Category Archives: History

Learning from the past

Martin van Creveld: Our armies become pussycats, part 2

Summary:  In this second post about the real revolution in military affairs, Martin van Creveld examines ask why men fight. Rather than the conventional political and geopolitical factors, he looks at the psychology of excellence, honor, spirituality, and PTSD. It’s worth some thought as we begin the second round of our long war.  See part one here.

"Mars, god of war" by GhostsAndDecay at DeviantArt

Mars, god of war” by GhostsAndDecay at DeviantArt

 

Pussycats II: Seek and You Shall Find

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 17 September 2014

Posted with his generous permission

 

“Seek and you shall find,” says the Gospel. Never more so, one supposes, then in our own “post-modern” age when everything goes and countless things that were supposed to have an objective existence suddenly stand revealed as “constructed” in this way or that. Not only words, as Humpty Dumpty said, but things mean what we choose them to mean. If not completely so — here I differ with some of the most extreme followers of Michel Foucault — then at any rate to a considerable extent. Take the case of war.

The age of prowness

In ancient Greece and Rome war was supposed to be associated with arête and virtus. Both are best understood as (manly, but in the present context that is beside the point) excellence and prowess respectively. Achilles preferred a short, heroic life to a long and dull one. Alexander, who studied Homer under the guidance of Aristotle, told his troops that “work, as long as it is noble, is an end in itself.” Virgil, by common consent the greatest Roman poet, celebrated virtus, the quality that had made had enabled his city to conquer first Italy and then the world, as follows:
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The Cult of the offense returns: why we’re losing the long war, & how to win

Summary: We cannot escape history. It offers lessons to guide us. It’s deployed as propaganda to mislead us. Successful strategy requires distinguishing between the two. Our long war, so far a series of defeats, provides examples of both. We can do better in the future if only we’d pay attention.

“As we shall show, defense is a stronger form of fighting than attack. … I am convinced that the superiority of the defensive (if rightly understood) is very great, far greater than appears at first sight.”
— Clausewitz’s On War, Book 1, Chapter 1.

 

Contents

  1. The Cult of the Offense Returns.
  2. The allure of a losing strategy.
  3. Learning from the Revolution.
  4. For More Information.
  5. Clausewitz gets the last word.

 

(1)  The Cult of the Offense Returns

A reader brought to my attention Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History by the late scholar John David Lewis (2010). It’s an excellent example of history as political propaganda, of the kind Victor David Hanson deployed to build support for our defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan (e.g., Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power). The genre uses cherry-picked examples overlaid with moralism, telling a story made convincing by lavish use of historical detail to tell one side of the story.

Lewis advocates unceasing belligerence to our foes, always attacking. It’s a commonplace in history, often leading to ruin. It’s become the geopolitical strategy of American neoconservatives, ignoring lessons from American history about the frequent superiority of defense over offense.

De l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace et la Patrie sera sauvée!” (Audacity, more audacity, always audacity and the Fatherland will be saved!)

— George Danton in a speech to the Assembly of France on 2 September 1792. He was the first President of the Committee of Public Safety. The radical Jacobins on the Committee took his advice, sent him to the guillotine for “leniency” to the enemies of the Revolution, and audaciously soaked the Revolution in blood — wrecking it.

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Martin van Creveld: Our armies become pussycats, part 1

Summary:  The revolution in military affairs continues, silently and invisibly. Our hardware-obsessed military and its fanboys see only tools while the nature of war itself evolves. Previous posts looked at the increased role of women and children. Here Martin van Creveld looks at another fundamental change.

Army Strong

 

Pussycats – Part I

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 21 May 2014

Here with his generous permission

For several decades now, Western armed forces — which keep preening themselves as the best-trained, best organized, best equipped best led, in history — have been turned into pussycats. Being pussycats, they went from one defeat to the next.

