Friday, February 26, 2010

An amazing view of Kabul

From the Big Picture.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is the past another country?

Brad DeLong gave me the opportunity today to put a deeply-felt conviction of mine into words.

Brad was quoting from a blog called The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, whose author, Rufus F., was reflecting on the Odyssey.

[Brad]: Rufus F. on the Homecoming of Odysseus:

Homer “The Odyssey” | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen: I find his homecoming strange though. After winning a test of strength, Odysseus and Telemachus slaughter the suitors. The whole scene is excessive; he claims to kill them for their outrageous violence, but it amounts to boorish behavior and a failed plot to kill Telemachus. It would make more sense to run them off: “Scram, wimps!” Instead, Odysseus kills every last man for having dropped in for a visit and deciding to stay for several years...

[Brad:] It's considerably worse than that: consider the servant-women of Odysseus's palace who had consorted with the suitors:

"I will tell you the truth, my son," answered Euryclea. "There are fifty women in the house whom we teach to do things, such as carding wool, and all kinds of household work. Of these, twelve in all have misbehaved, and have been wanting in respect to me, and also to Penelope....

[T]he women came down in a body, weeping and wailing bitterly.... [T]hey took the women out and hemmed them in the narrow space between the wall of the domed room and that of the yard, so that they could not get away: and Telemachus said to the other two, "I shall not let these women die a clean death, for they were insolent to me and my mother, and used to sleep with the suitors."

So saying he made a ship's cable fast to one of the bearing-posts that supported the roof of the domed room, and secured it all around the building, at a good height, lest any of the women's feet should touch the ground; and as thrushes or doves beat against a net that has been set for them in a thicket just as they were getting to their nest, and a terrible fate awaits them, even so did the women have to put their heads in nooses one after the other and die most miserably. Their feet moved convulsively for a while, but not for very long...

Here's what I said in comments (touched up a little):

I am not so sure that the past is another country... Can't you imagine a similar scene taking place in another neighborhood in our own time, with the woman killers giving a similar justification? Remember that even in his own time that Odysseus was a smalltime pirate; today, unless he got particularly ambitious and inconvenienced the big guys,perhaps by hijacking a ship off the Horn of Africa, he would rate no space in the New York Times. Certainly the killing of the insolent women would get no coverage. Neither would the destruction of their elementary school or women's health clinic.

My point was, that the past is not one country, and our time is not a single country either, and the differences between different countries in any one era are very big sometimes' and broad similarities exist between some past countries and some in the present. Not everything that existed in the past exists in some corner of our own world now, but I believe that many things that existed in the time of, say, the Greek dark ages have rough analogues today. The failure to recognize that, I think, leads to one of the big errors of historical understanding: focusing on one country, one short period, one culture, one imperial court, one literary circle, and saying "this was the human experience on planet Earth at such and such a time."

And another serious mistake is to believe that some phenomenon that you find impressive or repulsive is absolutely unique in human history.

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Photojournalism from the Planet of Slums

Scavenging at a dumpsite near Jakarta, Indonesia. From the Big Picture.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Economics as astrology?

John Emerson over at Trollblog asks a very good question:
How flawed is economics?
And then he continues:
How deep does the problem go? I can’t prove anything, but we need to consider the possibility that the problem goes all the way down. Everyone except Eugene Fama knows that there’s a serious problem, but they’re mostly trying small tweaks and trying to make sure that their faction comes out on top. I’m suggesting that the larger claims of the science of economics are fundamentally unjustified.

One comparison is with alchemy and astrology. There was a great deal of truth in those sciences and they provided the foundations for chemistry and astronomy, but their largest claims were flatly wrong. The link they saw between their data and their empirical predictions and practical claims (the transformation of metals, eternal life, the prediction of the future) was nonexistent. The grand claims were bogus.

