“Kill Anything That Moves”

Nick Turse’s Kill Anything that Moves is not a comfortable book.  I did not read the whole of it, and I cannot imagine the depression that would set in for those who did.  Turse continually hits the reader over the head with atrocity after atrocity that Americans perpetrated in Vietnam.  By midway through, one feels a bit numb.

Turse’s subject matter hits hard, but only skin deep.  There is not enough context, not enough logical build up, and this may be the reason why his book may not have the impact Turse hopes for.  The work bears the mark of solid research and urgency but not sober reflection. Apparently Turse has recently come across some documents just made available from the army, which kept them secret for many years.

Kill Anything that Moves bears the hallmarks of someone desperate to share something that they have just discovered.  It comes out all at once.

I know that in my experience as a teacher I am at my worst when newly excited about something.  I remember how I rambled incoherently through the French Revolution for three weeks with students just after I read Simon Schama’s excellent Citizens (This happened!  And then this!  And then Danton did this!  And Robespierre did that!  Are you getting this down?).

Turse’s basic contention is that what happened at My Lai was not an accident, but a direct result of standard policies and orders routinely given by the military.  That is, My Lai’s happened frequently, if perhaps on a slightly smaller scale.  Of course untold thousands of civilians died due to the blanket B-52 bombing runs.  But troops also deliberately targeted civilians on their “Search and Destroy” missions.  “Kill anything that moves,” comes from typical scenarios where troops received orders to do this almost literally.  Telling friend from foe on the ground posed terrible difficulties.  They solved it by the simple formula, “If they run from our helicopters, they can be shot as enemies.”  Civilians killed by mistake could be given a weapon and called “VC.”  No one asked too many questions higher up because of their interest in body counts.

The book also details the “Destroy the village to save it,” strategy that we clumsily employed in various sectors.  The strategy had some merit and history behind it, which Turse should have brought up.  A typical mantra of insurgent warfare is that, “The peasants are the sea in which the fish swim.”  If you dry up the sea, the fish perish.  So if the peasants all came to our refugee camps, the VC would slowly suffocate.  I believe that Alexander the Great used this strategy effectively against the Bactrians.  Some say Vercintgetorix should have done this in Gaul against Caesar.   The British used this with at least short-term benefits against the Boers.  The fact, then, that U.S. tried some variation of this strategy should not shock us, and Turse should have discussed this.  It is symptomatic of his narrow focus that he did not.

However a significant difference existed between the U.S. and these previous armies.  Not every army can attempt every strategy.  For a strategy to work it needs to have consistency with the society in which it originates.  An army that fights against the values of its own culture will not march with any weight or support behind it, and will almost certainly lack real effectiveness.

Alexander and Vercintgetorix did not rule from consent.  People expected them to do as they pleased.  In South Africa the British interred not their allies but their civilian enemies.  Also, the Victorian British army represented not a democratic consent-based society but an oligarchic “father knows best” ethos that could allow for more “dramatic” treatment of civilians.

The U.S’s strategy with Vietnamese peasants had nothing to recommend it.  In theory the U.S. was a democratic, consent based society.  For its army to then willy-nilly take peasants from their land had no internal rationale.  Secondly, the U.S. had no history in Vietnam, and thus no build-up of goodwill from which to draw.  And third, the U.S. executed the policy in such a clumsy and morally lazy way that it had to fail.  The British at least knocked door-to-door like proper gentlemen and provided an escort.  Though I do not praise the British in this strategy, at least they attempted some personal connection and took measures to protect Boer civilians, whereas the boorish Americans simply bombed and torched villages and then expected the locals to go to their refugee camps by default.  Add to this, their refugee camps were dirty, unsanitary places.  Nothing about this policy matches a society based on equality and consent, and everything about this policy suggests a people and an army that wanted nothing to do with this conflict in the first place.

Turse details many such blunders and moral darkness.  His most compelling chapters detail the army’s policy about weeding out combatants from non-combatants.  Being able to tell them apart in Vietnam would have required a great deal of patience and “on the ground” intelligence. Instead troops routinely received orders that ordered them to shoot at anyone who ran away from their helicopters.  If they ran, they were VC.  If they made a mistake, no problem.  Put a gun in their hand, take their picture, and add them to the body count.  Air Force pilots patrolling the Ho Chi Minh trail had orders to blow up anything moving south, be it man or machine, indiscriminately.  God could sort them out in the end.

These chapters hit the reader in the gut but don’t get at the roots of why this happened.  He doesn’t go for the head, only our emotional reaction.

So why did this happen?  I have a theory. . .

Vietnam was a war no one wanted.

Johnson inherited the problem from Kennedy.  No one “wants” a war, but Johnson seemed specifically ill-suited to foreign policy.  It was not in his wheelhouse.  He often commented how he wished Vietnam would go away so he could do what he really wanted to do — the Great Society.

Congress did not want to deal with the war either.  With the Gulf of Tonkin resolution they signed away their responsibility and oversight to the president.

At least at the beginning of the war, we drafted troops from sections of society without much political importance, another way to pass the buck and avoid domestic conflict over the war.

