The Invention of Strategy . . . Sort of

I have written at times about my dislike for the “great man” theory of historical interpretation (here extensively).  My objections to this theory, in brief, are that

  • The writer invariably sees events only through one lens, which limits their vision
  • The writer’s hero worship distorts their vision

I could not resist the Kindle deal of Theodore Dodge’s Hannibal: A History of the Art of War Among the Carthaginians and Romans Down to the Battle of Pydna, 168 B.C., with a Detailed Account of the Second Punic War.  I suspected from some reviews that Dodge would fall prey to the aforementioned hero-worship, the besetting sin of many a 19th century historian.  I happily discovered that while I took issue with some of Dodge’s emphasis and conclusions, he writes an informative and engaging account of the Punic War era.  His is a much better book than Druesel’s Bismarck biography linked above, for example.  Likely Dodge was simply a more sane and intellectually honest person than Druesel.  Or it may be that Dodge’s more practical American sensibility and his own experience in our Civil War gave him better perspective.  Whatever the reason, his book pleasantly surprised me.  He delves into some hero worship, but keeps it to acceptable levels.

Dodge first argues briefly that Hannibal, with some help from Alexander the Great, invented the art of military strategy.  This at first struck me as “hero worship” but upon reflection I mostly agree with him.  For the ancients, battle was battle in the way for us that a handshake is a handshake.  We don’t think of strategizing a handshake.  Handshakes represent our pledge, ourselves.  To strategize a handshake seems impersonal, disconnecting us from ourselves and putting up a false pretense.

For the ancients, in battle you lined up in a field and fought.  Battle tested not the intellect but the will, the discipline, and the courage of the armies.  To have it become something more than that struck many as absurd, or perhaps cheating.  Certainly some Romans viewed Hannibal this way.  Some of our generals in Vietnam felt similarly.  I recall one of them saying, “To *&^% with them!  They wouldn’t come out and fight!”  So the attitude may have a universality beyond the ancient world.

Hannibal often fought with deception, move, and counter-move.  At times he sacrificed a small portion of his men in hopes that Rome would bite on a bait-and-switch.  He always seemed to have several tools in his bag to try and get what he wanted.  I wondered with a colleague of mine how this came to be.  What context helped create Hannibal?  Major shifts like this do not happen in a vacuum.

Carthage had a great naval tradition, but little overt military tradition to speak of.  A society centered around merchants, they contracted out nearly the entirety of their infantry.  An army with dozens of different traditions is an army with no traditions.  Dodge does a solid job of explaining the jigsaw puzzle that was the Carthaginian army, which would need a charismatic and forceful leader to hold together, let alone use effectively.  Hannibal deserves much of the credit he receives.

Hannibal also spent the majority of his life away from Carthage in Spain with the army, including his formative years.  Thus, Hannibal had little connection to Carthaginian civilization (something that would hurt him later in his war with Rome).  He roamed as a “free agent” in many respects, and could be dedicated to victory while others dedicated themselves to honor or tradition.

Many of Hannibal’s admirers rightly point out that unlike Alexander, Caesar, or Napoleon Hannibal faced  rather than actually had the best army in the known world.  True, Rome’s infantry distinguished itself for an almost 200 year unbroken string of victories by the time Hannibal invaded.  But for someone like Hannibal Rome offered unique opportunities.  Unlike Carthage, their army was embedded directly within their civilization of farmers.  And, like farmers, Rome’s army stuck to routine.  They could be counted on to charge at any red flag in any environment, and a patient commander with excellent command over his men might find a way to exploit this.  Certainly Hannibal did, with Cannae as the exemplar par excellence of his theatrical genius.

In the end, however, Dodge reverts to the hero-worship mentality.  The “objective” view (ok — my view) of Hannibal makes him a bit too clever by half.  The 2nd Punic War ostensibly began as a dispute over territory in Spain.  Had Hannibal stayed in Spain and waited for Rome to come to him, he would have been well supplied and could pick his spots more or less at will.  One can easily foresee a significant victory for Carthage in that scenario.  But Hannibal chose to play for much bigger and riskier stakes by invading Italy itself.  Any full treatment of the 2nd Punic War then, must be largely a biography of Hannibal.  Understanding what made him tick would make a great template for a great writer, but Dodge is not it.  Granted, Dodge never claimed to write a Hannibal biography, but I don’t see how one can ignore this side of Hannibal in writing about the war.  For example, in faithful hero-worship fashion, Dodge brushes off the many cruel acts of Hannibal and never uses them to try and gain insight into the man.  When Hannibal makes two prisoners fight each other to the death for their freedom merely as an object lesson for his men, all Dodge can say is, “This had a remarkable effect on his army.”

Essentially, Hannibal’s strategy boiled down to:

  • Crossing the Alps to invade Italy — this would surprise Rome and put him in a position to quickly ally himself with the Gauls in the north of Italy, long time enemies of Rome, then
  • March south and hope to gather more allies as he went — to do this he would need a few big battles to impress/scare the locals
  • Eventually he would have enough troops to march on Rome itself

I think Hannibal a great military commander, but we have to remember that he lost.  It’s easy to love Lee, but Grant beat him.  Napoleon is more interesting than Wellington, but Wellington had the last laugh.  So if we avoid getting carried away with the brilliant nature of some of Hannibal’s victories, we may wonder how great a grand strategist Hannibal really was.  His plan had significant flaws.