The second problem with economics is related to the first. Even within the orthodox schools (after excluding Austrians, Marxists, and other alleged fossils) there’s incredibly wide disagreement about critically important questions. You can always get an economist to say what you want them to say. (No, this is not true of climatologists).


What economics really is is a form of expert advocacy, like law. No one says lawyers don’t know anything. They’re very bright and knowledgeable and, in the context of our society, necessary and powerful. They do know a lot, but no one calls them scientists. If economics isn’t alchemy (or unscience), it’s law. Economists are highly skilled mercenary advocates within an sloppy, open system which is always in the process of redefining itself. And like most mercenaries, economists are most sympathetic to those who can afford them.

There's quite a bit more. And the comment section is very interesting, too.

I would suggest, off the top of my head, that the real problem of economics is that economists, having succeeded in creating a number of simplified models of reality, have forgotten that these are simplified models of reality. Early approximations, not THE ANSWER. I have criticized what I know of Freakonomics and related exhibitionist exercises for exactly that kind of tunnel vision. In that case, smug tunnel vision.

Image: an astrological vision of the universe. Pretty, isn't it?


Monday, February 22, 2010

Jousting break (Oz variety)

I'm tired of rewriting and revising -- let's have a jousting break!

Thanks to all concerned in making the video. It's great!

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A truly worthy teaching from Geoffroi de Charny

There's much to dislike about medieval chivalry, but every once in a while...

From Charny's Book of Chivalry:

...those who have the will to achieve great worth [who] because of their great desire to reach and attain that high honor … do not care what suffering they have to endure, but turn everything into great enjoyment. Indeed, it is a fine thing to perform great deeds, for those who rise to great achievement cannot rightly grow tired or sated with it; so the more they achieve, the less they feel they have achieved; this stems from the delight they take in striving constantly to reach greater heights. And great good comes from performing these deeds, for the more one does, the less one is proud of oneself, and it always seems that there is so much left to do.

A lot of Olympians understand this.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

"The customer is always right" goes out the window in France

Or to be fair to what is really a very large country, one corner of France.

I have to admit I was somewhat shocked by the stupidity/rabble rousing revealed in this news report from Al Jazeera English. When you hear that Muslims in Europe will not integrate with the older population, remember this.

Where are those terrifyingly threatening backward baseball caps, anyway?

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Two more rather odd 14th century names from the Chronicle of the Good Duke

How about: Ciquot de la Saigne and Ortingo de Ortenye?

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Hawley and Shakell hit the stage

I have a bad feeling that someone told me about this (Will McLean?) and I can't remember who. But it's not in my blog, or his, as far as I can tell so here goes.

A few of you may remember that back at the end of the year I said that there was a story waiting to be told about , who captured a Spanish count in the 14th century wars and spent decades trying to cash in on their "good fortune." Hawley ended up being murdered in Westminster Abbey (I recall being told it was during high mass) by thugs working for a royal duke, who wanted control of the captive to promote his diplomatic schemes. I said I would make a good medieval murder mystery or maybe a movie...

...little dreaming that there is a stage play from the 1840s online here. I haven't had a chance to read it yet so I can't tell you whether it is any good. But I bet John of Gaunt is the bad guy.

Next: the lost Broadway musical about Hawley-Smoot.

Update: The play Count de Denia, or the Spaniard's Ransom, is pretty dreadful pseudo-Shakespeare. John of Gaunt is the bad guy; otherwise great liberties are taken with history.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Book title needed

I am working away at a book about French military history in the 14th century, and I've just come to the realization that my planned title probably won't work out.

I was thinking of calling it Men-at-Arms, which goes nicely with my previous book Deeds of Arms. It is also appropriate because people holding the status of men at arms hold a key position in the mental universe of the document I'm working on. It's men at arms this, men at arms that, men at arms the third thing.

So if this is the case, why not use Men-at-Arms?

