A Donut Shaped Universe

If anyone every feels a tinge of excitement opening Plato’s Republic for the first time, many find the text quickly snuffs it out. This foundational philosophical work starts off with a rather mundane conversation. Then, when Plato starts to talk about how the state should be built, one of the first points he makes is that no one should more than one job, one task. Stay in your lane, and do not deviate. Otherwise, “great evil” would result.

Such pronouncements strike moderns as absurd and non-sensical. I myself like Plato and think The Republic deserves its place in the canon, but I too never really liked the explanation given by various commentators about this section of the work.

Ah . . . but Jane Jacobs may have discovered the answer–one I had never heard or considered before.

All readers know the pleasure of discovering a new author, with the prospect not only of the current book in front of you, but of all of their other works. Well, historians get the same thrill as seekers of fiction, and I have to say . . . Jane Jacobs has been too long absent from my life. I am not sure if I agree with her, but that is not the point. The best teachers you have had may not have agreed with you, but pushed you to think, explore, and wonder.

But I have another qualification for a good historian–one cannot be simply a “one thing after another” type of historian. I would not say that such people are in fact not historians–however good their research skills–for historians must create meaning. This means that historians must consciously synthesize even they do not wish to overtly systematize, Jacobs showed in her most famous work (which I have not read) The Life and Death of American Cities that she can pick order out of the seemingly scattered flotsam of different neighborhoods.

One wants to agree with such people, and I find it annoying for the moment that I cannot decide quite what I think about one of her perhaps lesser-known works, Systems of Survival, a book that attempts to unify the entirety of history into two moral systems, or two ways in which civilizations, organizations, or movements, can order themselves. I admire the audacity of the attempt, and I love too that she organizes her thoughts in the form of hypothetical conversations–more more books should take this accessible approach.*

Jacobs broadly identifies two “casts of mind” throughout history that derive from these two moral modes of being. The first, the “Guardian,” and the second, the “Commercial.” I think that “Cosmopolitan” fits better (my first minor disagreement with Jacobs), but I will stick with her terms. She has two of her characters demonstrate this with the following conversation:

Guardian: The love of money is the root of all evil.

Commercial: The love of power is the root of all evil.

G: History tells of the dynasties and the fates of nations and empires.

C: History tells us of how social, material, and economic conditions have changed.

G: The most valuable archeological findings are of art, religious artifacts, tombs, of kings, etc.

C: The most valuable artifacts are clues to how people lived everyday life, how they made their living, their tools and materials.

G: War and preparations for war are normal and peace a hiatus from war.

C: No–peace is normal, war is the aberration.

G: Man is a territorial animal.

C: People are city-building animals.

G: Knowledge is a weapon or possibly an adornment

C: Knowledge is a tool.

G: Intelligence gives us insight into others’ way of thinking–we should focus on what divides us.

C: Intelligence means primarily the ability to pick up new skills and good reasoning.  We should focus on what unites us.

G: China is prosperous at our expense.

C: China’s prosperity raises everyone’s standard of living.  Economic gain is not zero-sum.

G: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’

C: The state exists for the sake of the people–that’s Locke, Rousseau, Madison–the social contract.

These casts of mind come from what Jacobs describes as two “moral syndromes.” By “syndrome” she simply means that the various parts of the moral system necessarily run together. She calls these the “Commercial” and “Guardian” moralities, and part of the vim and dash of the book is that she commits to the idea that these two “syndromes” are all that have ever existed. The values of each system are . . .

The “Commercial” Syndrome

Shun Force–Come to voluntary agreements

Be honest–collaborate easily with strangers

Compete–but respect contracts and other voluntary agreements

Use initiative and creativity

Be open to new things–change should be embraced

Be thrifty and efficient

Promote comfort and convenience

Dissent is valuable for the sake of the task

Invest for productive and practical results

Be optimistic

The Guardian Moral Syndrome

Shun trading, and exert prowess

Be disciplined and obedient

Value tradition and the ‘old ways’

Respect hierarchy–strive for loyalty

Make rich use of leisure–be ostentatious

Dispense largesse

Group exclusivity strengthens internal identity

Treasure honor

Jacobs has much to say about both, and of course both go right and wrong in different ways. In general, must of the world used to subscribe to a Guardian morality and now certainly the first world at least has shifted to the Commercial syndrome. But the shift has not been absolute, as ancient Babylon and classical Athens strike me as mainly “Commercial” in nature, and even “Guardian” civilizations had Commercial aspects. Cities, and any civilization with a port, generally needs to adopt a commercial mentality.

I found myself much taken with her analysis, as it explains a lot of the success and frustrations we have with our predicament. The benefits of the Commercial syndrome seem almost second-nature. Our religious and political freedoms arise from it. The material comforts we enjoy come from the speed of innovation (and its accompanying trampling of tradition) over the last 250 years.** Many of our “freedoms” have also resulted from a variety of moral innovations, especially in the area of sexual morality. To point out the obvious, if we like democracy we have to value collaborating with strangers.^

But a second look reveals its weaknesses. A “Commercial” society will never build pyramids or cathedrals–hence the constant critique of the vanilla tapioca nature democratic culture. The promotion of comfort will make it hard for us to sacrifice without an extreme need. The combination of valuing comfort and dissent make it hard to act as one with common purpose.

The Guardian Syndrome obviously has its associations with aristocracy and its attendant abuses–be they spiritual (such as pride), moral, (indolence) or otherwise–we see right away. But the Guardian syndrome can also give more civic-mindedness & “noblesse oblige.” Those in a Guardian society know their place and need not fight for it. Most every kind of environmental advocate, for example, uses aspects of the Guardian syndrome, i.e., hedging in and protecting defined spaces, and knows the futility of their approach to a Commercial syndrome society. Though it is anathema to the Guardian mentality of the movement, we will have to use Commercial moral values to solve the problem.

But back to Plato . . .

Jacobs surmises that what Plato might have meant by his condemnation of having more than one job or “calling” strongly correlates to these moral syndromes. When we “mix” these syndromes together we have the possibility of dangerous moral hybrids. A few examples . . .

  • In the 1980’s NYC sought to help fix crime on their subways by injecting the Transit Police (police have a natural Guardian morality) with certain Commercial incentives. The cops got rewards for things like efficiency, i.e., numbers of arrests, and competition (promotions for higher numbers). The result–Transit Police began falsely arresting people least able to fight the charges–the poor–who were mostly minorities.
  • The Nazi’s took certain aspects of the Guardian morality (such as defense of the homeland) and combined them with Commercial science, whose ‘innovation’ had spawned new racial theories, military ideas, and industrial capacity.
  • Marx hated bourgeois Commercial morality. But all of his theories lay rooted in western political categories of thought. One result–A generally Guardian mentality in terms of communal unity, but applied on a scale of universal Commercial ideology. Guardians tend towards being apolitical, but the Soviet Union also united the Guardian aspect of loyalty with Commercial ideological innovation. So–to be on the wrong side of the prevailing ideology=disloyalty to the state.
  • I think that SJW’s make the same moral monster, but start from the other end–the Commercial values of openness, inclusion, and moral innovation combined with the Guardian mentality of rigid loyalty and protection of its own–i.e. “safe spaces.”

Yes, Jacobs also discusses positive moral hybrids, but seems to lean towards Plato’s conclusion that mixing them brings problems more often than solutions.

So far, so good. I found Jacobs’ thoughts stimulating and illuminating. Where I part ways with her comes with her theory of how these two moral syndromes developed. She postulates a material cause for each, with the guardian mentality arising from war, and the commercial from trade. But it is mind that generates matter, so to speak. It is mind that shapes matter. I won’t defend this proposition here, suffice to say, as a Christian I reject a strictly materialist argument for the origins of civilization. But, still think that Jacobs has a point. These moral syndromes have ancient roots–more ancient than she supposes.

For civilizations to work, they must take into account both unity and diversity. Something must bring them together for a society to form at all, yet if this “something” binds them too tightly it will neglect their individuality. This has its roots in Being Itself. God is both Unity (1 God) and Diversity (3 Persons).

Christ, being both God and Man incarnated this duality/tension. He revealed to us both what I will “Open” and “Closed” ways of being. The Open way shows how God shows Himself in Nature (Ps. 19:1) or our fellow man (Mt. 25). Marriage is an icon of Christ and His Church. (Eph. 5). In other words, the Open way encourages us seek Truth in our experience of the world.

But just as often, we are encouraged to take the Closed way. We must gouge out our eye if it causes us to sin (Mt. 5). St. Paul often posits enmity between the world, the flesh, and the Spirit. Christ tells us that we must “hate” even our mother and father for the sake of the Kingdom. The Closed approach urges us to seek the Truth by narrowing, not broadening, our focus and shunning the trappings of this mortal coil that we might see God and God alone.

So–is the Open or Closed way superior? The answer, of course, is ‘Yes.”

I love that the world Jacob’s presents has coherence–two halves, coming together to make a whole. The problem is that, like a donut, it lacks a center. Without this center, Jacobs’ outstanding observations lack any real meaning. But with it . . . well, we have the possibility of real coherence.

And who would complain about having another bite of a donut?

Update . . . if only Jane Jacobs were here to comment on the Blue Angels flyover that happened Saturday (May 2, 2020), she might argue that one’s reaction to the event would pefectly pigenhole a person into one of the two aforementioned moral syndromes–if we keep in mind that heavily symbolic and “ostentatious” nature of the event:

Commercial:

  • This display wasted money that could have been used to so much better practical good
  • This display wasted time and effort.
  • This display foolishly misdirected our attention–encouraging the American public to look at the shiny object, rather than a) the problem itself, or b) the politicians and agency heads responsible for gross mismanagement of the whole pandemic.

Guardian:

  • We live by symbols, and having our most famous and powerful planes flyover gave the nation a powerful symbol of American pride and resolve.
  • These “unnecessary” displays are in fact, absolutely necessary. We are not materialists–we need such acts to lift us out of the mundane of our lives. We need ‘elevated’ out of our current circumstances. We need inspiration as a people if we are to win the “war” against the virus.
  • Leaders act responsibly when they provide these symbols for the people–something to inspire awe and help unify them.

*Another notable fact about Jacobs–she had no college degree and can be therefore classified as an amateur. Toynbee would have rejoiced.

**Though–different writers from different perspectives, such as Tyler Cowen, Ross Douthat, Peter Thiel, and even Jane Jacobs herself (in her last book Dark Age Ahead) have declared that innovation has essentially ceased in western economies.

^This kind of collaboration also seems on the decline, in Congress, in marriages (Republicans don’t marry Democrats, and vice-versa), etc.–and this may herald a decline in democratic practice.

“Therefore,” and “Nevertheless”

Towards the end of the Benedictine office of Lauds there exists a prayer which uses the old King James English which seems like a shock of cold water amidst the pleasant praises of God’s majesty–“and blessed are the paps which gave suck to Christ the Lord.” Such language could put off different people for different reasons, but mostly I think it boils down to a “disturbing” physicality and particularity. High-flown theological language suits us better. A Christian must confess that the second Person of the Trinity became a male human being in all fulness. The Benedicitine office, as other prayers of the Church, puts the focus on “higher” things of majesty and praise, but rightly will not conclude without bringing us back to earth and ourselves, reminding us of this stark truth. Clearly, Christ did nurse at the breasts of the Virgin Mary, and we must decide whether we celebrate this or feel embarrassed and horrified by it.

Many react with such embarrassment to time. Temporality flows inexorably, which makes those moments of glory, grandeur, and insight we experience at once so powerful and frustrating. We long for their return, but they will not come even for the asking. Our society in general seems embarrassed and frustrated by Time (manifested in some respects with bands like Kiss, Judas Priest, and even the Rolling Stones apparently still touring). Some may accept Time in the sense of merely resigning oneself to its power, but while this may be a superior attitude over ignoring or “rebelling” against Time, it too seems to see the physicality of time not as a blessing but as part of what we must endure in our going hence.

William Lynch’s Christ and Apollo: Dimensions of the Literary Imagination examines the question of physicality and particularity in theology and literature. I lack the depth and breadth of reading needed to truly benefit from this book, but the applications of his insights go beyond the literary and into life and redemption itself. Lynch keeps focus on his crucial question: Does God accomplish His purposes through the finite, or in spite of it? Authors, “regular people,” and civilizations face the temptation to either ignore or despise creation, thereby failing to see through it and discern the patterns of grace. Lynch diagrams this basic idea like so,

with the diagram on the left as the proper path. Heraclitus may have had the same intuition, stating that, “the way up and the way down are one in the same.” Tension has always existed in Christian thought between 1) Moving down “the mountain” as moving away from God (a pattern present from the Garden of Eden, Mt. Sinai, Mt. Tabor, etc.), and seeing that movement as a kind of death, and 2) Recognition that we have no other option other than to take this passage down into death to return to God whole, i.e., “He who wishes to save his life must lose it,” and “unless a seed falleth into the earth and die, it bears no fruit.”* Escape from this tension provides only an illusion of freedom, and in fact produces a kind of slavery to a fear of things, and even of ourselves. Our glimpse into the infinite comes only through the finite.** Dante’s grand cosmological vision would not have been complete without tethering it to 14th century Florence. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky knows that Aloysha’s great mystical visions can only come through his engagement with his wretchedly dysfunctional family.

But many modern authors cannot embrace this paradoxical pattern. Lynch examines a few different metaphysical categories to demonstrate the paradox. For Proust, time is man’s greatest enemy. The cubist painter can not accept the finite image–instead they must represent all of the possible angles of vision of the minding a futile attempt to see only the abstract. Lynch writes,

Perhaps the most ambitious, most brilliant, and most sophisticated vendetta launched against time was that of Descartes, who first put forward the notion of a pure intelligence within us not subject to time. . . . when that ambition takes the form of a desire to wipe out the succession and the partial quantities of time, and to live in an isolated area of the personality where the temporal has no meaning or power, then a grave folly has been committed. . . . The “man in the street” knows what the intellectual does not: that true reality is contained within the dramatic temporal life of the body. The peasant knows he will be healed not only by doctors but also by time. [He knows that time] is as much a part of him as his own skin, out of which he cannot leap.

Christ and Apollo, p. 50, 53

Christ exemplifies this true approach to time as a positive good: He refuses to cling to childhood (Lk 2:41-52), He refuses the easy path to glory (Mt. 4), and allows His death to come to Him “in the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4).

Different literary genres can make the same mistake of rejecting creation. In tragedy, Lynch cites the modern tendency that “exaltation must come from exaltation, and that infinites must come out of infinites.” This path leads to two consequences:

  1. The idea that the achievement of great tragedy has its roots in the mystical conquest of the “human spirit” against pain–the tragic figure as exalted conqueror, which
  2. In fact makes the writing of tragedy more difficult, not easier, because it seems that tragedy, like death, doesn’t really exist.

Comedies too can make the same error. Comedy (in the modern sense of “what makes us laugh”) often deals with the breakdown of order and expectations–all well and good. But if we ask ourselves why A Midsummer Night’s Dream still gets staged four centuries after its debut, we need look no further than that “the play, [even] in its wildest fantasy [in Act 5], is only dealing with Snug the joiner and Bottom the weaver.” T.S. Eliot commented that, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.” “I am not so sure of that,” Lynch writes, “The bigger truth is that they cannot stand very much unreality.”

Perhaps part of the problem lies in that great literary minds can see their idea so clearly that the idea burns away all around it if they fail to take care. Here then, lies Lynch’s “Univocal Man:”

He is, emotionally, full of extraordinary energies–in fact, a kind of energy seems to mark the whole of his character. He has a genius for a unilateral passion, and is, and therefore always has been–a passionate center of good and bad in civilization. . . . Superficially, then, he resembles the religious genius. . . . It is only by exercising great caution that we will avoid this profound mistake and will refrain from giving this character the veneration that is not his due. . . . The univocal man has no respect for reality; he is contemptuous of it, or distorts it, or flattens it–or he refuses to take responsibility in the face of it. . . . The univocal man is not free. He is rigid, unbending, fixed. One can understand the fixity of the idea of logic and essences, but his fixed ideas are born of a fixity of all the forces of his personality and a refusal to remain open to existence. . . . To put the matter simply, these would reject all the unities and relations projected by any sentence, for example, “The horse is white,” for a horse is a horse, and white is white, and that is the end of the discussion.

pp. 141, 144, 147

We might say that the Univocal man has too much “purity” in him. He cannot or will not mix his idea with the stuff of reality. That this should happen to a literary type is no surprise. In general they write because they are gripped by an idea or image.^ The one who mixes things up too much would likely never have the clarity or organization to get anything down on paper to begin with. Lynch shows us Eugene O’Neil, who wants us to be sad, and so gives us Sadness in Mourning Becomes Electra, with her mansion as her prison. Or, even more absurdly, he gives us Laughter in Lazarus Laughed, with this ridiculous passage where Lazarus speaks to Caligula,

You are proud of being evil! What if there is no evil? Believe in the Healthy God called Man within you! . . . Believe! What if you are a man and man is despicable? Men are also unimportant! Men pass! Like rain into the sea! The sea remains! Man remains! . . . For Man death is not! Man, Son of God’s laughter, is! . . . Believe in the laughing God within you!

Alas, too many exclamation points. O’Neill wants rapture but he attempts to achieve it by rebounding off of creation and denying it altogether. Only a fool would say that “death is not.”

With a denial of creation will come an absence of transcendence, purchased at the price of avoiding all mess. George Bernard Shaw claimed a sort of spiritualism but could not stand religion actually practiced, writing,

In Italy, for instance, churches are used in such a way that priceless pictures become smeared with filthy tallow-soot, and have to be rescued by the temporal power and placed in national galleries. But worse than this are the innumerable daily services which disturb the truly religious visitor. If these were decently and intelligently conducted by genuine mystics to whom the mass were no mere rite or miracle, but genuine communion, the celebrants might reasonably claim a place in the church as their share of the common right to its use. But the average Italian priest, personally unclean and with a chronic catarrh in his nose from living in frowsy, ill-ventilated rooms, punctuating his gabbled Latin only by expectorate hawking . . . this unseemly wretch should be seized and put out . . . until he learns to behave himself.

Whatever communion Shaw desires, it would have to include rite, miracle, and perhaps even the dirty priest, for it to happen at all. But for Shaw, such things are too messy and not “spiritual” enough. We should not suppose that he would enter in absent the dirty priest, either–something physical would always bar his way. It is much easier to comment online, or even to read books.

We in our day have the bigger and smaller problem of not even being able to enter into politics. The problem is smaller in that religion is more important than politics, but bigger in that we cannot hope to solve big questions if we cannot solve smaller ones. Too many on the right and left want nothing to do with mixing their ideas in the mess of politics. Some want a Caesar from above to wave a magic wand, some want the “innocent” people to rise up from below to abolish the Bill of Rights. Neither will achieve anything like an ordered communion, for neither wants to find the path to grace through creation. They do have their dreams. These dreams will have to content them, for they can know nothing of sorrow or joy.