Many point out that Hannibal got very little support from Carthage itself, and then argue that had he had this support, he would have been victorious.  Dodge writes,

That Hannibal eventually failed was not from lack of intelligent policy, but because he had no aid from home. . .

and again,

The opposition of Hanno [a Carthaginian politician] wrecked all of Hannibal’s wonderful work.

and later again,

When we look at the [internal condition of Carthaginian politics], it ceases to be a matter of curiosity why so little was done to aid Hannibal.

It is a mark of faith in the “great men” school of thought that nothing can ever be really the fault of the great man.

True, Hannibal received little support from Carthage, but Hannibal should have been quite familiar with the topsy-turvy nature of his home civilization’s politics.  Besides, in crossing the Alps Hannibal adopted a strategy that would isolate him from any kind of supply line.  Finally, and most tellingly for me, even Dodge admits that Carthaginian armies had a tradition of operating independently and self-sufficiently apart from Carthage’s government.  All this Hannibal should have taken into account, and it was a serious mistake for him not to connect his strategy to his political situation.  Again, even Dodge himself writes about the Carthaginian government,

. . . it was natural that [the Carthaginian government] should prefer to hold Spain to winning in Italy.  They believed they could do the first, they doubted the other.

So Hannibal adopted a strategy (rather than hold Spain, go for the jugular in Italy) that he either knew or should have known went in direct opposition to Carthage’s political leadership.  Carthage refused to take extra risks for a general that had defied them, and this should not surprise us, nor should it have surprised Hannibal.  It seems to have surprised Dodge.

For Hannibal’s strategy to work, he would need to pry allies away from Rome.  But in cutting his army off from a supply line, he forced them to rely on foraging the countryside, alienating the very people he tried to win over.  Oil and water just don’t mix.

Besides this, I think Hannibal also showed a basic ignorance of Rome’s alliance system.  Rome wasn’t perfect.  No one is.  But in general Rome offered a good deal to those they conquered and incorporated into their Republic.  They required taxes and military service, and little else.  How could Hannibal top this?  What better offer could he make?  He could, of course, exempt them from military service, but then their “help” would not be much help at all.

I think Hannibal failed to understand the political system his enemy really operated, and by my tally that means he failed to understand politics at all.  A general who operated on Hannibal’s scale needed to, and this failure cost him everything.  Dodge writes,

Like Napoleon, Hannibal saw that a peace, to be a peace, must be conquered at the doors of the enemy’s capital.  This was his policy.  It was the proper one; but it failed because he could not control the resources of Carthage.

That Dodge writes this without attaching any blame to Hannibal speaks volumes.  Why should we praise a man who undertook a strategy that required he control Carthage’s resources when Hannibal lacked the power to control them?  And why be so sure that Napoleon was correct when he too lost, and lost badly?

Those in the romantic “Great Men” school ultimately have to explain why their heroes lost (losers are always more romantic than winners).  For R.E. Lee, it was his generals.  “If only Jackson had lived, or Ewell had taken the hill, or if Stuart were there, etc. (Lee of course only blamed himself).  Napoleon, serving as his own “Great Men” autobiographer, and perhaps the founder of the “Great Men” school, blamed fate.  For him, I think, to blame others would have meant admitting that others had real power, which perhaps he hesitated to do.  Alas, Dodge (though thankfully not Hannibal) takes refuge behind Fate as well, writing,

Hannibal . . . was hoping against hope; he recognized that the stars in their courses were fighting against him.

and,

[Alexander the Great] was a prime favorite of Fortune.  She smiled on Hannibal until after Cannae.  Thereafter no man ever faced luck so contrary.

Fate is a refuge for those who refuse to face the message Reality wishes to convey.

In the end, the traditional story of the 2nd Punic War as a war of personal revenge of Hannibal on Rome may make the most sense.   The strategy employed, the blitzkrieg nature of his execution, and his “anger” flaming out after Cannae may speak to the truth of this version.

So, I disagree with Dodge, but I enjoyed his book, and others will too.  At least he had an opinion to go with his fine writing and interesting way of presenting Rome and Hannibal’s epic confrontation.  Though Rome had the last laugh, Hannibal remains a fascinating figure.

Though see here for the possibility that Hannibal had the last, last laugh after all.

 

 

 

 

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12th Grade: Israel, Palestine, and Solutions Beyond Governments

Greetings,

This week and last we looked at Israeli democracy, and tried to understand the dilemma they face regarding Palestinian statehood.  I hope we gained sympathy for both sides of this question.  Through this lens I wanted the students to understand one of the Catch-22’s that many democratic states face.

Democracies appeal to us largely because of their high ideals and goals, not just for the state itself, but for the individual.  But human nature almost guarantees that we will not attain these goals, and so democratic states are much more prone to hypocrisy and blind spots than authoritarian dictatorships, for example.  This should not make us abandon democracy.   As Chesterton and others have said, if you aim at nothing you’re sure to hit it.  But I do hope it will give us greater understanding of democracy’s Achilles heel.  The “processes” of democracy, like voting, representation, etc. have no real meaning unless they have roots in specific values.  If values make a democracy, then one must lead with those values.

The idea of a Jewish state predated World War II to the 1890’s.  The western world in general experienced an intensification of nationalism and heightened awareness of ethnic identity, which bore such horrific fruit in the 20th century.  Many Jews, having been scattered throughout Europe for centuries, began to resettle in Palestine, which the Ottomans then administered.  By the 1920’s Jewish settlement in Palestine looked something like this (darker areas indicate Jewish presence), though I should add that almost every map related to the Israel/Palestine question is polemical and controversial in one way or another.

