have an ancestor among the (relatively few) English Crusaders, I’m much more compelled by Anglo-Saxon identity than by some affiliation with Christendom.

In any case, this is a very long book, but it is exceptionally rewarding. Appreciating the impact of the Crusades on the West is worthwhile in an of itself, and having some understanding the Crusades in the context of a political climate that rewards constant invocation of historical half-truths is almost necessary. Worth your valuable time and cubits.

Sunday Book Review: The Great Gamble

[ 0 ] January 11, 2010 |

As conditions have deteriorated in Afghanistan in the past several years, academic and military specialists have paid greater attention to the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, in an effort to support one faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan against another. The Soviets withdrew in 1989, having suffered serious losses of prestige, blood, and treasure. Gregory Feifer’s The Great Gamble covers the political and strategic details of the war in depth, with some forays into tactical and operational details of the actual fighting. He also draws larger conclusions about the impact of the war on Soviet and Afghan society.

Feifer deals at some length with Soviet decision-making prior to the war, arguing that the Soviets understood their own motives as defensive. The Soviets had grown unhappy with Hafizullah Amin, believing that his control over the country was slipping and that he was making too many overtures to Pakistan and the United States. The Soviets were also concerned with the spread of Islamic radicalism in the wake of the Iranian revolution, and wanted to shore up their southern flank. There was some opportunism to the Soviet action, as they believed the US was preoccupied with its own affairs and unlikely to become involved in the conflict. Many within both the Red Army and the CPSU were ambivalent or outright opposed to the invasion, however. Greater engagement had hazy prospects of success, they argued, and the game wasn’t worth the candle. In part because of the declining physical and mental capabilities of Leonid Brezhnev, the hawks prevailed; the Soviet Union began what was expected to be a brief, cheap military intervention in December 1979.

Feifer’s book would be better characterized as a history of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan than of the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan. While he does include some operational details, the focus is much more on the ambiance of the war, the slowly shifting expectations of Red Army soldiers, and the Soviet relationships with the Afghans. In some ways this is fitting; counter-insurgency campaigns lack the kind of decisive battle found in more conventional combat. At other times, however, Feifer seems uncertain as to whether particular battles or operations even took place. The book often fails to sufficiently explain the context of the engagements is does discuss.

Comparative questions about the Soviet and American experience in Afghanistan immediately leap to mind in any discussion of the Soviet war. Some differences are stark, while some similarities are frightening. On the one hand, the Red Army never displayed the technical and technological capacity that has characterized the American war. Soviet units often suffered casualties that would be shocking to Americans; entire company-sized units often suffered complete destruction. Soviet aircraft also suffered a much higher rate of attrition than their American counterparts, due in no small part to the effectiveness of US and Pakistani supplied anti-aircraft weapons. Soviet cruelty to civilians also appears to have been much more regular and much more brutal than that displayed by Americans since 2001. To put it bluntly, the worst Taliban propaganda about American atrocities pales in comparison to the self-reported behavior of Red Army soldiers.

And then there are some nagging similarities. While both the Soviet leadership and the rank and file of the Red Army had a tenuous relationship with orthodox Marxist ideology, many in both groups genuinely believed that the they were “saving” Afghanistan. Afghanistan was a feudal backwater, beset by an archaic religious ideology and a premodern tribal structure. Many Soviets believed that the invasion would substantially change Afghan life for the better. The Soviets engaged in many infrastructure projects designed to increase opportunity for Afghans, and to improve the prospects for economic development. The Soviets also took an interest in social revolution, with an eye towards breaking the hold of Islam and tribal organizations over Afghan life.

Soviet tension with its Afghan puppets also carries some reminders of the US experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Vietnam. The Soviet invasion was precipitated by the perceived need to intervene on behalf of one faction of the Afghan Communist Party against another. It is the only war I know of in which both factions requested Soviet intervention in the weeks leading up to the invasion. The Soviets continuously pressured Karmal and Najibullah to end corruption, reform governance, and build bridges with opposition forces in order to reduce the scope of the intervention. As in the American experience, these efforts rarely worked; both the Soviet and American proxies had their own constituencies to worry about. Concerns about legitimacy limited Soviet actions, just as they have American. The Soviets didn’t want to annex Afghanistan, and didn’t want it to appear as if they intended to do so. This made it difficult to take a heavy handed approach to even recalcitrant Afghan political actors. The Soviets were more willing to conduct negotiations with mujahadeen figures than their Afghan proxies, and on several occasions signed truces with various resistance factions.