Well, there are two other books that already have the title. One is a general history of -- men-at-arms! I have never read it, but a former colleague of mine used it in his military history class, and he had a good instinct for what students might find accessible. My guess is that this book is used by a lot of profs. The other book is even worse news. Terry Pratchett has written a book of that name, and when you go to and put into words men at arms, you get screens worth of Terry Pratchett-related material before you ever find anything else.

So I hesitate to use what might be the most natural title in fear that potential readers will never find the book. Is this an unreasonable fear? If I am right, what might be a good replacement?

If you want to help me with this, let me tell you a little bit about the book's subject matter. in about 1350, a prominent French knight named Geoffroi de Charny was inspired or even asked by the King to put together a list of questions about how the law of arms, which regulated the relations between one night and another, applied to three knightly activities, jousting, tournaments, and war. Charny came up with some interesting legal problems, which are group of prominent French knights were to sort out. We don't know if this actually happened, but we have no answers to these problems, which is why most of you have never heard of Charny's questions. I am using the questions, however, to show what Charny thought was most important about the law of arms, as well as a number of other issues of honor and military science. Even with no answers, questions themselves stake out some interesting territory. I have already talked about the jousting and tournament questions in a book called Jousts and Tournaments. This book is about the much longer section of questions on war.

Given this, relevant subjects touched on by this book include: Royal reform of the French army, the Hundred Years War, the law of arms, Charny (increasingly well known among fans of chivalry), chivalry (but not as much as you might think).

I would like a title where the first phrase or main title is not obscure. There are too many academic books where a boring subject is disguised behind a title like this:
Long Words Bother Me: Winnie the Pooh and Heiddiger's influence on modern readers. Not a very successful disguise, is it? But people do this all the time. I don't want my very interesting book to look like this fortunately fictional monograph.

I appreciate all serious or hilarious answers. If it is just vaguely cute, though...

Image: the competition.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Two sides of the Venice Carnival: From the Big Picture

Sunday, February 14, 2010

History and forgiveness

Once again Brad DeLong points me in the right direction, which in this case is to a column by Ta-nehisi Coates at the Atlantic site:

It's been twenty years since Nelson Mandela got out. This was like the defining political event of my youth. I was either a freshman or sophomore in high school, can't remember which. What I think is pretty cliche: Whatever South Africa's problems, the fact that the country (and its leaders) did not descend into mass revenge mode is an enduring tribute to compassion and empathy.

It's a great object lesson on how to handle being wronged. It's one of the things I've struggled to accept as an African-American. There is no Rosewood. Often you are wronged, and by your hand, or even in your lifetime, your persecutors will never be brought to account. There are limits to our justice. It doesn't mean you shrink in the face of injustice (South Africa did no such thing) but that you recognize that it's not really in your power to even the odds.

I've been thinking about this a lot in my study of the crimes of slavery, the Civil War and Jim Crow. I don't think the scales will ever be evened. I don't even know how you would begin to do that in any kind of moral way. That said, I want to differentiate between recognizing your limits, and sweeping a wrong under the rug. Our greatest problem, in regards to the legacy of white supremacy, is not it's effects, it's that we don't understand the rudiments of what happened.

There is a long and interesting comment section for this post, much of it about the Confederate general Longstreet, but on the main topic this response is sterling:
You know, I think part of what you're getting at here is revelatory. Most people believe forgiveness is conceptually similar to absolution, in that it is a transaction between people, given from one to another for wrongs against them, and that it wipes the slate clean.

In fact, forgiveness is a far sweeter and more complex thing. It has little to do with the person or thing being forgiven; they are incidental. Instead, it is a letting go within yourself; a surrendering of the right to feel victimized and hurt. You use the example of slavery and systematic dehumanization and oppression of blacks and the longing to have some "evening of the odds". Who is most affected by gripping the hurt of that injustice so strongly, so closely for so long? Who does it weight down and fill with anger and tip over and spill onto the ground? Not the people who perpetrate the injustice; just the people who suffer it.