After World War I, the British administered the area, but could no longer do so after World War II.  At that point England wanted to jettison nearly all of its colonial empire, and so they handed the question of Palestine over to the United Nations.  After the Holocaust the world had to answer the question as to whether or not there should be a specific Jewish state, and if so, where it should be.

Although people debated various sites, including Madagascar, they eventually settled on Palestine, which made sense in relation to Jewish history and the recent Zionist movement. No place would be without controversy, but choosing Palestine came with problems.  During World War I many Arabs fought with the British against the Turks, and the British in turn pledged to grant Arabs independence.  Instead they reneged on the deal and added Palestine to its colonial holdings.

Actions have consequences, even if sometimes those consequences take years to make themselves known.

From the Israeli’s perspective, owning a small sliver of land that did not even include Jerusalem, was the least the world could do.  Europe had persecuted the Jews on and off since the Crusades.  The latent, on again off again anti-Semitism that simmered for centuries metastasized into a horrifically clinical attempt to wipe them out entirely with the Nazi domination of Europe.  The world had shown that the Jews must have a safe haven, and giving them back a small part of their ancestral land made  political and ethical sense.

The Palestinians saw it differently and many continue to do so.

While the Palestinians were not the Jews number one fan, the Holocaust happened in Europe. It was not their doing, either directly or indirectly.  If the Jews need a homeland, and Europeans need to give them one to assuage their consciences, fine.  How about taking some European territory?  How about part of Germany?

Instead, what the Palestinians feel happened is what they felt always happens with the West. The Palestinians felt stomped on by one colonial power or another for centuries, and now it looked like deja vu  all over again.  This time, the guise took the form of the United Nations, but the result is the same:  someone took our land without our consent.  Rest assured, the Palestinians did not vote at the U.N. to cede part of Palestine for a Jewish state.  Thus, the very existence of the Jewish state is another form of colonial imperialism in Palestinian eyes.  The Jews invaded, in a sense, under U.S. and European flags.  In their mind Israel has no legitimacy because they are no better than other colonial occupiers.  When some critics of Israel, be they Palestinian or not, talk of Israel as a state founded on thievery, they have these associations in mind.

Most argue that the wars fought between Israel and her neighbors in 1948, 1967, and 1973 were started by Israel’s Moslem neighbors (though some might dispute ’67, where Israel launched the first physical attacks).  Not so, say the Arabs.  Israel started them all simply by being there.

Time has not favored the Palestinian cause, as the map below indicates:

Upon its creation, Israel had to make some crucial choices about its future.  It chose a Parliamentary style democracy, which did not surprise many.  But what to do with Palestinians living within their territory?  In 1948, Palestinians formed a distinct minority within Israel, but they were protected and given citizenship.  A British parliamentary style usually has less federation and more majority rule.  But that was ok, because Jews had the clear majority.  Still, it stood as a statement that Israel need not be for Jews only, and in the wake of the Holocaust, this was a powerful statement.

But what to do with Palestinians in the territory Israel acquired in 1948 and 1967?  Should they be citizens too?

This dilemma pierced the heart of the whole purpose for Israel’s existence.  They no longer could be both a Jewish ethnic state and a fully functioning democracy.  In other words, they could either

  • Give every Palestinian full citizenship rights, and risk that Jews would no longer be the majority in Israel.
  • Give them no rights and treat them as an occupied people
  • Give them some rights and not others, but this middle ground would probably not make legal or moral sense, something akin to the 3/5 Compromise in the Constitution, which made slaves count as 3/5 of a person.  How can one be 3/5 of a person?

In other words, Israel could be an ethnic state or a full fledged democracy.  The two could no longer go together.  They would have to give up something.  I have enormous sympathy for Israel here.  The whole purpose of Israel was to create a refuge for Jews and create a state run by Jews. To attain peace they would need to give up something of their identity.  For a generation that saw and survived the Holocaust, this would have been a near supernatural act, and it is not my place to judge.  Palestinian Christians have the only solution, but tragically, some of Israel’s policies, at times supported by the West, and at times supported by some Christian denominations, have deeply eroded and marginalized the Palestinian Christian community.

The middle course Israel chose gave Palestinians in newly acquired land some economic opportunities but not political representation.  Such mixed messages are usually deadly for democracies, and in time those contradictions often assert themselves with a vengeance.  One only needs to think of what happened when our own country sent blaring mixed messages for the first 80-90 years of our existence. In essence, the Palestinians got invited to the party, but then got told to eat with the servants in the basement.

Eventually, security concerns led Israel to build a wall between themselves and certain occupied areas.  But this seems all wrong.  We are familiar with walls — the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, and so on.  Democracies are not supposed to do this.  But Israel felt that they could not be secure without it.   Some supporters of the wall might argue that it sends a signal, like the Emperor Hadrian’s wall in the north of England, of an end point to expansion in the occupied territories.  In other words, it should comfort the Palestinians. But this is not how Palestinians, or the world-wide community, has interpreted the wall.   Some have called it “the most religious place on Earth.”  The images are powerful:

I think Israel’s history comes with many lessons for democracies, including the need for consistency, and the need to lead with cultural values over strict security concerns.  Ultimately, however, we see the need for something greater than what governments can give.

