Friday, March 26, 2010

Magical thinking -- a scary survey of the present crisis

Allan Gregg talks to Chris Hedges on his book Empire of Illusion. Thanks to Arabist.net for drawing my attention to this TVOntario interview.


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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Now the walls say “Long Live Barcelona”.


After extensive travels outside of Baghdad, Nir Rosen reports:

As worldwide attention has returned to Iraq in the run-up to the March 7 elections, a new chorus of worry has emerged, concerned that the corrupt political manoeuvring of some Shiite parties – who have succeeded in banning prominent nationalist and secularist candidates under the thin pretence of de-Baathification – would lead first to a Sunni boycott and then to renewed sectarian violence and war. But just as the dismantling of the Sunni Awakening groups last year failed to produce the disaster many analysts predicted, the results of the election seem unlikely to stoke the embers of a new insurgency.

The continued sectarian exhortations of Iraqi politicians have been met with cynicism by the public, whose support for religious parties has diminished considerably. Iraqis are still “sectarian” to a degree: most Shiites prefer the company of Shiites and Sunnis the company of Sunnis. The vitriol and hatred of the war have faded, but a legacy of bitterness and suspicion remains. What has gone is the fear of the other – and it is this fear that led to the rise of the militias and the sectarian religious parties.

During my travels in Iraq last month – in the capital and, more importantly, in the surrounding provinces of Diyala, Babil, and Salahuddin – I found Sunnis and Shiites alike talking of the civil war as if it were a painful memory from the distant past. Just as the residents of Northern Ireland refer obliquely to “the Troubles”, Iraqis speak of “the Events” or “the Sectarianism” – as in, “my brother was killed in the Sectarianism”. Uneducated Iraqis might even say “when the Sunni and Shiite happened.”
If you are really interested in Iraq, you owe it to yourself to read the whole thing.
On my trips to Iraq in years past, I made a habit of scanning the walls of Baghdad neighbourhoods for bits of sectarian graffiti, spray-painted slogans that were pro-Mahdi Army, pro-Saddam, anti-Shiite or pro-insurgency. This time, however, there were almost none to be found; the exhortations to sectarian struggle had been replaced with the enthusiasms of youthful football fans: now the walls say “Long Live Barcelona”.
Image: Electioneering.

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

A Matthew Paris illustration, mid-13th century


Just for the heck of it -- the French defeat at Gaza.

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Monday, March 01, 2010

Military ordinances in St. Louis's army in Egypt, 1250

I am currently writing a book about Charny's Questions on War, which are concerned with resolving conflicts between men at arms according to the laws of arms. One thing that I have learned in the process of researching this book is that the law of arms as Charny saw it, and not just him either, was not the same as the rules for disciplining and managing an army. These rules were called ordinances, and they concerned such things as discouraging theft and fights within the army.

Today I was reading Matthew Paris's English History, an abbreviation of his Chronica Majora, and found a perfect example of the scope of ordinances. It also illustrates very nicely the potential for conflicts within armies, especially when high-ranking men from a variety of countries were in the same host.

This example comes from Paris's account of the crusade of St. Louis, King Louis IX of France, and it can be found in Matthew Paris's English History translated by J. A. Giles 2: 354-5. It concerns an English nobleman named William Longuespee who is campaigning with the French crusading force in Egypt, in 1250. He learns that merchants are passing near the crusading force, carrying luxury goods and necessities of life, which the Crusaders are short of. William attacks and successfully brings home the goodies. But the French (whom Matthew Paris famously despised) are not exactly overjoyed.

The French, who had remained inactive, and were in great want, stimulated by feelings of envy and avarice, met him, on his arrival, in a hostile way, and, like daring robbers, forcibly took from him all that he had gained, and imputing it to him as a sufficient fault, that, in his rash presumption, contrary to the King's order, and the ordinances of the chiefs of the army, and also to military discipline, he had proudly and foolishly separated from the whole body of the army.

Later William Longuespee goes to complain to King Louis of France; before they are done speaking the King's brother, the Count of Artois who "was the head and chief of this violent transgression and robbery," came in ranting about the evil actions of William. Among his complaints was this passage:

This man, in contempt of you and the whole army, urged by his own impetuosity, has of his own accord clandestinely carried off booty by night, contrary to our decrees; and owing to this, the fame of him alone, and not of the French King or his people, has spread to all the provinces of the East; he has obscured all our names and titles.

The end of the episode is interesting. King Louis refuses to do anything about the situation, excusing himself to William by saying "thus easily can a quarrel be originated, which God forbid should occur in this army. It is necessary at such a critical time to endure such things with equanimity, and even worse things than these." William, in contempt of Louis's supine (sensible?) attitude, leaves the army and goes off to Acre.

Image: Matthew Paris praying, as drawn by himself.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

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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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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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

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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Monday, February 01, 2010

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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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Revised thoughts on two of Charny's questions

Those of you who were interested in this post and the conversation with Will McLean in the comments and on his blog may want to know that I've revised my position. Thanks to Will for pushing me to revise and rethink. A serious, engaged critic is extraordinarily valuable.

As I once said of a very helpful senior scholar who looked over some of my unfinished material, "Even when he's wrong he's right."

Here's the current key passage on men-at-arms being dead, captured, or desconfit.
I interpret these questions to mean that the idea of being defeated, desconfit, was so unwelcome that even the dead would reject it. We can easily imagine that being called "defeated" stung, but it seems that there is more to it. Desconfit does not mean defeated in some neutral sense. One relevant but general sense means "destroyed, broken, ruined, reduced to nothingness." There is also is an old and more specific military sense in which desconfit means "routed," a concept of both moral and practical significance for horsemen. Given the existence of the different meanings for this loaded adjective, we can see that there would be room for disagreement about who could be called desconfit and how bad that label might be. Was it a state worse than death? Could running away open a man at arms to an accusation of the deepest dishonor? Desconfit certainly could conjure up a picture of a man at arms running from danger with the enthusiastic help of his horse, for which running away was the most natural response; and the picture is a disgraceful one, at least for the man.
See also Will's personal answer to another Charny question.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Becoming Evil: How ordinary people commit genocide and mass killing, by James Waller


Over the years Phil Paine and I have occasionally sat down and talked about some book that we wished existed. One such book was "Famous Social Science Experiments You Should Know About."