Dave

*Perhaps this might explain in part Christ’s sometime reluctance to work miracles. Miracles, could, hypothetically, interrupt the U-shaped pattern and hinder us on our journey back to God.

**If we learn to see this pattern and interpret the Scriptures more analogically and less in a directly moral fashion, many things make themselves more clear. For example, we should honor the elderly not simply because of their wisdom–for some have none of it–but because they are closer to death, and thus also closer to glory. So too, this explains why the Church has always warned less against the “earthly,” “physical” sins of gluttony, too many women, etc., than the “spiritual” sins of pride. Many have gone down the path of fleshly indulgence and found the place where it turns upwards to God. But no path to God exists through pride. Of course, it is best still not to dabble in either.

**The literary, educated types–one always has to watch out for them . . .

Chaos Theory

In the wake of 9/11 Patrick Deneen wrote an essay entitled “Patriotic Vision: At Home in a World made Strange,” in which he lamented the dichotomy he saw in public opinion. On the one hand, you had an entirely uncritical belief among many of the righteousness of the United States. Politicians needed to wear a small flag on their jacket lapels, (couldn’t happen now), and waved through sweeping legislation (the “Patriot Act”) that dramatically increased the surveillance powers of the government. On the other . . . you had many in academia, perhaps especially among our elite institutions, that could barely contain their smugness with pronouncements that America had gotten what it deserved for its overbearing foreign policy. Deneen published this essay in early 2002, and this split would only grow in run-up to the Iraq War. Remember “America Fries?”

Two seems to be a natural number for democracies to fall into, and perhaps somewhat natural in general for any society. We have night and day, sun and moon, major and minor keys, and so on. But “two” has always been something of a dangerous number, symbolically speaking. The either/or paths “2” creates bring inevitable division among extremes. Still, if we think of myths and creation accounts as, among other things, poetic interpretations of the world, we note that “2,” while obviously prevalent in creation, does not have the final say.

Between day and night, and night and day, lies twilight and dawn, the grey area linking them both. We have Adam and Eve, but they are supposed to “be fruitful and multiply,” i.e., not stay just the two of them. We have six days of creation and the seventh day–a breathing space of sorts within the normal cycle of the week. In Revelation the Apostle John is told to measure the inner court of the temple of God, but to leave the outer court unmeasured (Rev. 11:1-2), i.e., we need to loosen our intellectual hold on at least parts of reality. St. John’s gives us grand cosmic visions, but the Old Testament has this need for an unmeasured, in-between space, displayed even in the most prosaic of ways. The Israelites had to leave the fringe of their fields unharvested, and to leave the edges of their garments loose (Duet. 24, Num. 15).

It is on this fringe, the in-between spaces, where fruitful interaction and new creation can happen.

Certainly Deneen’s essay has resonance with us today. But he did not seek merely to lament the situation that existed in 2002, nor do I seek only to bemoan 2020. Rather, Deneen pointed to the classical world for a possible solution to the dilemma of “2”–the Greek vocation of the “theorist.”

One form of education seeks to construct by rote a particular view of the world. In regard to our own history some proclaim that the founders were all wise and good men–and only wise and good–our wars are always just, etc. Without cultivating any possibility of error, no repentance can happen and growth a forlorn hope. Such infants can never eat meat. As Aristotle noted, the perfect citizen would rarely be a good man. He could never grow into virtue.

The other education aims only at deconstruction–our founders were all misogynists, slave owners, etc. Of course this deconstruction supposes the need to construct something else in its place. Nothing can exist based on a universal negative. But often, having despised their birthright, deconstructionists have no idea what or where to build, and can feed only on dreams, or worse–themselves, and thereby “starve for feeding”(Coriolanus, Act 4.2). We need another approach.

Enter “one who sees,” which is a translation from the Greek word “theorist.” Certain elected officials within most classical Greek city-states had the title of “theoroi.” To quote Deneen,

To “theorize” was to take part in a sacred journey to visit the “other,” to “see” events such as religious or athletic festivals, and to return to their home city to give an account . . . the theorist would then attempt to comprehend, assess, compare, and then, in the idiom of his own city, explain what he had seen. The encounter would inevitably raise questions about the customs and practices of the theorists own city. . . . Might their be a best way of organizing the city that is not our way?

. . . The activity of “seeing” other ways of foreign life comprised half of the theorist’s duty. The other half . . . was the “giving an account” of what the theorist had seen. A “theorist” would betray his office if he were, so to speak, “go native” while abroad. . . . Even if a theorist were persuaded that that foreign practices were superior to those of his own city, the primacy of the theorist’s allegiance to his own city demanded careful and prudent explanation . . .

The “theorist” then, was not chosen only for his ability to “see” and apprehend with sensitivity the new and unusual but equally for the abiding customs of his own way of life. . . . it was by means of deep familiarity and love for that cultural inheritance that the theorist was able to move fellow citizens to renewed devotion to those practices . . . or to subtle questioning of dubious customs . . .

Conserving America: Essays on Present Discontents, pp. 18-20

It is through this lens that Deneen suggests we should see Socrates. He self-consciously went on a “sacred journey” of philosophy and saw himself as a “gadfly” to Athens, but also someone who would never consider disobedience to the laws of his city.*

Deneen examines Rene Descartes as possibly the first example of a modern “theorist.” As a French Catholic fighting other Catholics in the brutal 30 Years War, Descartes had a unique opportunity for serious soul-searching. As Deneen points out, however, he operated purely with his mind and imagination, and not with his heart. He “begins with radical suspicion of all that preceded him in act or thought, and especially all that is the result of the common endeavors of a community or people” (23). Descartes prefers to think by himself in a foreign land, but cares not even for the foreign locale. Time and place matter not to him. “A thinker like Descartes would be content to think anywhere on earth” (24). Descartes loved to sit in bed and think–all well and good. But what person, or place, or custom, did he love?

The abstract method Descartes employed led him to question everything . . . except himself (“I think, therefore, I am”). The mind, powered by egotism and unfettered from the body, became a weapon to remake nations and nature itself for civilizations that followed his wake. But to be free from one’s time and place is also to be estranged from it. We tend to lash out at strangers, even if the stranger is our very selves.

Those younger than me may groan at this assertion–but a line runs straight from Descartes’ abstractions to the internet and social media-the “cloud.” The internet has perfected the art of taking you away from where you reside and placing you nowhere in particular. I suppose with very simple and direct messages, social media works well, i.e., “Look, my son graduated from high school,” or, “I love my new haircut.” But anything involving complexity requires context, and context requires “full body” communication–not just the mind. Misunderstandings become almost the norm if we ignore this, which brings chaos. Our connections to one another disappear. To compensate for the interpersonal gap (which we perhaps feel but may not be fully aware of), we use manipulation as a method to bridge the chasm. Christians are guilty of this just as others are, i.e., “Jesus is the Light of the World–If you love God you will share with all your Friends!” Marshall McLuhan was right–the medium often dictates the message.

In difficult times we face two temptations. One is to bury our vision into the dark and tangled soil. There we meet the demons of blood and earth. The early 20th century saw this nightmare made real. The other involves a flight into escapist utopian fantasy with our heads in the sky. Devils lay there as well (i.e. the “prince of the powers of the air”–Eph. 2:2**). Both soil and clouds exist for a reason, however. Both have their place. We need to see what lies below and above at the same time, with Christ in the center, holding all things together.

*We can note that in The Republic he places his ideal, or perhaps, imaginary, city outside of Athens (I tend to think of The Republic as a thought experiment and not a description of Plato’s “real” beliefs–others disagree). Deneen also notes that the great Athenian dramatists played the role of “theorists,” and they, like Plato, often set their events outside of Athens.

**Perhaps we should think of Paul’s words in a strictly spatial manner, but I am fairly sure that we should interpret his words metaphorically (the two are not mutually exclusive–both meanings are in play). That is, the “air” shifts to and fro–it has no boundaries, no direction–its shiftiness resembles the snake, who speaks with a forked tongue, etc.

The Metal Mountain

I am guessing that many of you have seen this video from Boston Dynamics:

Most of the comments either say that this is the greatest or worst thing ever. I asked a science teacher friend of mine for his reaction. He said, “Really cool and impressive, but . . . also terrifying.” I had a similar, but flipped, reaction. I find the video viscerally horrible, and I had the strong urge to reach through the screen and smash the robots with baseball bats. But I have to admit–it is pretty cool.

“Both-And” trumps “Either-Or” in this instance, and so far my friend and I agree. But we can’t both be right in our emphasis.

In the pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch*, an apocalyptic text associated with Second Temple Judaism, we read of a “metal mountain” in chapter 52.

And after those days, in that place where I had seen all the visions of that which is secret, for I had been carried off by a whirlwind, and they had brought me to the west. There my eyes saw the secrets of Heaven; everything that will occur on Earth: a mountain of iron, and a mountain of copper, and a mountain of silver, and a mountain of gold, and a mountain of soft metal, and a mountain of lead.

And I asked the Angel who went with me, saying: “What are these things which I have seen in secret?”

And he said to me: “All these things which you have seen serve the authority of His Messiah, so that he may be strong and powerful on the Earth.” And that Angel of Peace answered me, saying: “Wait a little and you will see, and everything which is secret, which the Lord of Spirits has established, will be revealed to you.

And these mountains, that you have seen; the mountain of iron, and the mountain of copper, and the mountain of silver, and the mountain of gold, and the mountain of soft metal, and the mountain of lead. All these in front of the Chosen One will be like wax before fire, and like the water that comes down from above onto these mountains they will be weak under his feet. And it will come to pass in those days, that neither by gold, nor by silver, will men save themselves; they will be unable to save themselves, or to flee.

And there will be neither iron for war nor material for a breastplate; bronze will be no use, and tin will be of no use and will count for nothing, and lead will not be wanted. All these will be wiped out and destroyed from the face of the earth when the Chosen One appears in front of the Lord of Spirits.”

I am no scholar of such literature, but I believe a connection exists with the meaning of robots for us now and our current political situation–why both are full of wonder and terror all at once.

I begin my case in what seem will think a strange place . . .

We all remember the excitement of dating our spouse, or even dating in general. At the root of this excitement lies the mystery of possibility. A dating relationship has a great deal of “potential energy,” to use a scientific term. But we must convert this potential into actual energy, or the “potential” is dead and meaningless. We see the same relationship with money. If I receive an Amazon gift card, it is always fun browsing and imagining what I might purchase. Sometimes the actual purchase fails to live up to the fun of ‘window shopping.’ But if I never actually converted potential reality (the gift card) into lived reality (the book I would read), then the gift card is “dead,” lacking any purpose or telos.**

It is no coincidence that money–which represents a multiplicity of possible reality, traditionally comes from the earth in the form of precious metals. We can see the “mountain of metal” in Enoch symbolically as a mass of possibility attempting to reach up to heaven, akin to the Tower of Babel.

Whatever status we accord the Book of Enoch, this interpretation should not surprise anyone reading the early chapters of Genesis. Here we see that it is Cain and his descendants that cultivate the earth for its potential. They develop the earth for tools, cities, and weapons. This technological development leads to violence and disaster, the unleashed chaos of the Flood. When we understand that the paradise was located on a mountain (cf. Ez. 28), we understand the Fall as a coming down from “heaven” to “earth,” a physical as well as spiritual descent.^ After murdering his brother, Cain descends further into the earth in the development of various technologies. He becomes enamored with potentiality, and his descendants develop it for violent ends. We usually see new technologies creating disruption. While it might be a chicken-egg situation, I think the pattern in Genesis points to

  • First, chaos, then
  • Technological development

Might the 1960’s show forth this pattern? We had large scale social upheaval starting around 1959, then the space-race/moon landing.

The metal mountain–a mountain full of “dead” metal, can also be contrasted with the paradisal mountain bursting with life in Gen. 1-2. No one expects to see a mountain lush with life, but this is the kind of paradox that suffuses the Christian faith. Perhaps the metal mountain can be seen as a kind of anti-paradise. Most every culture has some kind of sacred mountain, as mountains represent a union of heaven and earth.^ The metal mountain, then, would represent a bastardization of this reality, an “earth only” mountain.

This is not to say that all cities, shovels, trumpets, and swords are evil in themselves, any more than the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was evil. But Adam and Eve were not ready for such a gift, not ready for the power such knowledge would convey. Acquiring this knowledge before its appointed time severed them from God, each other, and themselves. The theme of dangerous and thus forbidden knowledge has a reflection in other mythologies, most familiarly for us in the story of Prometheus who brought the tools of civilization to humanity.

So, yes, I fear the robots, not because they are evil but because I don’t think we can possibly handle such things rightly in our current moment. But I must acknowledge the romance of the “potential” the robots convey, just as I love to receive Amazon gift cards.

We can understand our current political situation with the same symbolic framework.

There are those on both the right and the left that want nothing to do with the mundane realities of “married” political life. Some on the left looted Portland for weeks, and others occupied Seattle. Some on the right did something similar with the Capitol. Both sides have elements within them that want to transcend politics, that want a divorce from the constitutional order. They are enamored with the possibilities of a brand-new trophy wife. Those on the left envision a utopia of equality from below. Those on the right envision a strong Caesar from above to lead them to glory and defend them from all evil. Both imagine a perfect marriage to Brad Pitt or Emma Stone is theirs for the taking. Again–we cannot deny the intoxicating nature of “potential.” Gold has always exercised this spell.

Many have remarked how social media, which exponentially increases the potential power of language, has exacerbated this problem. This makes perfect sense when we see language as the manifestation of potential from the earth, much like gold or silver coins.

In his The Language of Creation Matthieu Pageau develops this idea convincingly, and what follows here merely seeks to condense his description. If we think of letters as random marks condensed into form, we can see that this process of incarnating ideas in language essentially boils down to turning potential into reality, the same as turning a hunk of iron into a sword. First, the basic union of Heaven and Earth pattern illustrated by Pageau as developed in Scripture:

We should note well that “symbol” here means not an ephemeral representation of something real, but instead an embodiment of meaning, something more real than a mere fact.

Forgive the crude nature of the drawing below which attempts to illustrate the principle as it applies to language (also stolen from Pageau):

The internet adds even more potential to the reach of the human mind, and it is both terrifying and glorious.

The current political climate mostly reflects this terrifying aspect of the internet. Imagine our body politic as the guy in a marriage who constantly gets different women paraded before him, an endless array of options and perspectives. He might eventually grow tired of his wife, with so much intriguing “potential” before his eyes. Many elites and institutions have lost trust, and this accelerates the problem. But these untested political realities are the elusive fantasy girlfriend that you never have to live real life with.

Exposing ourselves to robots during such a chaotic time (in fact such things are more likely to appear during chaotic times–just like Cain’s tool-making was directly preceded by his wandering) may greatly exacerbate the “meaning crisis.” We should not storm the Capitol, ransack Portland, or mess around with dancing robots.

But . . . as much as we should hedge and protect our current political symbols and institutions, our political life is akin to, but not the same as, our sacramental married life. The unformed potential is not evil, but how we use it might be. No good can come to a husband witnessing a parade of super-models, but our political life needs more “give” than a marriage to stay fresh and alert. A political system needs to occasionally integrate new ideas. But the only thing one can do during a flood is batten down the hatches. Twitter, Facebook, Youtube–who can doubt they bring a “flood” of “biblical proportions?”

As usual, Genesis gives us the pattern from which to operate. We have the paradisal mountain with four rivers flowing through it. The mountain encases the dynamism of the rivers–“change” safely residing within solidity. Without this solidity, even small challenges to existing order will pose an existential threat. Maybe conservatives will have to tone down market dynamism. Maybe liberals will have de-escalate the speed of social change. Maybe that works, but we’ll need to turn our keys at the same time.

Dave

*The Book of Enoch is not regarded as canonical Scripture for any Christian group except the Ethiopian Orthodox. But, it was a book held in great respect by the early Church. The Apostle Jude quotes it in his epistle. We may say that it was part of the vernacular, perhaps, of the early Christians.

**It is in translating the “potential” into reality that determines a good or bad marriage. The husband/wife run the risk of things growing “dead” through the lack of potential. This can lead to affairs, or more benignly to the buying of sports cars. This is one reason (among others) why couples should have children–to have new “potential” come into reality. After a couple completes the child-rearing stage, which for many can last into their 50’s, they enter a new transformative phase of “death to glory.” The couple can no longer generate new “potential life,” and their hair grows gray. But even their gray hair manifests glory–“white light” streaming from their heads.

^The importance of mountains becomes obvious in Scripture once we get clued into this pattern, i.e., Mt. Sinai, Mt. Zion, Mt. Carmel, Mt. Tabor, the Sermon on the Mount, Christ crucified on the ‘Hill of the Skull,’ and so on.

Telegraph, the Change

When you teach the same classes year after year as I have, one starts to realize that what seems like great material one year seems to fall flat in another. Many reasons exist for this, some of them obvious, such as whether or not you taught the lesson on a Tuesday or a Friday, or at the beginning or the end of the day. Sometimes more mysterious factors present themselves, such as whether or not you have a critical mass of students interested in the topic.

Thankfully, some things work even if you teach it last period on the day before Christmas vacation, such as Assyrian tortures with 8th grade boys, and the Kennedy-Nixon debates. I am always impressed how students, with very little context or introduction, immediately pick up that “somethin’ ain’t right” with Nixon–setting aside the infamous sweat on his lower lip.

What Nixon gets wrong has nothing to do with what he says. Students note, too, that the debate, while it suffers somewhat from the medium of television, has some actual substance to it from both candidates. The problem lies deeper, in the “atmosphere” around Nixon.

At times I think that Marshal McCluhan, for all his brilliance, sees everything as a nail, armed as he is with his significant insight into how the “medium is the message.” But his comments about this seminal debate in 1960 led me to following him down a rabbit hole of sorts, and wondering if our current cultural angst has its roots in transformation of our media landscape.

In a famous interview McCluhan describes the differences between what he calls “hot” and “cool” mediums, saying,

Basically, a hot medium excludes and a cool medium includes. Hot media are high in completion, and low in audience participation. Cool media are high in participation. A Hot medium extends a single sense with high definition . . . A photography for example, is “hot” whereas a rough sketch cartoon is “cool.” Radio is a hot medium because it sharply and intensely provides a great amount of high definition auditory information that leaves little or nothing to be filled in by the audience. A lecture is hot, a seminar is cool.

