Byzantine Patterns

In the later 19th century Victorian England ruled the waves, the economy, and much of the inhabited world.  At the same time, Victorian morality and dress focused on maintaining distance, withdrawal, and possibly, even disdain.  It is perhaps no surprise then, that many Victorians saw themselves as the incarnation of classical Athens.  Classical Athens ruled the waves Pericles of Athensand the treasuries of many a Greek-city state.  They also began to develop at that time a philosophy that would later bloom into varieties of gnostic detachment, and the great Athenian Pericles has the arrogant disdain that comes with such detachment down pat.

Those that saw themselves in his image would likely follow in his footsteps. And indeed they did.  In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Gibbon poured his own brand of disdain upon Byzantine civilization, perhaps even coining the pejorative term “byzantine,” i.e. confusing, outdated, etc.  He paid no attention to Eastern civilization, and if he did he would not have understood it.  The English intelligensia (who led scholarship as they led the world at that time) got brought up, perhaps in Gibbon’s day, and certainly after that, to adopt the same attitudes towards this “unwieldy” appendage of the Roman Empire. Thankfully in the 20th century some great English historians (Toynbee among them) rebelled against this trend and examined Byzantine history afresh, and this resulted in English translations of the many primary sources from that period.

I admit that I failed in my previous attempts to read Procopius, but immediately recognized the merit of Michael Psellus’ Fourteen Byzantine Rulers.  He writes with an easy style and great psychological insight.  He lets us know when he personally witnessed something or knew someone, and when he reports 2nd or 3rd hand.  His writing adds to the mountain of evidence that, contra Gibbon, Byzantium attained a high level of civilization and its own unique style apart from Rome.  It was far more than a decrepit appendage of the western Roman empire. Psellus writes in a disarming and clear style.  He structures his narratives well and doesn’t shy away from playing armchair psychologist when appropriate.  I always appreciate when historians seek to interpret rather than just report, and so its natural that I would appreciate Psellus’ work. The introduction to the work argues that Psellus writes about decline, and there is some truth to this.  Psellus doesn’t see a clear linear progression downwards from the first to last ruler he discusses.  Nor does he lock in to one particular trait that makes a ruler good or bad.  But he does have a keen sense of cause and effect over the long-term, and this gives his narrative a dramatic sweep to go along with the vivid people he portrays.

As much as I enjoyed the work, I think both Psellus and the introduction to his text might misunderstand the roots of Byzantine decline. The first ruler Psellus discusses is the great Emperor Basil II.  After a rocky start, Basil righted the ship of state by transforming himself.  Psellus writes of a man who refused to indulge himself in the pleasures and distractions of palace life.  He ate simply, dressed simply, spent little money, and devoted himself to duty.  Basil did have a weakness, however, that for power itself.  Though he had various counselors and a Senate at his disposal he made them useless by his firm will and desire to see things done “right” by himself. This could work as long as the one wielding such absolute power had a firm dedication to duty and possessed more wisdom than those around him.  Naturally, those that followed him had neither the character or the longevity of rule to have the kind of impact and success of Basil II.

But the decline came not after Basil in my view.  Rather, the decline came in Basil’s time for two main reasons. The first has to do with the war he initiated with the Bulgarians.  I don’t think the war had any real solid justification (Psellus agrees, stating that Basil “deliberately attacked their country”) and distracted them from their real problems with the Moslems on their eastern border. I touched on this war and its consequences in this post from several months ago, so I won’t elaborate here.  What I didn’t say in that post is that, based on Basil’s incessant energy and love of power, it seems like the kind of war someone like him might engage in.  I detailed the effects of this war on the Byzantine’s in this post here, which I also reposted. The second reason is that the system Basil set up that concentrated power in his hands put too many eggs in one basket, that of the emperor.  This “idolization of an ephemeral institution,” that of the old Roman empire, may have contributed significantly to their decline.  This gets placed at Basil II feet.  His failure to share power extended to his brother and probable heir, whose indolence and laissez-faire attitude towards governance suited Basil II perfectly.