The revelatory aspect of your post comes in your distinction between recognizing and calling out injustice, and allowing it to take hold in your heart like a cancer: "It doesn't mean you shrink in the face of injustice..." to "That said, I want to differentiate between recognizing your limits, and sweeping a wrong under the rug."

To reiterate: forgiving a wrong is not absolving a wrongdoer. 99% of people conflate these two very, very different concepts. Forgiveness is something you do for yourself; absolution is something you do to someone else.

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A creaky old country

That's what I sometimes think when I read the news out of the USA. The most recent exhibit is a column by Bob Herbert in the New York Times:

Two weeks ago, as I was getting ready to take off for Palo Alto, Calif., to cover a conference on the importance of energy and infrastructure for the next American economy, The Times’s Keith Bradsher was writing from Tianjin, China, about how the Chinese were sprinting past everybody else in the world, including the United States, in the race to develop clean energy.

That we are allowing this to happen is beyond stupid. China is a poor country with nothing comparable to the tremendous research, industrial and economic resources that the U.S. has been blessed with. Yet they’re blowing us away — at least for the moment — in the race to the future.

Our esteemed leaders in Washington can’t figure out how to do anything more difficult than line up for a group photo. Put Americans back to work? You must be kidding. Health care? We’ve been working on it for three-quarters of a century. Infrastructure? Don’t ask.

It really is a disgrace that China with all its resource problems and under the leadership of the Communist Party seems to have a much more forward-thinking attitude about some really basic stuff. It's like Americans have given up on practicality in favor of theological conflict -- about evolution, marriage equality, and "don't ask, don't tell."

Thanks to Brad DeLong for the heads-up.

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

A great Canadian work of art

I have said elsewhere that I am a sucker for great ephemeral works of art, for instance (some) Olympic opening ceremonies.

Last night's pagentry was not perfect, but it had perfect moments.

My first reaction, sparked by the beginning act featuring representatives of First Nations, was to think, almost seriously:

"I hear that Jack Vance is blind, but I have a feeling he may have scripted this anyway. He sees things more vividly with his inner eye than most of us with the outer ones."

But really it was better than that; not the creation of a 92-year-old American I admire very much, but of much younger Canadians I don't know with dazzling technical skills and first-class creative ideas. And performers who could dance energetically for an hour straight! And fly!

Even if you saw it on TV, you owe it to yourself to see the Big Picture presentation, to remind you, and see details you might have missed.

Image: One of those perfect moments. I had a hard time choosing.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Them good old days

From the Chronicle of the Good Duke, describing an expedition against English soldiers in the Bourbonnois country, late 14th century.

So it was agreed to go to besiege La Bruyère in order that, when the Duke their lord came he would have to do only one siege. And in this way La Bruyère was besieged, and that was where the common people of the Bourbonnois they came to the siege, a d2000 of them; and the Count of Sancerre broke its ditches and the water ran out and the good people made so many faggots that they filled up the dishes and they made a "cat" to go to the foot of the wall, which was mined, and after that they threw fire inside, which burned everything. That way the great captains of those inside were all taken, Messire Richard Mauverdin and Jacques Sadellier; and the remaining English in the garrison inside were handed over to the commoners, who turned them into a big barbecue (qui en firent de grosses charbonées).
Another episode in the ages-long war between peasants and townspeople (on one side) and professional warriors.

Image: I don't know if this counts as a "cat" or not.

Update: Will McLean suggests that the movable shed below in the foreground is a "cat."