He continues by suggesting that television is not even a strictly visual medium. Its low definition (here we must remember that McCluhan is speaking around 1968. He might think differently about today’s “high definition” tv’s) means that we the audience have to be “drawn in.” Those who come across “hot” rather than “cool” will put off their audience. He continues

Kennedy was the first tv president . . . . TV is an inherently cool medium, and Kennedy had a compatible coolness and indifference to power, bred of personal wealth, which allowed him to adapt fully to tv. [Without this] any candidate will electrocute himself on television–as Richard Nixon did in his disastrous debates with Kennedy. Nixon was essentially hot, he presents a high-definition, sharply defined image . . . that contributed to his reputation as a phony. . . . He didn’t project the cool aura of disinterest and objectivity that Kennedy emanated so effortlessly and engagingly.

McCluhan’s analysis explains why those who listened to the debate on the radio gave the edge to Nixon. It has nothing per se to do with the content of their messages, but the medium itself.* Nixon’s earnest and direct manner worked much better on radio. McCluhan makes clear in the interview that the process of our interaction with this new media would transform western society–a society built upon the printing press.

I think McCluhan overstates his case a bit, but his analysis of media and culture have a great deal of explanatory power. I will try to present him as best as I can, starting with a long excerpt from the interview (slightly edited for clarity by myself–the ‘M’ is McCluhan):


M: Oral cultures act and react simultaneously, whereas the capacity to act without reacting, without involvement, is the special gift of literate man.  Another basic characteristic of [pre-modern] man is that he lived in a world of acoustic space, which gave him a radically different concept of space-time relationships.

Q: Was phonetic literacy alone responsible for this shift in values from tribal ‘involvement’ to civilized detachment?

M: Yes.  Any culture is an order of sensory preferences, and in the tribal world, the senses of touch, taste, smell, and hearing were more developed.  Into this world, the phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell . . . literacy put the eye above all else.  Linear, visual values replaced an integral communal interplay.  The writing of the Egyptians, Chinese, and Mayan were an extension of multiple senses–they gave pictorial expression to reality and used many signs to cover a wide range of data.  The achievement of phonics demands the separation of both sight and sound from their semantic and dramatic meanings in order to render speech visually.  

As knowledge is extended in alphabetic form, it is localized and fragmented into specialities, creating divisions of function, classes, nations.   The rich interplay of the senses is sacrificed.

Q: But aren’t their corresponding gains in insight to compensate for the loss of tribal values?

M: Literacy . . . creates people who are less complex and diverse.  . . . But he is also given a tremendous advantage over non-literate man, who is hamstrung by cultural pluralism–values that make the African as easy a prey for the European colonialist as the barbarian was for the Greeks and Romans.  Only alphabetic cultures ever succeeded in mastering connected linear sequences as a means of social organization. 

Q: Isn’t the thrust of your argument then, that the introduction of the phonetic alphabet was not progress, but a psychic and social disaster?

M: It was both.  . . . the old Greek myth has Cadmus, who brought the alphabet to man, sowing dragons teeth that sprang up from the earth as armed men. The age of print, which held sway from 1500-1900, had its obituary tapped out by the telegraph, the first of the new electric media, and further obsequies were registered by the perception of curved space and non-Euclidean mathematics in the early years of the century, which revived [pre-modern] man’s discontinuous space-time concepts–and which even Spengler dimly perceived as the death-knell of Western literate values.  The development of tv, film, and the computer have driven further nails into the coffin.  It is tv that is primarily responsible for ending the visual supremacy that characterized all mechanical technology.  

Q: But isn’t TV primarily a visual medium?

M: No, quite the opposite.  . . . The TV image is a mosaic mesh not only of horizontal lines but of millions of tiny dots, of which the viewer is only able to pick out 50 or 60 from which he shapes the image; thus he is constantly bringing himself into involvement with the screen and acting out a creative dialog with the iconoscope, which tattoos its message directly onto our skins.  Each viewer is thus an unconscious pointilist painter, like Seurat.  

Q: How is tv reshaping our political institutions? 

 
M: For one thing, it is creating an entirely new type of national leader, a man who is much more a tribal chieftain than a politician. 

In his The Medium is the Message McCluhan quotes a poem of Yeats,

Locke sank into a swoon;

The garden died;

God took the spinning jenny

Out of his side

McCluhan sees the man’s interaction with media thusly:

  • Pre-literate man was essentially oral. He lived in an sensory integrated world, and an “immediate” world. He lived in a world he could cohere into a totality of experience. His sense of space-time, how he got his information, etc. came within an embodied context.
  • True–a few unusual people might have been merchants who traveled a lot, whose sense of time and space might have been somewhat different, but these people were rare, on the fringe of society.
  • The printing press both mechanized information and intensified how we received it, “assuring the eye a position of total dominance in man’s sensorium. . . . The schism between thought and action was institutionalized, and fragmented man, first sundered by the alphabet, was at last diced into bite-sized tidbits.”

Commenting on the poem above, McCluhan writes, “Yeats presents Locke, the philosopher of linear and mechanical association, as hypnotized by his own image, but the “garden” of unified consciousness had ended.”

“Literate Man,” as McCluhan names western man from 1500-1900, valued highly the detachment cultivated by textual interaction. Indeed–we have to detach ourselves to a degree to read at all. We see the values of literate man producing “detached” scientific exploration and experimentation, promoting distance, toleration, and a political transformation away from the directly personal monarchies to impersonal democratic republics. Perhaps we can say that such values peaked in the late 18th century. We begin to see with 19th century Romanticism a yearning for a more holistic way of life. McCluhan’s focus stays on media, with

  • The invention of the telegraph for McCluhan was the beginning of the end of “Literate Man,” a point he admits to borrowing from the enigmatic Oswald Spengler. The telegraph both began the process of altering our perception of time and space, and made information more direct and immediate, a feature of pre-literate experience.
  • The radio followed suit quickly, then tv, etc. We saw cultural conflict and disintegration in the 1960’s because television accelerated the process of a cultural transference away from literate man. Our educational system offered all of the values of literate man, a complete mismatch with the desire for holistic integration our interaction with modern media produces.**
  • Had McCluhan lived to see the internet (some say he clearly predicted it), he would likely say that such instantly available means of breaking down time and space might very well put the nails in the coffin of Literate Man and cause a deep cultural division. Indeed, McCluhan’s analysis can shed light on the division between Gen X–the last generation not raised with the internet–and Millennials, etc. Many under 30 today care little for the Literate Man values that helped found our country, i.e., rational debate, give and take, etc. They want a more integrated communal experience.^

Our current political struggle, then, pits not Republicans against Democrats–who knows what it means to be a Republican or Democrat anyway now?–but against literate/printing press man values of privacy, debate, and individualism vs. the tribal/internet man values of community and integrated life. We see this conflict running through different aspects of our society, such as in journalism. The old journalistic ethic taught that the reporter should cultivate distance and a degree of objectivity. The new school of reporting seeks engagement, communal change, etc.

McCluhan admitted that early in his career he saw the decline of “Literate Man” as a moral catastrophe, but by the late 1960’s he committed himself to trying to observe (ironically, perhaps, a quintessential Literate Man pose) and not attach value judgments to his preferences. But with an additional 50 years of perspective on the influence of new media, I think we should venture some conclusions about its impact.

I agree that no absolute moral difference exists between Printing Press Man and Integrated/Tribal Man. McCluhan’s focus on the telegraph makes one realize that the technological/cultural changes many of us think are 15-20 years in the making are really 150 years old. McCluhan points out rightly that the advent of the printing press, industrialization, etc. into traditional societies was at least in part “a psychic and social disaster.” But he put less attention on the switch back the other way–it too will be experienced as a “disaster” by Literate Man for society to go back to Integrated Man.

I agree too that something mysterious exists with our relationship to media, which includes not just radio and the internet, but all of the ways in which we seek to extend our being, including our clothes. A meshing of man and media leads to a switch in perception and how we act. For example, our reaction to COVID had just as much to do with the media we use as it did with the disease itself. I am not saying that COVID is just the flu, but it is not the Black Plague either. Without online shopping, Zoom, etc. we would never have taken the measures we did with COVID. Some will say, “Thank goodness we had Zoom so we did not have to go into work, and more lives were saved.” Others, like myself, see something not so much sinister as deeply skewed. The media we use focuses our attention, and our view of the world is “made” from where we direct our attention. COVID and the internet worked symbiotically to form our decisions.

McCluhan rightly points out the many advantages of pre-modern societies. He saw us recapturing some of those values as our media landscape transformed. I wouldn’t mind a return of some pre-modern values. But contrary to McCluhan (if I understand him rightly), we don’t see these values returning. Or rather, we see them returning, but in a distorted way. No question, visiting a waterfall would be an “integrative” experience–sight, smell, touch, etc.–in ways that seeing the waterfall online would not. The continual availability of a fragmented online experience has not given us a holistic society but one where, according to some accounts, one in four young adults take some form of anti-depressant. McCluhan might say that this is exactly what we should expect when we ask kids to spend 7 hours a day in a detached, “Literate” environment when the media they use calls them to an entirely different way of life. I would perhaps argue that what we see now is a combination of

  • Literate Man reaching the end of its days
  • No good Integrated Man alternative available.

One can argue that there was an “Anti-Nature” strand in the history of Literate Man, with its extreme focus on linear thought and the eye. But so far, the new Integrated Man all in all shows no signs of actually wanting to create a holistic society. For example,

  • Many of the same environmentalists who want us to be closer to nature also tell us not to have children. But few other things are more “natural” than men and women getting married and having children. How can one speak of integration of our experience while excluding humanity from that experience?
  • Many advocates of an extreme individual fluidty/”rights” with their bodies (abortion, sexual differences, etc.) also are quite rigid about certain other areas around race, speech, etc.

Most all of us use the internet not as a tool of integration but escape. Television, in some ways at least, brought people together, i.e., we all watched “I Love Lucy,” “The Cosby Show,” and the Super Bowl.

Richard Rohlin noted that one can define conservatism simply as love of one’s parents. By that he meant our biological parents, but also our spiritual fathers, our culture, our past. We need not believe that our parents are perfect, or even particularly “good.” We love ourselves and hopefully know that we have deep flaws that need work, but we cannot build or change anything by starting with a void, a negative. America’s problem, as it relates to McCluhan, can be boiled down to

  • Conservatives should embrace tradition, but American “Conservatives” hearken back to a tradition of individually oriented, linear, and “cool” world. This is perhaps one reason why appeals to the past in American politics never quite seem to work, and only seem to further individualism.
  • Modern progressives seem to seek a more communal and holistic vision of society, which has the earmarks of “Tradition.” However, progressives tend to reject the past outright as evil. They seek the impossibility of a traditional society constructed out of revolutionary ideology.

If neither vision can succeed, then our solution has to lie beyond adaptation or understanding of our new media. McCluhan shows us where we are better than most, but he can’t say where we need to go.

Dave

*McCluhan commented about Lyndon Johnson in a spot-on analysis . . . “[Johnson] botched [tv] in the same way that Nixon did in 1960. He was too intense, too obsessed with making his audience love and revere him as father and teacher. Johnson became a stereotype–even a parody–of himself, and earned the same reputation as a phony that plagued Nixon for so long. The people wouldn’t have cared about Kennedy lying to them on tv, but they couldn’t stomach Johnson even when he told them the truth.”

He also noted how Nixon rehabilitated his image by changing his tv demeanor, starting with his appearance on the Jack Parr show in 1963. “In the recent [1968] election,” he comments, “it was Nixon who was cool and Humphrey who was hot.” Correctly, he noticed in 1968 that this was a mask for Nixon. His presidency would prove this the case. If there is anything one can say about Nixon–he was not someone who “invited people in.”

**We see the maddening apotheosis of literate man in the form of the ultra-scholar who only seeks to point out facts, and never wants to commit to a conclusion, never wants to integrate his knowledge into anything cohesive or final. As for McCluhan’s point about “immediacy” and “participation,” think of the impact of television on the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. Everyone could see the images, the marches, and participate to a degree in the “cultural moment.”

^Note the stereotype of the detached, unengaged Gen X’er, with slacker anti-heroes, i.e., The Breakfast Club and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, etc. — very different movies, but with the same overall theme. Today’s heroes tend to be about “family”–think Amazon’s series The Expanse and the Fast and Furious franchise.

Inventing Vietnam

Like most Americans, I root against the New England Patriots.  It is nothing personal, but Americans root for the underdog, and the Patriots have been so successful they are never the underdog.  And yet, I can’t help but admire the brilliance of Bill Belichek.

He confirmed my admiration during a particular playoff game against the Steelers many years. ago.  The Patriots held a slim lead early in the game but the Steelers had a built a nice drive.  They resided just out of field goal range and faced a 4th and 1 somewhere around the Patriots 40 yard line.  The Steelers decided to go for it, and their home crowd cheered.

At this time the Steelers built their identity around a “smash-mouth” style of play and relied heavily on running back Jerome Bettis.  Everyone knew the Steelers would want to run the ball.  The Patriots of course also knew this.  They stacked the line of scrimmage and their defense sold out on the run.  I don’t recall if they had any safeties behind the line of scrimmage.  Their defensive formation triple-dog-dared Pittsburgh to pass.

I remember yelling at the TV for Pittsburgh to call a timeout.  They were obviously going to run, but if they had just flared out a tight-end it could have gone for a touchdown.  But Pittsburgh went ahead and ran the ball anyway.  And of course New England, having every single player right at the line of scrimmage, stopped it easily.  After taking over on downs Brady promptly completed a long pass for a touchdown and broke the will of the Steelers.

Game over.  In the first quarter.

I thought to myself, “How did Belichek know Pittsburgh would run?”  Of course he didn’t really know, but his defense said to me that he knew.  What Belichek, knew, I think, is that under stress, we revert to our comfort foods.  We can’t help it.  In a regular season game, with stress levels lower, maybe Pittsburgh calls a different play.  But in the playoffs?  He knew they would stress-eat the Ritz crackers and run Jerome Bettis over left-tackle even when a voice inside them probably told them to eat carrot sticks instead.  They couldn’t help it.

Civilizations contain a vast aggregate of personalities, but have a undeniable personality and predelictions all their own.  When we picture someone wearing a t-shirt and blue jeans, of course it fails to cover everything about America, but it covers enough.

Toynbee believed that western civilization reveals itself in its passion for mechanics.  He wrote,

The Hellenic civilization displays a manifest tendency towards a predominantly aesthetic rubric for orienting and defining itself.   The Hellenic tendency to view life as a whole distinctively in such terms that the ancient Greek adjective “kalos,” which denotes what is aesthetically beautiful, is used in addition to describe what is morally good.  In other words, Greek concepts of beauty and morality . . . were indistinguishable.

When we come to our own western civilization we find no difficulty discovering our own bent or bias.  It is, of course, a penchant towards machinery: a concentration of interest and effort upon applying discoveries of Natural Science to material purposes through the creation of social-clockwork devices, i.e. steam engines, motor cars, but also social engines like representative governments and military mobilizations.

We sometimes talk as if this appetite for mechanics was a quite recent occurrence in western civilization  . . . But this is precisely how westerners were viewed by the courts in Japan and China [in the early 1800’s, just prior to the Industrial Revolution]–as “barbarians” redeemed partially by our manifest and outsized technical ability.   The Byzantine princess Anna Comnena had the same impression of the first crusaders in 1099 A.D.  She called  their  crossbow a “devilish construction” that, while ingenious in its mechanics, fitted perfectly the barbarians who wielded it . . .

I thought of Toynbee’s analysis reading James Carter’s Inventing Vietnam.  A lot about this book revealed little about the Vietnam War that I had not read elsewhere.  I thought Carter missed some important opportunities to illumine the conflict.  But his basic thesis, that America essentially tried to invent, i.e. “call int0 existence” a country that did not really exist makes sense.  South Vietnam had no real governance, no real culture, no real identity at all, apart from some lines on paper at the U.N.

Carter demonstrates that we tried to create South Vietnam in the only way we knew how.  We went to our comfort food . . . lots and lots of mechanical stuff.

Everyone recognized fairly early on that South Vietnam occupied a precarious position in Southeast Asia.  President Diem failed to inspire confidence.  The North had nearly all the best political leadership.  The major battles of the war against France, and thus, the major political infrastructure to handle the war, happened in the North.  Even in the late 1950’s we realized the South Vietnam could collapse not so much because of the actions of North Vietnam but under its own weight.  Castles cannot built on air.*

But for many reasons, some well-intentioned and justifiable, and some not, we felt that we had to try.**  We sought to modernize their economy, and give thousands of South Vietnamese jobs through our massive construction projects.  We could maybe, just maybe “fast-track” their way towards gaining some kind of statehood.  If nothing else, in attempting this we stayed on familiar territory.  We knew how to provide material goods and benefits.

While Carter’s book disappointed me overall, he proves his main point.  Our efforts to “create” South Vietnam massively undermined our stated goals.

  • The massive surge in U.S. dollars in South Vietnam destabilized their economy
  • South Vietnam’s economy and infrastructure could not absorb the massive inflow of goods, which created a black-market economy almost immediately.  This “shadow economy” further eroded governmental authority.
  • Most significantly, construction projects facilitated the expansion of our war effort.  The expansion of the war effort led to more bombing in South Vietnam, and more troop activity.  The more war South Vietnam experienced, the more disruption they faced, the less chance the South Vietnamese government had of establishing themselves.

Each of these problems served to ensure that the South Vietnamese government had no control over its own destiny.  Many in the State Department and military realized this, but could do little else but press on.  We couldn’t help ourselves.  This is what we knew how to do.  We can reasonably assume that if we had defeated the North Vietnamese militarily, the overall strategic situation would have changed hardly at all since the 1954 Geneva Accords which divided Vietnam in the first place.  South Vietnam would not have been an independent country.

When our war in Afghanistan seemingly went well in late 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was a media darling.  His “transformation” doctrine of war, which emphasized smaller troop levels and increased use of technology, seemed to work.  But by 2006 Iraq was a mess, and by 2009 the situation in Afghanistan had significantly eroded.  In truth, much of the Rumsfeld doctrine hardly broke new ground.  It appealed directly to our comfort food of believing in, and relying upon, bigger and better stuff to solve our problems.  Hillary Clinton taps into this again with her pledge that new green technologies will solve economic problems.  If we looked closer we would see that our weaknesses, and of course also our strengths, have deeper roots than this.

Dave

*Marine General Victor Krulak commented in 1966 that, “Despite all our assertions to the contrary, the South Vietnamese are not–and have never been–a nation.

For a postscript below, Raymond Fitts’ article entitled, The Uses and Abuses of Technology in War

 

“The American effort in Vietnam was the best that modern military science could offer. The array of sophisticated weapons used against the enemy boggles the mind. Combat units applied massive firepower using the most advanced scientific methods. Military and civilian managers employed the most advanced techniques of management science to support combat units in the field. The result was an almost unbroken series of American victories that somehow became irrelevant to the war. In the end, the best that military science could offer was not good enough . . .”1

How is it that such a paradox developed? How could a world Super Power lose a war to a third or forth rate military power? The answer has many parts. One part of the answer must lie in the difference between military science and military art. The more technology a country has developed, the more it seems to depend on military science in stead of military art. Another part is in the make up of the combatants and their outlook toward warfare.