Many thanks,

Dave M

“Eichmann Interrogated,” and Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem”

Adolph Eichmann worked closely with the notorious S.S. General Rienhard Heydrich, and helped formulate and institute the plans for the Final Solution.  He escaped eventually to Argentina, but was kidnapped by the Mossad and taken back to Israel for trial.

Eichmann Interrogated is comprised almost entirely of edited transcripts of conversations between Israeli Captain Avner Less and Eichmann himself.

The book starts and continues on a tedious note.  Eichmann takes pains to clarify the minutiae of who he knew, when he joined the S.S. and why, what his rank meant, and exactly what he did.  Painstakingly he gets us to the point where he asserts that the scope of his powers extended to Section IV B4.  That’s all.  He even expresses horror at the fact that Nazi’s murdered Less’ father in a concentration camp.

But around page 90 or so Less’ questions come more to the point, and Eichmann’s responses have to match.  Eichmann claims responsibility only for the fact that he transported people to the camps, and not for any of the deaths.  He talks of the need to obey orders, that he did nothing illegal as far as German law was concerned.  When pressed on the death of civilians at the hands of Germany, he admits it but points out that the Allies killed hundreds of thousands of civilians with their bombings as well.  He is deferential, but fights nonetheless.  He desperately tries to get distance between himself and the victims by claiming that he did not know necessarily that any of them would be killed for sure, otherwise why did so many Jews survive the war?  Bizarrely, he almost argued that his conscience could be clean because any of those he did ship to camps might hypothetically not be killed, thus, he can say he helped kill no one at all. He is very clear on this point.  Eichmann does not come to terms with his actions.

Many things make the last 150 pages or so of the book so memorable.  Did he truly believe the legal fictions he spun for himself?  Did he divorce himself so much from reality that he could not connect his transportation of people and their deaths?  Surely too, he lied about the extent of his involvement.  But again, did he believe his lies?

Hannah Arendt’s work helps complete the picture.  I thought Arendt’s Imperialism fantastic, but Eichmann in Jerusalem lacked the focus of that previous work.  Still the subtitle itself (A Report on the Banality of Evil) is a great insight into the whole Nazi regime.  Arendt does also draw one key conclusion about Eichmann himself.  She did not see him as a simpleton or a mere patsy.  He had a kind of intelligence.  But she argued that Eichmann had no ability or training to see anything beyond the moment.

One example might be that within minutes of each other he first disavowed any believe in the afterlife and then proclaimed that, “Germany will live in my heart forever.” Eichmann was perhaps literally incapable of seeing the contradiction. The same insight applies to him expressing horror over Avner Less’ father in a death camp.  Perhaps that too was not an act.  Perhaps he did not see the connection between himself and that event, however absurd that notion is.  Truly, he was never trained or encouraged to think or view things outside of himself.  He accepted his death sentence passively, but with little real sense of the reasons why he deserved it.*  For him the verdict seemed like victors justice and not Justice proper, a mere extension of the war 17 years later.

If she is right in this about Eichmann, then we can reasonably assume that he may not have only tried to concoct a desperate defense with his, “I only shipped them to the camps, I never killed anyone,” line.  He might have actually believed it. In this way Arendt makes us see that Eichmann is part of the tragedy of the Holocaust, all the more so because it seemed he couldn’t see that about himself.

*Unlike, say, Burt Lancaster’s character in the great ‘Judgment at Nuremburg.’

11th Grade: Ending the War Justly(?)

Greetings,

This week we wrapped up World War II by focusing on two key issues: our use of the atomic bomb, and the Nuremberg Trials.

We discussed before how war in general can have a terrible kind of osmosis for the combatants.  So in W.W. I the Germans first used chemical warfare and all cried foul, but soon the Allies followed suit.  All were outraged when the Germans bombed London, but as the war went on the British and Americans killed far more civilians with their bombings than the Axis powers.  Herman Goering called the conflict, “the great racial war,” and Americans as well as the British adopted some similar attitudes to their enemies as the Axis powers did to us.  This proved especially towards our Japanese opponents.  This picture, for example, of a young woman admiring the skull of a dead Japanese soldier her boyfriend sent her, appeared prominently in Life Magazine.  

A few issues regarding the bombings need discussed:

1. Is it the primary job of the commanding officer primarily to abide by a a Christian ethic of human life even if it puts his troops at relative disadvantage, or do we want him to instead seek to have his men accomplish their mission with as few casualties as possible?  What about the President?  It is worth noting that Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who led many of the bombing runs that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese, thought that he would be tried as a war criminal should the Allies lose the war.

The divide here may be seen this way. . .

  • On the one hand, you have the view that “war is hell,” and exists essentially outside normal ethical standards.  Killing someone, for example, is never the “kind” thing to do.  The main goal, therefore, is to end war as soon as possible, and then resume “normal” life.
  • On the other, you have the view that war is not primarily about victory, but about our sanctification as individuals and as a nation.  If fighting “morally” means we suffer, so be it.  Just as individuals should never do wrong to benefit themselves, so nations should not either.

Granted, this divide may be altogether too simplistic. but it touches on another issue.  What are nations?  When a nations acts should it be held to the same standards as individuals, or are nations in fact artificial, impersonal creations that therefore are not subject to the same standards as individuals?

These questions have no easy answers.