Every manual on leadership prescribes leaders sharing burdens and sharing space with those they lead.  In Vietnam, very few higher officers ever patrolled with their men.  They led from desks.  They too wanted nothing to do with the messiness the war entailed.  So it is no coincidence that when they received casualty reports that in no way matched the weapons troops recovered, they looked away.  They were already “looking away” by sitting at their desks.

With all this, we should be slow to place the brunt of the blame on the ground troops themselves.  All of America owned this problem, and all of America contributed to these atrocities.  Turse makes a valuable contribution to the literature on Vietnam, but I think it will take an historian with a more prophetic bent to make the most of his findings.

11th Grade: St. Francis and 60’s Counter-Culture


This week we wrapped up our unit on Vietnam, and shifted our focus to the domestic scene and the rise of the “Hippie” counter-cultural movement.

The hippies were hardly America’s first prominent counter-cultural movement, but its visibility and impact may have been greater than others of its kind.  Some point to the baby-boom population reaching the teen years as the main reason for the disruption in the 60’s, but surely this can only form part of the cause.

To the older generation it seemed like the hippies rejected the America their parents handed them.  Their parents lived through the Depression, won W.W. II, and yet they seemingly despised their inheritance.  One must sympathize with the feelings of confusion and rejection those “over 30” must have felt.

But we should also ask what that inheritance might have looked like to many by 1967.

  • The growth of TV dramatized the Civil Rights struggle and exposed contradictions between our words and reality.
  • America had always thought of itself as a plucky underdog, but now we used all our technological advances to bomb a peasant nation thousands of miles away, as discussed last week.
  • Had the American dream been reduced to materialism?  That is, did they see their role in life to do well in school, to get a good job, to get a comfortable life, end of story?  What did America really stand for?  Could America not just give you a good job, but also feed the soul?

I shared with students a theory cobbled together from a few sources (only a theory, I stress).  Though it works better visually, I will try and explain:

  • Imagine a civilization as a series of concentric circles with a core, or nucleus.  This core represents the spiritual foundation of our law, customs, and so on.
  • From the core the circles radiate out.  Culture would closest to the center, as that involves a collective and creative process.  As you radiate out, the values of the core are less immediately obvious, but still influential.  So you might have politics next, then economics.  One of the furthest out might be the military (for the sake of argument).
  • Also, the further you get from the core, the easier that aspect travels.  You can’t, for example, get people to suddenly be jazz musicians, but you can send your military wherever you want.

What happens when the core begins to lose its strength?

When a middle-aged man sits up and wonders what it all means and then decides to buy a sports car and get a trophy wife we do not call that a sign of health.  We might call it overcompensating for a failure to deal with life’s realities.  Territorial expansion can mask uncertainty or weakness at the core, and gives the illusion of health.  For the circles to all hang together, weakness in one area must be made up in another.

This time of expansion makes a civilization vulnerable.  Since we no longer draw from a healthy core, we become imbalanced and materialistic.  “It is the bored civilization,” wrote Oswald Spengler, “that thinks only of economics.”  This lack of balance needs addressed, and herein lies both opportunity and danger.

Sometimes one has to leave home to truly discover it anew, and herein lies the opportunity with this process.  A civilization searches the world for a home only to discover that they like the one they left (the basic plot of Chesterton’s Manalive for those that might have interest).  Think of someone who grew up in the Church, left it to “find themselves” in their early college years, and then return after seeing the bankruptcy of the world.  Upon their return they have renewed dedication to home.

But. . .

That usually does not happen, because it was the core’s weakness that led to the expansion in the first place.  Usually the civilization gets enchanted with the “other” now that their standard fare no longer satisfies. At this point, the civilization begins to fill in the core’s gaps with elements from different civilizations.  Witness what happened to Rome after their expansion throughout the Mediterranean, and how they began to borrow from Greek civilization various religious and cultural ideals.  Various Roman emperors adopted a Greek fashions.  Marcus Aurelius posed as a Greek philosopher, while his son Commodus took it even further and dressed as Hercules.

Before we blame the seekers, we need to wonder what led them to seek elsewhere for answers.  I cannot claim to have a good handle on the state of the American Church in the post-W.W. II era, but I can say that if the Church identified too closely with “America,” their disenchantment with the country would impact their identification with the Church.  In the case of Rome,  many have documented how prior to their significant expansion after the 2nd Punic War, Rome politically had gone from a mostly admirable democracy to a less praiseworthy oligarchy.  Maybe many of the hippies meant well, and maybe they were right that America had a spiritual problem that went far beyond politics.

Of course, sometimes this process of shifting core identity brings blessings.  Think of the Roman ethos giving way to the Christian Middle Ages.  Also, all of us are made in God’s image, so every culture will reflect something of God’s truth.  Because of sin no culture will do this perfectly.  In the case of America and Western Civilization, Christianity obviously had a lot to do with its founding.  But even from the beginning, contradictions like slavery embedded itself deep within our identity.  We did not perhaps fully understand what “liberty” was supposed to mean.