Sure enough, when his brother came into power he continued this same approach to life.  A country can do alright if such a person delegates well to wise people, but Constantine VIII followed in his brother’s footsteps and cared nothing for the Senate, yet accompanied that habit with far less wisdom and vigor than Basil. This pattern of concentration of power and abuse of power had varying degrees of consequences over time.   Romanus III (1028-1034) thought only in terms of “bigger is better.”  To fight he raised big armies.  To increase the treasury he collected “big taxes.”  When he repented somewhat of his former ways, he sought to build the biggest church he could to demonstrate his sincerity.  While I wouldn’t trace these acts directly to Basil, it shows the same lack of proportion and balance that Basil II displayed regarding power.  Psellus praises devotion and piety in general, but then writes regarding Romanus,

It cannot be right, in order to show one’s piety, to commit great injustices, to put the whole state into confusion, to break down the whole body politic.  He who rejects the harlot’s offering, who utterly despises the sacrifice of the ungodly, as though the wicked were no better than a dog — how could he in any way draw near a building, however rich and glorious, when that building was the cause of many evils?*

Byzantium would remain “off kilter” for the rest of its existence, but again, their problems only make sense in the context of their great achievements.  If they had nothing to lose, they had nothing to mourn in their decline.  But for Psellus and us, this is not so.


*This passage should not be read in isolation, as it could lead one to think that he gave lip service to “general piety” as a cloak for a secular world view.  One only needs to read his praise of Emperor Michael IV (1034-41), who abandoned the throne to join a monastery at the end of his life, to see the error of that line of reasoning.  Among Michael’s other acts was the founding of a home for reformed prostitutes.  In order to help lure them out of their way of life and end their fear of poverty, Michael made the home luxurious, promising any who came and vowed to live celibately that “all things, unsown, without labor of hands, would spring forth for their use” (Homer, The Odyssesy).  Psellus claims that “swarms” of women came to the homes.

12th Grade: “Acts of Violence don’t win Wars.”


This week we spent part of the time trying to apply some lessons from the past to our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Central to our discussion was the following idea:

Acts of violence do not win wars.

This was a quote from the FLN leader Ben ‘Hidi in the movie, “The Battle of Algiers.”  We discussed what it is exactly that does win wars, and what happens when you make military action your strategy, rather than a tactic.

Everything needs a context that gives it meaning.  For example if a random person came up to you on the street and declared, “I love you!” the words would have no real meaning to you.  The words fit into no known context.  The person is not nice but weird.  His words would not have the desired effect.

In the same way, the violence of wars needs a proper context.  It must proceed from a defined moral and political reality.  Furthermore, the violence used must make sense within that defined reality for it to have real effectiveness.

For example, I think it no coincidence that the Union army fought much better after they had the liberating mission proclaimed by the Emancipation Proclamation.  No longer did they fight for the political abstraction of “Union” but the definite moral aim of freeing slaves.

In our discussion of the movie we focused on the question of torture and the question of French identity in particular, and democratic identity in general.

For homework recently I had the students look at various internal memos related to our use of “enhanced interrogation” tactics with enemy suspects (I’ll include what the students read at the end of the update).  Next week we will discuss John Yoo’s famous/infamous memo and in large part our reactions should center around two questions:

  • To what extent should American values be used as a “weapon” in the War on Terror?  What is our greatest asset in the war, and how can we use it?
  • Can torture be a tactic in fighting a “just war?”  If so, how, and if not, can we ever use it?

We used some of these questions to look at the war in Iraq from 2003-2009.

When we went into Iraq initially, we had fairly narrow military goals.  We planned the military campaign to make it as easy as possible for our troops to overthrow Saddam.  This meant focusing on the destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure (i.e. power, communications, etc.) among other things.  In a narrow military sense, we had quick and stunning success, but almost immediately afterwards, the situation deteriorated.  We faced grave problems of violence and unrest, some of them of our own making.  After all, the destruction of infrastructure itself created by the war made their lives more tenuous and unpredictable.

Iraqi’s also faced the question of the rule of law, or more pointedly, its absence.  A few years ago I had a chance to talk to an army major who was in Baghdad just after Saddam’s regime collapsed.  A respected local elder came up to him and said,

Thank you for removing Saddam.  But now we are confused.  What law do we follow?  Are we still under Saddam’s law?  Or is it the martial law of the U.S. military?  Or is it local tribal law?  Or is it Sharia law?