This is pretty much that book. It talks about the nature of human nature, from a social psychology and evolutionary psychology point of view. Some of the most important social science experiments of the 20th century are here, described well, and related to the greater theme, which is how ordinary people become perpetrators of genocide. It is systematic, clearly argued and a good basis for further research. There are some things about it that could've been improved but nothing that reduces its importance.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Phil Ochs

One of the most distinctive voices of the protest folk music of the 1960s, Phil Ochs is pretty much forgotten now. The song I was talking about in the last post, "The War is Over," starts about 6:10.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I believe the war is over...

If you are old enough, name that tune. And the singer.

Back to the present, sort of. Juan Cole argues in a post that the Iraq war is over, and that Obama's policy has worked, but we have not noticed it because media attention has been elsewhere. Bolding indicates my emphasis.

The Iraqi military and police, over which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had largely gained control, proved able to keep order about as well as had their American and British colleagues. In July, 2009, with the US no longer patrolling, attacks and deaths declined by a third, and went on down from there. Despite two dramatic bombing waves in the capital, in August and November, the situation has in most places calmed down on an everyday basis. Flashpoints such as Mosul and Kirkuk remain, but had been violent when the US military was there, too.

Most Americans do not realize that US troops seldom patrol or engage in combat in Iraq anymore, accounting for why none were killed in hostile action in December. The total number of US troops in Iraq has fallen from a maximum of 160,000 during the Bush administration's 'surge' to about 110,000. After the early March parliamentary elections, another big withdrawal will begin, bringing then number down to 50,000 or so non-combat troops by September 1.

Critics of Obama often charge him with failing to end the Iraq War. But there is no longer an Iraq War. There are US bases in a country where indigenous forces are still fighting a set of low-intensity struggles, with little US involvement. Obama is having his troops leave exactly as quickly as the Iraqi parliament asked him to. Most US troops in Iraq seem mainly to be in the moving business now, shipping out 1.5 million pieces of equipment.

The last 4,000 Marines will hand over responsibility for al-Anbar Province, once among the more violent places on earth, to the US Army on Saturday, and shortly thereafter the Marines will depart the country.

...

Contrary to the consensus at Washington think tanks, Obama is ahead of schedule in his Iraq withdrawal, to which he is committed, and which will probably unfold pretty much as he has outlined in his speeches. The attention of the US public has turned away from Iraq so decisively that Obama's achievement in facing down the Pentagon on this issue and supporting Iraq's desire for practical steps toward sovereignty has largely been missed in this country.

...

Obama was handed a series of catastrophes. He has done better in handling some than others. But his decision on Iraq was the right one, the one that allows the US to depart with dignity, and allows Iraqis to work out their own internal problems. It is in this sense that Obama won the Iraq War.


What really struck me about the post is the video clip from Al Jazeera on "Sovereignty Day;" I like to think that I read a bit deeper and wider than many people, but the situation depicted here mostly passed me by:



Or maybe it's the fact that video gives you a whole different feel than even good analytical prose.

This indicates to me that I've got to read more news from outside the USA.

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Two Charny questions answered?

A provisional text hot off the screen:
There was an entire lore surrounding the terminology of warfare, which was meant among other things to clarify what was honorable or at least expected behavior. One of the questions I would most like answered, were that possible, it is W37:
Since I have heard it said that one is able to leave and retreat from a battle from the defeated side, if he has acted in seven ways without being killed or taken, without being reproached. How can this be and what are the seven ways?

It would certainly be very illuminating to have Charny's list of seven mitigating circumstances, and whose comments on them, given that he was twice captured and must have twice surrendered himself, even though he did not consider this something that could be done lightly (W79). Unless Charny is disingenuously presenting a list of his own as something he heard from others, the list of seven implies serious discussion, perhaps long debate that unfortunately never found the pen to write it down. There was also debate about defeat, and when it took place, as seen in the curious questions W28 and W29:
There is a battle between two captains in which one party is defeated and many of the party are dead, concerning whom some say that some of those who are dead are not dead but defeated; and many other say of those who are dead that they are dead and defeated. How can this be?

There is a battle as above in which there are many captured, concerning whom some say that although they are captured, they do not regard them as defeated; and there are many others who consider them to be captured and defeated. How can this be?
I interpret these questions to mean that the idea of being defeated, desconfit, was so unwelcome that even the dead would reject it. We can easily imagine that being called "defeated" stung, but it seems that there is more to it. Desconfit in some Old and Middle French texts is more specific than "defeated." It means "put to rout." The answer to these two questions may be that the dead and captured members of the defeated, that is "routed," side are in the judgment of some precisely those who were not routed. They are dead or captured because they did not run away. If this is correct, we are being presented once again with the picture of a man at arms running from danger with the enthusiastic help of his horse, for which running away was the most natural response; and the picture is meant to be a disgraceful one, at least for the man.


Update:
Will McLean critiques my position; my reply to him is in the comments on his blog.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A barrier fight in time of war, as told by the Chronicle of the Good Duke


This incident took place about 1363, and the writer's chief informant was the John de Chastelmorand mentioned as the standardbearer below. He told this story in the 1420s.
Two days before the English came before Troyes, a gentleman named John de Nedonchel, captain of Plancy, spoke to the Duke of Bourbon, saying "If you, my redoubtable lord, wish to grant me fifty men at arms, gentlemen, I will make for you a fine adventure, for the English ought to pass by this path along the river."

The Duke of Bourbon immediately had those of his household whom he loved the most mount up to go there, including John de Chastelmorand, who carried his standard, and many others of his household, and they went to Plancy where they remained for two days before the English came, and the people of the Duke of Bourbon made before the gate the most beautiful barrier that anyone had seen for a long time, and they called it La Barrière amoreuse, and it was convenient for the English to pass by.

So it happens that the English came to pass by Plancy, and all the companions were armed outside their barrier, and the English seeing them put foot to the ground to come and fight; seeing this, those of the garrison of Plancy, because there were so many English opposed to them, withdrew inside their barrier where they were well stocked with shot; and immediately the English advanced, thinking to gain the barrier, and those of Plancy and of the Duke of Bourbon vigorously defended against them by their shot and their lances, and there were performed the most beautiful arms lasting nearly two hours; for when those inside saw their advantage they came out all at once, and charged in among the English, and their charges succeeding to their honor, they withdrew inside, and these charges which those of the barrier made kill seven English men at arms and the shot injured a large crowd of them. And in enduring this danger there died at this barrier [three men of the Duke of Bourbon; and one was seriously injured.]
Image: an SCA barrier fight, with no "shot" (French, trait) involved.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Wit and wisdom of the Hundred Years War


I am working on my translation of the Chronicle of the Good Duke and am at the part where the author's informant is remembering the Breton campaigns of the 1360s. Some memorable lines seem to have stuck in his mind.