I think Donovan’s “Riki-Tiki-Tavi” as illustrative of this principle, from 1965:

Here are the lyrics:

Better get into what you gotta get into
Better get into it now, no slacking please
United Nations ain’t really united
And the organisations ain’t really organised

Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone
Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone
Won’t be coming around for to kill your snakes no more my love
Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone

(Every)body who read the Jungle Book knows that Riki tiki tavi’s a
mongoose who kills snakes
(Well) when I was a young man I was led to believe there were organisations
to kill my snakes for me
i.e. the church, i.e. the government, i.e. the school
(but when I got a little older) I learned I had to kill them myself

(I said) Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone
Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone
Won’t be coming around for to kill your snakes no more my love
Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone

People walk around they don’t know what they’re doing
They bin lost so long they don’t know what they’ve been looking for
Well, I know what I’m a looking for but I just can’t find it
I guess I gotta look inside of myself some more

oh oh oh inside of myself some more
oh oh oh inside of myself some more

Here he expresses something typical about growing up and the need to find one’s own identity.  He needs to “own” his way in the world, as he realizes that what he trusted in his youth isn’t all its cracked up to be.  So far so good. But his solution (“look inside of myself some more”) is very Eastern and bound for disaster.

Herein lies the seeds of the failure of the Hippie movement.  They could point out flaws, but could lay no other positive foundation merely by looking “inside of myself some more.”  It is worth noting that while, say, the Civil Rights Movement had its apex with the March on Washington and the subsequent Civil Rights Act, the Hippie counter-culture peaked with a concert at Woodstock.   Great music, but little actual impact on society.

As a brief aside, one can see some historical parallels in that civilizations which experience a “time of troubles” often develop inward looking philosophies/religions, which tend to have a strong individualistic core.   We can think of the aforementioned stoicism in Rome mentioned already, or the growth of Platonic philosophy after the Peloponnesian War in Athens.  We can add to the list Babylonian obsession with dream interpretation during and after the time of Nebuchadnezzar.  Interestingly, this inward drift happened after victorious expansion in all of these civilizations, just as it happened with us after W.W. II.  If we could call these periods “Times of Troubles” in ancient world, might we say that America is experiencing a similar “Time of Troubles” today?

This sentiment of blurring reality by looking inward gets taken about as far as it can go in the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Here the song urges you not just to refashion reality in your own image, but to escape reality altogether, and many used drugs to do just that.  The song not only has an overt Eastern message, but expresses it partially in an Eastern form.

Many former “hippies” lament the fact that their dream died and turned back into the materialism the movement initially rejected.  Part of this happened, I think, because many of them grew up, got married, had kids, and inherited all the attendant responsibilities that families bring.  But another reason for this I think was the fact that “looking inside ourselves” for answers will not lead to anything very satisfying, and none of us are interesting enough for anyone to enjoy it for very long.  The experiment had a built in short shelf life.  Many of them returned to the only thing they knew, the “materialism” of their parents generation.

Unfortunately they did a great deal of damage, especially in the realm of sexual ethics.  In looking inward, they reduced much of life to self-expression.  Sex too got included in personal self-expression, which meant that not only would sex be divorced from marriage, it could be divorced from the other person entirely.

Historians differ in how they evaluate the movement.  One went so far as to call St. Francis, “the hippie of his day.”  Well . . .St. Francis actually built something enduring based on charity, whereas the Hippie movement had an almost exclusively negative character.  St. Francis sought to transform reality out of love, not escape from it.  First Things has a good rebuke to the “St. Francis as a Rebel Hippie” idea here.  The comment about St. Francis as a Hippie does hint at one truth: both St. Francis and the Hippies gave a spiritual critique of their societies.  But St. Francis looked out at God and the World, not inward, and therein lies a crucial difference.

St. Francis

Many thanks,


10th Grade: Reality comes to Roost


This week we set up the class for what will be our look at the fall of Napoleon early next week.

Napoleon loved speed.

I don’t know if he could have stopped moving if he wanted to.  Motion seemed ingrained into his being.  At this time, anyone in France who ate dinner in less than an hour would be considered a barbarian.  Most took about two hours to eat.  Napoleon routinely ate in less than 15 minutes, and his favorite dish–fried potatoes and onions–was in fact a dish he frequently had while on military campaigns.

On the battlefield, in politics, he practiced what he preached: he who acts quickly and decisively wins.  He had little patience for anything that would not move quickly.  This worked well for him in France on one level — it allowed to constantly outmaneuver his political opponents.  It certainly worked for him on the battlefield, and it translated, by 1810, into a considerable empire.

But his need for speed did not translate well in foreign policy.  He often used family members, for example, to rule large territories in his name.  This would be much quicker than patiently learning local cultures, courting local opinion, and adapting to it.   What he gained in time he paid for in many ways.  His policy was short-sighted for a number of reasons:

  • Napoleon claimed to bring the blessings of the French Revolution where he conquered.  Why then, did he think that conquered territories would accept a foreign ruler when he had exported the nationalism of the Revolution to their domains?
  • As puppets of Napoleon, his family would take orders from Napoleon, not from the people they ruled. How then, could these puppet rulers hope to hold the loyalty of the people to Napoleon?  How long until the people rebelled?