The Red Army suffered all of the problems of shifting to COIN as the US military, and then some. Soviet military engagement was never completely coherent in terms of objectives; on the one hand, there was the realization on the part of the high command and the political authority that accomodation with Afghan civilians was necessary. On the other hand, the poorly disciplined and conventionally oriented Red Army proved too unwieldy to conduct warfare with the precision required by COIN; civilians were regularly butchered, and often deliberately targeted at the operational level. There were also some ideological problems, as Red Army political doctrine had trouble coming to terms with the notion that factors independent of class conflict could drive and insurgency. Soviet doctrine improved over the course of the war, at least in the tactical and operational senses. The Soviets became much better at conducting search/destroy and convoy missions through experience, and on many occasions successfully isolated and destroyed significant mujahadeen concentrations. On the other hand, rebuilding the Red Army as a COIN-oriented forces proved too much, and in any case excited neither the high command nor the Soviet political leadership.

Feifer suggests some other similarities that hearken more to the American experience in Vietnam than in Afghanistan, at least so far. The end of the war preceded the collapsed of the Soviet Union by three years, meaning that there was rather less time to dwell on the experience in Russia than in the United States. Nevertheless, some of the same bitterness and resentment of war critics that emerged in the wake of the fall of Saigon was also evident among Red Army veterans of Afghanistan. Even during the war, critics of the Soviet Union (and of the war) were attacked by veterans an unpatriotic, and unappreciative of the sacrifices made by Red Army soldiers. Feifer argues that while the collapse of the Soviet Union pushed the Afghanistan conflict off the radar screen of most Russian citizens for a while, that there has recently been some re-evaluation of the war, focused on the experience of Red Army soldiers.

The most important lesson of this book for the United States in Afghanistan is that drawing on even recent historical experience for lessons is perilously difficult. The US Army and the US Marine Corps are not the Red Army; the Taliban don’t have the same degree of support from Pakistan or the United States; the US invasion appears to have been more popular in Afghanistan at any point than the Soviet; US goals for nation-building are different than Soviet; the US economy is far more capable of weathering the strain of prolonged conflict than the Soviet. And yet; both the Russians and the Americans had to transition between a conventional and a COIN force. Both had to deal with unreliable, unaccountable proxies. Both had to deal with the confusing composition of Afghan society. Both had to conduct operations in an inhospitable climate. Both had to deal with steadily increasing unhappiness and alienation on the domestic front. While it might be enough simply to say that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires,” it remains unclear whether the similarities outweigh the differences, or on what metrics a comparison should be made. Learning is hard, and stuff.

As for the book, it probably lacks sufficient detail to leave specialists on Afghanistan, on COIN, or on the Red Army terribly pleased. Feifer doesn’t provide much about Afghan society, or about the changes wrought by the invasion, Soviet occupation policies, or the widespread destruction caused by fighting. He also doesn’t delve into a lot of detail about the tactics and composition of the Red Army. Feifer gives some account of the US and Pakistani contribution to the war, but intelligence specialists probably won’t be satisfied. However, The Great Gamble does provide a reasonable overview of the politics of the conflict, with enough fighting to contribute considerable flavor. I can’t recommend the book unreservedly, but many readers will find it productive.

Sunday Book Review: White Eagle, Red Star

[ 0 ] January 4, 2010 |

First published in 1972, Norman Davies’ White Eagle, Red Star covers the Soviet-Polish War of 1920. Davies went on to write extensively about Polish history in the 20th century, and White Eagle, Red Star was re-issued in 2003. Unfortunately, the new edition has not been updated to reflect the opening of Soviet and Polish archives following the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, White Eagle, Red Star remains an exceptionally lucid and useful account of the Soviet-Polish War, probably unmatched in the English language.