If we are to believe the Chronicle, Bertrand du Guesclin, Constable of France and a Breton himself, used this local proverb to convince Duke Louis of Bourbon ("the good duke") to attack the castle of Jugon early in their joint campaign:
He who has Brittany without Jugon
Has a cloak without a hood.

The Chronicle also describes the siege of Brest, also in Brittany, where both sides were in trouble. The French outside could not find anything for their horses to eat because of continuous heavy rain; the pro-English garrison were worse off -- they were eating their horses.

The garrison commander, the famous Englishman Robert Knolles, made this observation during negotiations with his French counterparts :
You have made me eat my horses here in this castle of Brest, as I made you eat yours at the siege of Rennes; so go the changes of fortune and war.
And he didn't surrender.

Image: Brest, showing surviving fortifications, historic vessels, and modern infrastructure

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

On Killing: The psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

I read this book in hopes of getting some insight into the war atrocities that routinely accompanied the sack of cities in pre-modern warfare. This book, however, was surprisingly weak on war crimes. It's much better on the psychological barriers to killing in warfare, how such reluctance can be overcome, and what the long-term price is.

If anyone can direct me to the book I am really looking for, I'd appreciate it.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Defeat by 1000 cuts?

Mark LeVine in Al Jazeera:
Indeed, far from heralding a more successful US effort to stamp out Islamist terrorism, the soon to be deepening footprint in Yemen is a sure sign of America's defeat in the war against violent extremism in the Muslim world...

Think about it. One angry young man with about three ounces (around 80 grams) of explosive material, $2,000, and a pair of specially tailored underwear has completely disrupted the US aviation system.

It does not even matter that he failed to blow up the plane.

The costs associated with preventing the next attack from succeeding will measure in the tens of billions of dollars - new technologies, added law enforcement and security personnel on and off planes, lost revenues for airline companies and more expensive plane tickets, and of course, the expansion of the 'war on terror' full on to yet another country, Yemen.

And what happens when the next attacker turns out to have received ideological or logistical training in yet another country? Perhaps in Nigeria, which is home to a strong and violent Salafi movement, or anyone of a dozen other African, Gulf, Middle Eastern or South East Asian countries where al-Qaeda has set up shop?

Will the US ramp up its efforts in a new country each time there is an attempted attack, putting US "boots on the ground" against an enemy that is impossible to defeat?

Such a policy would fulfill al-Qaeda's wildest dreams, as the US suffers death by a thousand cuts, bleeding out in an ever wider web of interconnected and unsustainable global conflicts.
Looking at US initiatives since 2001 it is hard to day he's wrong.

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Monday, January 04, 2010

Simplicius Simplicissimus: a forgotten classic


I have taught my year-long course on early modern European history 1400-1800 maybe 10 different times. From the beginning I was aware that there was a classic novel of the 30 years war called Simplicius Simplicissimus, written in German not long after the events it describes. The book is considered a valuable resource for people studying the war and the experience of soldiers in it. I never had time to get hold of it myself, since it wasn't in any of the University libraries that I frequented.

I have temporarily relocated for my sabbatical and now have been able to put my hands on the book. And you know, it is really good. It is a typical 17th-century satire where the hero is a fool, which is to say that he has a clear-eyed view of what other people do and why they do it, and the same for himself, for whom he makes no excuses. Simplicius starts out as a poor orphan, and travels through society rising and falling in wealth and status, mostly depending on his luck at any given time.

A book like this has a real chance of being absolutely deadly to modern tastes. But somehow it isn't, at least not in this translation by George Shulz-Behrend from 1965. The prose is clean and light with no fake archaic flavor. In fact, it has a real contemporary feeling, meaning fresh and contemporary by the standards of the middle 60s. Not so long ago even if you weren't born then. Despite the fact that it exposes the sins and foibles of all sorts of people, it isn't brutal as it so easily could be.

The main fault of the book is that the author, Johann Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, throws in more digressions that I care for with the result that the book is about 20% too long and sort of runs out of steam rather than ending properly.

Image: the cover page of the 1669 edition.

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Yemen and al-Qaeda


A discouraging report from an expert in the journal Foreign Policy. Desertification meets terrorism.

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Medieval soldiers' experience

I am now listening to a podcast: The Soldier’s Experience of Battle in the Middle Ages by Clifford Rogers, Professor of History, United States Military Academy at West Point. I have heard Rogers speak in person several times and he is always good; this seems to be up to his usual standard. Thanks to him, to Andrew Lowry for alerting me, and to the New York Military Affairs Symposium, which has posted a number of military history podcasts.

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Torture is still on the table

Andrew Sullivan is one of the few prominent commentators trying to roll back the easy approval of torture as a reasonable or even necessary tactic which of course the United States must use (bold indicates my emphasis):

The Bush administration treated the shoe-bomber exactly as the Obama administration has treated the pantie-bomber - and convicted him the way no one has yet convicted anyone directly connected to 9/11. But after years of banging the drum for torture as a routine tool for US government, and accountable only to one supreme leader, the right has now shifted the goalposts again. The ticking time bomb is now an ancient criterion. Torture, for Cheney, is about treating every seized terror suspect as an intelligence target, and the entire system he created - of lawless prisons, disappearances, black sites, freezing cells, stress position shackles, upright coffins, neck-braces to slam prisoners repeatedly against plywood walls, waterboards, sensory deprivation techniques, dietary manipulation, forced-feeding, threats against relatives and children - was designed for torture as its end.

Marc Thiessen, one of those most committed to institutionalizing torture as part of the Western tradition, wants to torture the Detroit pantie-bomber:

It likely would not be necessary to use the waterboard to get Abdulmutallab to talk — only 3 terrorists underwent it and only 30 had any enhanced techniques used at all. But the vast majority of Americans have it right: You don’t put an enemy combatant who just committed an act of war into the criminal-justice system — and you certainly don’t give him a lawyer and tell him “you have the right to remain silent.” You make him tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks.

There is a lie in this, of course. Far, far more than thirty people were subjected to the torture techniques Cheney borrowed from the Gestapo, the Communist Chinese and the Khmer Rouge. Hundreds were treated this way at Abu Ghraib, Camp Cropper, Camp Nama (under the authority of Stanley McChrystal), Bagram and in many secret sites taken over from the KGB (yes, I'm not making this up!) in Eastern Europe.