This in fact happened in Spain, a country Napoleon drastically underestimated.  To him Spain represented ignorance, sloth, military futility.  He dealt with them in his typical quick and summary fashion, but when he removed the Spanish royal family and installed his brother as king the people erupted in rebellion.  Spain became a nightmare of guerrilla war, for which Napoleon’s temperment had zero liking.  Goya captured the mood of the Spanish in his famous work, “The Third of May:”

Eventually the Spanish campaign pinned down 250,000 French troops.  But the presence of so many French in Spain alerted Portugal, who called upon England for help.  In both Portugal and Spain British general Sir Arthur Wellesley got invaluable experience fighting the French — experience he put to good use in Napoleon’s final battle at Waterloo, when he was then known as the Duke of Wellington.

But when people think of Napoleon’s missteps, they think of his invasion of Russia.

Why did he do it?

In many ways he felt he must because Russia had violated a treaty they signed with him and had traded with England.  If he let that go, then he would look weak, which would induce others to revolt as well.   Here Napoleon had, however, made his own bed.  He put tremendous stress on using his image to maintain his power.  He put his family members in charge of other nations, and so naturally did not have the loyalty of those he controlled.  So, he was right — his image was all he had left to maintain his power, and without it, it might collapse.  When Napoleon talked about the fact that losing one battle might end his reign he may not have been whining or exaggerating.  It may have been the truth, for even one defeat would shatter the image he had constructed for himself.

To invade Napoleon amassed a huge force that historians put between 475,000-600,000 men.  He wanted to use this army to quickly smash Russian forces and compel Czar Alexander I to surrender.  But Napoleon’s  usual keen strategic insight deserted  him here.  Who would fight an army that large?  Naturally, the Russians retreated inland, forcing Napoleon to follow and stringing out his supply lines.

What is victory?  Napoleon learned the hard way that victory comes not just by winning battles or capturing cities.  Victory does not come when you say it has.  It takes two to tango.  Victory only comes when your opponent, not you, thinks that he is defeated.  Battles, cities, crops — they meant nothing to the Russians.  But time did, and they used time to retreat inland and wait for winter.  They slashed and burned what they could — even the city of Moscow itself — and left Napoleon with nothing.

The Frenchman Joseph Minard made two classic visual aids, the first for Hannibal’s invasion of Rome, the other for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  Both tell the story of time, cold, and loss.

I think that Napoleon faced huge challenges when he assumed power in France.  He dealt with a country that had nearly destroyed itself during the Revolution, and felt that it needed security and stability above all else.  But he insisted on bringing that security by himself.  He never shared credit or delegated effectively.  He even took it upon himself to put the crown of France on his own head.

To establish his power, he fudged election results and removed certain civil liberties.  On occasion he imprisoned or even executed those who spoke out against him.  His image had to be preserved after all.  In the end, he complained that his friends deserted him just when he needed them the most.  He told the truth in the sense that after his failure in Russia, many did turn on him.   But his capacity for self-delusion may have been at work again.  He didn’t seem to be the type to make friends in the first place.

Many thanks,


The Ties that Bind

In his Jurguthine War the Roman historian Sallust detours from his main narrative to discuss the rivalry between Carthage and Cyrene (an ancient Greek colony near modern day Libya).  In one instance the two powers thought of a novel way to settle the problem between their civilizations without the continuance of war.*  Sallust relates,

Since the affairs of the people of Lepcis have brought us to this region, it seems fitting to relate the noble and memorable act of two Carthaginians; the place calls the event to mind. At the time when the Carthaginians ruled in the greater part of Africa, the people of Cyrene were also strong and prosperous. Between that city and Carthage lay a sandy plain of monotonous aspect. There was neither river nor hill to mark the frontiers, a circumstance which involved the two peoples in bitter and lasting strife.

After many armies and fleets had been beaten and put to flight on both sides, and the long struggle had somewhat wearied them both, they began to fear that presently a third party might attack victors and vanquished in their weak state. They therefore called a truce and agreed that on a given day envoys should set out from each city and that the place where they met should be regarded as the common frontier of the two peoples. Accordingly, two brothers were sent from Carthage, called Philaeni, and these made haste to complete their journey. Those from Cyrene went more deliberately. Whether this was due to sloth or chance I cannot say, but in those lands a storm often causes no less delay than on the sea; for when the wind rises on those level and barren plains, it sweeps up the sand from the ground and drives it with such violence as to fill the mouth and eyes. Thus one is halted because one cannot see.  Now when the men of Cyrene realized that they were somewhat belated and feared punishment for their failure when they returned, they accused the Carthaginians of having left home ahead of time and refused to abide by the agreement; in fact they were willing to do anything rather than go home defeated. But when the Carthaginians demanded other terms, provided they were fair, the Greeks gave them the choice, either of being buried alive in the place which they claimed as the boundary of their country, or of allowing the Greeks on the same condition to advance as far as they wished. The Philaeni accepted the terms and gave up their lives for their country; so they were buried alive. The Carthaginians consecrated altars on that spot to the Philaeni brothers, and other honours were established for them at home. I now return to my subject . . . 