Despite the many analyses of the Vietnam war produced by the military, none has adequately considered the fundamental question of how the U.S. could so completely dominate the battlefield and yet lose the war. Senior military officers have published books and memoirs about Vietnam. They have all nearly ignored the insurgent portions of the war and devoted themselves to the conventional side of the conflict. The most celebrated analysis of the war made by a military officer was produced by Col. Harry G. Summers, Jr. His basic treatment of the entire war was as it ended, i.e., in a conventional invasion of South Vietnam by North Vietnam. He ignored the guerrilla tactics and insurgent strategies of the war. All these personal accounts of the war seem to be best summarized by the adage “If they has just turned us loose in 1965, the war would have been over quickly.”2 It is clear that had the war been nothing more than a conventional one, the US should have been more successful than it was.

A clue to understanding the Vietnam paradox lies in the term “military science.” No one can doubt the importance of military science to the success of military operations in today’s world. The firepower provided by today’s weapons dominates the modern battlefield. The procurement of those same systems is a complex science in itself. However, successful military operations are a combination of the application of military science and military art.3

As the term implies, military science is a systematic body of knowledge about the conduct of military affairs. It deals with issues that can be quantified with a considerable degree of precision. It generally deals with what one can or cannot do in military operations–the technical aspects of developing and employing military forces.

Military art is the systematic study and creative planing and conduct of military affairs.4 It involves strategy (including tactics), political-military affairs, leadership, and morale. In short, it deals with the inexact side of military operations. It is concerned with what military forces should or should not do and why. It is learned through a study of history.

Successful military campaigns are the result of some sort of balance between the two. The balance may, in fact, depend on the status of the opposing forces–their equality. Reasonable equality may not exist between opposing forces. The weaker side must then depend on superior military art to achieve victory.

The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were forced to depend on the use of military art because of the overwhelming resources and superior technology of the U.S. The Communist confused the Americans with a package of political, psychological, economic and military warfare.

There is a considerable body of literature that suggests that the warfare of the future, especially with the end of the Cold War, will be on the low-intensity end of the conflict spectrum. If indeed such is the case, then the U.S. will need to rethink how it uses its technology to fight at this end of the spectrum. But to understand what constitutes the low-intensity conflict some definitions are necessary. Applications of technology in this environment will be explored to evaluate the effects of the use of technology.

Definitions

Low-Intensity Conflict

The American military establishment considers low-intensity conflict to be manifested in four different ways: (1) counterterrorism (assuming there is a terrorist to counter); (2) peace keeping: (3) peacetime contingencies (quick sharp, peacetime military actions like the air raid on Libya in 1986); and (4) insurgency/counterinsurgency. The inclusion of some of these terms in the definition of low-intensity conflict is debatable. Terrorism can be considered a tactic that can be used in any type of warfare. Peace keeping missions are meant to prevent the outbreak of a conflict. The essential difference between war-fighting and peace-keeping missions is that one makes the maximum use of force while the latter is committed to the minimum use of force. Direct action missions tend to be high in intensity but short in duration, a situation that is particularly unsuited for the term “low-intensity conflict.” We are thus left with insurgency and counterinsurgency claiming any legitimacy to the title “low-intensity” conflict.6 A low-intensity conflict includes not only the unconventional aspects of warfare but also economic, political and psychological warfare.

There is an important aspect about low-intensity conflict that needs emphasis. The level of intensity is a relative thing. For the soldier in the trenches, combat is always intense–he’s the one getting shot at. For the United States, Vietnam was not a highly intense conflict because it did not require the full resources of the country. For the North Vietnamese, the war was a high intensity conflict because it involved all the nation’s resources. The level of intensity is usually associated with the probability of occurrence of a certain level of conflict. Terrorism is at one end of the spectrum and is highly probable while all-out nuclear war is at the other end and is least likely.

Partisan vs. Insurgent Warfare

The difference between partisan warfare and an insurgency is what the guerrilla is trying to do to the government. The partisan is merely interested in throwing out a conquering power. The partisan may need help from an outside source. An example might the East Europeans trying to expel the Germans during World War II. An insurgent is trying to overthrow an existing government by any means. Insurgencies are the more insidious of the two in as much as it has no definite beginning; its origins are not military, they are political, economic, and psychological. The insurgency is self-sustaining; and does not need outside support. An insurgency sneaks up on the existing government slowly and quietly.

Successful insurgencies have a number of elements in common. Four characteristics are particularly important for the American military: the protracted nature of the war; the central role of the insurgent political infrastructure; the secondary role of the insurgent military; and the use of guerrilla tactics in military operations.7 An insurgency represents the total integration of political and military factors with the political factors always in complete domination.

Conditions are ripe for insurgencies in many parts of the Third World. They all have several things in common: the stark contrasts between incredible poverty for the vast majority of the population and the extreme wealth for the ruling elite; a small to non-existent middle class that can be a stabilizing influence and a conduit for the upwardly mobile; these same areas often times sit astride important trade routes or trade-route chokepoints; they might contain important deposits of raw material vital to the industrialized world.8 The insurgencies of the twentieth century have been scattered all over the world and have been the result, for the most part, of real or imagined inequities in political and economic power coupled with the perception of minimal opportunity for reform, either political or economic. When taken together, the unique aspects of insurgent warfare suggests that such struggles are different from conventional warfare.

The most important aspect of an insurgency is time. Both the French and the Americans found that their enemies used time as a weapon against them. The Vietminh and later the Vietcong purposely made the struggle longer waiting for the Americans and French to get tired of the endless blood letting and look for a way out of the conflict.

The rebels also need time to build up their political support and military strength relative to the government they are trying to overthrow. Time works for the insurgent in another way: every day the rebellion exists is another day that discredits the government and its ability to govern and control its own destiny. The defeat of the insurgent military threat is only an adjunct to buying time for the government to implement reforms and for those reforms to work..

Guerrilla Warfare

Guerrilla warfare is the classic ploy of the weaker against the stronger. The conventional European military operations are planned to obtain a quick victory while guerrilla warfare tactics are geared for the long haul. The guerrilla attempts to avoid a decisive defeat at the hands of the stronger enemy. They operate in small groups to avoid presenting tempting targets for government forces that usually have vastly superior firepower for its use.9

In fact, a guerrilla wins by not losing, while the government loses by not winning. In short, there is no room for the status quo. Each side must discredit the other by some means whether it be political, economic, psychological, or military. Generally, it is s combination of all these elements. The military aspects usually are fought to make space for the other aspects to work on the minds and pocket books of the population.

The American Way of War

There are several deep-seated reasons for the condition of the American armed forces: military men are still highly regarded in Europe but not much here; the European tradition of martial exploits is missing in America; a technological bias to create weapons that can kill from a distance; and a failure to create a well-motivated, well trained military force.10 Most Americans have not had to come to grips with the central role that military forces play in international settings Americans have not had to confront war as a political act.

Its long span of oceanic-based isolation has led the Americans to think of war as an aberration, a failure of political policy Americans see warfare as a great crusade to over-come a well defined enemy who was definitely evil. Simplistic approaches to political military problems are also indications that Americans have not been forced to deal with the role of force. Despite obstacles, Americans have expected to achieve their goals; the spirit of “can-do” has been a permanent part of their collective psyche.11

The Civil War was the first American conflict observed by professional European soldiers. The British, French and Greater Prussian General Staff sent representatives to observe both sides at war. The observers noted, with some distain, the American penchant for standing off at some distance from each other and throw enormous amounts of lead at each other, often times for hours on end. This method has become ineluctably part of the American way of war.

This proclivity to conserve lives has been all the more difficult because of a distinction in the military tradition: the population has always distrusted a large standing army, it has thus developed a strong militia to fight its wars. American armies have had to learn to fight by fighting. The U.S. has been willing to compensate for what it lacked in preparation by spending its national wealth. America’s war industry has overwhelmed its enemies with weaponry.12

The U.S. military has concentrated on the sciences of developing, deploying, and employing America’s overwhelming resources since the Civil War. The military has, as a result, not had to be very clever in the military arts because it could overwhelm its opponents in a sea of men, weapons, firepower, and logistics.13 This ability has lead to a 20th Century American trend in American thinking: modern American strategists and tacticians have sought to substitute fire and steel for American blood.14 General James Van Fleet, then commander of the Korean based 8th Army in 1952, is a good example of this mode of thinking. He was determined to use his artillery as a substitute for U.S. infantrymen.

The basic aim of the U.S. military, it seems, in peacetime is to buy hardware rather than use it. The main aim of each service is to get from Congress as much money as it wants. The peacetime emphasis has moved from fighting skills to procurement and the management of technology. The best way to a promotion is through running a successful procurement program in the Pentagon. Leadership in the field is a secondary consideration. What the American military has developed is a distorted sense of priorities and a general lack of seriousness about warfare. It has fallen into a push-button mentality that has a developed a passion for hardware to the neglect of strategy, tactics, and the intangibles of warfare.15 We have done a marvelous job of preparing for the next war only to find that we cannot afford to fight it.

In spite of all this high-technology, it has never been the decisive factor in any American war. The struggle to use technology and to deal with the enemies technology has been much more important.16 Using history as a guide, the American record with military aviation technology has been mixed at best. In World War I, the U.S. flew European designed and, for the most part, built aircraft. World War II showed the Japanese Zero was better than any U.S. front line aircraft at the beginning of the war and the MiG-15 was a superior surprise during the Korean conflict.17

The French Experience

France was the last of the European imperial powers to resist, by force, the loss of its colonies following World War II. The wave of independence following the war swept over all of the former European colonies. The wave gave the colonies a moral advantage that made the war in Indochina increasingly unpopular in France.

The French experience in Indo-china finally ended with the signing of a treaty between the Viet Minh and the French. The treaty divided the country into two halves: one half went to the Vietnamese communists, the other went to what became the Republic of Vietnam. The political turmoil over the next decade brought the U. S. into a war that the French could not win. The final disaster for the French was at a small town in northwestern Vietnam called Dien Bien Phu. Hot on the heels of Vietnam was another colony of France: Algeria. It seems that the French didn’t learn enough from Vietnam because they went through the same traumatic experiences in Northern Africa that they had in Asia. The two places were very different, but the guerrilla war fought by France in both countries contained the same French military responses to the insurgents.

Vietnam18

The French experience in Vietnam lasted eight long years. The Viet Minh experienced tactical defeats with huge losses when faced with the terrible destructive power of the French firepower. The Viet Minh accepted their losses and learned from their mistakes. Over time, they succeeded in dominating Indochina except for a few French “safe areas” around Hanoi and its immediate vicinity.

The only real advantage the French had was their mastery of and ability to conduct European-style machine warfare. They believed to the very end that the enemy could be crushed and Indochina subdued by concentrated firepower. Early on, they also learned that artillery and airpower had little effect on an elusive enemy that avoided a fight. What the French wanted was a large-scale battle of attrition that would grind the Viet Minh into the ground under a final massive avalanche of bombs and artillery fire. The strategy has two fatal flaws: (1) the French were frustrated by their inability to find and fix an enemy in an inhospitable environment; and (2) the French assumed that they alone possessed the ability to apply firepower in a battle of attrition.

Giap keep the pressure on the French by infiltrating soldiers into the Delta lowlands around Hanoi thus tying down French units. He initiated local attacks against the French units creating havoc in the colonial heartland. Giap also conceded to the French their superior firepower and willing spent lives to accomplish two things: first, to maintain his offensive and secondly to buy time to build a firepower base that could challenge the French in open warfare. To accomplish such things, surprise and secrecy were essential.

The Viet Minh learned from experience that under no circumstances should a column be caught in the open to be devastated by French firepower. They traveled by night in small groups to lessen the probability of being detected. They stayed in areas firmly under their control. Limited attacks outside of their protective base areas were planned carefully and by moving to and from the objective area without delay. If they were caught in the open, the men would scatter and hide before the French were able to adjust in and mass artillery fire on the position. The elusiveness of their tactics in combination with the difficult terrain greatly reduced the killing power of French firepower.

The Viet Minh also learned something about the application of airpower. Initially, it frightened the green, inexperienced insurgents and forced them to break off attacks. The French could rarely afford to send more than single aircraft to turn back attacks. The Viet Minh learned quickly that airpower employed in small doses possessed little destructive power. They also effectively dissipated French firepower by using a “hugging” tactic that began with a concentrated recoilless rifle, mortar, and machine gun attack on a fire base with the express intent of knocking out the defender’s radio–the sole means of calling for friendly fire. They then moved the entire force within the barbed wire outside the fort. Fortress and firepower proved to be no match for cunning, patience, courage and a willingness to sacrifice lives to achieve an objective.

Close air support became more effective as time went on. The pilots got to know their assigned areas of responsibility. They could bomb and strafe with particular destructiveness because they did not need to worry about the location of their own soldiers.

The French lost the first round of the war when they lost effective control over most of the territory and population in North Vietnam. The lesson to be learned here was that no amount of firepower or fortification can be effective against an insurgent without first obtaining the support of the people who inhabit the country.

The most effective innovation in firepower control was the use of light observation aircraft, specifically the Morane, to control supporting fires in support of an infantry unit in heavy contact. Such control often meant the difference between victory and defeat for the supported unit. The pilot had to be able to put the fire at very close ranges to the friendly forces.

The American observers present were not particularly impressed with the French airsupport system. It had airplanes dashing about from one fire fight to another in small groups (often only a few planes at a time). It was not their idea of a concentrated air campaign because it seemed so disorganized and without purpose. The close air support provided by the French air force, however, was sufficient as long as the enemy restricted himself to low-level hit-and-run tactics.

Both sides were learning from the battles. Giap learned that his forces were too lightly equipped to slug it out with the French and their overwhelming firepower. He therefore resorted to guerrilla warfare tactics using irregular forces against enemy strength and main forces against French weaknesses. He committed his forces only when there was a high probability of success.

On the positive side, Giap learned that the ability to stand up of French firepower increased with experience. A few well hidden machine guns made the effectiveness of French air attacks decrease appreciably. Giap did not have to match French firepower gun for gun to reduce its effect.

Giap also realized his own impatience with his early attempts at open warfare. He then decided that he would fight on his own terms. He sought to draw the French away from their bases thereby weakening the French ability to project and supply large fire-power intensive forces. He then attacked when the right combination of circumstances (weather, lines of communication, terrain) and available forces reduced or eliminated the French firepower advantage.

For the French, their victories convinced several commanders that the war could be won by fighting a decisive set-piece battle of attrition. They therefore sought to lure the Viet Minh into attacking well-prepared positions thus letting the enemy bleed to death in the face of French firepower. In doing so, however, the French made two critical mistakes. The first was to assume that their firepower was more effective than it really was. It was indeed effective early on, but as the enemy became better able to avoid it and developed their own firepower base more and more ordnance was needed to achieve significant results. Their second mistake was in not realizing that unless the attacker has an overwhelming advantage in firepower, causalities were likely to be about the same on both sides.

The French infantry effectiveness began to decline as a result of an accumulation of all of these factors. The French soldiers, because they were often green or shaken, needed more and more concentrations of firepower to keep them effective. The guerrilla retains the strategic initiative because he can determine the level of the conflict whenever the enemy’s firepower proves to be too destructive.

The French left and the Americans began to replace them only to have to learn the same lessons the French had, but without the benefit of consulting the French.

Algeria

The Indochina war was hardly over when fresh trouble broke out in Algeria, France’s colony in Northern Africa. Trouble had been brewing there for some time, just as it had in Tunisia and Morocco. France had settled both of the latter problems by granting them independence. But Algeria was part of metropolitan France and would always be French.

Extensive European land ownership and a local Moslem elite that controlled the economic and financial structure while the bulk of the population went hungry and landless made Algeria look a lot like Vietnam. The French never ruled comfortably and force lay just below the governmental facade.19 Algeria was not France: 90 percent of the wealth was in the hands of 10 percent of the population, nearly a million people were unemployed while nearly two million were underemployed.

Both sides in the rebellion understood much about the other. The French refused to realize the strength of nationalist feelings while the rebels did not recognize the obstinacy of the Europeans or the French military against them.20

French military forces numbered about 50,000 when the rebellion started on the 1st of November, 1954. By May of the following year there were 100,000 French soldiers in Algeria. The military commanders were not worried about “bandits” who would yield rather quickly to the superior power of the French army; they thought nothing of sending mechanized columns to subdue them. Apparently the lessons of Vietnam had not yet sunk in because any Vietnam veteran could have told them that mechanized columns sent anywhere did little more that provide convenient targets for guerrillas.

The French aggravated their situation with the measures taken by the police; numerous arrests for nearly arbitrary reasons and the brutal treatment of the detainees just fed the fire. Further French counter tactics remained the rebels best friend. The build up was still under way and the military commanders did not have the forces to carry out the traditional pacification tactics. The Army was in a particularly dangerous frame of mind after the losses in 1940 and Indochina left it with a monstrous inferiority complex.21 The French guerrilla warfare doctrine applied to Algeria was doomed from the start because the French had ignored the aspirations of the population –in Mao’s doctrine the very first lesson. In spite of their revolutionary doctrine, and the results in Vietnam, the French army continued to rely on the traditional techniques of fighting the Algerian war.

Despite their inept military activities, the French did have some advantages: approximately 400,000 soldiers in Algeria; the factious nature of the rebellion; and the lack of rebellion’s internal cohesion played a disruptive role amongst the rebels.22

The Battle of Algiers occurred after the 10th Parachute Division took over counterterrorism duties. The division was not kind in its tactics. The battle that followed was an outgrowth of their brutality that left many dead behind. Controlled genocide as policy seemed to work though. The rebel infrastructure in Algiers was destroyed and the French efforts in the countryside seemed to be working. The battle in Algiers sent more moslems into the arms of the rebels.

But the French off-set their gains with their garrison concept that took the bulk of their forces. The concept left the countryside to the guerrilla (a failing seen in Indochina). Several other factors degraded the effects of French tactics: the use of inexperienced conscript soldiers, an inadequate force for the mission (again a notion left over from Indochina), guerrilla reinforcements coming in from neighboring sanctuaries, rebel determination to throw them out, French barbarism, and finally the overall extent of the destruction of the country.23 The French barbarism even reached into neighboring Tunisia when an air force colonel ordered a Tunisian village bombed on the pretext that machine guns fired at French aircraft–some three miles away in Algerian skies.24

The French attempted to seal off the Tunisian border with a fortified barrier that was 40 meters wide and just over 250 kilometers long. The Morice Line used an electrified fence as its core. It was surveyed by radar and human patrols, covered by searchlights and artillery in places, and had its approaches mined. It still had its disadvantages: it was expensive to build, it required thousands of soldiers to patrol, it was a far as 50 miles from the border in some places and it could be outflanked.25

French tactics eventually became more effective and more mobile with the use of helicopters. But by this time President Charles de Gaulle realized that the French could fight in Algeria for a hundred years without resolving the issues that brought on the conflict in the first place. He finally put an end to the madness by granting Algeria its long awaited and much desired independence. Algeria wasn’t out of the woods yet, but at least it could set its own course.