Early on, Davies establishes the central problem of Soviet-Polish War historiography; the war has no clear start date. From August 1914 on, the entirety of what would become the Soviet-Polish frontier was fluid and militarized. In addition to the armies of Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, a variety of Polish, Ukrainian, and other nationalist groups sought to achieve independence. The collapse of the Imperial Russia in 1917 only enhanced the chaos, as did the retreat and collapse of the Russian Army in the face of the German advance. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk solved little, as German troops remained deployed deep within the disputed territory, and continued to carry out periodic offensive action. The October Revolution led to further ideological and national conflict. Finally, the defeat of Germany on the Western Front and the collapse of Austria-Hungary made Polish independence achievable, and conflict with whatever Russian state emerged from the chaos inevitable.

The reconstituted Polish state was carved out of territory from the German, Hapsburg, and Russian empires, with the latter boundary being the most fluid. Several different entities contested for authority along the notional border, including the Soviet state, various White warlords, several different Ukrainian statelets, the Baltics, and the German Army. With a relatively stable base, there was ample opportunity for the Poles to expand at Russian expense. The Polish Army was cobbled together from units in the German, Austrian, and Russian armies, with some British and French training and equipment. It wasn’t a terribly impressive force by the standards of World War I, but in mid-1919 it was probably the class of Eastern Europe.

The Red Army had problems. It was engaged on several fronts against many different opponents. The Russian industrial base had been gutted by the war and the revolution, leaving the army with meager and outdated equipment. The continuing hostility of the Western Allies and Japan made resupply from abroad difficult. The officer corps was a disaster, and included some veterans of World War I, some czarist officers, and a large number of relatively inexperienced recruits. Red Army doctrine, such that it was, developed in the battle against the Whites, and was not up to the challenge of static warfare with an even quasi-modern European army. On the upside, the Red Army had some good senior leadership, high morale and crack discipline in some units, and eventually a substantial numerical advantage.

Polish objectives weren’t entirely coherent, but were based on three essential premises. First, Poland should secure a favorable border with Russia, without overextending itself. Second, the Russian Empire posed a threat to Poland in either its Soviet or Imperial forms, and as such any weakening of the Empire would enhance Polish security. Finally, Poland had a critical diplomatic role to play in Eastern Europe as the leader of an emerging bloc of independent states; victory in war against Russia could help secure this place of prominence.

The Soviets suffered from strategic confusion. First, some believed that regime survival was at stake. The Poles, in collusion with various White forces and potentially with the support of the West, might attempt the military destruction of the Soviet regime, or at least the detachment of a geographic area large enough to substantially weaken the Soviet state. Related to this were general territorial concerns, which manifested in a desire to push the Soviet frontier as far west as possible. Finally, a significant portion of the Soviet elite saw the war with Poland as an opportunity to spread the Revolution. Poland was, in this conception, the first stop on the way to Germany. These goals stood in some tension with one another. The desire to spread the Revolution encouraged risk taking, and precluded the consolidation of sensible territorial positions. The concerns about regime survival encouraged paranoia, and led to misunderstandings both of Polish war aims and of the potential for a grand anti-Bolshevik coalition.

During the war, the Soviet elite ran into the unexpected problem of nationalism. Appeals to Russian nationalism, it turned out, proved far more productive in terms of morale and mobilization than class based propaganda. Russian workers displayed more interest in crushing their Polish comrades than in liberating them. Since most Bolsheviks were Russian, a turn towards nationalism was probably inevitable. The turn, however, helped alienate Polish Bolsheviks in both the USSR and Poland. The Poles themselves had little use for Bolshevik propaganda, preferring the domination of their own feudal class to alliance with Russian workers.