The matter-of-fact method in which Sallust relates this story should give us pause.  He obviously accepted this line of thinking — these were “fair” terms.  This was justice, this was life in the ancient pagan world.  The Philaeni brothers had no other choice.  The above passage brings to mind a more famous section of Sallust from his introduction:

I have often heard that Quintus Maximus, Publius Scipio, and other eminent men of our country, were in the habit of declaring that their hearts were set mightily aflame for the pursuit of virtue whenever they gazed upon the masks of their ancestors. Of course they did not mean to imply that the wax or the effigy had any such power over them, but rather that it is the memory of great deeds that kindles in the breasts of noble men this flame that cannot be quelled until they by their own prowess have equalled the fame and glory of their forefathers.

One can’t help but chuckle a bit at the comment that “of course” the masks did not have “any such power over them.”  They simply dedicated their entire lives to everything the masks represented.

The western world will likely to continue to experience something of a pagan revival, and elsewhere I commented that bringing out into the open what lies subtly buried in our unconscious has something to recommend it.  But we should have no illusions.  Evidence abounds that if we revive paganism we will build for ourselves cattle-shoots from which we have no escape.  We will exchange the freedom we claim to hold dear for chains.

Indeed, Chesterton spoke rightly when he declared that whereas Christianity has elements of anguish and pain at the periphery, joy occupies the core.  Pagan religions, however, have joyous elements in them only at the periphery, but at their center stands defeat and despair.  Any surface familiarity with the ancient world bears this out.  Hector must fight Achilles and lose, just as Troy must face destruction. Not even Zeus himself can stop it.  Oedipus cannot avoid his fate, though he take every counter-measure possible. Even the “realist” historian Thucydides sees events in cyclical form — what happened before will happen again. For the Norse as well, in the end the good guys lose.  It is this magnificent sense of the tragic that gives such tales their grandeur and power, but who wants to get inside such stories?

As the excerpts from Sallust indicates, shame seems to bind the ancients more than anything else.  The Philaeni brothers accepted a brutal death rather than accept what must have been a worse fate awaiting them back home — the shame of failure.  Republican Romans took their obsession with reputation and drove their civilization straight over a cliff in the 2nd century B.C.  The ancients had no escape from shame because ultimately paganism puts all the focus on the self.  Judas, for example, could only see his sin, but Peter runs to the empty tomb — he had bigger and better things on his mind than his Friday morning betrayal.  Peter had an “out” from his past.  As Paul writes in Ephesians 4, “When [Jesus] ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men” (emphasis mine). Neither ones society nor ones past should be denied or destroyed.  Both are part of God’s creation and God’s plan. But both can be transcended and transformed, and with this hope we approach something akin to true freedom.


*The story reminds me of the “Oath of the Horatii” narrated by Livy.  Whether or not that lends credence to the historicity of Sallust’s tale I suppose depends on what one thinks of Livy’s narrative.




Are you Bored?

This was one of my favorite scenes from The Great Muppet Caper:

I recently polled some of my students and gave them choice between a) Boredom, and b) A mild amount of physical pain, almost all of them chose the latter.  This might surprise us until we ask ourselves the same question.  Boredom can be excruciating, and physical pain would at least give us something on which to focus our attention.

In the poem “Waiting for the Barbarians,” C.P. Cavafy describes the hustle and bustle of a city in late Rome preparing for barbarians to menace them.  In the end, however, the barbarians for an unknown reason depart, leaving the people more confounded than relieved.  Cavafy concludes the with,

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Cavafy wrote this work originally in 1898, though it was not published until 1904.  He speaks with a macabre prescience, for one can detect a latent nihilism in Europe at this time.  Many in Europe welcomed the arrival of war in 1914 though today historians endlessly debate the cause of the war, which seems elusive.  What exactly were they fighting for?  Perhaps the answer is more mundane.  Perhaps they preferred pain to boredom.

William Lee’s book, Blackbeard: A Reappraisal of his life and Times, raises some similar questions.  His book gives some interesting detail and good stories of the notorious pirate.  Lee attempted to write with precision and has an impressive bibliography of original colonial sources.  But what stood out to me most was that Lee could not quite help himself but admire the man.  Of course many in Blackbeard’s own day felt likewise.  I blame Lee for this, but not too much.  We have always had a hard time knowing what to do both physically and psychologically with men like William Thatch/Teach/something else (a.k.a., “Blackbeard”).  Pirates remind us of our tenuous relationship with civilization itself.  St. Augustine’s City of God  and his anecdote about Alexander the Great bring this home:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.