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Scrope v. Grosvenor

The English lawsuit, Scrope v. Grosvenor has a prominent place in the history of heraldry, since a record of the case before the court of chivalry has been preserved. I am going to be lazy and reproduce part of the Wikipedia entry, mainly because I couldn't do better myself:

In 1385, King Richard II of England invaded Scotland with his army. During this invasion, two of the king’s knights realized that they were using the same coat of arms. Richard Scrope, 1st Baron Scrope of Bolton from Bolton in Yorkshire and Sir Robert Grosvenor from Cheshire were both bearing arms blazoned Azure a Bend Or. When Scrope brought an action, Grosvenor maintained that his ancestor had come to England with William the Conqueror bearing these arms and that the family had borne them since. The case was brought before a military court and presided over by the constable of England. Several hundred witnesses were heard and these included John of Gaunt, King of Castile and Duke of Lancaster and Geoffrey Chaucer and a then-little known Welshman called Owain Glyndŵr. It was not until 1389 that the case was finally decided in Scrope’s favor. Grosvenor was allowed to continue bearing the arms within a bordure argent for difference. Neither party was happy with the decision, so when King Richard II gave his personal verdict on 27 May 1390 he confirmed that Grosvenor could not bear the differenced arms. His opinion was that these two shields were too similar for unrelated families in the same country to bear.

Unfortunately, it is not easy to get beyond modern summaries of this sort. The last time a record of the case was printed was 1832, and the book seems to be very rare; the University of Toronto's copy is on microfilm, with all the inconvenience and lack of readability that that implies. Today, however, it occurred to me that it might be on Google Books, a resource that is extremely useful for out of copyright materials.

At the moment, only half of the two volume work is available on preview. Maybe volume 1 (probably Stanford University's copy) was too beat up to be scanned? Volume 1, I am sad to say, has the actual transcript of the trial -- which I recall was in Latin -- but volume 2 which is a history of a family of Scrope contains a lot of information, and includes short biographies of the witnesses at the trial (who attested to where they had seen the arms borne by the two principals). Somebody out there might be very interested in this material.

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This is a test


Celebrity intellectuals

If you want to be known world-wide as wise and insightful, being wise and insightful is not enough -- or maybe even necessary. Consider the case of Bernard-Henri Lévy, a French philosopher currently being pummeled for making a dumb mistake in public. From Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Ed.: :
Ten years ago, Pierre Bourdieu coined a term for certain French intellectuals whose writings counted for less than their TV appearances. He called them “ les fast-thinkers.” Everyone knew who the sociologist had in mind as the prototype of this phenomenon. Long before the American public got used to hearing references to J-Lo and K-Fed, the French press had dubbed him BHL. His books, movies, TV appearances, political interventions, and romances have been a staple of the French media for more than three decades. But only in the past five years has he become as much a fixture in the U.S. media as the French....

The role of the intellectual as famous, full-time spokesman for the Universal is well-established in France. It began with Voltaire and culminated in Sartre, its last great exemplar. (Not that other philosophers have not emerged in the meantime, of course, but none has occupied quite the same position.) From time to time, Lévy has mourned the passing of this grand tradition, while hinting, not too subtly, that it lives on in him. Clearly there is a steady French market for his line in historical reenactments of intellectual engagement.

It seems surprising, though, to find the BHL brand suddenly being imported to these shores after years of neglect -- particularly during a decade when Francophobia has become a national sport.

But like the song says, there’s a thin line between love and hate. Lévy has capitalized on American ambivalence towards France -- the potential of fascination to move from “-phobia” to “-philia” -- by performing a certain role. He is, in effect, the simulacrum of Sartre, minus the anti-imperialism and neo-Marxism.

“Lévy plays on both registers,” explains Goldhammer. “At the height of anti-French feeling in the U.S., in the period just before the Iraq War, he positioned himself as a philo-American. He made himself the avenger of Daniel Pearl. Arrogant he might be, airily infuriating in just the right way to confirm the philistine's loathing of the abstract and abstruse that philosophy is taken to embody, and yet there he was, pouring scorn on "Islamofascism" and touring the country with the New Yorker reader's nonpareil Francophile, Adam Gopnik.... Lévy chose his moment well. He insinuated himself into the American subconscious by playing against type.”

"Historical reenactments of intellectual engagement." Wow! That is the most cutting thing I've heard since...ever. This implicit characterization of life at the "top" of the intellectual "heap" (or is it "intellectual" heap?) may console you for not being part of this particular club.