True, in 1999 they did succeed in imposing their will on Serbia. But only because the opponent was a small, weak state (at the time, the Serb armed forces, exhausted by a prolonged civil war, were rated 35th in the world); and even then only because that state was practically defenseless in the air. The same applies to Libya in 2011. Over there, indigenous bands on the ground did most of the fighting and took all the casualties. In both cases, when it came to engaging in ground combat, man against man, the West, with the U.S at its head, simply did not have what it takes.

On other occasions things were worse still. Western armies tried to create order in Somalia and were kicked out by the “Skinnies,” as they called their lean but mean opponents. They tried to beat the Taliban in Afghanistan, and were kicked out. They tried to impose democracy (and get their hands on oil) in Iraq, and ended up leaving with their tails between their legs. The cost of these foolish adventures to the U.S alone is said to have been around 1 trillion — 1,000,000,000,000 — dollars. With one defeat following another, is it any wonder that, when those forces were called upon to put an end to the civil war in Syria, they and the societies they serve preferred to let the atrocities go on?

By far the most important single reason behind the repeated failures is the fact that, one and all, these were luxury wars. With nuclear weapons deterring large-scale attack, for seven decades now no Western country has waged anything like a serious, let alone existential, struggle against a more or less equal opponent. As the troops took on opponents much weaker than themselves — often in places they had never heard about, often for reasons nobody but a few politicians understood — they saw no reason why they should get themselves killed.

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Should we have a hard dollar, backed by gold?

Summary: We’ll hear much from Republicans during Campaign 2016 about the glories of a gold-backed currency. Today’s post debunks that with history from 19th Century Britain, when both men and money were hard.   {1st of 2 posts today}

“Accursed thirst for gold! what dost thou not compel mortals to do?”
— Virgil’s Æneid (29-19 BC).

Gold coins

Belief in the superiority of a gold-based currency is a core element of their faux economics. They believe it provides a fixed foundation for the economy and prevents boom-bust cycles. It ignores not just modern economic theory but also two centuries of western history.

First, fixed is not always good. It’s usually better for interest rates and currency values to change rather than shocks flow through to national income and employment. To use a bad medical analogy, why don’t we all get pacemakers to stabilize our heart rate? Would a fixed pulse improve our health, especially during sex and other forms of vigorous exercise?

Second, a gold-based currency does not prevent financial bubbles or minimize boom-bust cycles. These occurred under the one of the most solid monetary systems, 19th C Britain, predating fiat currencies (and another of the Right’s bugaboos, fractional reserve banking; see Wikipedia for details). These cycles are an inherent aspect of free-market economies. They can occur even without credit, and can be reproduced in classroom exercises.

James Narron and Don Morgan at Fed of New York tell the story of one of the first great modern bubbles, it’s bursting, and the Bank of England’s successful response: “Crisis Chronicles: Railway Mania, the Hungry Forties, and the Commercial Crisis of 1847“. It’s a fascinating story and relevant to us today. Excerpt…

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The Barons of England warn us not to throw away what they gained in Magna Carta

Summary: 800 years ago on a field at Runnymede the Barons of England took a large step for humanity. The consequences of their actions still echo today. Now we’re losing what they won for us. On this anniversary recognition of that sad fact can alarm and inspire us.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
— Written by Benjamin Franklin for the Pennsylvania Assembly in its “Reply to the Governor” (11 November 1755).

King John signing Magna Carta

If only we were so bold and strong.

Our elites greet the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta (the Great Charter) with “no big deal; move along.” A New York Times op-ed by Tom Ginsburg tells us to “Stop Revering Magna Carta“,, He’s a professor of international law & political science at U Chicago. Law professors are often among the leaders of the movement against our liberty.

The Wall Street Journal of course bats for the anti-liberty teams, with the news headline “Magna Carta Celebrations Reignite Legacy Debate: some question the importance of the document“. Its editors live for the day they can run that headline for the Bill of Rights.

The Economist misleadingly says “The great majority of its provisions have been repealed: of the original charter’s 63 chapters only three — one confirming the freedom of the church, one confirming the liberties of the City of London and the crucial chapter 39 — remain on Britain’s statute book” (except that many of the other provisions remain codified in laws expanding and deepening MC’s provisions).