The American Experience

Americans have had a love affair with technology since the inception of the country. It helped to develop a new continent from coast to coast through the train and the telegraph. Technology made up for the lack of people in developing a new country. That very love affair carried into the way Americans fought their wars. They took it with them to all of their wars since the Civil War. In a recent example it contributed mightly to their undoing.

Gadgets in Vietnam

The Vietnam experience was a bewildering disaster for the U.S. military. The battlefield effort gave the U.S. military an almost unbroken string of victories. On the one occasion, Tet Offensive of 1968, that the enemy stood and fought the American forces in a conventional style, the enemy was so badly beaten that it could not launch another major offensive for four years.26 The U.S. still did not win the war. Apparent military success could not be translated into political success in the larger war. The United States is so dominated by its technologies and its wealth that it has lost touch with people. The United States believes it can spread democracy and maneuver politics by technology and money only. This may well be a fatal error in the life of our nation.27 The loss of China to the communists and the French loss in Indochina made for rather unpleasant news in the U.S. about a new type of warfare coming onto the world scene. Insurgency was a type of warfare that was wholly unknown and unanticipated in America. This isn’t too surprising because the Americans lacked a number of overpowering attitudes that were, and are still common in the Third World: the depth of belief that comes from desperation, a tradition of humiliation that begets hatred; the immediacy of wide spread starvation in the face of corrupt plenty; the zeal of the patriot in the face of foreign invaders and finally a basic lack of interest in war.28

In tune with their propensity to use gadgets, the Americans invented “think tanks” to think up new devices and ways to use them; the think tank was supposed to devise new policies that would allow the U.S. military to fight an insurgency war. The think tank was a development that followed the end of World War II when the Department of Defense didn’t want of lose all of the scientific talent it had accumulated during the war. Insurgency provided the think tank’s biggest challenge after the Korean war.

So we sent our soldiers to Vietnam unprepared for what they were to face. They were so unprepared, that even the soldiers responsible for intelligence gathering could not speak Vietnamese. They had to hire Vietnamese to translate for them. The translators were as ill-prepared for their task as the American intelligence specialists were; some could only barely speak English at all let alone translate Vietnamese into intelligible English. Given such a starting point, it was hardly unlikely that the wrong story got told, especially with the Oriental propensity to tell a Westerner what he wants to hear.

The toughest technical problem was to just find and identify the enemy. The VC and the NVA did not, as a rule, fight in regiments and divisions. The lengths to which the U.S. gadgeteers went to solve this problem are truly awesome.

The U.S. tried bedbugs to sniff out people.29 The bed bug is supposed to be able to smell human food from a long distance. It then moves around making some small noises. The noises were what the gadgeteers tried to use to operate a meter showing the proximity to people. The think tanks devised a machine to be carried by one soldier and operated by four or five bed bugs. The sniffing tube was pointed at a suspected ambush site thus providing a sign to the soldier that somebody was hidden there. The machine failed combat test.

A “people sniffer”, using a chemical-physical apparatus, did have some successful field tests. The machine was supposed to be able to detect body odor of concealed guerrillas from 200 yards away.

Small infantry units had a small personnel radar that could detect moving human beings and alert defenders in the dark of impending attack. The attacks happened anyway.

The starlight scope turned out to be a useful gadget. It allowed a soldier to see in the dark by concentrating the light of the stars. Aircraft were even using them.

Sound was also used as an indicator in several gadgets: one gadget detected the sound of clothing rubbing against clothing; sensors were used on the Ho Chi Minh trail to detect the sound of trucks and other vehicles. Seismic detectors were used to detect the trembling of the ground as heavy trucks and tanks drove by. Infrared detectors were developed for use to find heat sources beneath the jungle canopy. Special photographic films were developed to detect the dead vegetation used as camouflage.

American gadgeteers seldom reckoned with the propaganda effects of the usage of their gadgets. The bed-bug episode drew a wave of negative editorial comments in the Vietnamese press.

Then their was Operation Ranch Hand. The operation was designed to defoliate the jungle hide-outs of the VC and NVA. It was eventually used to destroy the rice crop. The trick back-fired in a big way because of the special status of rice in the Oriental mind: to waste it is a cardinal sin. Westerners killing whole fields not only deprived the owner of the rice but handed the Viet Cong a propaganda coup of the first magnitude. The destruction of the rice fields drove more peasants into the hands of the waiting VC. The VC then used it as the basis of a charge of germ warfare to exterminate the Vietnamese people.30

The Americans tried tear gas to disable people. The U.S. news men got a hold of the idea about “non-lethal” gas warfare in South Vietnam. The story drew instant and hostile reactions. Napalm also drew adverse reactions from the American public. Despite its military value, it provided a propaganda coup for its detractors.

The M-16 rifle that the infantry used in Vietnam generated a lot of controversy. There was its propensity to jam blamed on the users not keeping it clean while Marines died because of the defects. There was a controversy over the ammunition used–the contracts for its manufacture were suspect. And again the user did the dying.

Other gadgets included such things as the M-26 and M-79 grenade launchers, Claymore mines, airborne miniguns and the AC-47 that used them, Aluminum dust that was sprayed on trails so that radar could follow them, navigation systems for aircraft, Snake-eye bombs, CBU [Cluster Bomb Unit] that generated propaganda for the enemy because unexploded bomblets killed and maimed civilians that stumbled upon them, the Bullpup missile, special jungle clothing, a computer (IBM 1430) to help the intelligence specialists gather and sort data, and finally, of all things, lie detectors.31

The Army tried to use its old technology to provide target information. It brought in the AN/PQ-4 counter-mortar radar. The radar tracked an incoming mortar shell and back plotted its trajectory. A skilled operator could plot the mortar position to about 50 meters. Unfortunately, it was too old and easy to fool. It had a very narrow sector scan and the operator eventually got tired of looking at the screen. The enemy put his mortars where the radar wasn’t looking and fired when the operators were least likely to be alert.

The AN/TPS-25 ground surveillance radar was more modern and could detect a moving vehicle up to six miles away. It was meant for use in a conventional European war and couldn’t pick up small groups of men at a walking pace.32

Ground sensors were used as an aid in the search for targets. But for them to be effective, they had to be precisely located. Most of the sensors were dropped from slow-flying airplanes thus making them hard to locate accurately.

The enemy learned, in time, to counter the sensors in some fashion when he could not avoid them altogether. The sensor system was only effective when used in conjunction with other methods such as patrols, radars, scout dogs, and aerial sightings. Yet the system was all that provided the precision target information with the consistency necessary for effective target engagement by indirect fire.

There were some technological success stories. The AC-47 with its mini-guns proved to be great operational success. A few dedicated individuals managed to develop a system appropriate to the war being fought in Vietnam despite the Air Force’s denigration of the ideal of using an obsolete aircraft for anything (it wasn’t fast enough or the latest in technological innovations). The gunship was used to provide a large volume of firepower in a very small area for infantry engaged in heavy combat, especially at night. Other aircraft used in the gunship role, the AC-130 and AC-119, also saw action. The AC-130 saw action along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos.33

Americans have had a plethora of mechanical devices or military hardware in Vietnam. Unfortunately, in this war the relations between human beings and abstract ideas were decisive. Our gadgets were superb but just not enough.

Gadget Driven Tactics

Not long after the siege of Plei Mei (early in the war), in the Central Highlands, General Kinnard commanded the 1st Cavalry Division. He was instructed, by General Westmoreland, to destroy the forces that had attacked Plei Mei. The situation was considered perfect for the Division’s style of air mobile warfare. Kinnard moved his artillery into the battle area by helicopter so that it could support his infantry as soon as they touched the ground. General Kinnard hoped that his scattered units would lead the enemy to believe the units could be defeated in detail. Kinnard planned to use the units not engaged as a reserve to be moved by helicopter to reinforce any units in contact with the enemy. Holding terrain meant little in his style of warfare. The heavy lift helicopter gave isolated units the reassurance that they would and could be supported with an inexhaustible supple of artillery guns and ammunition.34 A road bound relief force could itself become a victim of an well planned ambush. The enemy commander, Colonel Ha, had learned that all he had to do to even the match was to separate the Americans from their firepower.

Another battle that made news was the battle of the Ia Drang. The lesson learned there was that firepower would be the pivotal factor in the tactical battle. The Americans goal was to use his firepower quickly to gain the advantage. (Throughout the war experienced infantry commanders were the loudest proponents of fighting battles with firepower.) The enemy’s objective was to separate the Americans from their firepower or to strike quickly and get away before firepower could shift the odds against them. The Ia Drang battle also taught the Americans that the only way to bring a reluctant enemy to battle was by sending out platoon sized units to search him out. Then the enemy was attacked with standard tactics. Unfortunately additional maneuver forces in the enemy’s rear didn’t mean that the enemy was trapped. In the jungle it was easy for him to disappear thus braking contact at will.

When an enemy base camp was found deep in the jungles and marshes of Vietnam, the conventional wisdom for attacking it was to determine its dimensions, isolate it with a strong cordon and then pound it with firepower. Occasional forays were made into the area to check on the results of the attack by fire, then the fire was repeated. This cycle was repeated as often as desired or needed. The preservation of soldier’s lives was the overriding tactical imperative.

Artillery became the fire support system of choice in Vietnam. It was always available in any weather or at any time of day. The artillery was scattered all over the countryside and concentrated by firing more shells at the enemy. Reinforcements from the Air Force and Army aviation ensured that overwhelming firepower would eventually be achieved. And despite the observer’s opinions of the French methods, the Americans learned to use spotter aircraft just as the French had during their stay in Vietnam.

Close air support from fighter aircraft was, and still is, the best way to deliver overwhelming firepower quickly and precisely against tanks, fortifications, and bunker complexes. Such bunker complexes made up enemy base camps in the deepest parts of the southern swamps and under the jungles of the rest of the country. But the enemy did not always stay at home. Often times, when major offensives were run against such base camps, it was found to be lightly defended or empty altogether. When the enemy did stay at home, a major battle ensued and airpower served its purpose very well.

Airpower in Vietnam followed a phenomenon of recent origin; a trend among Western nations to expect too much from aerial firepower, an expectation that might well be the product of our search for a technical means to win wars without expending lives.35 It took one 105 mm light artillery battery to fire 2000 rounds over a two hour period to equal the effects of a single pass of a flight of F-4s against a target thus making it more desirable for the Infantry to want to see the fighters work for them.

A major problem for fire support efforts was the acquisition of useful intelligence. A guerrilla force had to be found, fixed, targeted, and engaged with a fury of concentrated firepower that was timed to overwhelm it before it could break and run. All major ground forces eventually employed small patrols to destroy the enemy guerrilla with long-range fire power.

North Vietnam’s Giap finally realized the American public did not differentiate between front-line casualties and support troops. He then went after the fire bases used by the artillery. This did two things for him. It reduced the firepower available to the Americans and it caused casualties. Reducing the artillery available was an advantage to him because the Americans rarely moved against the NVA when the engagement was beyond the range of artillery. The less there was of it, the smaller the advantage to the enemy and the smaller the territory he could control. The enemy attacked the fire bases using a “hugging attack” that was launched from within the perimeter wire or from within the garrison itself. These tactics lessened the effectiveness of artillery and air strikes. The growing causality lists sapped morale and national will at home.

Giap tried to use tactics against the Americans that had worked against the French. The Americans fortified their fire bases to withstand the heaviest assaults and succeeded where the French had failed because of their overwhelming firepower.36 But military forces that concentrate on protecting itself forfeits the tactical and strategic initiative to the enemy. As the U.S. forces dug in, they also undermined their own offensive spirit.37

It was common practice to fire artillery at points in the jungle that were supposed to be enemy points of interest: assembly points, way points to elsewhere, temporary base camps of various sized units, and communications nodes. The Army fired and fired and fired with results that are still unknown. This type of fire was known as Harassment and Interdiction fire. Artillery units made very little effort to assess their H & I programs by early morning surveillance or the dispatch of ground patrols to investigate an area recently engaged. Perhaps this failure serves as the greatest indicator of the confidence fire planners placed in the value of H & Is.38

The Russian Experience

The Russians have not been immune from involvement in insurgencies as the counterinsurgent. They spend many years supporting “wars of national liberation” with advisors, equipment, money and weapons to make life difficult for the Western world. They were successful at making life difficult alright, but the results of the insurgencies were mixed.

Afghanistan39

The Soviet love affair with the tank soured quickly with their involvement in Afghanistan. Soviet tactical doctrine directed that tank forces operate as part of a combined arms force with mechanized infantry, artillery, and engineers. Yet in Afghanistan tank units went into combat with out the benefit of mechanized infantry. The tank’s clumsiness in rough terrain makes it vulnerable to ambushes when they have lost the advantage of surprise.

The actual invasion was the easiest part for the Soviet Army. It was, however, an army geared for conventional offensive warfare. Once in Afghanistan, it proved to be a lumbering beast better suited to fighting in the European low lands rather than the rag-tag civilians in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan. The Soviet 40th Army rolled across the border after an airborne brigade landed at airports to take such places for themselves and to deny them to any resistance. The invasion was swift and surprising. It was planned for winter time when Western countries were preparing for Christmas and New Year’s Day. The weather was bad making guerrilla activity difficult.

Riots broke out in Kandahar. The rioters attacked anything representing either the Soviets or the new government. Soldiers sent in to control the riots couldn’t do so. MiG-17s were sent to strafe buildings and open areas but the Afghan pilots couldn’t attack their own people. The Russians sent in the 66th Motorized Division into Kandahar after the riots. The Soviet air force followed with a fleet of helicopter gunships and attacked positions in the nearby mountains almost immediately.

The Russians had tried initially, to overawe the resistance by a massive display of armor: six divisions in 4500 tanks, T-54s and T-64s, heavy artillery and APCs rolled into Afghanistan after the Airborne takeover of key locations. Afghan units were expected to subdue the rural resistance and keep it to a minimum. Bad planning was obvious from the beginning. Casualties were very high from the start and the population was not overawed. In fact, the resistance became more effective as the winter snows melted.

The Russians discovered that their main battle tank could not fight guerrillas entrenched in high mountain passes because the guns could not be elevated high enough or traversed far enough to fire at the enemy positions. The uneven terrain made it difficult to fire accurately and their engines overheated in the hot, thin air. Inexperience drivers often times snapped the treads trying to negotiate the difficult trails of the country. Some of the early battles were disasters for the round bound Soviet forces.

The Soviets also found it difficult to support their maneuver forces with firepower. Their doctrine was too firmly rooted in meticulous planning and deliberate bombardment by artillery and airpower. Obsessive obedience to a central authority permeated the higher reaches of the command structure. Change in the Soviet army came from the top down as befits a structured, autocratic society. Lower level commanders were driven by strict regulations and tactical “norms” in extreme detail. The result is a rigid method of warfare that leaves little to chance. When things go wrong, commanders excuse failure by showing his fidelity to the planned concept of operations. It is the operational norms that are at fault, that is, the scientific calculations are wrong. The solution was to change the norms.

The rebel leaders learned that they could, very often, attack a Soviet formation and get away without taking any artillery fire at all. This may well have been due to the cumbersome fire support system that was too inflexible to respond. It might well have been due to the reluctance of the ground commander to ask for the support unless it had been planned ahead of time. Not only was the system too “preplanned” oriented, it was also meant to support the main effort and not to save lives.

As in the Indochina wars, firepower played a key role in the protection of Soviet facilities and lines of communication. Mine fields were laid around major installations to such an extent that the Mujahideen did not dare attack the installations. By the summer of 1980 the ubiquitous fire base appeared as the Soviets and reliable Afghan forces sought to extend their influence farther and farther into the countryside.

The Soviets failed to solve the problem of convoy protection. The distances involved were to great for an interlocking, mutually supporting network of position artillery to cover main supply routes. The supplies had to be flown to their destination or sent by heavily protected convoy. Convoys were extremely vulnerable to ambushes without aircraft overhead. The Soviets paid a high price in men and equipment to supply their outposts because the Mujahideen ambushed so many convoys. That left a limited number of fuel and ammunition for the outpost to spend on local combat operations. Too many soldiers were tied up in convoy protection.

The Soviets experimented with various means to add more flexible firepower to their convoys: they tried putting a 4-barreled 23 mm anti-aircraft gun in a truck. They mounted a 30 mm grenade launcher in BTR-60 and some BMP vehicles. They also sent self-propelled guns with their convoys.

Two things became apparent to the Soviet commander: a war that had started out as a war of intervention had become a war of attrition, and a major transformation of Soviet tactical doctrine was necessary if the Army was to prosecute the war with any degree of proficiency. One change was their version of the forward detachment with its own organic firepower. They also decentralized their control of the artillery by splitting it up into less than the usual battery of 18 guns. They also learned that the most important single weapon in a war against a guerrilla was the helicopter–something that could well have been apparent from the French and American experiences. They also learned that to conduct a counter guerrilla campaign they needed to rely on the initiative and self-reliance amongst the junior leaders–the very things a centrally controlled army cannot deal with.

In a war without fronts or a clearly defined enemy, an infantry commander rarely knows what fire support he will need ahead of time. He must find and fix the enemy before he can employ heavy firepower with effect. The Soviets attempts to achieve decisive effect using ground delivered firepower was hampered by an obsolete and inflexible fire support doctrine. They also relearned that soldiers who are dug-in and defending mountainous terrain are nearly impossible to dislodge with indirect firepower.

The Mi-24 Hind was the Soviet version of the attack helicopter. It could carry a wide range of weapons and the pilots could talk directly to the ground commander. It could even carry a squad of infantry into a battle area. The Mujahideen learned to fear the Hind. It was the only weapon in the Soviet repertoire that could thwart effectively a guerrilla operation in the field and cause substantial casualties amongst the rebels. The Hind was the centerpiece of the firepower system in Afghanistan.

Soviet interdiction campaigns do not seem to have been very successful in reducing the fighting strength of the Mujahideen. Such campaigns have little effect against a light, mobile and thinly scattered guerrilla force despite the effects such a campaign might have against a conventional force. The Soviets could not stop movement of supply caravans along the borders or inside the country for the first three years of the war.