I remember the captain telling me that,

When I had no idea what the answer was, I realized we were in trouble.

In other words, our violence effectively removed the regime, but did not have any discernible meaning — it had no larger moral and political context that the Iraqi people could latch onto.  Thus we should not be surprised that chaos and confusion reigned in the aftermath.  Violence alone failed to come even close to achieving our objectives.

At first we used our military in Iraq to ‘kill the bad guys’ rapidly making headway amidst the chaos. We holed up in the Green Zone, rode out in armored vehicles, and retreated back.  By 2006/7 the situation looked bleak. General Petraeus had a different concept of what the war was about and changed everything.  The goal was no longer to kill bad guys but to protect Iraqi citizens.  To even find the bad guys, we needed better intelligence, and we were only going to get that from the people themselves.  Petraeus was right to surmise that the Iraqi’s didn’t want Al Queda as part of Iraq, but also realized that no one was really sharing in their struggle.  He took troops out of the Green Zone and embedded squads in local Iraqi neighborhoods.  As much as possible, soldiers were to appear without helmets and weapons — things average Iraqi’s did not have.

While the final chapters of Iraq’s transformation have not been written, no one can doubt the progress made since this change of strategy.  Perhaps this gives insight also as to how our values might be a weapon, and how a military can be used to combat an idea.  He strongly emphasized the idea that “We should be first with the truth, even on bad days.”  When senior administration officials urged him to change his message to reflect a more positive image of the war, he argued that, “We don’t have an image problem.  We have a results problem.”

If you are curious, this site communicates in visuals some of what Petraeus hoped to and did accomplish.  The visual below shows the extent to which he broadened our field of vision as to how we fought the war.

Many believe that “The Surge” and this change in strategy helped to transform Iraq, though the final chapters of this tale will not be finished for many years.  Of course, Petraeus has his critics, and one of them writes here, if you are interested.

I wanted the students to think about the extent to which we believe that our democratic values are an asset or a hindrance in the War on Terror, a decision that reveals much of what we really think of democracy in general.  Generally two main schools of thought exist:

  • Our values/freedoms are the essential foundation of who we are, not a mere add-on when things go well.  Therefore the wars we fight, and the way we fight them, must reflect those values, lest we lose our identity.
  • As valuable as our values/freedoms are, they only exist because of the foundation built by security. Without security as the proper soil, freedoms cannot exist.  Therefore in war, we fight to protect our values by making sure we have adequate security.

This debate has great relevance for how we think of torture.  Some see it as necessary to preserve freedom, others see it as a betrayal of our identity, and therefore off-limits to us.  Students felt the tension between our responsibility to protect the innocent and also protect who we are as a people.  Both sides have costs.  To not torture might cost lives.  To do so might cost us something different — our image, identity, our reason for being a nation in the first place.

I hope you enjoy the weekend.  Voices on both sides of the torture debate follow, if you have interest.




Washington, DC, February 5, 2003. 

Subject: Final Report and Recommendations of the Working Group to Assess the

Legal, Policy and Operational Issues Relating to Interrogation of Detainees

Held by the U.S. Armed Forces in the War on Terrorism (U)

1. (U) In drafting the subject report and recommendations, the legal opinions of the Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (DoJ/OLC), were relied on almost exclusively. Although the opinions of DoJ/OLC are to be given a great deal of weight within the Executive Branch, their positions on several of the Working Group’s issues are contentious. As our discussion demonstrate, others within and outside the Executive Branch are likely to disagree. The report and recommendations caveat that it only applies to “strategic interrogations” of “unlawful combatants” at locations outside the United States. Although worded to permit maximum flexibility and legal interpretation, I believe other factors need to be provided to the DoD/GC before he makes a final recommendation to the Secretary of Defense.

2. (U) Several of the more extreme interrogation techniques, on their face, amount to violations of domestic criminal law and the UCMJ (e.g., assault). Applying the more extreme techniques during the interrogation of detainees places the interrogators and the chain of command at risk of criminal accusations domestically. Although a wide range of defenses to these accusations theoretically apply, it is impossible to be certain that any defense will be successful at trial; our domestic courts may well disagree with DoJ/OLC’s interpretation of the law. Further, while the current administration is not likely to pursue prosecution, it is impossible to predict how future administrations will view the use of such techniques.