These blasé sophisticates misunderstand the significance of Magna Carta. It matters little that many of its provisions are meaningless or repugnant to us, that King John repudiated it, or that it was often forgotten for generations (then rediscovered).  Runnymede on 15 June 1215 was a milestone on the long road paved with “blood, sweat, and tears”. The meeting at Philadelphia in 1787 laid another milestone, one now being lost.

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The great powers slid into WWI. Martin van Creveld asks if we might do so again.

Summary:  Talk of another Cold War fills our news, with some forecasting a hot war with Russia — perhaps even WWIII. Today Martin van Creveld looks at the last great power rivalry that drifted into war, and explains why it’s not likely to happen again.  (2nd of 2 posts today.}

Your Government Needs You

The eternal call to war.

 

Slithering into War

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 19 June 2014

Posted here with his generous permission.

 

As the centennial of the outbreak of World War I approaches, a deluge of new publications seeks to commemorate it and to re-interpret it. Among the best of the lot is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2014). That is why I have chosen to discuss it here.

The war itself broke out on 31 July. As one would imagine, the search for its origins began right away. Assuming, of course, that the accusations which the various future belligerent started throwing at each other during the preceding weeks should not be seen as part of that search or, at any rate, as preparation for it.

At first it was a question of pointing fingers at personalities, be it Serb Prime Minister Nikola Pasič, or Austrian Chief of Staff Konrad von Hoeztendorf, or the Russian Tsar, or French prime minister René Viviani, or British foreign minister Edward Grey, or the German Kaiser, or whoever.

Very quickly, however, the hunt expanded to include not only persons but entire peoples. Not just Pasič but all, or at any rate most, Serbs were bad people always ready to throw bombs so to undermine the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in the name of irredentism. Not just Hoetzendorf, but many of the ruling circles in Vienna demanded war in the hope of saving the empire from disintegration. Not just the Tsar but many of his people entertained pan-Slavic dreams of expansion, mostly at the expense of Austria-Hungary. Not just Viviani, but the entire French people formed an arrogant nation used to exercise hegemony over the continent and unable to resign itself to its loss. Not just Grey, but the British people as a whole were hypocritical warmongers determined to hold on to their commercial superiority. Not just the Kaiser, but all Germans were power-drunk militarists.

The list goes on and on.

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Looking at technological singularities in our past & future

Summary:  It becomes increasingly clear that the rate of technological progress might accelerate in the coming years, taking us to an unknown world. Here we look at singularities past and future to help chart a course ahead, avoiding the dangers and seizing the benefits. This is a revised version of a post from 2007, one of the first on the FM website.

Singularity

Contents

  1. About singularities.
  2. Looking at singularities past and future.
  3. Imagining past singularities.
  4. Why is this important?
  5. For More Information.

(1)  About singularities

History tends to look better over longer time horizons. For example, consider one bit of good news: the Singularity is coming.

This mathematical concept came to the public’s attention from Vernor Vinge’s book Marooned in Realtime, describing a wondrous future in which the rate of technological progress accelerates – eventually going vertical — after which the humanity leaves for a higher plane of existence (see links below for more on this).

Since then people have come to see that possible singularities abound in our future, in addition to this technological singularity. Those terrified by the approach of Peak Oil often describe it as a dystopian Singularity; those elated by Peak Oil describe it as a wonderful singularity — a forced purification as we enter a new age. I have described the end of the post-WWII regime as a singularity in a limited sense: we cannot see beyond it (and before worrying about what lies beyond, must first survive the passage through it).

(2)  Looking at singularities past and future

Singularities — and perhaps The Singularity — lie in our past and shaped human history. Consider the awesome accomplishments of our species, each of which radically changed our world. The discovery of fire — giving us power over the environment. The development of agriculture — vastly expanding our food sources. The invention of writing — the key to accumulating knowledge over generations.

Similar discontinuities might lie in our future (we might also experience bad singularities)…
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