Several other reasons might also explain the ineffectiveness of the interdiction campaigns. Soviet munitions proved to be unreliable in the mountains.. The pilots were unable to exercise any initiative at all. They attacked what they were told to attack even if a village, for instance, was uninhabited and the rebels were driving down the road just a few miles away. There were numerous reports of such events. The pilots even flew, nearly right over, past rebel bands in the open without firing a shot at them.

The Soviets employed two basic tactical methods when they ventured into rebel-held territory. The first was to cordon off an area and then search for rebels from the population. The second was to organize “kill zones” (sounds like the Russian counterpart to the American “free-fire zone” of Vietnam) and then attempt to push the rebels into it and overwhelm them with firepower. The Soviets still lacked preparation: they used reserve soldiers who lacked even enough training to take cover from sniper fire; their officers had no maps of their routes; the officers weren’t briefed on the kind of resistance they might encounter; and the units were better versed in the local languages than they were in military tactics.

Despite their overwhelming military strength, the Soviet forces could not conquer Afghanistan. The cities, main roads, and the airbases were taken in a matter of days. Their mechanized army of more than a 100,000 made little progress in reducing insurgent control over the countryside and its control over the cities and the roads was increasingly challenged. They found that shock tactics based on massive air and armored firepower can hurt and scatter the guerrilla groups but not destroy them. The difficult terrain and fighting qualities of the Mujahideen made it evident that pacification would take more forces that the Soviets had deployed.

Road blocks made travel difficult and hazardous. Convoys were necessary with no garantees of their arrival at their destination. The effectiveness of the so-called bandits emphasized the failure of the Soviets to impose control. The Soviets were forced to use terror and destruction in order to crush the opposition. They depended on massive amounts of firepower in conducting search-and-destroy missions and punitive bombing attacks. They used gas and napalm in reprisals against resisting villages. There were many cases of indiscriminate slaughter as a result of bombing, strafing, artillery fire and helicopter attack. Terror weapons brought no advantage because the Soviets had too few soldiers to secure areas decimated by gas or bombing attacks. The population learned to anticipate such attacks thus lessening the effects. But the costs guaranteed nothing but hostility for use of such weapons.

Afghan Mujahideen tactics conformed to the classic requirements of guerrilla warfare. There were small group actions at night in territory remote from centers of power and within a supporting population that inflicted damage on the entrenched authority with vastly greater military resources. The Mujahideen were felt everywhere but lacked the weapons and organization to seriously threaten the Soviet position.

The rebels had a several things going for them in their fight against the Russians. They had the difficult countryside and their expertise with light weapons; their attacks often times took place at night while they hid in the general population when they weren’t actually fighting. They had their own stamina and ability to improvise that worked with their growing ability to organize themselves. Their motivation for the fight was a mixture of fatalism and dedication unique to Islam. They accepted the hardships of defending their way of life and religion.

Such were the conditions upon which they accepted the mission of holy warrior defending what is virtuous and meaningful against the destructive infidel. To die for such a cause was a good thing. The entire population faced massacres, weapons that it could not cope with and the presence of a superpower with a seemingly endless supply of manpower and firepower without letting up its resistance.

When the following spring arrived, the population rallied to fight the Soviets along with refugees who slipped back into the country. They fought with a hodge-podge of weapons that ranged from left-over WWI British Lee Enfields to home made flintlocks. The Soviets brought in seven motorized rifle divisions and the 105th Airborne for a total of 85,000 men. They also introduced five Air Assault brigades. By the end of two years, the Soviet force was at 105,000-110,000 soldiers. By 1985 the total stood at around 115,000 soldiers.

Their failed assault on the Kunar Valley despite overwhelming military superiority (200 MiGs, Su-24s, and helicopter gunships) left serious questions about their ability to contain, let alone destroy, a tightly organized and reasonably equipped resistance front.

The Soviets realized that more soldiers were needed but the Kremlin was unwilling to send them. They needed newer tactics and did manage to develop some that worked. The Russian Special Forces were respected by the Mujahideen for their ability to fight.

In the end, the Russians too left their insurgent war with a bad taste in their military mouths. They had the enemy outmanned and outgunned several times over but could do no better than the French and Americans in Indochina.

Chechnya40

The Russian experience of insurgent warfare wasn’t over just yet. The people of Chechnya wanted and demanded their own independent state. Their demand was the result of the break up of the former communist ruled USSR. Once again the Russians sent in the high technology equipment.

The Chichnians used classic insurgent warfare tactics in their conflict with the Russians. Only this time the rebels had a much better complement of high-technology equipment than the Afghans had. The Chechens made wide use of ambushes and good use of communications and intelligence from covert agents.

When the Russians sent their air force into the fight, the pilots had only a poor understanding of Chechen tactics. Part of those tactics included controlling mobile air defense weapons with radios and celluar phones and constantly changing the weapons systems positions. Because they had no reliable data on the disposition of Chechen weapons, the pilots were forced to operate from maximum possible ranges when using their weapons.

The Russians had learned to use a system developed in Indochina by both the French and Americans. They had learned to use the Forward Air Controller (FAC) to direct the aircraft in their attacks on the rebels. One of the primary Chechen targets for intelligence was the FAC. This mitigated the already disappointing results of the Russian air force.

Against no credible threat, other than a few ZSU-23/4 air defense artillery pieces, the Russian air force was unable to make any major impact on the course of the fighting. The performance of the air force against a lightly armed guerrilla force was less than sterling for several reasons: the rough terrain in which the combat took place; the harsh weather conditions; a general lack of training time for the pilots; old equipment; and finally poor stocks of supplies. One helicopter in ten was lost while one in four was damaged. One Russian Colonel blamed pilot performance on the tactics of retaliatory strikes against an enemy who used hit-and-run tactics constantly. Such tactics took the initiative away from the pilots; such a loss led to belated responses to rebel attacks thus reducing combat capability.

Results and Some Lessons Learned

The results of the intervention of France, the U.S. and the Russians were decidedly one-sided. The super powers of the First World overwhelmed their opponents with technology, equipment, and manpower and still lost the war. In the war of ideas its really true that the pen is mightier than the sword and ideas are harder than bullets and bombs. The wars were settled politically with the major powers leaving the country over which they fought–with the single exception of Checnya. Chechnya was unique in that it was surrounded by Russian territory; the rebels had no where to hide and no one to help them. While they made life difficult for the Russian military they would have a very difficult time obtaining their goals.

A common error in the cases studied here is readily apparent: the intervening power did not consider what it was that the people living in the country wanted for themselves. The major powers seemed to think that they already know what was best for the common people of the country when in fact the politicians had no real idea what was wanted at the grass-roots level.

For the Americans, their political objectives were poorly understood. The military strategy and tactics were designed for a very different sort of war. Morale in the field declined and support for the war disappeared because of the growing casualty list with no end of the war in sight. The problem was that the American version of reality no longer fit the real world.

A nation should never consider intervention in a small war without first considering what firepower and technology can do and what its limitations are. Modern nations have consistently overestimated the worth of their technology and the destructiveness of their firepower. Their expectations were greater than the machines they used could deliver. No matter how good the technology of target selection is, it will never be able to locate an irregular force in dense enough numbers for firepower to have a decisive effect.41

It is also apparent that such a lesson has not been learned. There are senior officers that still think that small detachments will escape detection but that larger, battalion size and bigger, will be found and decimated because when insurgents launch conventional operations they become exposed to crushing defeat.42 Experience dictates otherwise: the Chinese smuggled a quarter of a million men into Korea without anyone being the wiser; in Vietnam, 90 percent of the Viet Cong attacks were made with less than battalion sized units. The NVA moved down the Ho Chi Ming Trail in an uninterrupted, and increasingly large, stream despite the American interdiction campaigns against such traffic. At Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh decimated the French while at Khe Sanh it was the NVA and VC that was crushed. A mixed bag of results does not make a golden rule.

The unsuccessful American effort in Vietnam illustrated two important topics: the overwhelming tradition and the U.S. fascination with technology, it was supposed to be more efficient but efficiency does not equal effectiveness; victory on the battlefield does not necessarily mean victory in war.43

At best, modern firepower is an indiscriminate thing especially when used in populated areas. A misplaced artillery round can do more harm than good. It takes a disciplined and limited use of firepower to be effective. The fire controller must know when enough is enough and turn off the rain of destruction when that point has been reached. Firepower must be apportioned to the intensity of the conflict. It cannot compensate for bad strategy.

The American, French and Russians all discovered that there seems to be a relationship between the quality of the maneuver forces and the quantity of firepower necessary to make them effective in combat. In counterinsurgent warfare, massive firepower and large unit operations can be counterproductive. The Americans and Russians should have learned this from their search-and-destroy missions. The lesson seems to be that small units are what are needed for an effective counterinsurgency.

Another lesson all three powers should have learned from their experiences was that there is a premium placed on simple and durable equipment that requires a minimum of maintenance. The equipment must be cheap enough to be affordable by Third World countries or to be given freely by the U.S. Perhaps this is the reason the gunship did so well in Vietnam.

All three countries should have noticed that the insurgent is not without several tactical advantages: knowledge of the terrain: a very short logistical tail; they know the people who provide unlimited intelligence data; to win, the insurgent needs only to survive; the insurgent discovers that napalm is not the atomic bomb; shells do no harm when they are dropped in the wrong place; and many now enjoy having first-rate weaponry.44

In short, there is much to be learned by studying the history of insurgent warfare. Chief among them is that technology is not the answer to everything a country tries to do. In the end it is the human element that will persevere; it is the human element that makes the difference in winning and losing an insurgency. Without recognizing this, technology will be to no avail.

11th Grade: “The bombs in Vietnam explode at Home”

Greetings,

This week we continued our look at the Vietnam War, but also focused on the Civil Rights movement.

Vietnam has many controversial aspects, including the way we fought the war.  I think our massive bombing campaigns attracted Johnson for political reasons.  He campaigned in ’64 on a “I don’t want to want to get too involved in Vietnam,” platform and won easily. Bombing allowed us to do something while committing relatively few men and risking relatively few lives compared to other options.  At the same time, our bombing could send the message to the North that we meant business.

But our military actions have a meaning to them that extends far beyond their direct military impact.  Bombing proved disastrous in a number of ways:

  • Bombing, while low-risk, comes with great expense.  As Martin Luther King said, “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home.  They destroy the chance for us to create a decent America.”
  • In jungle terrain, bombing had little to no effect on enemy movements or their ability to fight
  • Bombing makes us look like a bully.  Here we are, the most advanced society on earth, dropping explosives from a safe distance upon a peasant society.  Human nature loves an underdog, and perhaps Americans especially loves them.  Our tactics made the North Vietnamese look like the team a neutral observer would root for (we need to think in similar ways about our use of drones today — how are drone strikes interpreted by the global population?)
  • Finally, one could argue that bombing sent a message not of the strength of our resolve, but of our lack of it.  We know that Johnson wished desperately that the war in Vietnam would “go away.”  Bombing brought little domestic fall-out initially, because it would mean relatively few casualties for us. Ho Chi Minh could easily have interpreted bombing as Johnson’s way of trying to avoid the hard questions Vietnam brought.  It appears that they did just that.

We lost the battle for public opinion in the war by around 1967.

General Westmoreland’s tactics of “Search and Destroy” proved strategically ineffective in the long run.  We like to think of our armed forces as tool for good.  We understand that that might mean violence, but most of don’t want to think of our military primarily being used to kill others.  Westmoreland did not focus on protection, but on “body counts.”  How many of the enemy did we kill?  This does not have the same ring, as “How many innocent lives did we protect?” though obviously that could involve killing the enemy.

The North Vietnamese certainly committed atrocities — more of them than we did and with greater scope.  They usually treated civilians much worse than us, sometimes intentionally using them as human shields.  Their atrocities did  not get equal media attention.  But I suspect that even if such atrocities had been well-reported, it may not have made much difference.  We expected others, the “them,” to be the bad guys.  Nothing in our national psyche or identity prepared us not to like what we saw in the mirror.  One sees this self-delusion in those that said, “The only thing that can defeat America is America,” which asserts that we can attain omnipotence if only we will it.

De Tocqueville and many others have commented that when democratic armies have the support of the population they become very difficult to stop.  Democratic armies naturally seek to draw strength from the people.  But when they cannot do this, their effectiveness gets diminished.  This is something that democratic societies must bear in mind in a way that dictatorships, for example, do not.  In Vietnam, I believe that most historians would agree that we did not fashion a “way of war” that lent itself to gaining the support of the people.  The North Vietnamese realized our predicament long before we did.  Le Duan Thoc, a North Vietnamese strategist, commented fairly early in the war,

[We can win no matter what the United States does.]  They will fight far from home and will be regarded as an old style colonial invader, in a climate to which they are not accustomed, against indigenous forces backed by China and the Soviets.  If they invade the North they will face 17 million of us, and potentially hundreds of millions from China.   If they use nuclear weapons the Soviets will retaliate.  The more they risk, the more they alienate the international community and erode support domestically – the more too they are vulnerable to a crisis in other parts of the world.   The enemy is in a weak position.

Some argue that, in fact, we could never have won in Vietnam.  Eventually we would go home, and they would remain.  Others counter with the argument that, had we fought in a way that focused on security for the South rather than killing the enemy, we could have won over public opinion and given the South Vietnamese government a chance to work.  We in fact began to try this strategy in 1969 when General Abrams replaced Westmoreland, but by then America had given up the fight in our hearts and minds.  Of course, some believe we could have won if we had fought differently, either with more bombing in Cambodia and Laos, or with a different style of fighting (perhaps fewer men and more covert operations).

We also looked this week at how the Civil Rights movement transformed over time.  The enormous moral force of those that demonstrated for equal treatment overwhelmed opposition.  Television brought the issue to the forefront of American homes across the country, much as the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 moved the slavery question from the abstract to the real for many Americans.  The movement peaked in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act.

But then something happened.  Violence erupted in many cities across America over the next two years, beginning with the Watts riots in Los Angeles.  Student protests spiked sharply.  The fringe “Hippy” movement went into the mainstream.  How did this happen?  At the moment when it seemed that America had become more of the kind of country it was supposed to be, why did so many subsequently turn to violence?

This paradoxical question will occupy us next week.  What I suggest for now is that King’s words above may not have  been merely metaphorical.

Many thanks,

Dave

11th/12th Grade: “The Center Cannot Hold. . .”

Greetings,

This week we looked at the beginnings of the Vietnam war under Kennedy and Johnson, up until the significant troop buildups of 1965.

One of my main goals with this unit is to avoid finger-pointing.  Hindsight is so often 20/20.  In truth the conflict in Vietnam posed questions that no one would wish to answer.  Vietnam’s dilemmas give no good answers, only hopefully less bad solutions.  When I think of the controversy surrounding the conflict, I am reminded of a comment of a monk named Columba Cary-Elwes, who wrote to a friend and professional historian in 1940,

I find we live in so criticizing an age that I spend my time summing people up — public figures, judging the motives of their actions and though I had the whole thing mapped out before me, as God must have, and I certainly have not.  We are always being given vulgar and crude and unkind judgments of people and peoples in the newspaper, and it becomes second nature.  I am going to try and not get caught up in this perfidious habit.  This arose out of Fr. Dunstan’s reminder that we are “near nothing” and we ourselves must try and imitate God, who is infinitely merciful.

We ourselves bear culpability for what happened in Vietnam, but to understand this we need to understand events in Europe in the aftermath of W.W. II England led the way in divesting themselves of their colonial empire.  To be fair, England emerged from the war with its reputation generally intact, whereas France humiliated itself in its capitulation to the Nazi’s.  Much of our modern image of France comes from this singularity, but for the previous 1000 years, France had the pre-eminent military in Europe, with luminaries such as Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, St. Joan of Arc, and Napoleon to their credit.  Their post-war agenda did not leave room for looking any weaker than they already appeared.  They were keeping their empire, thank you very much.  That included Indochina.

Some within Indochina looked to the U.S. for aid in their bid for independence.  After all, we too rebelled at one point from a European colonial power.  We declined.  Truman felt it more important to appease France (who wanted very much to join NATO to keep them out of the communist fold).  Unfortunately for us, (though not perhaps for the Vietnamese), this came back to bite us when France lost in Indochina and left NATO anyway.  A possible golden opportunity slipped away.

Historians debate the nature of this turning point in Asia.  Some assert that if FDR had lived, he would have made a different choice.  There are some intriguing quotes from FDR about how Europe was basically dead and how Asia represented the future.  But all we can do is speculate.

In the aftermath the U.N. created four nations, Cambodia, Laos, North and South Vietnam.  The division between north and south was certainly artificial, done for political reasons and not historical or cultural ones.  Was Vietnam within the purview of our strategic interests?  What kind of aid should we give them?

To understand our commitment to Vietnam, we need to go back to the Korean conflict.  Many believe now, and believed at the time, that our neglect to publicly proclaim our commitment to South Korea may have encouraged the North to invade.  We wanted to learn from the past, and so Eisenhower made our commitment to South Vietnam plain.  This, we hoped, would forestall an invasion from the north.

Well, it failed to do, which left us with a series of terrible dilemmas.

  • We could let South Vietnam collapse.  But what about then, our pledge to defend it?
  • We could give aid to the South and try and “prop them up.”  But how much aid should we give, and what form should it take?  Moreover, would the aid we gave them really solve the problems that South Vietnam had?

Johnson and his advisors knew full well that any aid to South Vietnam might be counter-productive.  We couldn’t keep them on life-support forever.  But eventually a new idea emerged.  Perhaps military engagement might force the South to get its act together.  If that didn’t happen, our military involvement might at least slow the North down and create a level playing field between the two nations.  While the South might not be better off, at least the North wouldn’t pose as much of a threat.

Such is the logic of war.  What I hope the students recognize is that not every story needs a dastardly villain.  Sometimes nations, as well as individuals, face only a series of bad choices, and have to make the best of it.  This, however, is not to say that the U.S. did in fact make the best of a bad situation, as we shall see.

We also looked at the 1960 presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, important for many reasons in our political history.  Most that heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon won.  Those that watched on TV (the majority) believed Kennedy won.  We saw a brief clip of the debate and discussed why that might be the case.

  • Nixon wore no makeup, while Kennedy did
  • Nixon looked much less comfortable on camera.  He shifted his eyes and smiled awkwardly.  Of course it’s not hard to miss his infamous sweating (towards the end of the clip).
  • Nixon wore a blase grey suit, Kennedy the classic politician dark blue.

This may also have helped originate many common tactics of candidates in debates, where candidates try to “stay on message” no matter what the question.  If you watch the clip, you see this perhaps more with Kennedy than Nixon.