A pre-emptive Polish invasion of Ukraine began in late April 1920. The invasion was mildly successful; it captured Kiev, but no one in either the Polish military or political leadership believed that the city could be held. Indeed, the arrival of the Soviet First Cavalry Army threw the Poles back, and began a series of staged offensives across the entire front. The Poles managed to fall back in good order towards Warsaw, where they reorganized their defense for the expected Soviet onslaught. The senior Soviet commander was Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a former czarist officer who had served time in Ingolstadt Prison, where he met Charles De Gaulle. Ingolstadt, incidentally, served as the basis for the final prison in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion. Tukhachevsky would later play a major role in the development of modern armored warfare, a project for which Stalin rewarded him with execution.

Tukhachevsky believed that the momentum of the Red Army offensive would unhinge the Poles and leave the Soviets in control of Warsaw. It turned, out, however, that the Soviet offensive developed too slowly and carried too little punch; the Polish Army successfully defended Warsaw, then threw the Soviets back. The larger Soviet offensive broke down, while the Poles remained in good order. By the end of August, it was clear that the Red Army would not be extending the Revolution to Warsaw, much less to Germany.

Davies argues that the Western Allies played a very minimal role in the war. None of Britain, France, or the United States had much stomach for war with the Soviet Union after the interventions of 1918. Moreover, few in the West believed the Poles capable of unseating the Bolshevik regime. The Germans had no interest in seeing a strong Poland on their eastern border, and indeed some Germans believed that a Russian victory would speed the end of the restrictions on German military power. Davies conclusion on this point contradicts most Soviet historiography, which sees the Polish-Soviet War as just another attempt by the West to strangle the Revolution. It also contradicts some Western accounts that emphasize the importance of British and French advisors in organizing the defense of Warsaw. However, I found Davies argument pretty compelling. The Allies were tired of war by 1919, and what little interest they had in Russian affairs was devoted to support of one White faction or another. More importantly, the Poles and Russians had their own very good reasons for fighting a war, few of which had anything to do with Western anti-communism.

The Soviet-Polish War wasn’t simply the result of Bolshevik aggression. There’s no question that much of the fault for the war lay with the Poles. While the Polish leadership wasn’t interested in being part of the Allied project to strangle the Bolshevik Revolution, or even in cooperating very closely with White Russian forces, it did want to seize as much territory as possible, and had an expansive vision of the role that Poland could play politically and diplomatically in Eastern Europe. The Poles believed that the chaos attendant to the Revolution could be profitably exploited. At the same time, however, conflict between the new Polish state and the Soviet Union was probably inevitable. For both nationalist and ideological reasons, the Soviets were likely to eventually pursue control over Poland. For the nationalists, Poland remained an integral part of the reconstituted Russian Empire. For the ideologues, Poland was the gateway to Europe, and to world revolution. Unfortunately for the Poles, there was simply no way out of the trap. The best hope for Poland might have been a full disintegration of Soviet Russia, along with a generally supportive Western Alliance. In other words, it’s difficult to imagine conditions under which Polish security might have been achieved short of what was accomplished in 1991.

Sunday Book Review: The Enemy of All

[ 0 ] December 6, 2009 |

Daniel Heller-Roazen’s The Enemy of All studies the genealogy of the term “pirate,” and the impact that the term has had on the development of Western international law and the laws of war. Beginning with Cicero, he focuses on the way in which legal theorists have excluded the category “pirate” from the benefits and obligations of law, while including other superficially similar groups such as “bandit,” “rebel,” or “thief.” While Heller-Roazen may have taken inspiration from the recent increase in piratical activity in Southeast Asia and off the coast of Somalia, the book isn’t about pirates as much as it is about the development of Western law.

The definition of piracy has shifted over time, but certain themes recur. Pirates are treated as lawless men, both individually and collectively. This is true even when it is acknowledged that certain nations of peoples regularly engage in the practice of piracy. Pirates act predominantly for private gain, although the distinction between pirate and privateer didn’t develop until the second half of the second millennium CE. Indeed, I suspect that the concept of privateer is a response to the development of formal naval organizations, the existence of which forced the creation of a separate category for the private actors who had traditionally engaged in state-sponsored maritime warfare. Although Heller-Roazen doesn’t dwell on the point, I think a closer examination of the development of the privateer distinction in this direction would be productive; lest we forget, one of the most important parts of Jack Aubrey’s job was to attack and seize enemy commerce, for which he was able to keep a substantial portion of the proceeds.