But here's the critical line:

You make him tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks.

That's the line that defines torture. If you can impose enough mental or physical pain or suffering to make someone tell you something you want to hear you have forced them to say something, true or false, to get the torture to stop. The fact of the matter is: this is illegal under any rational understanding of domestic and international law. In fact, domestic and international law mandates that governments do not even contemplate such measures, especially in extreme circumstances.

So National Review is urging law-breaking at the very highest levels of government. They are urging an extra-legal, extra-constitutional apparatus to seize and torture terror suspects outside of ticking time bomb scenarios as a matter of first resort. And yes, if they are advocating it against the pantie-bomber now, days after his capture, it is a first resort.

This is how far Cheney and the pro-torture camp have moved the debate, and why Obama's calm attempt to overlook it is dangerous in the message it sends. What the Cheneyites themselves once refused to do, with Reid, they are now demanding Obama do to the pantie-bomber.

More here.

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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Israel's 10 worst errors of the decade

Can you name them? A columnist at Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, will give you a hand.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A medieval murder mystery begging to be written


It has been my experience that many medieval murder mysteries are set in the 14th century, often with the plague in the background. This makes them hardly medieval by my standards, but let that go. What you actually may be interested in is a free plot, which I found lurking on my hard disk. I think it's from a source collection on war in the later Middle Ages, but it is unlabeled. The story as we have it here is not a murder mystery, it's just a murder committed at the orders of important men in one of the great churches of England in a time of political turmoil, the year 1377 when Edward III died and his young grandson, Richard II, succeeded to the throne but not to actual power.

Robert Hawley and John Shakell, two esquires, had captured the count of Denia, a Spanish grandee, at the battle of Nájera [1367]. The count was allowed to go home on leaving his eldest son Alphonso as a hostage. In 1377 the money was said to be ready, and the English government therefore tried to get possession of the hostage. Hawley and Shakell refused to give him up, whereupon they were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Some months later they escaped and took sanctuary at Westminster. The Constable of the Tower followed them in force. Shakell was recaptured; but Hawley resisted and was killed in the choir of the Abbey, during the celebration of High Mass. Shakell remained in the Tower until 1379, when he came to terms with the government, and agreed to give up his hostage in return for his own release.

There are actually lots of documents on this case, because it went on and on.

Maybe it should be a movie -- can't you see the two hardbitten squires fighting for the "Treasure of the Count of Denia?"

Image: The Choir of Westminster Abbey in 1848. In the 14th century it would have had no pews.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

The end of American exceptionalism

Mark LeVine says:
The awarding of the Peace Prize to Obama reads like a desperate attempt to resuscitate the discredited idea of a "Great Man" of history ushering in a new era. It is an understandable fantasy, given the magnitude of the problems the world confronts.

But it distracts from the reality that it will be movements from below, however imperfect and irrational they can be, that will create, in Obama's words, "the world that ought to be," not leaders from above, however audacious their rhetoric.

In that regard, perhaps the most historically significant aspect of Obama's speech is its irrelevance on the ground.

Around the world people who once looked to the US for inspiration or support are taking matters into their own hands. No one is waiting for the US to save or even support them anymore.

More here.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

An old monastery serves as a window into Iraq's past


Some American soldiers learn a bit about the complexities of Iraq's religious history.
As historic sites in Iraq go, St. Elijah’s has little of the significance of the ruins of the great Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations, all endangered by decay and looting. The ruins of Nimrud, Hatra and Nineveh are only a few miles away. So is the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Jonah, and that of another, Nahum, whose short chapter in the Bible warns Nineveh of its destruction.

“Nineveh is like a walk through the Bible,” said W. Patrick Murphy, the leader of the American provincial reconstruction team here, which is coordinating the restoration, referring to the modern name for the province that includes Mosul.

In the years of American occupation, St. Elijah’s became a curiosity, a diversion for soldiers and contractors who might otherwise never leave the base and encounter Iraq’s deeply layered history. Amid the hardship of modern military operations, it once again became a place of prayer.

“We stand in a long line of people who bequeathed the faith to us,” said Maj. Jeffrey Whorton, a Roman Catholic chaplain, presiding over Mass in the monastery the other day, attended by three camouflaged soldiers, their rifles leaning in a corner.

Little definitive is known about the history of St. Elijah’s, or Dair Mar Elia. The site has never been studied or excavated, according to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, which oversees all of Iraq’s historic sites. Before the war, Iraq’s Republican Guard occupied the base and, according to the Americans, used the cistern as a latrine.

The board, which has previously been critical of American activities at ruins, including Babylon, is now reviewing the proposal to restore St. Elijah’s.


Accompanied by an excellent slide show of St. Elijah's Monastery.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Richard W. Kaeuper, Holy Warriors: the Religious Ideology of Chivalry

Here is what I wrote about Richard Kaeuper's Holy Warriors for the online Medieval Review, a valuable electronic source for up-to-date reviews. It's free and sends the reviews right to your mailbox, and because it is electronic it allows and encourages reviewers to say more than they could in a print review. Here's where you can find subscription information, and here's where you go to search for past reviews.

Richard Kaeuper's most recent book is the product of remarkable learning. It takes a classic, well-studied topic of undoubted importance and, based on the author's wide and deep reading of both primary and secondary sources, not only sheds new and valuable light on its ostensible subject--the relationship between chivalry and religion in the Middle Ages--but also illuminates many other aspects of medieval history. Readers may well come away from this book with a whole new understanding of subjects that they thought they knew well. This reviewer, fresh from teaching a course on the Crusades, might well do things differently next time, thanks to Kaeuper's discussion of chivalry as struggle or labor.


Two decades ago, in his War, Justice, and Public Order: England and France in the Later Middle Ages (1988), Kaeuper found himself doubting that the values of chivalry as understood in the High Middle Ages were an unambiguous force for promoting civility and order: "The code of chivalry encouraged as much violence as it curbed" (7). Further research, notably extensive reading in chivalric epics and romance, led him to find unconvincing an older understanding of the relationship between Christianity and chivalry, that chivalry was a process of a more pacific clerical establishment slowly imposing its values on the warrior aristocracy. In Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (1999) he traced a convincing picture of the autonomous value system of knights who though they might aspire to courtliness and piety saw the core of their social identity in their prowess, and their right and duty to use force when they judged it appropriate.