Image: Voltaire -- bad example?

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Endeavor leaves the Big Loony Bin

Monday, February 08, 2010

Sun halo over Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Sunday, February 07, 2010

"All the fuss we made over these writers, as if what they said was a matter of life and death to us."

I have just finished reading one of the most remarkable books I've read in a very long time: Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is a difficult book to describe; one might say it is a memoir, perhaps somewhat fictionalized, of an upper-class Iranian woman, partly raised in Britain and the United States and now living in the USA, which focuses on what it was like to teach English literature in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq. In particular, she talks about her interactions with some of her students during this period. Nafisi comes across as a secular person, and she sees the Islamic revolution as nothing but a disaster. For instance page 119, when she talks to one of her students, a Khomeini supporter, about the trial of a supposed counterrevolutionary:

I told him they had no proof that the gentleman in question was a CIA agent, in any case I doubt if the CIA would be foolish enough to employ someone like him. But even those whom he called the functionaries of the old regime, regardless of their guilt, shouldn't be treated this way. I cannot understand why the Islamic government had to gloat over these people's deaths, brandishing their photographs after they had been tortured and executed. Why did they show us these pictures? Why did our students every day shout slogans demanding new death sentences?

Mr. Bahri did not respond at first. He stood still, his head bent, his hands linked in front of him. Then he started to speak slowly and with tens precision. Well, they have to pay, he said they're on trial for their past deeds. The Iranian nation will not tolerate their crimes. And these new crimes? I asked as soon as he had uttered his last word. These new crimes? Should they be tolerated in silence? Everyone nowadays is an enemy of God -- former ministers and educators, prostitutes, leftist revolutionaries: they are murdered daily. What is his and his had these people done to deserve such treatment?

His face had become hard, and of the shadow of obstinacy has colored his eyes. He repeated that people had to pay for their past crimes. This is not a game, he said. It is a revolution. I asked him if I too was on trial for my past. But he was right in a sense: we all have to pay, but not for the crimes we were accused of. There were other scores to settle. I did not know then that I had already begun to pay, that what was happening was part of the payment. It was much later that these feelings would be clarified.

This book has been criticized for giving a very negative view of the Islamic Republic of Iran, of women and even more men in Iran and even of Islam itself. Notably, Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran by Fatemeh Keshavarz (another Iranian academic based in United States and writing in English) accuses Nafisi of promoting a neo-Orientalist agenda and confirming all the old clichés of the backward, static and exotic East. I don't see it myself. There's nothing exotic about the presentation of life in Tehran in this book, and there's plenty of action and change. What is really wrong with the criticisms I've heard is that they assume that Nafisi had to write the book that the critics wanted to read, or have other people read. This is a very personal memoir, not the history of revolutionary Iran. It tells Nafisi's story of how the revolution affected her as a teacher and scholar, and how it seemed to affect some of her more memorable students -- and not just the ones he liked. I have yet to read a review that picks up on what I think is very important point: this memoir might easily be about the Cultural Revolution in China, or the Jacobin revolution in France, or any other number of similar upheavals.

The quotation at the head of this post tells the story as I read it. It is about reading, teaching, learning, speaking about intellectual subjects when it is really important and far from easy. Again, p. 338:

I said to him that I wanted to write a book [after she left Iran] in which I would thank the Islamic Republic for all the things it had taught me -- to love Austen and James and ice cream and freedom. I said, right now it is not enough to appreciate all this; I want to write about it. He said, you will not be able to write about Austen without writing about us, about this place where you rediscovered Austen. You will not be able to put us out of your head. Try, you'll see. The Austen you know is so irretrievably linked to this place, this land and these trees. You don't think that this is the same Austen you read with Dr. French -- it was Dr. French [probably at U. of Oklahoma], wasn't it? Do you? This is the Austen you read here, in the place where the film censor is nearly blind and where they hang people in the streets and put a curtain across the sea to segregate men and women. I said, When I write about all that perhaps I'll become more generous, less angry.