The other major requirement is the medium in which pirates operate. The term pirate suggests an implicit distinction between those who rob at sea and those who rob on land. Cicero made this more explicit by indicating that robbers on land remain part of the web of obligations, while no obligation is owed to pirates. Heller-Roazen argues that the key distinction is that pirates are lawless men who operate in a lawless space. In Western conceptions of law, from the Romans forward, the sea has stood as a legally exceptional zone. Those who rob within this exceptional zone (assuming they don’t work for a state, in uniform or no) are a special class of villain, to whom no mercy or legal obligation is owed. Heller-Roazen further argues that Western legal thought has periodically become preoccupied with the question of what differentiates legitimate and illegitimate combatants. Indeed, he argues that the most of what we regard as the laws of war depend to some extent on such a distinction. He quotes Cicero extensively on the topic, as well as Grotius, Kant, and Carl Schmitt. For the latter, one of the contexts concerns the question of whether submarine warfare should be understood as piracy or as a legitimate warfare. Interestingly enough, Schmitt further argued that a “war on pirates” is a contradiction in terms; war is political, while belligerency against pirates constitutes a non-political act.

Heller-Roazen doesn’t touch on the topic, but I’ll confess that I’m quite curious regarding how the term pirate came to be associated with violations of intellectual property law. Why are people who steal music “pirates,” rather than “thieves?” I’m not a pirate when I steal a DVD from Wal*Mart, but I am when I download the same movie from the internet. I suspect that the answer is relatively straightforward; the internet resembles, in its lawless nature, the sea. Thieves operates in a space where law exists and can (at least theoretically) be enforced, while pirates operate outside the law. As this book is really more about how piracy has been conceived in relation to the law than it is about, you know, pirates, I think it would have been productive for Heller-Roazen to track down the origins of the application of the term piracy to IP violators. Of course, no one has ever suggested that IP pirates stand outside the web of legal obligation, even as some argue that Somali pirates represent the enemy of all and should be executed on the spot. [See here for more info on the apparently long history of IP “piracy”.]

The last chapter and the conclusion turn to the question that must have been obvious in the minds of most readers from the start: To what extent can this genealogy of the concept “pirate” shed light on the conceptualization of the other enemy of all, the modern stateless terrorist? The answer, unsurprisingly, is complicated. One problem comes with the opening of a new “lawless” medium, the air. Some air hijackers share some characteristics with pirates, although the concordance is rarely complete. Another problem comes from the question of whether the pursuit of political aims not explicitly framed in terms of the state can be considered political in the sense needed to justify the term “war.” Irish or Palestinian terrorists, for example, can legitimately be considered to be waging war on behalf of a (nascent or incomplete) state/national collective. This is less true, however of terrorists acting on behalf of international communism or some nebulous vision of jihad. These terrorists escape or reject territorial authority and consequently act, in some relevant sense, in a lawless space. If this kind of struggle is not political (and it falls outside some definitions of the term), then the phrase “Enemy of All” could be applied to certain terrorists. Heller-Roazen again draws on Schmitt to think about these questions, emphasizing the debate rather than coming to any specific answers about the legitimacy of particular characterizations.

I suspect that legal scholars who wish to treat Al Qaeda terrorists as a separate, distinct, and novel category of combatant would draw a certain degree of comfort from Heller-Roazen’s account of the term piracy, for two reasons. The first is that Western law has, in fact, pretty much from its inception agreed that there are certain enemies who do not merit the protection of law, or even contractual reciprocation. While pirates have traditionally occupied this nether region, Heller-Roazen explains that there are plausible ways in which terrorists could be conceptualized as the enemy of all. In fact, he quotes John Yoo making the explicit connection between pirates and terrorists. Second, Heller-Roazen demonstrates, as any genealogy will, the contingency of the legal terms that we deploy to characterize enemies. The terms “criminal,” “war criminal,” and “POW,” aren’t as cut and dried as we might want to believe. Thus, the notion that a novel legal category might be developed to describe terrorists is not so far beyond the pale.