2. Should the ethics of war depend in part on the nature of conflict itself? For example, conflicts in the past involved armies of aristocratic warriors, and rarely involved the general population.  In the 20th century however, war between whole nations became the standard.  If nations fight, can the whole nation, civilian or otherwise, become the target?  I hope the students will consider some difficult questions.  Is there a difference between bombing cities from the sky, and going from house to house shooting those inside?  Can you target areas if civilians are likely to be unintended collateral damage?

Our decision to use the atomic bomb had many factors involved:

  • We wanted to avoid a mainland invasion of Japan, which would likely have cost us at least 100,000 casualties, with some estimates being much higher.
  • We wanted to end the war before the Soviets could get involved and take Japan for themselves.
  • While we could have bombed Hiroshima conventionally with a comparable destructive impact, the atomic weapon had much greater potential for psychologically impacting them.

Our use of the two atomic weapons, “Fat Man,” and “Little Boy” did have the desired effect.  Japan did surrender without us needing to invade.  But nearly all Japanese that died in these attacks were civilians.  For the first time in my teaching career, almost all of the students thought that the decision to use the bomb could not be justified.

Germany’s surrender left us with a variety of post-war dilemmas.  The magnitude of the evil perpetrated in the Holocaust numbs the mind.  Never before in history had such a thing happened on such a scale.

But what should we do with Nazi leaders that surrendered?  Should they be released into civilian life again, as if nothing happened?  Or should they be shot out of hand?  Neither option seems to satisfy.  Putting them on trial had many advantages to it.  We would give them legal counsel.  They would have a fair chance to prove their innocence or at least mitigate their guilt.  This was the “civilized” option.

But that too posed problems.  What right did we have to put Germans on trial?  They were not American citizens and had broken no American laws.  To what kind of law can we hold them accountable?  We can argue for international law, but the Germans had withdrawn from international agreements and oversight before the war began.  Thus, they were not accountable directly to international laws they never pledged to obey.  What legal procedures should even govern the trial?

Furthermore, how could the trials be fair if all the judges were Allies?  Should the Germans have the right to a trial of their peers?  But would that eliminate the possibility of guilty verdicts?  Could the trials be fair if the Soviets participated in the prosecutions?  But how could we exclude them, considering that the Soviet Union suffered far, far more casualties than the U.S. and England combined?

The trials raise many perplexing legal questions, but also difficult moral ones.  How far should the “I was just following orders defense,” be allowed to go?  How far down the chain of command should we prosecute?

Eichmann served in the S.S. and played a role in the Holocaust.  He ended up escaping from Germany, and was captured by Israeli’s 15 years after the end of the war and put on trial.  Many remarked on how ordinary a man Eichmann was.  Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil” fit him perfectly.

Many thanks,

Dave

10th Grade: The Feeding Frenzy

Greetings,

This week we came close to wrapping up the events of the Reign of Terror.  During the terrible years of 1793-94 somewhere between 15-40 thousand people died and some 300,000 were imprisoned.  How did a Republic dedicated to “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” descend into this barbaric nightmare.  Many theories exist, and here I would like to highlight a few we will discuss in class.

David Andress – The Terror & Outside Pressure

Historian David Andress wants us to consider what happened inside France in light of events outside of France.  England, Austria, and Prussia all tried militarily to oppose France, and all looked for the the fledgling republic to collapse.  The stress of war on an already fragile government heightened the stakes inside France, and they cracked under the pressure.

Edmund Burke – The Abandonment of Tradition

A contemporary of the Revolution, Burke warned back in 1790 that France would pay a terrible price for putting people in power who had no idea how to use it.  Having no political experience, France’s leaders would quickly grow frustrated, and then lash out in the most basic way possible: violence.  Burke would prove a prophet.

Burke may seem stodgy at fist glance, because of his strong emphasis on tradition and habit.  But in a paradoxical way, he believed that habits were the only sure foundation for progress in the world.  We make thousands upon thousands of decisions in a given day, and Burke sees these these habits as a path to freedom, giving us time to pursue new things rather than have to “rationally” whether or not to eat breakfast first or get dressed first.

In a terrible irony Burke predicted, those fired by the Enlightenment idea to apply the strong light of reason to all things would end up erasing habit and thereby condemn us to starting all over again, setting us back to a barbarian past.  The Revolution saw multiple constitutions over a short period of time, a change of calendar, a change of morals.  No one could be sure of anything, and in this environment, fear and violence would likely take over.

Burke applied the same thought process to the exercise of power.  We often make two mistakes regarding political power:

  • We assume that it is a kind of magic, reserved only for society’s wizards.
  • We assume that anyone can do it.

Burke believed that good use of political power functioned like many other things in life, as a matter of experience and training — a matter of habit.  Certainly we want intelligent people to hold office, but this intelligence needed training like anything else in life.  The problem with the revolutionary leaders was not their lack of intelligence.  It was not their wicked designs (we can grant that some of them, at least, meant well).  The main problem lie in the fact that no one really knew what they were doing, and so fell back on force as a last resort.

Simon Schama – Dangers of Ideology

In his great work Citizens, Schama took another approach.  He focused how the French defined what it meant to be a citizen of their country. Increasingly they defined citizenship in moral and ideological and not legal terms.  Frenchmen had rights, but only those truly “virtuous,” or dedicated to the Revolution were truly French.  Those not revolutionary enough could not be French, and so they had no rights.  They functioned as a cancerous tumor, foreign to the national body, and had to be excised.