Many of us lament the current state of our political discourse, and nearly all would agree that our modern presidential debates hardly dignify the word.  But the reality of our situation raises some interesting questions:

  • In the modern era, to what extent do we need presidents to be “actors,” and project a certain image?  Should it be an unwritten qualification for leadership?
  • TV is an inherently visual medium, and thus does not do well communicating written or spoken words (this was one of Neil Postman’s point in his Amusing Ourselves to Death).  Whether we like this or not, it is a reality of our culture and not likely to change soon.  Do we adjust the way we think of politics because of it?
  • If this concern for image has at least some legitimacy, what has it cost us as a democracy?

Thursday we switched gears and looked at the changes in music as a mirror for the changes in culture between W.W. II – Mid – 60’s.  I wanted the students to see our transition from broad based group oriented culture to a more individual/niche orientation.  Think for example of Glenn Miller.  He headlines, but the band is the star, and not him.  The music aims for a broad acceptance of broad cross-section of the population.  Culture in general happened on a big, broad scale.  Think of Cecil B. DeMille movies with their grand sets and dramatic scores, or Fred Astaire pictures with their big dance numbers.  Fewer African-Americans were bigger stars than Cab Calloway, but look how quickly he steps aside for the Nicholas brothers incredible dancing in this clip (certainly worth watching in its entirety — Fred Astaire himself called this the greatest dance number ever filmed):

Here is Fred Astaire himself in perhaps his most famous clip, a tribute to Bojangles.

The swing music of Glenn Miller, most popular in the 1940’s, showcased the big, broad, ensemble sound.

Overall, the theme here is akin to the summer movie blockbuster.  Go big or go home.

As we move into the late 50’s this begins to change, and we see this change first beginning in jazz music.  Ornette Coleman comes up with a different idea of what a musical note is. Coleman’s ensemble allowed for the musicians to each put their own individual, emotional interpretation on the music.

Thelonious Monk’s angular rhythms hit anything but the broad middle.  He created a sound totally his own.

In general, we see soloists rise in prominence in music, and this will presage the rise of individuals in society as a whole.  We should be careful.  The difference between an ensemble based sound and a preference for solos is not a moral one, so much as a change of emphasis.  We exist as members of groups and as individuals.  Both have importance, and our cultural expressions reflect both of these realities.  But, the change in emphasis does reflect broader changes in general.

We also saw how the niche of blues music morphs into the mainstream with rock and roll.  Artists like Elvis and the Beatles obviously gained huge followings.  But some of the British groups like The Who and The Kinks foreshadow disenchantment with the prevailing ethos.  Listen to “Everybody’s Going to be Happy,” and you can feel the intensity.  It’s not, “Everyone’s Going to be HAPPY! (YAY!) but “EVERYONE’S Going to be Happy.”  The Who appear to be harbingers of zany disregard for everything.  The song is called “Happy Jack,” and there are happy-sounding “la-la-la’s,” but the mood of the song gives a different message.

The music no longer aims for the broad middle.  As W.B. Yeats wrote in his famous poem, “the center cannot hold.”  Why did this happen, and what will be the results?  We will explore these questions next week.

Blessings,

Dave M

Command and Control

In the Soviet edition of Marxism-Leninism on War and Army published in 1972, a section reads,

Soviet military doctrine proceeds from the assumption that the imperialists are preparing a surprise attack against the USSR and other socialist countries.  At the same time, they consider the possibility of waging military operations escalating into military actions involving the use of nuclear missile weapons.

What struck me about this passage are the assumptions it makes and the consequences of those assumptions.  The Soviets assume we are the imperialists and will strike first. Would we want to forestall such an occurrence and strike first ourselves?  Perhaps we should.  Naturally, we would object to being called the aggressors in the Cold War.  From our perspective the Soviets showed their true colors in the closing days of W.W. II when they kept for themselves territory they took from the Germans.

But, if the Soviets thought that we would strike first, they might consider striking us first to prevent it.  Should we then strike them pre-emptively to prevent the Soviet’s pre-emptive first strike to forestall our first strike?

It all seems like a bizarre vaudeville routine, or one of Shakespeare’s mistaken identity comedies.

Nuclear weapons are of course very real, with extremely real consequences for their use.

And yet, I have always thought that a certain kind of unreality has always existed around nuclear weapons.  Children were told to “duck and cover,” and wrap their necks with newspaper for protection against nuclear attack.  We developed evacuation plans for cities that would never be used, for no such plan could have worked with 15 minutes notice before the bombs hit.  We never wanted to use the weapons, but they only had value if the other side actually believed we would use them, hence Nixon’s “I’m a madman” gambit to try and end the Vietnam war.  Nixon said to H.R. Haldeman in 1969,

I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.

Eric Schlosser’s excellent book Command and Control gets at the heart of both the reality and unreality of the existence of  nuclear weapons.

A brief example . . .

The Titan II missile carried a destructive power 3x greater than all the bombs dropped in W.W. II combined . . . including those dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   But the weapon wasn’t very accurate, and very difficult to keep properly maintained. Still, because these weapons were our most powerful they had potentially significant deterrent value in the Cold War.  So that meant that they needed to be ready to go on a moment’s notice, as their silos would likely be some of the first hit in any massive first strike by the Soviets.

That in turn meant that they needed to be fueled and ready to go at 15 minutes notice, which meant they needed a special kind of fuel, Aerozine -50 .  I can’t imagine a fuel more volatile, as contact with leather, wool, rust, or other average products could cause it to combust.  That made the missiles prone to accidents with potentially horrifying consequences, and one such accident forms the backdrop of the book.

By the 1970’s Henry Kissinger, among others, wanted to make a deal with the Soviets.  We’ll get rid of our Titan II’s, you get rid of your big missiles.  But our Titan II’s were not as good as the Soviet’s comparable missiles, and the Soviets knew this.  No deal.

Kissinger wanted the Titans gone, but no one wanted to decommission them outright.  To take the missiles offline for nothing would show weakness, and lessen the amount of bargaining chips we had the next time we negotiated.

So they stayed.

But if they stayed, they needed to stay operational or it would be the same as giving them away for nothing.  So . . . no one liked the inaccurate, accident-prone, massively powerful weapon, but in the logic of departmental budgets and global politics, their silos stuck around.

As a friend of mine put it, a conspiracy of circumstances made madness look sane.  In a world where the image/symbolic value of nuclear weapons may have meant more than their reality, Kissinger’s stance makes perfect sense.  Indeed, as much as we might like to blame someone for this state of affairs, who would it be?  Even if we step all the way back and blame those that invented the weapons, we must then confront the possibility ca. 1941 that the Nazi’s might be building them, and we might want to get there first.  We all stepped through the looking glass more or less together from the Manhattan Project onwards.

When I first started this book I looked online at “nuclear weapons accidents.” I was utterly dumbfounded.  How could there be so many?  And given these accidents, how did nukes play such a large role in our policy?  This forms the bulk of Schlosser’s work.  Command and Control could have been just a laundry list of one accident after another, and  readers would be mere gawkers on the roadside.  Schlosser makes the book valuable because he looks behind the curtain (with massive amounts of footnotes) to show how the logic of nuclear policy developed.

At the heart of our possession of nuclear weapons lay a dilemma.  On the one hand, the weapons posed great dangers not just to those on whom it might be used, but to those who kept them.  Accidents happen, so naturally we should take great precaution to make sure we don’t have a nuclear accident.  So far well and good.  But the more safety restrictions one put on the weapons, the harder they became to use.  If they became too hard to actually deploy, they had no deterrent value.  If the weapons existed accidents would happen.  But how much effort should we put into preventing accidents if each safety measure made them less valuable as an actual weapon?  And again, if they didn’t function as weapons, deterrence broke down and the world became less safe.

Or so it seemed.

Different aspects of society had different opinions on this.  Scientists stressed safety, the military stressed the efficacy and availability of the weapon.  For example, a congressional committee reviewed security at Minutemen missile sites and found it lacking.  They mandated that access to the missiles be granted only with proper code identification.  The Air Force didn’t like it.  In event of an attack they would need quick access to the missiles, and who could tell who might need access if the normal command structure at the base broke down?  But in the end they complied with the congressional order.

They made the codes for all Minuteman sites 000-000-000.

Having a ready made deterrent also meant that we needed a lot of nukes in the air on planes, especially in the first 20 years or so of the Cold War.   Before we developed rockets and guidance systems the only way to get deliver the weapons was through planes.  The planes had to have the range to stay in the air long enough to get deep inside Soviet airspace.  This meant extensive use of the B-29 bombers, planes with a wobbly safety record.  The record is actually not that wobbly on paper, but we must factor in that these planes had to stay in the air constantly in case of surprise attack by the Russians   So if you expect a mishap once every 10,000 mission hours, that small number adds up quickly.  Every time a plane crashed or caught on fire meant a potential nuclear disaster.  Sometimes bombs got lost, sometimes they exploded, scattering radioactive material.  Sometimes the fact that the nuclear material did not detonate itself may have been a matter of chance.

Can we blame someone for this?  In my opinion, not really.  Accidents happen as part of life, sometimes no matter the precautions, and this means that nuclear accidents may be inevitable.

But there can be no doubt that the logic of the Cold War itself, along with departmental budgets, made accidents more likely.  For example, when various people or agencies raised safety concerns often little got done.  Acquiring new weapons was always preferable to fixing old ones, and this makes sense.  But rarely did older weapons get discarded.  More often than not, Kissinger’s logic mentioned earlier kicked in (of course this went way beyond Kissinger himself).

Yes, the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction no longer form part of the strategic calculus.  But Schlosser points out that the weapons still exist, and we must still deal with them.  To do so we must bring them firmly into reality.

One can’t help but wonder that if things were this bad in the United States, what were they like in Soviet Russia?  What about places like Pakistan today?  Amidst the confusion of alternate reality created by nukes, one things seems clear to me:  the fact that we have yet to blow ourselves up must be evidence that God exists, and that His mercy endures forever.

The Internet of Things

Nature is not always “natural.” We “naturally” recognize a standard above nature. For example, nuclear weapons are made from the very stuff of nature (atoms, etc.) but strike as distinctly unnatural in their effect. We understand that technology in warfare has progressed over time. We can process at least some of these changes as a kind of natural progression of what has always been. So, a rifle is akin to a bow and arrow, artillery has its origins in the catapult, and so on. But nuclear weapons turns nature itself against us. Watching nuclear weapons detonate can transfix us with a kind of horrifying beauty. We know that we have encountered something on a different plane . . .

Historians and others have many explanations for our current cultural moment, and I will try my hand in what follows.

I recently heard a priest online state that, “We are still fighting World War I.” Obviously he wasn’t referring to the physical fighting, or the geopolitical situation. Germany, England and France are friends now, more or less. I suspect that he meant that we still fight the war in cultural or religious sense, that we have not understood or solved the central question of the war, which I think runs like so:

How is it that a culture brimming with confidence and optimism (in general), possessing an overwhelming share of global GDP, and controlling in a direct or indirect way perhaps as much as 50% of the globe, throw it all away in a mind-numbingly horrific 30 stretch (1914-45)? Again, while western civilization ca. 1900 had real flaws, we can envy their confident, secure identity and purpose. We have never as a culture come to terms with why western civilization tumbled down the hill, and we still have not learned the basic lessons that period can teach us.

In the biblical narrative, mankind begins by living in Eden, a garden on a mountain. After their exile from Eden, they come down from the mountain, closer, in a sense, to Earth, farther from communion with God. Immediately, Cain’s descendents go further into the earth, using what dig up to build cities and other implements of iron (Gen. 4:22). With this knowledge they tame animals. They gain the power to manipulate nature. But this power makes them uneasy and thin-skinned. It brings them no security–in fact, one could argue that Lamech’s speech (Gen. 4:23-24) comes either from fear, hubris, or both. The Scriptural pattern then is*

Increase of Power=Increase of Vulnerability=Violence, Destabilization, and Dislocation

This sense of “dislocation” struck Cain with full force just after demonstrating his possession of power over the life of his brother (Gen. 4:14).

Of course western civilization has significantly increased its power by using raw materials of the earth in the Industrial Revolution. Our physical power increased exponentially, but not via new machines only. We should also see the preceding political movements towards more democracy as a movement “down the mountain.” Monarchy is a “top of the mountain” form of governance. It concentrates identity into a single point. This concentration, however, limits possibility and potential, which in turn limits power. Moving “down the mountain” gives more possibilities, more “weight,” to political actions (the bottom of the mountain is obviously heavier than the top). Thus, we can see our Constitution as a kind of technological development, one that increased our power vis a vis the rest of the world. If the pattern holds, it should have also made us more “touchy” and prone to violence.

Most shake their heads in disbelief when they see what triggered W.W. I. The various chains of causation–the German navy, Russian interest in the Balkans, Austria-Hungary’s weakness, etc. have a logic to them. But I wouldn’t buy any argument that said that all this was worth war. It seems to me that we see every major power an with advanced case of touchiness and paranoia, a grave sense of insecurity. World War I has a parallel in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. By 431 B.C. Athens had grown wealthy and extended its territorial reach throughout the Aegean Sea. But rather than have all of this make them more secure, it seemed to open them up to great fear about it being taken away. As with Lamech and Germany, Athens went to war in the end over the Sparta’s reaction to the Megaran decree–an insult only in the barest sense of the word. To those that say, “If it wasn’t the Megaran decree it would have been something else,” I agree. But this proves my point. Touchy people will get mad at just about anything.

If the Industrial Revolution represented a movement down the mountain to what lies underneath it, so nuclear weapons means traveling even further down into the physical structure of matter itself. What could be more “natural?” This of course granted us enormous destructive power. But surely, it is not natural that handful of people scattered throughout the world should have the ability wipe out billions of people in under 30 minutes. Wielding a knife gives one power, but it is very difficult to accidentally hurt or kill someone else with a knife. A gun gives more power, and hence, it is easier to accidentally–or intentionally–kill someone with a gun.

With nuclear weapons, a small accident, malfunction, or misunderstanding–let alone an actual act of malice–could kill millions.

We need not restrict our purview to weapons only. Cars, for example, give us great power to move quickly. But to enable this, we had to construct roads, a massive traffic apparatus, etc. that leaves us vulnerable to serious injury and death. We could drive well, and our car could work perfectly. But many things are outside of our control. If someone else makes a mistake, or if someone’s else truck blows a tire, it could endanger us easily.

Other digital technology, such as the internet, continues our journey down the mountain. We can manipulate atoms now to vastly increase our communicative ability. We can gain information from anywhere, know anything from any time, and so on. We all know the satisfaction that comes from shopping online, watching a funny youtube, and so on. But virtually every commentator on our current cultural situation acknowledges that internet often hurts more than it helps. With Twitter perhaps especially, we experience the destabilization that comes with chaos. Twitter gives us a sea of information with no editing, structure, or system to guide us. We talk of the “Internet of Things” as it relates to connecting our appliances and other tools to the worldwide web. The moniker is ironic–what the internet gives us is a plethora of “things” with no coherence.

If we mistrust each other it is not because of our weakness but because of the outsized power we possess. At the top of the mountain we can orient ourselves, we can locate ourselves vis a vis our surroundings. At the bottom, however, we have only multiplicity and no unity. This in turn has led to an acute sense of dislocation, which in turn feeds a tendency towards all the wrong kinds of identity, as we have seen recently.**

Fixing western civilization–we all want to see the day, in theory at least. But coming to a solution will mean lightening our load to climb back up the mountain.

Dave

*We see this not just in Genesis 4. The Tower of Babel could be another example of Increase of Power=Dislocation–quite literally in that case. In 1 Samuel 24, King David takes a census, something for which he is punished. It seems incomprehensible to us that taking a census should be a sin. Yet, in the narrative even the amoral Abner warns David against taking this action. If we see the pattern, a census increases ones knowledge of “particulars” dramatically. It is a journey “down the mountain” that makes David quite vulnerable. Abner’s reaction should clue us into the innate understanding they had of this pattern, the danger of David “trying to throw his arms around the world.”

It should not surprise us, then, to see a repeat of this pattern as the New Testament begins. It is not a coincidence that the birth of Christ, the King who would in time destroy the Roman Empire, is preceded by a census (Luke 2).

**In terms of sexual identity, we no longer seek even to mine the minutiae of nature. Instead we wish to transcend it all together. We have accumulated such power over nature that we feel we can discard it at our leisure. Obviously there is a link here between our current sexual identities and our environmental issues. Here exists a possible link-up between social conservatives and environmentalists.

11th/12th Grade: “To be, or not to be. . .”

Greetings,

This week we began the Cold War in earnest and took a look at a few key issues and events:

England and America could see the Cold War coming as W.W. II ended.  The unfortunate Eastern European nations of Poland, Hungary, Rumania, and Bulgaria exchanged one conqueror for another.  Soviet dictatorship may not have been as bad as Nazi occupation, but that is hardly saying much.

Atomic weapons quickly became prominent, although not necessarily because we wanted it that way.  Free societies maintain themselves traditionally through a volunteer military, except in emergencies.  With the war over hundreds of thousands of soldiers looked forward to returning home and resuming normal civilian life.

But the Soviets did not disband their army.  They kept it active and occupied much of Eastern Europe.  How could we respond?  We could either:

  • Keep the draft going and maintain our military at W.W. II levels, which might also mean continuing the war-time command economy.

Or

  • Use atomic weapons as a kind of equalizer against the sheer volume of Soviet troops.

The latter option appealed to us for many reasons, but of course created other problems.  If the Soviets eventually got “the bomb,” how then do we maintain our advantage?  Do we make more atomic weapons?  Or do we make them more powerful?  The arms race was on, and one consequence of this was the proliferation of weapons able not to just win wars but wipe out civilization as we know it.

Another problem with nuclear weapons revolves around what exact purpose they serve.  Are they weapons?  This seems obvious on its face.  Of course they are weapons.  But can something be a weapon if you would never actually use it?  No — then it’s just a very expensive and very dangerous showpiece.  But could nuclear weapons actually be used?  For once used, Pandora’s box opens.  Could a nuclear war have a winner?

So, did nuclear weapons in reality function much like status symbols, reflecting the image of power rather than actually having power?  But then again, if everyone thinks they are just status symbols, they pose no threat.  And clearly, these weapons posed a huge threat.  We could not contemplate the consequences of using them, and we felt that we needed to have them ready to use at a moment’s notice. These were some of the terrible dilemmas the Cold War gave us.  The confusion between image and reality bore itself out in this Civil Defense video many elementary school children saw in the early 1950’s:

The idea that we may not have known exactly what we had on our hands gets reinforced from the Castle Bravo disaster in 1954.

At its core, the Cold War presented us with the dilemma of how to win a war without actually fighting the other side.  How could you win a boxing match if neither opponent could touch each other?  Much of our strategy revolved around the following premesis:

  • Communism can only survive as a parasite.  It cannot internally sustain itself, so the only way it can live is by feeding off of others.  Thus, it is imperative to deny them access to new territory, for each new piece of territory will artificially extend their life-span.
  • Since fighting the Soviet Union directly would have exceedingly dire consequences, we have took for non-traditional, or “asymmetrical” ways to fight.  Economic advantage, and our political image, among other things, would play key roles in this conflict.