As mentioned, Lee can’t quite help himself.  Blackbeard obviously had a certain dash and strong leadership skills.  We can admire his bloodless appropriation of supplies and medicine from the city of Charleston.  When we compare life in the colonial south and the life of pirates, we find that the pirates ran their organizations far more democratically than many of the colonies.  Ethnicity and religion counted neither for or against you on a pirate vessel, only achievement.  Add to that, officers could be subject to votes of “no confidence” from the crew at almost any time, and indeed some captains found themselves removed in this way. We can even find ourselves winking at some of his vices, i.e., he couldn’t stop “marrying” various women in the various ports he frequented.  Lee also points out that many of the stories of Blackbeard’s cruelty surely exaggerated for effect.

Blackbeard’s eventual death also raises questions on the rule of law and the nature of civilizations.  Pirates essentially made the claim that, “the sea is my kingdom, the land is your kingdom.  Who has the right to deny us?”  What right, indeed, can anyone claim to control or rule anything? If we believe that might does not make right, does consent?  There seems no ultimate reason why it should.

Blackbeard enjoyed hiding out near North and South Carolina waters for a few reasons.  First, the Outer Banks area posed many hazards for bigger ships with deeper draughts.  These same shallower waters and hidden inlets provided ready-made hiding places for pirates.  Secondly, these colonies had less organization and money, and thus posed less of a possible military threat to Blackbeard.  But eventually Governor Spotswood of Virginia had enough, and sent a fleet south secretly to do battle with Blackbeard and kill him.  Their success raised legal questions about jurisdiction and the legality of force.  Such questions soon quieted down, however.  After all, Blackbeard was a dangerous nuisance, and Virginia had taken care of him. Just as in the case of the pirates, nothing speaks quite like success.

They had many reasons for looking the other way with Virginia’s encroachment. Blackbeard clearly possessed a streak of violence and random cruelty.  He himself admitted to randomly shooting his 1st mate in the leg because, “Otherwise no one will talk about me from henceforth.”  In other words, he had to keep up his reputation.  No one disputes that he marooned most of his crew on one occasion in order to maximize his profits from a particular voyage.  He remained a violent, unpredictable man even with Lee’s generous treatment (which I suppose goes to Lee’s credit).  Of course everyone in Blackbeard’s own day knew this, and yet they had a hard time knowing what to do, despising, fearing, admiring, and possibly even envying him in equal parts.

In his Terror and Consent, Philip Bobbitt has an excellent treatment of the history of terrorism to begin the book.  He talks about the golden age of piracy and describes that it survived so long mostly because they piggy-backed off of the prevailing political ideology of the time.  In the age of absolute kings, monarchs had no real territorial limits on their claims to rule. States in that era defined power not by contiguous territory but by the extension of one’s person.  After both the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), western states redefined power in terms of physically occupied territory.  The earlier understanding fit the pirates perfectly–the sea has no boundaries, and the pirates could extend their power with their personal presence, just like any other king.  Especially after Utrecht, this logic no longer applied and European governments had a much easier time now defining them out of existence and executing combined military action.

Bobbitt’s brilliant analysis sheds important light on the problem of piracy, but for all its insight, I don’t think it fully explains the problem.

As much as modern democracies may hate to admit it, consent-based societies have a problem when it comes to authority.  We base our civilization on the idea that we consent to it via a social contract of sorts, when in fact we do no such thing.  Most of us did not choose to live here, we were simply born here.  And all of us, from time to time, may disagree with particular laws or whole movements of society.  We lack a good rationale as to why we should go along with the crowd when we have a deep disagreement, other than perhaps, “this is better than the alternative–agreeing to disagree makes things easier and more profitable for you in the long run.”  But piracy found a fairly easy way to profit far more by not agreeing to disagree.  I find it curious that the golden age of piracy began just as social contract/government by consent idea started to emerge, and as mentioned above, most pirates ran their organizations more democratically than any other colony or country.

Of course piracy is not only a byproduct of the idea of consent.  Piracy existed long before such ideas.  My suggestion here is that the idea of the social contract may have created fertile ground for its resurgence.  And this leads to perhaps the root reason for most pirates throughout time.  Many have pointed out that those who are often most attracted to violence are not so much the poor, but the bored, and we can recall the fishwives of Paris in 1790 as an example of this, or the myriad of failed artists at loose ends in Weimar Germany that later comprised the bulk of Nazi party leadership.  It may not be coincidence that the Roman gladiatorial games expanded dramatically at a time when Rome had no more wars to fight, either abroad or at home.  Under the emperors they couldn’t even argue about politics anymore.  Boredom, our failure to dwell with ourselves, perhaps even one could say, our aversion to ourselves, may lead us to take out our frustration on others.


When the holy Abba Anthony dwelled in the desert, he was beset by boredom, and attacked by many sinful thoughts.  He said to God, “Lord, I want to be saved, but these thoughts will not leave me alone.  What shall I do in my affliction?  How shall I be saved?

A short while afterwards, Anthony saw a man like himself, sitting at his work, then getting up again to pray, then sitting back down again to plait a rope, then getting up again to pray.  It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct him.  “Do this and you will be saved.”

At these words Anthony was filled with joy and courage.  He did this, and was saved.

– From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.