3. (U) Additionally, other nations are unlikely to agree with DoJ/OLC’s interpretation of the law in some instances. Other nations may disagree with the President’s status determination regarding the Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF) detainees; they may conclude that the detainees are POWs entitled to all of the protections of the Geneva Conventions. Treating OEF detainees inconsistently with the Conventions arguably “lowers the bar” for the treatment of U.S. POWs in future conflicts. Even where nations agree with the President’s status determination, many would view the more extreme interrogation techniques as violative of other international law (other treaties or customary international law) and perhaps violative of their own domestic law. This puts the interrogators and the chain of command at risk of criminal accusations abroad, either in foreign domestic courts or in international fora, to include the ICC.

4. (U) Should any information regarding the use of the more extreme interrogation techniques become public, it is likely to be exaggerated/distorted in both the U.S. and international media. This could have a negative impact on international, and perhaps even domestic, support for the war on terrorism. Moreover, it could have a negative impact on public perception of the U.S. military in general.

5. (U) Finally, the use of the more extreme interrogation techniques simply is not how the U.S. armed forces have operated in recent history. We have taken the legal and moral “high-road” in the conduct of our military operations regardless of how others may operate. Our forces are trained in this legal and moral mindset beginning the day they enter active duty. It should be noted that law of armed conflict and code of conduct training have been mandated by Congress and emphasized since the Viet Nam conflict when our POWs were subjected to torture by their captors. We need to consider the overall impact of approving extreme interrogation techniques as giving official approval and legal sanction to the application of interrogation techniques that U.S. forces have consistently been trained are unlawful.


Major General, USAF,

Deputy Judge Advocate General.


Washington, DC, February 6, 2003. 

Subj: Working Group recommendations relating to interrogation of detainees.

1. Earlier today I provided to you a number of suggested changes, additions, and deletions to the subject document.

2. I would like to further recommend that the document make very clear to decision-makers that its legal conclusions are limited to arguably unique circumstances of this group of detainees, i.e., unlawful combatants held ” outside” the United States. Because of these unique circumstances, the U.S. Torture Statute, the Constitution, the Geneva Conventions and customary international law do not apply, thereby affording policy latitude that likely does not exist in almost any other circumstance. (The UCMJ, however, does apply to U.S. personnel conducting the interrogations.)

3. Given this unique set of circumstances, I believe policy considerations continue to loom very large. Should service personnel be conducting the interrogations? How will this affect their treatment when incarcerated abroad and our ability to call others to account for their treatment? More broadly, while we may have found a unique situation in GTMO where the protections of the Geneva Conventions, U.S. statutes, and even the Constitution do not apply, will the American people find we have missed the forest for the trees by condoning practices that, while technically legal, are inconsistent with our most fundamental values? How would such perceptions affect our ability to prosecute the Global War on Terrorism?

4. I accept the premise that this group of detainees is different, and that lawyers should identify legal distinctions where they exist. It must be conceded, however, that we are preparing to treat these detainees very differently than we treat any other group, and differently than we permit our own people to be treated either at home or abroad. At a minimum, I recommend that decision-makers be made fully aware of the very narrow set of circumstances-factually and legally-upon which the policy rests. Moreover, I recommend that we consider asking decision-makers directly: is this the “right thing” for U.S. military personnel?


Rear Admiral, JAGC, U.S. Navy,

Judge Advocaate General.

Charles Krauthammer, columnist, writing for National Review online:

I don’t see [the release of Bush administration memos on interrogation techniques] as a dark chapter in our history at all.

You look at some of these techniques — holding the head, a face slap, or deprivation of sleep. If that is torture, the word has no meaning.

I would concede that one technique, simulated drowning, you could call torture, even though the memos imply that legally it didn’t meet that definition. I’m agnostic on the legalism….

But let’s concede that it’s a form of torture. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to use it in two cases, that the ticking time bomb, if an innocent is at risk and you’ve got a terrorist that has information that would save that innocent and isn’t speaking. That’s an open and shut easy case.

A second case is a high-level Al Qaeda operative, a terrorist, who knows names and places and numbers and plans and safe houses and all that, and by using techniques to get information, you’re saving lives.