If you like that sample of Nafisi's writing, there is lots more where that came from.

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Friday, February 05, 2010

The American experience of war

John Quiggin at Crooked Timber has some interesting remarks on an article in the American Conservative which critiques the recent faith that the USA has shown in military solutions. The author of that article, Andrew Bacevich, said, "Contra Kristol, force is an 'instrument' in the same sense that a slot machine or a roulette wheel qualifies as an instrument." (Maybe he is a conservative!) Quiggin comments:

First, it’s important to remember that, for a very long time, America’s standard experience of war was that of near-continuous advance towards victory. For everyone else involved, the Great War involved years of pointless slaughter, with thousands dying for every yard of mud gained or lost. The US entered late and its forces immediately turned the tide of battle. World War II was similar – by mid-1942, a few months after Pearl Harbor the Allies were advancing on every front.

Paradoxically, as these two cases indicate, the US faith in force reflects a long history of aversion to foreign wars, going back to the Founders. The US had its share of bellicose nationalists, but compared to nearly all previous states, where success in war was taken as the primary measure of greatness, the US in the 19th century stands out for its pacific nature. But on the relatively rare occasions when the US went to war, it usually did so under (perceived and sometimes actual) conditions of necessity and with the unqualified commitment that entailed.

In the second half of the 20th century, as Europe finally tired and sickened of war, the US went in the opposite direction, taking military power to be a standard instrument of national policy. Sixty years of failure have not shaken this new faith in force.

There's more here.

Image: Japan surrenders. As Bacevich says, this kind of unambiguous ending of a war is a rarity.

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Thursday, February 04, 2010


For an explanation and more pics, go here.

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Why Pakistanis don't see the USA as an ally -- the long-range consequences of colonialism

US policy in the Middle East depends in part on the cooperation of the governments and populations in areas where unfriendly groups exist. But despite the fact that most Muslims in the Middle East mostly oppose people who claim to represent "Islamic government," there is very little enthusiasm for a US alliance. From a distance it looks a lot like sheer crankiness. Juan Cole at Informed Comment tries to explain, using a current example, of how Pakistanis like others with a recent history of colonial occupation, see US and NATO intervention as the same old, same old, and deeply humiliating.

Juan Cole writes

Opinion polls show that many observers in Pakistan already feel that the US is humiliating their country and sowing discord there, and this revelation of the presence of US troops on the ground, along with the Department of Defense role in building girls' schools, will further raise hackles (and risks making girls' schools unpopular even among non-Taliban).

The USG Open Source Center translated an editorial by Dr Hussein Ahmed Paracha: "How Much Dignity is Left?", published in Nawa-e Waqt in Urdu on January 18, 2010, which exemplified this point of view:

'The United States has been attacking within Pakistani land with drones for the last four to five years and is also killing innocent people. . . There were 44 drone attacks in 2009 alone in which more than 700 innocent people, majority of whom were innocent children, elderly, and women, were killed. According to the statistics provided by various agencies, those who belonged to "Al-Qa'ida" or the Taliban could not be more than 18. . .

Having made sure that the wealth of our national dignity has turned to ashes and the last flame has burned down, the US Administration has now announced a program of naked screening for the passengers coming from a few countries. All these countries are Muslim countries, and Pakistan is one of them. Yes, the same Pakistan, which is the frontline US ally in war against terror. Pakistan has danced to death in others' parties and has made fun of itself. It is the same Pakistan, which left its citizens starving and spent $35 billion in others' war. . .

The United States is bent on treating us shamelessly. Moreover, we pay too much regard to anyone coming from the United States. The Blackwater operatives, who committed heinous and inhuman crimes in Iraq, come wherever they please in Pakistan without visa or travel document. They keep on roaming around in vehicles with fake number plates with dangerous weapons. These US officials point guns at the security people if asked to reveal their identity. During a few minutes debate, there is a series of phone calls from the high officials, and they, who consider Pakistan as their playground, are allowed to go with honor.'