All three of these eminent thinkers emphasize important aspects of the political context. But all three I think leave out some fundamental aspects of human nature.  I think this image of Robespierre, the head of the ironically named “Committee of Public Safety,”  speaks volumes.  Here we have a man who believed in his own virtue, and had a passion for enforcing his rules on others.  Imagine the ultimate HOA Board Member on steroids.

Robespierre believed in perfection and insisted upon it.  Unfortunately he more or less thought he had achieved it himself.  People called Robespierre the “Incorruptible.”  In all his dealings, Robespierre appears to have been that rare politician who truly did not take bribes or show favoritism.  It would have been better for France (and Robespierre).  Perhaps then he would not have been able to maintain his furious streak of self-righteousness, which led to so many deaths (perhaps thinking of Robespierre might help us to understand Martin Luther’s oft misunderstood “Sin boldly.  God can only forgive a hearty sinner,” line to his quibbling friend Melancthon).

A passion for moral and political purity destroyed France. One can think of a potter attempting to make the perfect circle.  It wouldn’t be perfect at first, and one would have to shave off bits of clay continually to get it just right.  Eventually, however, you would not have any clay left.  While they said they cared for liberty, they did not realize that the amount of liberty one can enjoy is the amount you are willing to have abused.  France found that it could tolerate no abuse of liberty, so in the end they had none at all.  As the Terror increased, even the Committee of Public Safety members turned on each other and many of them faced the guillotine.

The guillotine itself represents part of the tragedy of the Revolution.  Dr. Guillotin invented the instrument to make executions more humane.  In the past, death by beheading was actually a privilege reserved for the nobility.  Those of more “common” lineage might face execution through hanging, disembowling, or even being drawn and quartered.

The guillotine meant now that everyone would have the “right” to death by beheading, and the mechanism meant now that no executioner might potentially botch the job.  Instead, in an almost bizarre parody, the mechanical nature of the machine gave the state power to execute more people more quickly, and now indeed “the people” could all face death equally.

Emmett Kennedy, author of A Cultural History of the French Revolution makes a great observation about French Romanticism and its relation to violence.  If man is naturally good, he suggests, than grace becomes irrelevant.  But what can take the place of grace as a proper inducement to virtue?  St. Just, Robespierre’s lieutenant, had the answer.  Kennedy writes,

Sensibilite (right sentiments, for lack of a better word) impels a man toward virtue, it affirms his natural goodness; it does for him what grace does for Christians.  If “sentiments”  do not produce virtue, then [St. Just argues] terror must take its place (emphasis mine).

In a round-about way Kennedy hits at a central truth.  The doctrine of the Fall of Man leads us not towards cruelty but mercy.  The Revolution denied mankind’s nature, but this “liberation” from sin could only lead them to destroy one another in blind and merciless search for perfection.

Drinking Tea in Wartime

My grandfather fought in W.W. II for the 101st Airborne.  He took part in the invasion of Arnhem in September 1944, a campaign immortalized by the book/movie A Bridge too Far. One story he related dealt with the British love of tea.  If the British/American plan had a chance of success allied forces needed to move as fast as possible to seize several key bridgeheads across the Rhine River.  But at around 4:00, British units pulled over on the side of the road and had their tea for 15 minutes, driving their American counterparts nuts.  How anyone could justify teatime at such a time baffled them.

I suppose the British might have responded along the lines of, “If we don’t stop for tea at 4:00, then the Nazi’s have already won!”

Tensions between tradition and the exigencies of the moment have always been with us. In every instance where it arises good arguments exist on both sides that invariably go something like

  • We must change in order to survive, vs.
  • If we change the wrong things, or change too much, it won’t be “we” that survive but another sort of society entirely.

I very much enjoyed the many strengths of Basil Liddell Hart’s Scipio Africanus: Greater than Napoleon.  My one quibble with the book is his failure to tackle this dilemma as it relates to Rome in the 2nd Punic War.

But first, the book’s strengths . . .

The title indicates that Hart might indulge in a bit of hero-worship, but I have no problem with this in itself.  First of all, he lets the reader know from the outset where he stands. And, while her0-worship books have inevitable weaknesses, I very much prefer this approach to writing that equivocates to such a degree so that the author says nothing at all.

Hart’s book also reverses the common tendency to glorify the romantic loser.  We love Robert E. Lee, but Grant, well, he’s boring.  We love Napoleon and see Wellington as . . . boring.  Historians of the 2nd Punic War have devoted an overwhelming amount of attention to Hannibal.  His march through the Alps and his enormously impressive successes at Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae have inspired military minds for centuries. Sure, Rome won in the end, but for “boring” reasons like better political structure and more human resources–just as many assume Grant won not because of what he did, but because of the North’s “boring” industrialization and economy.

But surely Hannibal’s defeat had something to do with Scipio himself, especially seeing as how a variety of other Roman commanders failed spectacularly at fighting the wily Carthaginian.  To add to this, if you knock out the champ, doesn’t that mean that we have a new champion?

Liddell Hart gives us some great insights in this book.

Those familiar with Hart’s philosophy know that he constantly praised the value of what he called the “indirect approach” to war, both tactically and strategically.  Rome at first tried the direct approach with Hannibal and lost badly.  Then with Fabius they practiced what some might call “no approach” with a debatable amount of success.  Scipio struck a balance.  After assuming command he fought the Carthaginians, but not in Italy.  He took the fight to Carthage’s important base in Spain.  He fought against Carthaginian troops with Carthaginian commanders, but avoided Hannibal.