The Imaginarium of Dr. Grotius

“Part of the problem with religion is that it can just be an aestheticization of life,” a young Orthodox priest from Yonkers said. “It’s still late-modern capitalism working its insidious tentacles. We need a vocabulary to get outside of that.”

This quote comes from a profile in The New Yorker on Rod Dreher (author of the much reviewed The Benedict Option).  Dreher admits that one of the problems of his book is that the terms and categories we have for the debate have already been set.  We still have all the values of “late-modern capitalism” attached to our religious thinking.  We may debate what color to paint the living room but rarely consider how the design of the house, or its foundation, may influence us.

The same holds true in every society.  The ancients regarded the Romans as a very religious people, but religious in what sense, exactly?  “Real” religious belief often lies deep beneath its outward manifestation.  In his Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli includes some revealing anecdotes:

Auguries were not only, as we have shown above, a main foundation of the old religion of the Gentiles, but were also the cause of the prosperity of the Roman commonwealth. Accordingly, the Romans gave more heed to these than to any other of their observances; resorting to them in their consular comitia; in undertaking new enterprises; in calling out their armies; in going into battle; and, in short, in every business of importance, whether civil or military. Nor would they ever set forth on any warlike expedition, until they had satisfied their soldiers that the gods had promised them victory.

Among other means of declaring the auguries, they had in their armies a class of soothsayers, named by them pullarii, whom, when they desired to give battle, they would ask to take the auspices, which they did by observing the behaviour of fowls. If the fowls pecked, the engagement was begun with a favourable omen. If they refused, battle was declined. Nevertheless, when it was plain on the face of it that a certain course had to be taken, they take it at all hazards, even though the auspices were adverse; contriving, however, to manage matters so adroitly as not to appear to throw any slight on religion; as was done by the consul Papirius in the great battle he fought with the Samnites wherein that nation was finally broken and overthrown. For Papirius being encamped over against the Samnites, and perceiving that he fought, victory was certain, and consequently being eager to engage, desired the omens to be taken. The fowls refused to peck; but the chief soothsayer observing the eagerness of the soldiers to fight and the confidence felt both by them and by their captain, not to deprive the army of such an opportunity of glory, reported to the consul that the auspices were favourable. Whereupon Papirius began to array his army for battle.

But some among the soothsayers having divulged to certain of the soldiers that the fowls had not pecked, this was told to Spurius Papirius, the nephew of the consul, who reporting it to his uncle, the latter straightway bade him mind his own business, for that so far as he himself and the army were concerned, the auspices were fair; and if the soothsayer had lied, the consequences were on his head. And that the event might accord with the prognostics, he commanded his officers to place the soothsayers in front of the battle. It so chanced that as they advanced against the enemy, the chief soothsayer was killed by a spear thrown by a Roman soldier; which, the consul hearing of, said, “All goes well, and as the Gods would have it, for by the death of this liar the army is purged of blame and absolved from whatever displeasure these may have conceived against it.” And contriving, in this way to make his designs tally with the auspices, he joined battle, without the army knowing that the ordinances of religion had in any degree been disregarded.

But an opposite course was taken by Appius Pulcher, in Sicily, in the first Carthaginian war. For desiring to join battle, he bade the soothsayers take the auspices, and on their announcing that the fowls refused to feed, he answered, “Let us see, then, whether they will drink,” and, so saying, caused them to be thrown into the sea. After which he fought and was defeated. For this he was condemned at Rome, while Papirius was honoured; not so much because the one had gained while the other had lost a battle, as because in their treatment of the auspices the one had behaved discreetly, the other with rashness. And, in truth, the sole object of this system of taking the auspices was to insure the army joining battle with that confidence of success which constantly leads to victory; a device followed not by the Romans only, but by foreign nations as well; of which I shall give an example in the following Chapter.

It seems that “success,” or possibly, “Rome,” is what the Romans really fundamentally worshipped.  Maybe it’s more complicated than that, but clearly, strict fidelity to the auguries or deviation from them was not their central concern.

Modern Social Imaginaries, by Charles Taylor, tackles some of these issues.  His title reminds one of Benedict’s Anderson’s groundbreaking Imagined Communities, and Taylor acknowledges this in his introduction.  Anderson laid bare how the concept of nation, which we take for granted as solid reality, had its roots in a kind of social mental experiment.  Villages and towns have a concrete reality.  We know the people and our direct interaction with them forms the glue of our communities.  But nations are more abstract, as no natural reason often exists for why borders should be in one place and not another.  Creating a nation requires imagination, a mythology, a mental construct, to hold the national “community” together.  This goes far beyond social theories or ideas.

Taylor builds on this idea and seeks to examine the key underpinnings of modern western civilization, to show us the nose on our face.  He writes,

This essay seeks to shed light on both the original and contemporary issues about modernity by defining the self-understandings that have been constitutive of it. Western modernity in this view is inseparable from a certain kind of social imaginary, and the differences among today’s multiple modernities are understood in terms of the divergent social imaginaries involved. This approach is not the same as one that might focus on the ideas as against the institutions of modernity. The social imaginary is not a set of ideas; rather it is what enables, through making sense of, the practices of a society.