The current book is a logical extension of Chivalry and Violence in that it focuses again on the self-image of knights, specifically how knights justified their way of life religiously. It is Kaeuper's primary contention that knights (or more generally well-armed, professional soldiers) had independent religious ideas that they adopted and adapted to suit their own needs, ideas that were related to those put forward by the clergy, but not a pale reflection of clerical theories and demands. This thesis deserves some detailed exploration before we look at an important secondary theme of the book, which is Kaeuper's demonstration that some of the most important theories of salvation were shaped by the existence and self-assertion of a Christian knighthood, the members of which could be either valuable allies or dangerous enemies of clerical interests and high-minded ecclesiastical efforts to reform the world.

First, let us look at what Kaeuper says about knightly self-image and how it related to the way penance and salvation were understood in medieval culture in general. Texts written by and for knights that tackled serious issues--practically by definition religious issues--upheld warrior values such as prowess (courage, skill, the prime warrior virtue) despite the frequent disapproval of clerics, but also identified other aspects of the knightly profession with universally admitted aspects of the economy of salvation. We might, following Kaeuper and the Book of Job, consider the equation of the struggle for salvation with militia (1-2); militia in medieval usage could mean not just military service or knighthood, but hard struggle, even suffering. The struggle or labor of human life was part of the punishment derived from the sins of Adam and Eve; but submitting oneself to hard work and other kinds of suffering were also constantly praised and encouraged by sermonizers and ascetic writers, because done right, as Christ did, it was the road to salvation. Knights believed that their own way of life was labor and led to pains experienced by no other mortals (though one wonders what their mothers thought of that argument), comparable, some said, to the work and suffering of Christ. Thus knights, when thinking about their participation in the process of salvation, could point to a perfectly orthodox claim to Christian respectability (if not one that was uncontested): imitatio Christi. Indeed, there was a lively debate; when rating their own spiritually valuable ascetic achievements, knights argued that monks could not bear the burdens of military life, and vice versa. Kaeuper provides a number of stories from his wide reading which illustrate the terms of that debate, with all its gruesome and humorous aspects, as in fact he does when discussing other arguments that arose from clerical-chivalric tensions. It is one of the great virtues of this book is that Kaeuper constantly keeps the reader aware that clerics often found themselves facing arguments justifying knighthood that were difficult to answer.

Kaeuper devotes a long chapter to discussing how the effort of the twelfth-century clerical reformers to create a working theology to guide the laity intersected with the developing ideology of chivalry--this being the century when chevalerie ceased to mean "horsemen" or "skill with horses" only, and became a moral status or aspiration. Reform in the twelfth century involved among other things an organized effort to define various legitimate professions of the human community, how each contributed at its best to the Christian life, and the dangers inherent in each profession. Among the lay ordines knighthood took a leading place, because the warrior aristocracy was the chief rival of the clergy in power, wealth and respectability. It may be that as much effort was put into defining and critiquing the military ordo as was devoted to all other laypeople together. For reformers there was much about warfare to criticize, but it was impossible to simply denounce or ignore the problem of the Christian warrior. Ecclesiastical authority had already conceded, in the form of crusade theology (still evolving, still rife with contradiction), that appropriate military service could gain salvation. Clerics used violence, and had to justify and theorize it. In this case, too, their expertise in learning failed to impose their formulation--that only violence authorized by the clergy and directed towards enemies of the faith was legitimate--on an unquestioning audience. Chivalric writers and clerical writers sympathetic to them appropriated what they liked about the theory of ordines and the theory of crusade, adapting what was useful to their own purposes and discarding the rest. Witness the way that treatises on chivalry, right from the very beginning, appropriated the language of ordo and ordines to give the "order of chivalry" an undoubted predominance in the Christian community, save only for the formal respect due to priests for their unique sacramental role. Witness the way proper warfare of any kind was seen by knights as equal in worth to expeditions to the Holy Land or against other unbelievers, equally pleasing to God.

Kaeuper continues to be interested in the end of the self-justifying, consciously Christian knightly identity and devotes his final chapter to "writing the death certificate for chivalric ideology." Here he provides the reader with a fuller and more convincing analysis of the death of medieval knighthood than he did in Chivalry and Violence, although it is not entirely satisfying. Kaeuper offers up several factors that contributed to the "death of chivalry." He suggests that since after the Reformation the penitential economy of the Middle Ages no longer made sense in much of the Christian West, its logic no longer could be appropriated to depict the well-armed professional warrior as a member of an autonomous Christian ordo. At the same time various developments made it easier to see knights as servants of the State (the Prince?) than as members of an international brotherhood, while the state became the source of all honor (a view seen, for instance, in the sixteenth-century biography of the Chevalier Bayard). It would have been interesting and useful if Kaeuper had said more about the tension between the ideas of knights as members of a "national" state (or subjects of a Sovereign) and knights as members of a class that transcended boundaries and allegiances. Admittedly he said quite a bit on this subject, but one feels that there is more to be said. It would have been interesting to see Kaeuper engage with the recent work of Crouch and Keen on the evolution of European ideas of nobility.

This book is well and entertainingly written, and is well-presented and designed. The University of Pennsylvania Press is to be congratulated for being willing to include the large bibliography and the extensive (and rich) scholarly apparatus that add much of value to Kaeuper's presentation. One can no longer take these things for granted, even from academic publishers. Also remarkable is the inclusion of a striking thirteenth-century illustration of an armored knight about to fight a phalanx of vices. It is reproduced on both the cover and the frontispiece, providing the reader with one incomplete but color reproduction plus one complete in black and white. This allowed the author to present a striking image to his reader, in a way that makes vivid some of the symbolism relevant to his argument. These things cost money and are sometimes skimped on; in this case the money was well spent.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Security contracting"


The official US military establishment, large and expensive as it is, has a substantial shadow, organizations like the former Blackwater. If you don't think these guys have political influence, which exists beyond the rather shaky limitations of constitutional government -- think again.

Here's a primer from At War in the New York Times
.
Note where I have bolded some material:
The news that Blackwater Worldwide (or its new name, Xe Services) collaborated with the Central Intelligence Agency was one news event that did not surprise me. I think the spate of recent news is just the tip of the iceberg.

It has been argued that our servicemen overseas do not receive enough attention in the news media about all that they do. But if that is the case, then it is doubly true for contractors, as their actions have been even more underrepresented in the news then the military’s.