None of this is to say that Heller-Roazen condones, or in fact has any normative position at all, regarding the legal categorization of terrorists by the Bush administration. Rather, he implies that the forms of reasoning employed to determine the status of such detainees are not alien to the Western legal tradition, which has always defined some combatants as illegal. In any case, the book is short, densely argued, and worthwhile for those interested in the development of international law.

Struggle for the Middle Sea

[ 0 ] December 5, 2009 |

I have a review of Vincent O’Hara’s Struggle for the Middle Sea up at ID.

Sunday Book Review: Hawk and Dove

[ 0 ] November 16, 2009 |

Nicholas Thompson’sThe Hawk and the Dove is an exceptionally readable dual biography of George Kennan and Paul Nitze. George Kennan is, to some, rather an odd dove; he helped formulate the vision of containment that led to NSC-68 and militarized confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Moreover, he was hardly a pacifist; nevertheless, in the way in which debate over national security policy became structured in the Cold War, Kennan most often stood on the “dovish” side. Nitze, the most direct father of NSC-68, as well as Team B, plays the role of “hawk.” Nitze is also Nicholas Thompson’s grandfather.

Both Kennan and Nitze were privileged and wildly talented. It’s true enough that an Ivy League pedigree won an undue degree of influence in the 1940s and the 1950s (a situation which absolutely, positively does not hold today), and Thompson details the manner in which Kennan and Nitze built their social networks and, eventually, their influence within government. Nitze was much better at this than Kennan; whereas Kennan believed that ideas were key to moving the machinery of government, Nitze understood the value of creating, nursing, and maintaining a group of bureaucratic warriors, as well as key connections with other major policymakers. It’s hardly surprising that the most prominent neocons found their start with Nitze; he understood that the bureaucracy responds to ideas that are prominent within the social circles of the bureaucracy, rather than to ideas that are popular within the general public or that are well regarded in the academy. Nitze also came to understand that the best approach to seizing influence over foreign policy was bipartisan; to make sure that your people were part of the larger machine of foreign policy, regardless of who happened to control Congress or to sit in the White House at any given time.

Nitze became obsessed with the question of how nuclear weapons could be utilized in an actual war. This isn’t because he wanted the nuke the Soviets; he genuinely believed that if the Soviets ever achieved “escalation superiority,” which in its essence meant “more megatons than us” that they would be able, by threat of nuclear annihilation, to win serious diplomatic concessions. US “preparedness” prevented both nuclear conflict and inevitable concession to Soviet aggression. Nitze spun out scenarios of nuclear war that were based on pure fantasy; the Soviets would somehow squirrel away the bulk on their population in vast civil defense shelters, then use their larger warheads to deal a devastating first strike to the US, secure in the knowledge that only their cities, infrastructure, and industry would be destroyed by a US counter-strike. The debates became tribal, as all such arguments will; the enemy became pacifist appeasers, and the use of any tactic to defeat this enemy, including accusations of treason and the invention of “facts,” became legitimate.

Nitze’s greatest failure, and the biggest difference between him and Kennan, was his de facto assumption that Soviet domestic politics didn’t exist. For Nitze and his acolytes, the assumption that all of the relevant policymakers in the Soviet Union were incorrigibly and equally hostile was sufficient in order to proceed with analysis. Weapons production was always the result of a nefarious plan formulated in the Kremlin, and never the result of the bureaucratic strength of various faction within the Soviet military. Any modernization, even one required to match US capabilities, was evidence of an evil Soviet plot to acquire escalation dominance. But this was only part of Nitze’s trick; by the time Team B was put together, Soviet arms production and capabilities could be inferred from imputed Soviet intentions. This is to say that evidence of Soviet weapons production at time A indicated evil Soviet intent, which then led Nitze and his cohort to estimate future Soviet production based on that indication of evil Soviet intent. The result, of course, was a wild overestimation of Soviet capabilities, and a complete misunderstanding of Soviet intent. Richard Pipes famously declared Team B a success, because it had established that some within the Soviet Union believed that a nuclear war could be won. What Pipes declined to note was that a) a similarly influential group within the United States believed the same thing, and b) the Soviets who believed in the possibility of victory were, like their American counterparts, a minority of the strategic establishment, c) almost to an individual, these Soviets believed that the war would begin with an American nuclear attack, and d) the most hawkish elements in the Soviet Union won bureaucratic victories on the backs of men like Paul Nitze. The products of School Nitze, as it were, would repeat these errors with Iraq, Iran, and China.