If I have to weigh on the one hand the numberless and nameless lives saved in America by the use of these techniques, and we had a CIA director who told us that these techniques on these high-level terrorists was extremely effective in giving us information.

If you have to weigh on one hand that the numberless and nameless lives saved, against the 30 seconds or so of terror in the eyes of a terrorist who is suffering this technique, I think the moral choice is easy.

It’s not a dark chapter in our history. It is a successful one. We have not had a second attack, and largely because of this.”

Classical Historians and the NFL

Looking back on my childhood, it appears I grew up in the golden age of Redskins fandom.  From 1981-1992 we won 3 Super Bowls, played in another, and had many other playoff runs.  But that whole period seems to be not just a golden era for me and my team but the entire NFL.  During that time (especially if we extend it a bit deeper into Paul Tagliabue’s term as commissioner) the NFL rose from second fiddle to domination of the sports landscape.  But these days I’m nowhere near the rabid fan I used to be, and I’m sure many factors contribute to this.  I know I’m not the only one. Grantland’s Bill Simmons wrote a strange article calling the NFL all kinds of evil and comparing it at one point to slavery.  But then he also expends thousands of words and numerous podcast hours discussing, analyzing, and enjoying the game.^  We seem to occupy an uncertain place.  What exactly do we think the NFL is?  What do we want it to be?  I thought about this from a perspective of Greek and Roman historians and wondered if we might find some parallels.

We can start classical historiography in some ways with Aeschylus.  He wrote no histories, but his plays interpreted the history of Athens and gave them a mental framework for them to view their place in the world.  I have not read many but it appears that they all celebrate the glory that is Athens.  His work has all the admirable confidence/lack of perspective of a 20 year old ready to tackle the world.

By Aeschylus’ death ca. 445 B.C. we have the Father of History, Herodotus, on the scene.  His curiosity leads him to travel far and wide.  He too praises Athens, but it comes within a more muted, almost ecumenical context.  Amongst all the different people Herodotus sees hubris always lurking, even for Athens itself.  By the time Thucydides writes (ca. 410 B.C.?) he openly questions the whole Athenian project.  Xenophon, though a lesser writer than anyone aforementioned, continues that demolition process in his work after the Peloponnesian War (404 B.C.).

Roman historians have similar patterns.  Polybius writes his histories ca. 140(?) B.C. and most everything in his work highlights Rome’s meteoric rise and superiority between 264-146 B.C.  But even he hints at the potentially inevitable cycle of change within civilizations may catch up to Rome at some point.  Livy comes next, and the glory of Rome dominates his work. But for him Rome’s greatness lay in the past, not the future.  Tacitus (ca. 90 A.D.) gives Rome some tough questions in his “Annals” and other works. Then Appian (ca. 130? A.D.) looks back at Rome’s past not as a golden age but as an era prone to violence and greed.  Perhaps some might have called him a “revisionist” historian in his day.  By the time we get to Ammelianus (ca. 375 A.D.) no one buys into Rome anymore.

I think the NFL may reside somewhere in the Polybius/Livy period.  Most commentators have an uneasy sense that a cold wind blows, but others still talk of football as “America’s game, a man’s game,” and so on.  Others might put it in the Tacitus/Appian phase, where perhaps primarily because of concussions we call our whole past into question.  Our confusion over football might mirror  our confusion evidenced in other aspects of our culture.  In many action movies either a) our own government (or some part of it), or b) one of our corporations is the main enemy.  Strategically, Obama perfectly typifies our confusion about our role internationally that persists long after Bush era.

Once we figure out football, will other political and cultural questions will fall into place?  Most likely not, but one can hope.


^In this article Simmons (whom I usually like) displays a common lazy habit of mind we often apply to major powers.  We exaggerate their reach and blame them for everything, assuming that they can fix anything they wish.  We see some other countries having this attitude towards the U.S.  The powerful only have to will it, and it is so.  Some feel that having power magically absolves anyone of human finitude, human folly, and so on.  I call this habit lazy because it prevents us from looking at other causes — it’s too easy, and it often absolves us of personal responsibility.  So Simmons blames Goodell for a gaffe made by one announcer regarding a sponsor.  Simmons naturally assumes that Goodell must not have been clear enough to the announcers in his instructions. Is it possible that he did communicate clearly and someone either forgot or paid no attention?  I don’t like Goodell either but this goes too far.  He can’t be blamed for everything.