When President Obama announced a troop surge in Afghanistan, many people focused strictly on the number of troops and the time line he presented. What was missing was a discussion of how many contractors would be needed to support the increase. Currently the ratio of United States servicemen to contractors is roughly one to one. Thus, the actual number of additional personnel members who will be added to the American footprint in Afghanistan could be closer to 60,000 — 30,000 additional military personnel members plus 30,000 contractors.

Security contracting is a business that will probably be a fixture in security operations for years to come. It is partly an outgrowth of a capitalist drive to reduce everything, even war, into purely fiscal terms. Contractors, be it those with weapons or those with cooking tools, are at first glance cheaper than deploying and sustaining an equivalent number of an all-volunteer military service members.

Contracts are close-ended, and hence there are no enduring requirements like providing these contractors with aid in expediting United States citizenship. Nor do they require open-ended benefits such as a G.I Bill, veteran benefits, disability payments or a retirement pension.

But their involvement has shown that war is not simply a sacrifice for those who fight it. It can also be a lucrative economic enterprise. Their deaths are also easier to accept because they are not even reported. No obligatory half-staff flags. This, in turn, reduces the overall cost of the human effort needed to sustain America’s war overseas as contractor casualties and deaths do not add to the tally of combat casualties that news organizations report.

The author also suggests that many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have in this recession better prospects as contractors than as anything else. Makes you wonder where this process of militarizing the US population will end. Or which country will be the first to be taken over by unhappy or ambitious "contractors."

Image: Landsknechts, German mercenaries of the 16th century.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Rare but possible...

...a good time in Iraq, boating on the Tigris. From At War in the New York Times.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Anyone read this book?

I am quite curious about Antony Adolf's Peace: A World History. Have any of you read this?

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Friday, December 11, 2009

"Crazy stuff" in history


Apocalyptic belief, belief in a revelation of the end of time, usually a revelation that the end of time is just around the corner, probably qualifies for most people as "crazy stuff." Something suitable for more Terminator sequels, a graphic novel, or a heavy metal album. There is always a need for another heavy metal album about the end of the world.

But crazy or not, apocalyptic beliefs are pretty commonplace in real life, and have a stronger influence on politics and culture than most people who don't believe in the apocalypse would guess. Three countries whose politics is strongly affected by the apocalyptic beliefs of some influential people and a proportion of the general population are the United States, Israel, and Iran.

More than once in recent months I have read about the apocalyptic beliefs of the president of Iran. Shiism has always had an apocalyptic logic: roughly, they think that the leadership of the Muslim community was hijacked soon after the death of Prophet, that the true leaders have been in physical or spiritual exile ever since, and eventually that leadership will return to clean up the mess. But most Shiites don't wait with bated breath for the return of the Mahdi, just as most Christians don't think very much about the Book of Revelations (also known as the Apocalypse of St. John) when planning out their weekly activities. And a lot of Jews have given up on the return of the Messiah.

However, as support of the Islamic Revolution has been falling apart in Iran, the true believers in the revolution are turning more strongly to the belief that the end is near.

Here is what Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has to say about the subject:

It's both crazy and dangerous.

Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad believes and acts on the expectation that the reappearance of the Hidden Imam is imminent, and that U.S. efforts in the Middle East are primarily focused on preventing his return. Shi'ite Muslims believe that their 12th imam, the Mahdi, born in 869, did not die but was hidden by God and will eventually reappear as the savior of humankind, ending tyranny and bringing justice to the world. One-tenth of the world's Muslims and 85 percent of Iranians are Shi'a.

In a recent speech in the central city of Isfahan, Ahmadinejad said: "With those [U.S. troops] who came to occupy Iraq, the appearance was that they came just to exploit the oil. In reality, though, they know that something will happen in this region -- a divine hand will come soon to root out the tyranny in the world."

"And they know," he added, "that Iran is paving the way for his coming and will serve him."

Belief in the apocalypse and messianism are nothing new in human history. There are both Jewish and Christian messianic traditions, according to which a king of Israel or messiah will appear to herald global peace. And Shi'ite Muslims, unlike the majority of their Sunni co-faithful, have always believed in the Mahdi.

But Ahmadinejad and his main supporter among the ultra-conservative Iranian clergy, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a member of the Assembly of Experts, do not want to just peacefully hope and wait for the Mahdi. RFE/RL Radio Farda's analyst Majid Mohammadi says Ahmadinejad has introduced a completely new system in the Iranian politics: "a militarist and messianic Islamism."
There's more here.

The third and fourth paragraphs of the excerpt above reminds me very strongly of this version of Pope Urban's speech at Clermont. Surely not what was actually said, but this is what made sense to one informed and learned observer. This is what he thought the Pope should have said when he launched the First Crusade.
Interesting times, interesting times. Don't you just... love it? Well, maybe not.

Image: An impression of the return of the Mahdi to fight the Antichrist.

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Obama's Nobel Speech and Just War theory

Matthew Gabriele at Virginia Tech, who knows a thing or two about Crusading ideology, has a great analysis of Obama's Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

It's a fascinating speech in many ways. Agree or disagree on its merits, it's a learned speech -- one that understands its subject and that subject's history. All in all, it's a speech that some might say is positively medieval. I don't throw that term around lightly.


President Obama: just another post-WWII president, late antique Roman bishop, or the new Pope Urban II? If those were the choices, which would you opt for?

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The past and future of Iraq

From the New York Times blog At War. Among other things, this deeply personal account shows why it will be a very long time before Iraq will be a "normal country:"

‘I Have No Living Friends in Iraq Now’

by RIYADH MOHAMMED

In most parts of the world, the end of the year is a time to reminisce about the best of the past and look to the future with a hopeful eye. Iraq is not like the rest of the world. For me, it is a time to update my death list. The latest entry is my ex-girlfriend.

When I received messages on my cellphone from friends saying, “Please accept my condolences,” I asked one of them, “What happened?” Another message came that explained that my ex-girlfriend was killed in the Dec. 8 bombings in Baghdad.

Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, I had kept a list of every relative or friend killed in violence. As of late 2006, I counted 124 deaths. Suddenly I stopped. No. 125 was my father.

My father had told me a few weeks prior to his tragic death that his phone book was filled with telephone numbers of killed and missing people. He was soon to join the list.

When I look at my personal phone book now, I read: “X: killed in Al Mustansiriya University bombings in 2007. Y: missing in western Baghdad in 2005. Z: killed in the Justice Ministry 2009. It keeps going on like that for the most of the book. The ones who left Iraq were the only ones who survived. I lost my last friend when he went to the United States as a refugee in June 2009. I have no living friends in Iraq now.