I have no great military knowledge and no experience, but Hart’s concise explanation of Scipio’s maneuvering in Spain impressed me greatly.  His “double envelopment” move at the Battle of Ilipa against a numerically superior foe was an inspired stroke:

battle-of-ilipa

But I found Scipio’s diplomatic and grand-strategical vision more impressive.  Hart admits that Hannibal had the edge over Scipio in tactics, but I feel that most overlook or excuse Hannibal’s deficiencies at accomplishing his strategy of prying allies away from Rome.  In a very short time Scipio turned the tables completely in Spain, giving Rome a foundation on which to build a Mediterranean empire.  Unlike other great commanders such as Napoleon and Alexander, and even Hannibal, Scipio never had full control of his forces or his agenda.  He accomplished more than most any other commander while navigating more difficult political terrain.  He established the basis militarily and diplomatically for Rome’s preeminence in the Mediterranean.  He deserves the praise Hart heaps on him.

However, the ‘hero-worship’ part of the book needs addressing.  Hart writes with much more balance than Theodore Dodge, who wrote about Scipio’s counterpart Hannibal.  But he makes the same kind of mistakes as Dodge by dismissing some of the political realities Rome faced because of Scipio’s success.  In sum, Hart has no appreciation for the tension between Roman tradition and Roman military success at the heart of this conflict.

Rome’s Republic had no written constitution.  It ran according to tradition.  The bedrock principles were:

  • Sharing power amongst the aristocratic class
  • Yearly rotation of offices
  • Direct appeals to the people smelled of dictatorship
  • No one stands out too much more than anyone else.  They sought more or less to divvy up honor equally.
  • You wait your turn like everyone else.  No one jumps in line ahead of anyone.

From the start of his career Scipio challenged nearly all of these principles in a dramatic way.  Hart himself admits that:

  • He ‘level-jumped’ to high office far earlier than anyone else, breaking the unofficial rules that held things together.
  • He frequently received his support directly from the people against the wishes of the aristocracy
  • He at times used religious claims to boost his appeal for office, which the people responded to over and against the scowls of the aristocracy.
  • In defeating Hannibal he raised his status far higher than any other Roman of his day.  This can’t be held against him obviously, but everyone noticed.

Of course we naturally have a distaste for aristocracy and so does Hart, who loses no opportunities to cast aspersions on Cato, Fabius, and other grumpy, jealous old men.  He has many strong points–the ancient sources do not always or even mostly favor Scipio’s opponent’s.

But . . . by any measure the Roman Republic ranks as one of the more successful governments of all-time.  While they were not close to fully democratic, they had many democratic elements, and still managed annual, peaceful transitions of power across all levels of government for (at the time of the 2nd Punic War) for 300 years.  Judged by the standards of their day, some might even label them as “progressives.”  They had a great thing going and we should not rashly blame them for wanting to protect it.

During the war itself one can easily agree with Hart and his roasting of Fabius and especially Cato the Elder. But events in the generations after the 2nd Punic War show that Scipio’s enemies may have been at least partially on to something.  Within 30 years of their victory, the Republic had major cracks.  After 75 years, the Republic began its collapse.  In time the Republic could not even pretend to contain Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar.  One could argue that Scipio in an indirect way set the stage for this.

Hart wrote a very good book, but not a great one.  I wonder what he would have thought of the British soldiers at Arnhem.  The disruption Rome suffered as a result of the 2nd Punic War had a lot more to do with Hannibal than Scipio.  And yet, Scipio played some part, albeit a small one. Was it worth it?   Could it have reasonably happened differently?  Hart doesn’t say, and leaves us to wonder.

 

 

 

 

 

The Inherited Conglomerate

In his collection of folklore from Ireland W.B.Yeats quoted the Irish proverb that, Those who travel much have little faith.”  He quoted this with seeming ambivalence, which reflects something of Yeats himself.  He certainly had many markings of the worldly man, yet he wrote the magnificent poem “The Second Coming,” with the immortal line that tells of the centre no longer holding, the widening gyre of the falcon.

I have traveled very little, but this very small amount of travel has confirmed its enormous educational benefits.  One sees new things from new perspectives “in the flesh.”  Certainly one should always wish to grow, learn, and so on, but the proverb holds at least a kernel of truth: those who travel without a secure base may find themselves more “enlightened,” but also more confused then before.  These new perspectives can completely undo one’s world.  Whether this disruption be good or bad . . . it is unquestionably a disruption.

The great Gilbert Murray made his mark in the early 20th century as one of the great scholars of classical antiquity.  For many he modeled the calm, rational confidence of pre-W.W. I Europe and the blessings of “free inquiry.  His analysis of the history of Greek religion confirmed his rationalism.  Greece turned to irrationalism, he argued, and therefore decline, only when they lost their “nerve,” their sense of themselves.

But one particular comment of his caused his followers some consternation.  He admitted that every civilization has an “inherited conglomerate” of thoughts and ideas that should not really be questioned, even though they cannot be “proven” in the usual sense of the world.   When society starts to question them, when they lose confidence in the conglomerate, they lose a common language and purpose and begin to fracture. He defended, for example, the teaching of Christianity in Britain’s state schools because

the religious–and what is more–the ethical emotions of the English people are rooted in the Christian writings, especially the Gospels, some of the epistles, and books like the Imitation and Pilgrim’s Progress.  The situation must be accepted.

