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Tag: "books"

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…

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.

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