In an opinion poll done last summer, 64% of the Pakistani public said that they saw the US as an 'enemy,' and only 9% saw it as an ally.

The previous post on robowars with robotic bombers is relevant here.

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O brave new world!

From Crooked Timber:

BBC Radio 4 had a fascinating programme the other day about the use of drones in warfare by the US, British and Dutch military. It is still available at iplayer here . A guy gets in his car and drives to work in an office in Nevada. From his office he controls drones in Afghanistan. Occasionally he kills people (who can’t shoot back at him, since he’s 8000 miles away). When he’s done, he gets in his car and drives home to his wife and kids. ... Some of the people controlling drones are in the military. Some of them are civilian contractors, perhaps based in a different country to the army they’re fighting for (such as British commercial operators based in Surrey, flying surveillance drones for the Dutch in Afghanistan.)... if the Taliban contrived a way to blow up one of these operators on their daily commute in Nevada or Surrey, would it be a terrorist murder of a non-combatant or a legitimate act of war?

Image: a drone aircraft.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Messing with the flag?

Above is a representation of the Iranian flag. Note the green stripe.

Below is a picture of a recent official ceremony in Iran, with a depiction of the flag (in the shape of Iran) in which green is replaced with blue.

Why is this? Is it a technical error? Or has it been changed because the reform movement has adopted green (a favorite Islamic color) to represent itself?

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty this is not the only case of blue/green substitution.

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Upcoming book from Dean Bavington

Dean Bavington is an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in Environmental History at Nipissing University. I expect his first book, from University of British Columbia Press in May, to have a big impact on resource debates.

Here's the publisher's blurb:

Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse
Dean L.Y. Bavington

The Newfoundland and Labrador cod fishery was once the most successful commercial ground fishery in the world. When it collapsed in 1992, fishermen, scholars, and scientists pointed to failures in management such as uncontrolled harvesting as likely culprits. Managed Annihilation makes the case that the idea of natural resource management itself was the problem. The collapse occurred when the fisheries were state managed and still, nearly two decades later, there is no recovery in sight. Although the collapse raised doubts among policy-makers about their ability to understand, predict, and control nature, their ultimate goal of control through management has not wavered – it has simply been transferred from wild fish to fishermen and farmed cod.

Unlike other efforts to make sense of the tragedy of the commons of the northern cod fishery and its halting recovery, Bavington calls into question the very premise of management and managerial ecology and offers a critical explanation that seeks to uncover alternatives obscured by this dominant way of relating to nature.
– Bonnie McCay, Department of Human Ecology, Rutgers University

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Tethys Behind Titan: Two moons of Saturn

Monday, February 01, 2010

Half a million visits

Today this blog passed the half-a-million visits mark.


The Chronicle of the Good Duke and "modern times"

For some fans medieval history and some medieval reenactors in particular,the 14th century is "The One True Century." It certainly is flashy, but there are times I find it difficult to think of this period as a medieval one. Here's just one point: they had guns, and throughout the period that Froissart, (who was wildly popular as the historian of chivalry) wrote about, 1330-1400, they used them more and more routinely.

What follows is a rough translation of a passage in The Chronicle the Good Duke, written in the 15th century about events of the previous one. The ostensible hero of this book, Duke Louis of Bourbon, is taking part in an expedition to retake Normandy from the King of Navarre, Charles the Bad:

The Duke of Bourbon, the Constable and the Admiral went with their people to Gavre', the finest castle in Normandy, and they set up their siege, and opposed to them was Ferrandon, who had left Evreux, inside the castle; it happened one day that he went to check out powder for the cannons and artillery in one tower and when he was checking a candle fell on the power, which burned Ferrandon's whole face, of which he died and two others with him.
Image: a manuscript picture of a gun from 1400.

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