It was that “must” that particularly bothered people.  What did he truly believe, and was rationality a religion in itself, or not?*

Murray saw the emancipatory movements of the 19th century and often supported them.  But, he remained apparently torn about this in his later years, for he saw that the collapse of traditional Europe after W.W. I did not lead to more freedom as expected, but much less freedom for millions due to the rise of totalitarianism in Italy, Germany, and Russia.

In a recent podcast with Ezra Klein, he and Tyler Cowen exchanged thoughts on the emerging “rationality community.”

Ezra Klein

What are your thoughts on the rationality community?

Tyler Cowen

Well, tell me a little more what you mean. You mean Eliezer Yudkowsky?

Ezra Klein

Yeah, I mean Less Wrong, Slate Star Codex, Julia Galef, Robin Hanson. Sometimes Bryan Caplan is grouped in here. The community of people who are frontloading ideas like signaling, cognitive biases, etc.

Tyler Cowen

Well, I enjoy all those sources, and I read them. That’s obviously a kind of endorsement. But I would approve of them much more if they called themselves the irrationality community. Because it is just another kind of religion. A different set of ethoses. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the notion that this is, like, the true, objective vantage point I find highly objectionable. And that pops up in some of those people more than others. But I think it needs to be realized it’s an extremely culturally specific way of viewing the world, and that’s one of the main things travel can teach you.

All of this came to mind as I read E.R. Dodds’ provocative classic, The Greeks and the Irrational.  We assume, he argues, two main things about the Greeks:

  • Their main contribution to the western world was their spirit of free, rational inquiry, and
  • It was this spirit of free inquiry that led to the greatness of their civilization

Dodds pushes us to see the Greeks on their own terms.  They had, perhaps more than other civilizations, a “rational” tradition, but even this rationalism sometimes came cloaked in religious guise.**

For example, the Pythagoreans developed a variety of useful and progressive ideas about math.  But their obsession with ratio/rationalism clearly had strong religious overtones, which shows when they (supposedly) drowned the “heretic” Hipassus for discovering irrational numbers.  The foundation of their mathematical advances had strong irrational overtones.  Socrates, whom many assume to be an arch-rationalist, declared in the Phaedrus that, “Our greatest blessings come to us in the form of madness.”  The whole of Greek literary and dramatic culture arose out of Dionysian worship.  Xenophon, Aristotle, and even Cicero accepted the idea that dreams could have spiritual import. The list could continue.

But as in the case of all civilizations, eventually elites, followed by others, began dismantling the irrational foundations.

Though fragments of Greece’s “inherited conglomerate” survived past the 4th century B.C., by the 3rd century little if anything survived.  At that point, Dodds argues that Greece experienced a time when society was more “open” than at any other point.  Dodds writes,

A completely “open” society would be, as I understand the term, a society whose modes of behavior were entirely determined by rational choice between possible alternatives and whose adaptations were all conscious and deliberate–all “rational.”

This sounds like the dream of many a modern man, but of course, no one could argue that Greek civilization had any large degree of health at this point.  Very few, if any, of Greece’s storehouse of cultural contributions came from this era, and this era paved the way for their final takeover by Rome ca. 146 B.C.  Once you ditch the conglomerate, you might have little less than sand on which to build.  You simply have too many decisions to make and no way to make them coherently as a group.

It seems to me that today we have two groups that argue strong for a rational, open society.

On the conservative side we have those who believe in entirely unfettered markets and expanding choice.  The best society is one where everyone can choose for themselves how to maximize their welfare.  Empowered by education and multiplicity of options, the conglomerate of free choices will create a happy society.  This group favors globalization, open borders, and so on.

On the more liberal side we have those who emphasize the power of choice in more personal, intimate ways, especially in terms of gender and sexual identity, family makeup, birth control (which includes abortion), and so on.

These two sides overlap at points.  They often sit across the political aisle from each other, but they have much more in common than what divides them, for they share a common foundation of devotion to the idea of an open society described by Dodds.

Other groups still believe in some way in the inherited conglomerate.  You have the more conservative, middle-America, white picket fence group that adheres to small town values, and you have more liberal leaning who might balk at small town values a bit, but still desire a “decent America.”  The more conservative side sees culture and community holding things together, the more liberal look to government with greater frequency to manage outcomes.  Yet both sides fear markets and morality running wild and free–and both have more faith in America’s “conglomerate” than either of the aforementioned groups.  Both could be described as irrational, for there is nothing objectively verifiable about “America.”  Their commitment lies on a gut-level, formed by a variety of experiences, emotions, and so on.

This looks like a clash between the rational and the irrational, but Dodds’ book helps illumine this divide.  The irrational have an unprovable gut-level attachment to something called “America.”  But the rational have something akin to religious commitments as well.  Those devoted to the market and to personal identity need to believe that the expansion of choice ad infinitum is always a good thing.  Neither party may believe much in “America,” or they may reduce America to the mere idea of choice.  Their faith lies elsewhere, and they take on the missional mindset of some of the world’s universal religions.

Our political divides often mask religious divides.  As Cowen argued, even the rational have irrational commitments.

Dave

 

*Murray’s daughter asserted that he came back to the Catholicism of his youth in the last weeks of his life, though other family members dispute this.

**By “irrational” Dodds does not mean “wrong,” or “foolish” but unprovable, or a mysterious a priori, or “psychic,” i.e., related to the soul.