Thompson’s Kennan is a man who was wrong about many things, but who was right about one big thing. Kennan had frankly bizarre views about a number of subjects, including the value of democracy, race relations within the United States, and the project of modernity. However, he was fundamentally correct to identify the internal politics of the Soviet Union as dysfunctional, and to conclude that the regime had a limited lifespan, even on the time metrics normally associated with empires. The Soviet Empire was not, by his argument, the sort of creature that could survive in the long term, and it certainly could not outlast the Western democracies, however flawed they might be. The Soviet permanent war economy depended on a permanent perception of threat, and as this faded the Soviet experiment became less tenable. Kennan was also correct that Soviet expansion was limited in immediate aims, and that it could be successfully managed. Thus managing the Soviet Union was worthwhile, as it was a foul regime led by awful men, but the task had to be undertaken in a measured fashion.

Oddly enough, Kennan and Nitze interacted only at a few key times during their careers. Kennan made his key contribution before Nitze really found his niche in government, and Nitze gave a particular shape to Kennan’s basic framework. Kennan’s influence on major policy was minimal after the early 1950s, while Nitze had his hands in some manner on almost every strategic decision until the late 1980s. The two were friends early on in the same sense that all Ivy League cogs in the US foreign policy machine were friends; they were never particularly close, yet they never personalized their disagreements. Personally, I found the Kennan half of the book fascinating, simply for the basic weirdness of its subject; Kennan was an odd duck, with strange ideas. The Nitze sections left me infuriated; Nitze and his clones pursued one big idea, and didn’t both to worry overmuch about whether it was right, or at all helpful to the country. It’s not quite right to say that Kennan’s ideas deserved more credence, as his central argument was extremely influential; however, Nitze’s acolytes should have been chased out of government and indeed out of public life. Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle should have had to struggle to publish an op-ed in the Dayton Daily News; instead, they were able to repeat their flawed analysis of the Soviet Union on a succession of other states, all to dreadful effect.

A Regular Guy Does Books

[ 0 ] November 5, 2009 |

I know that Glenn Beck is a soft target, but holy crap, this has the potential for some serious hilarity, especially as the legendary author of The Christmas Sweater is in a position to shape the reading habits of a few million self-aware, open minded, critical thinkers.

There are some decent quotes in the story:

“Let me just say, it’s almost conservative porn,”

Almost conservative porn . . . which would be, what, showing an ankle? A little leg perhaps, but no higher than the calf?

“You’re on the liberal side of things, which is, you know, fine,”

While the porn remains conservative, the tepid support for that damned First Amendment is reassuring.

“Glenn is a regular guy, and regular Americans like thrillers,” said Mr. Balfe, an editor of Mr. Beck’s current nonfiction best seller, “Arguing With Idiots.”

The research for which could have been entirely based on tape recordings of Beck talking in his sleep. To himself.

While I doubt that anything appearing on his show, or on his bookcase for that matter, will be short-listed for the Man Booker Prize any time soon, at least this is evidence that Beck, unlike Michele Bachmann, might be able to read (if not well read, as Dave Noon pointed out a couple months back . . . )

Do tune in.

Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money

[ 0 ] November 4, 2009 |

I have a review of Martin Murphy’s Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money up at ID. Long story short, it’s the best single volume introduction to modern piracy and maritime terrorism that I’ve read.

Something that Alarmists Suggest I Should be Alarmed About

[ 0 ] October 8, 2009 |

So I don’t understand; is this something I should be alarmed about? At this point, I don’t even remember where I get all my books; some are sent by publicists, others by magazines, and still others are bought by my department. I’m going to assume that declaring that I get some of the books I review for free means I never have to think about this again.

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