If I had continued to keep my death list up to date, it would have included dozens of friends, neighbors, relatives, classmates and work colleagues. The total would run in the hundreds. If I added the relatives of the relatives, the total would be thousands or tens of thousands. Almost all of them were civilians: employees, students, artists, professors, journalists, sportsmen, lawyers, workers or children.

As a man who studied cinema and produced several television documentaries, I often turn to movies help to distract me from the awful reality. Sometimes they help me to describe my status. In the movie “Meet Joe Black,” the angel of death falls in love with his victim’s daughter. Many Iraqis that I met after dozens or hundreds of bombs kept asking, is there any way to stop death’s master plan, whose top priority seems to be claiming Iraqis’ lives?

When I saw the American movie “Final Destination,” I told myself that was exactly what was happening to us. As of late 2006, I had survived deadly bombs about 40 times. Most of them were in Tahrir Square – the most famous public square in Baghdad. I used to pass by it twice a day on my way to work. The square was hit with dozens of bombs in 2005 and 2006. I survived only because I was a few minutes late or early. So often it seems like the cursed plane in Final Destination carries the entire Iraqi people.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue on April 9, 2003, felt to me – and to millions of Iraqis – like the symbolic birth of a nation. But instead, another scene was watched by millions of Iraqis in the following years, and Iraqi officials eventually banned photographers from capturing it. It was the scene inside the Iraqi cities’ morgues. In late 2006, it was my turn to visit one of them. Searching for my father, I counted at least 200 new bodies in one Baghdad morgue. There were at least another 200 bodies that had been there a while. It was just like the morgue scene in the movie “Missing.” But the scene that couldn’t be hidden was al-Najaf cemetery. It kept expanding until it became the largest in the world. For millions of Iraqis, it was the death of a nation.

Many felt that I was acting odd when I didn’t cry at my father’s funeral. But I truly lost the ability to feel pain and sorrow. I have read once that many Europeans felt the same emotional drought after witnessing the catastrophes of World War II.

On the other hand, I had the same dream every night for four continuous months: My father didn’t die. I still have the dream, but only once a week now. It is something that could be described as a series of scenes that represent all the happy memories with a lost loved one. But it ends only with a tragedy that will last forever.

For me, now, there are new scenes: the first time we met, the first word exchanged, the first smile, the first flattery, the first phone call, the first date, the first time we revealed that we loved each other and the first hug. But I awake only to remember the last horrific scene: the badly wounded girl being crushed under the feet of the terrified government employees trying to escape death.

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Friday, December 04, 2009

Squires or esquires?


Here is an experiment in polling your potential audience, expert and amateur.

I am currently writing a book on 14th century military affairs. I talk a lot about "squires" or "esquires." I am not sure which word to use.

The early 14th century was a period when "squire/esquire" went from meaning "a military servant, usually lightly armed" to meaning "a lesser gentleman warrior" of the kind who had substantial equipment and might have been a knight bachelor in an earlier era. At least this seems to have happened in the Anglo-French world. Although there seem to have been a few squires/esquires hanging around in the mid-14th century who were not considered gentlemen, my sources show that they mostly were gentleman, quite distinct from other military servants like sergeants or valets, even when the latter had some armor and were considered effective fighters.

I am very interested in hearing from you about which word seems more suitable to you, and why. I would appreciate it if you answered in my comment section here, rather than on Facebook.

I would appreciate expert opinion, but if you consider yourself an ordinary reader don't hold back.

Image:
goofy gamer squires.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Foreign forces in Afghanistan


Here's a map from the BBC that would be far more useful if it didn't divide foreign troops into only two groups -- US and NATO -- which means for instance that we can't see where Canadians are or were (they've been reassigned). Even so, it is good to have.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Slogging forward

Despite the international plot to keep me away from Men at Arms, I am up to 3000 words on Chapter 2. Of course, family business now takes me away from the book, but it's the kind of thing that can't be helped.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

1000 words today!

That's 1000 words on the book I promised to write during this sabbatical! I feel that I'm finally getting my teeth into it.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Another Charny question?

In my research and translation of Charny questions, I have been working mainly from the Michael Taylor (Chapel Hill) edition. Recently I've been looking more closely at the Belgian edition by Rossbach. Not only does the Rossbach edition have an answer to one of the questions, it has a question unknown to Taylor! If it were in the Taylor edition it would be war question 80A, and if Rossbach had included it in his edition as a confirmed part of the text, it would be question 121A. The fact that Rossbach did not include this question in his main text makes me think he doubted that it was genuine Charny. And after all only appears in one manuscript.

Here is my translation of the question:

Charny asks:

Men at arms fight in the field against their enemies and it happens that one of the men at arms of those who have the upper hand takes another man at arms and he who is taken surrenders to the one who is taken him and gives faith as his prisoner. But very soon the party of the prisoner has the better of it and defeats the others and takes the field, and the prisoner, who sees his party get the upper hand attacks his enemies and takes two or three of them and makes them swear to be prisoners and gives them a day [on which to pay ransom]. Those come on their day and demand of the captain of the one to whom they had sworn by the law of arms saying that they should not be held to be prisoners to him who on that day had [been?] a prisoner, notwithstanding that he is able dispute that because of the rescue he ought to be free; and the first one taken says that they are his prisoners, for he was rescued. And many good arguments are given on one side or the other. How will it be judged by the law of arms?
Note that this is the only Charny question where a captain or other authority figure is identified as presiding over a case by the law of arms.

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Friday, November 06, 2009

A meditation on the British cemetary in Kabul

From the At War blog of the New York Times. This of course is what caught my attention:
A Canadian television journalist who was in the graveyard the same afternoon I was there was struck by something closer to her home. On the walls surrounding the cemetery are lists of the dead since 2001. Plaques for the fallen British; for Americans; a few for Germans and for Canadians. The plaque for the Canadian dead with the country’s emblem, the maple leaf, etched in the middle, lists only those who had died through the end of 2006 as if Canadians soldiers had not died after that. The 30 Canadian troops killed in 2007, the 32 killed in 2008 and the 27 killed so far this year have no marker of their passing. She turned and said, “I called our embassy, it’s terrible; they haven’t added any names since 2006.” She wasn’t a journalist at that moment; she was a Canadian on foreign soil. We are most patriotic when we are far from home; the possibility of our own mortality, most present.