Taylor argues that our primary imaginary has us envision society as a means for exchanging goods and services for the mutual benefit of individuals.  This leads in turn to the development of market economies and notions of rights.  But at root, we build upon the idea of the individual.  I think Taylor might agree with Allan Bloom, who commented that the real America religion is our quest for the authentic self, and we let neither tradition, or even nature, stand in the way of our search.

Our modern imaginaries form a stark contrast to pre-modern societies, which tended to be ordered in one of two ways:

  • By a “law of the people” that has existed from time immemorial*, or
  • By a hierarchy in society that mirrors nature.  Disorders in nature have their mirror in the individual, or perhaps we might conceive it the other way round–disorders in our souls and bodies have their response in nature.**

The “telos” of pre-modern societies involved living into something that existed before you.  They have an “end” beyond the society itself.  These frameworks exist not as a direct prescription but more so a guide to understanding reality.  Hence the “Mappa Mundi” (ca. 1300) tries not to accurately depict the physical world, but rather help one understand their place in the grand scheme of things.  It “maps” your life by telling you that you will die and face judgment, that Jerusalem is the center of the Earth, and so on.

The medievals obviously knew that the world did not actually look like this, but for them that was hardly the point.

The wars of religion in the 16th century lead to new ways of imagining the world. The Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius gets credit in the eyes of most for orienting society in a new direction.  Though he wrote voluminously on many subjects, we can tie his thought together on the ideas of the individual and consent.  So, for example, the sea should be free for all, so that each individual nation may carve out their own destiny upon it.  Taylor argues that Grotius made such a case not as a radical, but a conservative.  He wanted to preserve the existing order and felt that ideas of freedom and consent were the best way to do this.

Obviously he was wrong.  But this, says Taylor, is often the way of things.  An acorn contains a whole oak, though no one would ever guess.  Our own revolution worked this way.  Within even just a few years, our founders lost control of the direction of things, and some see the Constitution as their attempt to salvage what they could before things got too far out of hand.

Our new imaginings put us on entirely different course.  In ye olden days order is self-realizing.  When evil happens time will go out of joint, for example, as in Hamlet.  Though many may flaunt established cosmic order, in time the cosmos has its way with you.  Order will come back again.  The modern imagining has no such apparatus.  It is entirely contingent, for we start with individuals and not what lies beyond them.

John Locke built on Grotius and went far beyond him.  For centuries, Christians saw sin as the result of death.  That is, our fear of death, whether subconscious or no, leads us to selfish acts of self-preservation.  This takes innocuous forms (I will have the last cookie), and more sinister, but the root is the same–our fear of self-dissolution. But Locke saw blessings in our desire for self-preservation–he saw it as part of our God-given nature.  We begin then, as individuals with a good desire of self-enhancement.  This means we meet on an amoral plane of complementarity, not an established hierarchy.  And from there, many other dominoes begin to fall.

Though Locke and others of his day had a secular foundation to their thought, some of the old way of understanding remained.  We still needed discipline to form our unformed selves.  But the balance of power shifted.  Before, nature came intact as a witness to us.  Locke believed, however, that just our labor shapes ourselves, so too our labor shapes nature.  Nature is ours form–it is our duty to form it–rather than nature forming us.  Now we see the oak embedded in Locke’s acorn–we believe that we are already formed.  As comedian Jon Stewart noted, whatever we do these days we deem special because we did it.^  Those of us who wish to challenge LGBT “agenda,” for example, don’t have the language or framework to do so effectively.  These days, our geodes must be acknowledged!

As we enter into adolescence we become more aware of the world, but our biggest problem at that age usually involves not being able to think of any world besides our own.  History helps with this, and Taylor forces us to ask, “What is normal, after all?”

In The Benedict Option Dreher asserts that Christians have lost the culture wars, and that we need to strategically withdraw.  Taylor’s book brings to mind the adage of Sun Tzu, that perhaps the battle was over before it began.  Modern imaginings are inherently secular.  Christians could never “win” a war fought entirely on their opponents terms.  But Taylor also gets us to rethink what is normal.  Dreher himself admits that he lives much like anyone else, and has yet to actually take his own advice.  He visited, however, a quasi-monastic community that lives out some of his vision.  Dreher commented,

It makes me think, Who are the abnormal ones here? These people, who live in such close rhythm with their own lives and the life of the church, or people like me, who live like I do?” He paused. “It was a sign to me of what could be.”


*Taylor rightly points out that this idea is not inherently conservative.  Those that rebelled against Charles I did so in the name of their ancient rights and privileges, and perhaps the same could be said about the Magna Carta.

**As one commentator put it, “My students start discussing Petrarch tomorrow in class, and it is easy to misread him as asserting that man is a microcosm of the universe, when in fact it is the universe that is a microcosm of man (or better put, a microcosm of Man).”

^Stewart continued . . . (I paraphrase), “You have to understand.  I grew up as a Jewish kid in New Jersey.  The one thing I heard more than anything else growing up was, “Jonny, get this through your head . . . you’re not special.”