Aeschylus and Hawthorne

I’m glad I don’t teach American Literature for many reasons, one of which is that I never have to teach Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.  I have no problem going on record stating that the book is not great literature.  I would go so far as to say in fact that it is bad literature.  I suppose some might argue that we should teach it nevertheless in order to get a flavor of the time-period.  Now, I am no literature teacher, but as I say on occasion, ignorance of subject is no excuse for not having an opinion about it. So I’ll make another hapless decree and say that if you want to get a flavor of the times, many better ways exist than to waste your time reading bad literature.

For the Scarlet Letter Hawthorne picked a theme and perhaps even a plot worthy of great literature.  But his overblown style and the obsessive introspection of his narration make the reading laborious.  Different folks have different strokes, but I would have hard time relating to someone “who just loved the Scarlet Letter.”  As my wife stated, who also teaches literature, “Hawthorne writes with a hammer, not a pen,” and, “He writes like a lawyer, not a novelist.”  As with Oswald Spengler, I did the “random page” experiment and found this at the beginning of chapter six:

Governor Bellingham, in a loose gown and easy cap,–such as elderly gentlemen love to indue themselves with, in their domestic privacy,–walked foremost, and appeared to be showing off his estate, and extirpating on his projected improvements. . . . The impression made by his aspect, so rigid and severe, and frost-bitten with more than autumnal age, was hardly in keeping with the appliances of worldly enjoyment wherewith he had evidently done his utmost to surround himself.  But is an error to suppose that our grave forefathers–though accustomed to speak and think of human existence as merely of trial and warfare, and though unfeignedly prepared to sacrifice goods and life and the behest of duty–made it a matter of conscience to reject such means of comfort or even luxury, as lay fairly within their grasp.

I hope you are not as tired reading it as I am typing it.  One critic wrote that, “If the reader isn’t careful, a character can be changed dramatically in two or three pages . . .” and I don’t think she meant it as a compliment.

I recently read Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy and found myself struck by some similar feelings as when reading the Scarlet Letter.  Especially in “The Agamemnon”  (the first part of the trilogy) we have the same somewhat restless overdone style.  For example . . .

Oh welcome, you blaze in the night, a light as if of day, you harbinger of many a choral dance in Argos in thanksgiving for this glad event!  What ho!  What ho!  To Agamemnon’s queen I thus cry aloud the signal to rise from her bed, and as quickly as she can to lift up her palace halls a shout of joy in welcome of this fire.  And I will make an overture to with a dance upon my own account; for my lord’s lucky roll I shall count to my own score, now that this beacon has thrown me triple six.

So yes, perhaps he adds too much mustard, but the language has something spirited about it (instead of Hawthorne’s superior snootiness), and I can’t help but smile at the translator’s great “triple six” phrase.  But then later the language still remains the same no matter who talks, no matter the reason . . .

Loud rang the battle-cry they uttered in their rage, just as eagles scream which, in lonely grief for their brood, rowing with the oars of their wings, wheel high over their bed, because they have lost the toil of guarding their nursling’s nest.

And so on, throughout the whole play.  The language stirs the blood at first, and then the blood begs to rest a while.

Just as Hawthorne wrote at a time when the concept of “American Literature” just was taking shape, Aeschylus wrote at a time when Greek drama had just began in any formal sense, and this may account for some of their similarities.  Aeschylus’ continuous use of the heroic style may rob his characters of depth, but at least he enjoys his craft and his story.  Many vastly superior Greek dramas exist, but I suppose one must start somewhere.

Perhaps when a person starts out, one can’t help but exaggerate for effect.  And perhaps the same holds true for literature as well.  But Hawthorne had plenty of other examples of great writers at his fingertips, whereas Aeschylus pioneered new ground.  If we considered no other reason, this makes the Oresteia a much greater work than The Scarlet Letter.  I easily forgive and even applaud Aeschylus, but even after all these years I can’t say the same about Hawthorne.

For possible similar themes in Chinese films, see here.