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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Sabbatical score so far -- updated

Since classes ended in April, I have completed the following academic projects:

Reviews:
  • Charles Kurzman, Democracy Denied (Journal of World History, accepted for fall 2010)
  • Mark Pegg, A Most Holy War (Michigan War Studies Review, now available online)
  • Richard Kaeuper, Holy Warriors (The Medieval Review, submitted and accepted)
Article:
  • "Republics and Quasi-Democratic Institutions in Ancient India: Their Significance Today," for the forthcoming book The Secret History of Democracy (a rethinking and recasting of an earlier web-published article; forthcoming next year; submitted and accepted)
Not bad, but these projects and some family health problems have slowed progress on the book I'm supposed to write; a scrappy first draft of Chapter 1 is all I have written so far, though I have also partly revised the translation of the crucial text.

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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

You can't trust anything these days: mixing up Kentucky and Tennessee

Patrick Neilsen Hayden at Making Light (thanks Brad DeLong):
John Keegan, author of the excellent The Face of Battle (1976) and many other books, is possibly the most widely-respected military historian alive. James M. McPherson is an eminent historian of the American Civil War; his Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom (1988) is often called the best single-volume history of that conflict.

Keegan has now published his own history of the American Civil War, and McPherson has reviewed it in the New York Times. And by “reviewed,” I mean “discredited it for the ages,” if even only a portion of the factual errors McPherson cites are in fact present in Keegan’s book.

As usual at Making Light, the comments are well worth reading, and in this case add a great deal to the topic at hand.

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Monday, November 02, 2009

Christ as tourneyer

I have just finished reading this new book, Holy Warriors: The religious ideology of chivalry, by Richard Kaeuper, and I'll have much more to say about it later. Right now I just want to point out an interesting quotation that shows how one medieval warrior, writing a spiritual autobiography, visualized what he saw as the ideal knight's resemblance to Jesus.

The warrior was Duke Henry of Lancaster, also known as Henry of Grosmont, one of Edward III's best generals in the Hundred Years War. Here is what Kaeuper says on page 41:

Duke Henry sometimes wonderfully reveals his chain of thought, if indirectly. In discussing how the tears shed by the Blessed Virgin will wash the wounds of his own wretched body he comes to nasal wounds, a topic which puts the realist in him in mind of the blows that struck Christ's nose during his scourging. He comments, in all piety, that Christ's nose must have looked like that of a habitual tourneyer, and that his mouth must have been discolored and beaten out of shape. Here he writes with the voice of experience. Warming to his topic, he says that indeed Christ did fight in a tournament -- and won it, securing life for humanity. As a strenuous knight, his conception of imitating Christ readily turns to this martial version of the savior and his role.
Image: the cover of the book, which can be seen better at Google Books.

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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Word frequency in Charny's Questions on War

Courtesy of Wordle (http://www.wordle.net/) I made a word cloud showing what words Charny used in his war questions. Click on the image to see the Wordle at proper size.

I am not surprised that "Charny" and "arms" are big; but I am rather taken aback by the size of "prisoner" and the near invisibility of "knight."

Wordle: Charny's Questions on War

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

A bit of Iraqi reality leaks through


Of course it comes from the admirable Inside Iraq:

October 30, 2009
Dumb and Dumber

There are more than 200 checkpoints in Baghdad; some of these checkpoints are manned by policemen, some by Iraqi army and some by both. Many of these checkpoints are equipped with explosive detectors that were supposed to enable the Iraqi forces to stop transporting explosives around the city or basically car bombs.

Most of these checkpoints are located at entry points to bridges and neighborhoods. Other checkpoints are on the main roads of Baghdad to the limit that the city is literally suffocating because of these checkpoints and the resulted traffic jam.

Before starting telling you what happens in most of the checkpoints you should know about the “explosives detectors”. The device is carried by security man who stops your car and walk beside it carrying the device. The device’s pointer changes its direction when passed by a car that supposedly carries explosives.

But the main flaw it points also if there is any chemical material like detergents or even medicine.

What happens in these checkpoints and how they are distributed in the city?!

First Scenario:

You drive into the checkpoint, and the explosives detector does not point to your car, Iraqi security orders you to drive and continue your magical trip through the elegant safe capital’s roads.

Second Scenario:

The detector points at your car, the security men orders you to drive into searching area, if there is one sometimes simply stop you in mid of the street, to search your car. The soldier responsible for searching asks the dumb and dumber questions:

- Where are you coming from and where are you going?

- Do you carry weapons?

If you answered with a wide smile, coming from X neighborhood and going to Y neighborhood and no I don’t carry weapons, you probably would leave without further questions or being searched.

Third Scenario

Detectors point at your car, you go to search, you answer the dumb and dumber two questions with a wide smile but yet the soldier insists to search your car. The search will be the following: open the trunk, soldiers will order you and that’s it.

Fourth Scenario

Your friend is a soldier or you have a badge that says you are a member of Iraqi security forces, no need to worry then, because every day we see tens of them passing all Baghdad’s checkpoints without being searched.

And till now, the government and the Iraqi forces are still insisting on depending on these checkpoints as the main tactic to control the apparently unstoppable attacks of car bombs.

I wonder, what did the American military or NATO trained the new Iraqi forces?

Image: Third scenario.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

An opinion on the Afghan war

I found this here, in comments:

Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald:

"McChrystal, I fear, has arrived too late – for Afghanistan and for Washington. He is asking for a huge act of faith on two fronts – first, by the international community; and second by the Afghan people. But after almost a decade of these constituencies having their trust abused, the miracle promised by McChrystal is a mirage, an ephemeral outcome that even with inevitable, subsequent requests for thousands more troops and billions more in reconstruction dollars likely will not eventuate. The general wants a blank cheque for a jalopy on which he offers no warranty."

Then there is this (from Thomas Ricks' main post):

Dave Lamborn emphasized that we can't help give the Afghans stability unless we have better continuity between American units deployed there:

"We have been in Afghanistan for 8 years now, but ... information is not being captured and passed along for each locality. In many cases each commander has to start from scratch, which is not only inefficient, but is also downright counterproductive. The locals get sick of having a new guy researching his backyard every year, he gets sick of having to adapt to a brand new personality, and he gets sick of seeing the new rookie commander kill innocent civilians or make other rookie mistakes. So it is natural that so many Afghans are currently ripe for the political plucking of the Taliban or Mujahadeeb."


Scary, yes?

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