The Korean War often gets ignored, sandwiched between World War II and Vietnam.  I myself usually breeze over it, but every so often the conflict makes itself very relevant.  The issues involved deal with many of problems discussed above.  Commentators could argue that we

  • Won the war, because after the invasion of the North we pushed the North out of South Korea.
  • Lost the war, because we failed to destroy North Korean forces, largely due to the intervention of China, and got pushed back out of North Korea
  • Tied, because the status quo was restored, but nothing more.

While we could not go through the entirety of the history of the war, the impact of our involvement would have large, though subtle ripple effects in our own society.

  • The Korean War was unquestionably a war, yet the Senate never declared war.  Obviously this was not the first time that we had used troops and not declared war formally, but the scale of the conflict and commitment exceeded previous undeclared wars.
  • After the Korean War we began to maintain a continuously large standing army, a break from the past.
  • The war also raised questions about executive power and the role of Congress.  As foreign policy came to dominate, the power of presidency inevitably increased, but for the most part, these questions have no resolution as of now.

A brief aside, every political commentator of which I am aware from the classical era down to the early modern age (Aristotle, our own founders, etc.) argued that a large standing army posed a dire threat to liberty.  That is, no militarized state could maintain political freedom indefinitely.  Whether they were wrong, or our exception proves the rule, or perhaps our political system has indeed suffered because of this is a point of great debate.

Many of these questions came to a head in October 1962 in the Cuban Missile Crisis, where under a cloak of deceit, the Soviets started building missile silos to house nuclear warheads capable of reaching at least 1/3 of the U.S. mainland.  We could either . . .

  • Ignore the problem.  Perhaps it would not be worth it to get them out, or perhaps we did not have the political will to stop them from installing them.  As parents we sometimes ignore things that we would rather not deal with at the moment.  We then file the incident away to be used later if we need to.
  • Acknowledge the presence of the silos/missiles, but do nothing about it, which would make us look terribly weak.
  • Insist that the missiles not be installed and prepare to take action to prevent it.  Easy to say, but hard to do, because it begs the question of how far we would go.  Would it be worth W.W. III to prevent it?  Would it be worth a global nuclear holocaust?  Maybe we would not actually launch nukes, but do we then bluff and claim we would?  Would that escalate or diffuse the crisis?

Records indicate that initially most favored an air strike against the silos.  Most agreed that we had a good chance of eliminating the silos via bombing, with minimal casualties.  But it would involve a military attack on one of Russia’s allies, and we could not be sure how they would respond.  Would they then take West Berlin?  What would we do then?

Perhaps these questions led Kennedy to decide on a naval quarantine which would prevent the installation of the missiles, and also give the two sides time to talk.  It forced the Soviets to back down or be the first to take aggressive action.

But none of this attempts to see the crisis from the Soviet perspective.  If the U.S. had concerns about missiles 90 miles from our shores, what about the fact that we had missiles 90 miles from the Soviet Union in Turkey?  What about the Bay of Pigs?  One could easily argue that the missiles in Cuba served peace, if you believed that strategic parity gave the best guarantee of avoiding conflict.

In the end the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles if we pledged never to invade Cuba and removed ours from Turkey, which we agreed to do, albeit secretly.  Many felt that we had won, and many praise Kennedy for his handling of the crisis.

But as time passed, we learned more about just how close we came to disaster.  In the documentary The Fog of War, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara discussed his meetings with Castro in 1992 below.

If these revelations are true, the air-strike we nearly decided upon would have led to disaster.  When one understands the possibilities inherent when human fallibility combines with enormous destructive power, we can only thank God that nuclear war did not happen in 1962.

Next week we move on to Vietnam.

Blessings,

Dave

“Our danger is that we win all the battles except the last one.”

Despite a mountain of documentary evidence that survived the war in Germany, the Nuremberg trial prosecutors had a difficult time establishing the guilt of some defendants.  Many of the top Nazi leaders had already died, and many of the accused found it quite convenient to blame things on those who could no longer answer.   What they knew and when they knew it, and where their responsibility lay was not always easy to ascertain.

Acclaimed military writer Basil Liddell Hart scored a great coup by getting several top German Unknowncommanders in W.W. II to talk to him about their war experience.  It proved all to easy for the generals to ascribe whatever success they had to themselves, and their failure to Hitler.  As Hart notes in his prologue, this means it’s hard to know how reliable Hart’s generals can be.

Still, Hart’s The German Generals Talk succeeds on many levels.  While exact particulars remain cloudy in some cases, a definite overall picture emerges. Among other things, the paradigm the generals created (and we also tend to create) in regard to Hitler and the military needs tweaking, at least in some instances.

For example, we think of Hitler as a megalomaniac bent on conquest at all costs.  But how to explain, then, Hitler’s attitude towards Britain?  Hart shows that at least in the minds of the generals, Hitler wanted to back off of Britain.  At Dunkirk the generals thought that Hitler wanted the British to get away.  With Operation Sea Lion, generals complained that Hitler barely involved himself in the planning and seemed to care little for the details. He seemed almost relieved to break it off in its infant stages.

In truth, Hitler had always admired the British.  He praised them in Mein Kampf, which fit his racial view of the world.  The British, after all, had largely German and Nordic stock and thus were not Germany’s “natural” enemies.  Apparently Hitler believed that in allowing the British to save their honor at Dunkirk, they would more prone to accept a peace settlement.  Like Kaiser Wilhelm II, he implicitly thought that Germany and England were friends deep down.  Hitler’s egocentrism led to him to believe that everyone thought as he did.  All of us share this characteristic to some extent, but in Hitler it grew far out of proportion.  In this rare instance, his race theories actually made him less aggressive, and in this case, this instinct proved disastrous for Germany, a double irony.

Hart shows how the army never really trusted or liked Hitler.  Every general interviewed sought to distance himself from Hitler in some way. But then this begs the question as to why very few military leaders stood up to Hitler, let alone actively tried to change the situation.  They explained their situation this way:

  • While many of the upper level officers might have gone against Hitler, their troops would not have.  Those from Major on down had been raised with the Nazi system and had much more loyalty to it.  Many officers doubted whether or not their troops would have followed them in rebellion.
  • The army had an ensconced officer corp with traditions that survived W.W. I.  But the Air Force and navies did not.  Many army officers believed these branches were comprised almost entirely of pro-Hitler sympathizers, as both owed their very existence to the Nazi regime.  Even if the army as a unit rebelled, the Air Force and Navy would not.

Hart offers little comment on this line of defense.  It has merit, and it touches on a larger question.  For democracy to thrive the army must be apolitical.  Is the Nazi army any different?  When do we want the army suddenly to get a conscience?  Commenting on on our military’s experience in Vietnam, one general stated that, “To argue that officers should be guided primarily by their conscience is to argue for military dictatorship.”  But of course we don’t want soldiers, or any human being, to reduce themselves to be a mere robotic arm of the state.

Interestingly the generals’ objections to Hitler had everything to do with Hitler’s military policies and nothing about the morality of the Nazi regime. Nowhere in this 300 page book is the Holocaust even mentioned, let alone the “killing groups” on the eastern front.  Maybe this has something to do with exactly who Hart interviewed, but I think it has more to do with the strict stratification of Nazi society, and the technocratic nature of their military education.  In the end, neither of these things can explain away their ultimate failure to act in any significant way.  None of them went nearly as far as Adolph Eichmann’s ridiculous assertion that, “I only transported people to the concentration camps.  I never actually killed anyone!” but they show the same tendency, albeit to a much lesser degree.

This point touches on how the generals conducted the war.  While Hart (a military man himself) often sympathizes with the military’s side of the story, he points out that the generals lacked strategic imagination.  At least at certain points and times, Hart shows how Hitler had greater grand strategic insight.  Hitler and his generals often clashed.  They had profound class differences.  The Prussian aristocracy surely resented the social mixing engendered by the Nazi regime.  But Hart shows that the differences between them also had roots in their personalities and training.  Hitler’s poetic mind gave him a potentially greater field of vision than his technocratic generals.

But this “greater field of vision” needs moral and “physical” roots.   Art has no merit for its own sake. Hitler often preferred the great, memorable, and perhaps imaginary deed to mundane reality.  If he were to win the war, it would have to be on his aesthetic terms.  So he ordered what in his mind were “gallant last stands” that really condemned his troops to slaughter.  The “Battle of the Bulge” had no real possibility of success due to lack of air support and supplies, but it would be so much more heroic than waiting behind fortified positions behind the Rhine.   Hitler seemed to live more fully in the world of Wagner’s operas than reality.

Hitler may have had at times greater strategic insight than his generals.  But this distance from reality made it so that he could never bother with mundane details.  As far as children are concerned, meat comes from the grocery store, and water comes from the faucet.  Hitler never either could or would take logistics like supplies into account.  That is why Germany could fall prey so quickly to “imperial overstretch.”  General Halder warned Hitler that, “Our danger is that we win all the battles except the last one,” and this proved prophetic in Africa, Russia, and even Europe.  Like Hannibal and Napoleon before him, Hitler forgot the need for political as well as military conquests.

It would be more satisfying for us if Hitler had a moment of self-revelation at his end.  But like many other Nazi leaders who took their own life, no such moment came.  Hitler never wavered from playing his part.  As various Nazi functionaries urged Hitler to flee Berlin, apparently it was Albert Speer who countered their advice by telling Hitler, “You must be on stage when the curtain falls.”  Speer knew that the best way to motivate Hitler was to play to his sense of theater.  Perhaps he wanted Hitler’s demise as much as some of the generals did.

Dave

11th/12th 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

Ordinary Men

If you have driven much at all in any urban or suburban area, I’m guessing that you have experienced something like the following:

You are at a stoplight in a busy intersection, waiting to turn left.  You are towards the back of the line but have a hope of making the light, which usually lets several cars through.  By the intersection a person in need stands with a sign asking for money.

You have a few dollars and would gladly give it, but you are towards the back of the line before the man in need reaches your car.  The cars start to inch forward, anxious to make the light.  You have two choices:

  • Stop your car and give the man some money.  This would reasonably take 10 seconds of time, especially if you wanted to look him in the eye and address him as a person.  But this means that you might not make the light.  For sure, it means that cars behind you would not make the light and the intersection would pile up, with a rubberneck ensuing that would take perhaps three light cycles to clear out.
  • Go through the light and not stop, keeping up with the flow of traffic.

If you are like me in the situation I described, you have taken option 2 more often than you might care to admit.

Why does this happen?  Why does this feel like a no-win situation?  Why do we feel such tremendous pressure to get through the intersection as quickly as possible?

Aside from general answers to the question involving the human condition, we need to consider the specific situation.  When driving you enter into an unspoken covenant with other drivers that share your immediate space. When on the road other drivers–and not the rest of mankind–become your primary obligation  One part of this covenant involves being alert at intersections.  We all want to get to our destination.  Don’t be on your phone and miss the light change.  Be ready to go.  This isn’t about selfishness but courtesy to others.  Your primary and immediate obligation to other drivers overrides secondary obligations, even those of greater moral weight.  When you are behind the wheel, your fellow drivers, for example, get preference over the poor of the third world.

Sure, we don’t want honked at.  But we also don’t want to break the covenant with our momentary “brothers” behind the wheel.

Reading Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men brought this everyday situation into starker light.  Browning focuses not on Nazi ideology, nor the ideologically committed SS thugs.  Rather, he focuses on one particular reserve police battalion and the evolution of most of them into mass murderers.  We would like to believe that Nazi’s committed mass murder because they had a previous commitment to racial genocide.  The war simply gave them the opportunity to enact their beliefs.  This would be safer for us because we do not have a belief that we should mass murder in a racially motivated way.  Thus, we would not slaughter Jews. But Browning points out that, while beliefs played a role, what seemed more decisive was the particular situation the men faced.  Their actions transformed them over time into mass murderers, not their beliefs.  Indeed for many, their actions transformed their beliefs, and not vice-versa.

This means that no one is immune.  Our beliefs–what we hold true in our heads–won’t save us.

Those that comprised Reserve Police Battalions shared the following general characteristics:

  • They were middle-aged men with other careers apart from the war.  All of them came of age before the Nazi’s took power.
  • Most all of them had membership in the Nazi party, but most all of those had joined late, and one expects, rather as a matter of course.
  • Reserve police battalions were held in general contempt by the SS rank and file as lacking true commitment to the Nazi cause.
  • Perhaps most surprisingly, very few expressed overt agreement with Nazi beliefs about Jews.  Some of them even expressed specific disagreements with anti-semitic beliefs.
  • Nearly all of them had blood on their hands in one form or another.

As the Nazi’s occupied much of Eastern Europe by 1942 they sought to clear the area of Jews and other communist partisans–but most particularly Jews were the target.  Himmler and Heydrich would much rather have had the SS do the work of mass killing, but the army at that time fought desperately in Russia and could not spare the men.  Hence, the calling up of reserve police battalions for this job.

The Nazi’s were smart in how they managed these men.  The first job for the battalion involved murdering thousands of Jews point blank in a Polish town called Jozefow, but the officers kept this order secret right up until zero hour. They let bits of information trickle out slowly, none of it objectionable by itself, i.e., “report to place x,” “prepare to help keep order,” and so on.  In relaying the mass-murder order to his men, the major of Battalion 101 showed visible distress.  He broke down almost in tears, he expressed disagreement with the order, and even gave anyone the option of abstaining themselves from this action.

But he did give the order.

At this point what options do these men have?

  • If you have strong moral scruples, you have no time to organize any resistance.  But even if you wanted to resist, will you fire on your comrades, men with whom you have trained and share a bond, to prevent such a crime?
  • If the battalion refuses to carry out the order, what will the SS do to you?
  • You could take your commander’s offer and refuse to fire on the Jews and be given guard duty.  Does being on guard duty absolve you?
  • Perhaps most significantly, soldiering tells you that if you don’t do the job, someone else will have extra work.  The army runs on the principle of all for one, one for all.  Your “weakness” means that others have harder jobs and more work.  No one wants to put their fellows in such a position.  The institutional pressure not to shirk your duty and obey orders must have been enormous.

Browning wants us to face the truth that most of us would obey the order. Most of us would shoot Jews, and most of us would find the means to rationalize it.  Testimonies given years later reveal that nearly all of them found a way to make peace with this atrocity in different ways, such as:

  • War is terrible and cannot be redeemed. Besides the enemy bombs our own women and children.
  • Surely this is an isolated, one-time action.  It is horrible that we have this assignment.  But given the horrible nature of this job, these Jews must therefore be particularly dangerous.  Best to just “rip off the band-aid.”
  • Some stood in line and fired, but deliberately missed.  Perhaps they trusted that their fellow soldiers would not deliberately miss, and this will preserve them from the horror in some way.  Indeed, mop-up crews with sub-machine guns came through to finish the job.  So . . . some tried to technically not kill anyone.
  • One soldier even went so far as to say that (paraphrasing), “I paired up with someone who had no problem shooting the women, and then I would shoot the children.  I could not shoot mothers, but I figured, once their mother was dead, I could shoot the children as an act of mercy to them.  Their lives without their parents would be misery.  I could free them from suffering.”

Those that did not join in bore the stigma of cowards and shirkers.  Those that attempted to obey, but found that “their nerves” could not handle it, were viewed as those who “tried their best.”  Even Himmler himself said in 1943, that while firm obedience stood as the pinnacle of virtue, exceptions came to those whose “nerves are shot, to one who is finished, who has become weak.  Then one can say: Good, go take your pension.”  Even a small amount participation guaranteed your personal safety, no doubt a strong impetus to at least do something in a token way.

After Jozefow many men got violently ill and many showed acute emotional distress.  We might think that this rebellion of the body as a witness to moral truth would turn the tide and what happened would never happen again.  In fact, many men who openly wept and got terribly ill after the Josefow massacre later became hardened and even enthusiastic killers of more Jews.  Initially, the body rebelled against the mind, but eventually, with enough practice, the two worked in tandem.  Eventually, the SS could trust the battalion to commit larger and larger massacres:

The Numbers of Those Murdered by Battalion 101 in

1942: 7-8,000 (minimum)

1943: 30,000 (minimum)

In between their assignments to mass-murder, Battalion 101 received orders to clear the forests of Jews who had fled Nazi roundups.  These “Jew-hunts” (as they were known) could also be rationalized:

  • The main enemy of fascism is communism.  Many Jews are communists (so went the party line), thus, they are a threat.
  • Some of these Jews who fled now have arms.  They will likely engage in guerrilla operations against our forces.  Thus, they are not civilians but enemy soldiers, enemies too cowardly to come out and fight.  They deserve their fate.

Perhaps because one might possibly find even the thinnest “legitimate” military motive for such action explains why the battalion never had a shortage of volunteers for these missions.  It far more resembled “real soldiering” and may have helped them justify their actions in military terms.  Such missions made them soldiers in their minds, not murderers.

Ordinary Men demonstrates that one need not be an SS ideologue to commit such atrocities.  The commitment to your immediate circle of fellow men, your desire to “do something” for the war, your general patriotism, and perhaps even a lingering sense of guilt that in serving in the reserve police battalions made one a whole lot safer than a front-line solider–thus you might seek to make up for it with brutal deeds– all combine to wreak moral havoc on your soul.  Within a year normal middle-age men without overt Nazi sympathies, without being educated in Nazi ideology in their formative years, without defined anti-semitic beliefs, became butchers on an unreal scale.*

We can understand this if we remember the intersection with the man asking for money.

I think the main reason why we fail at the intersection is the competition between our two commitments, one to our fellow drivers, the other to the needy man.  Throw in the side-car of our selfishness and desire to get home and not be inconvenienced, etc., and game/set/match for our values.  The only way to really navigate this successfully is to park the car and approach him on foot.  In one sense this is harder, because it costs us more in time.  But in many ways this is the easier path, for now we need not worry about the drivers behind us at all.  We have removed ourselves from obligations to them and can act much more freely.

Of course the men in Battalion 101 faced a drastically more difficult situation.  You cannot escape blame by opting out of shooting and taking guard duty instead.  Reasonably, you would not (and perhaps even should not?) turn your gun against your comrades and go out in a hail of bullets.  The only thing you can do is remove your uniform, perhaps facing court martial and even death.  Perhaps you could do this if you were a bachelor, but if you have a wife and kids . . . ?  What happens to them?  Can you sacrifice them in addition to yourself? How many of us would shoot?  How many of us would take guard duty?

In the epilogue, Browning quotes from Primo Levi’s book, The Drowned and the Saved, and it seems a fitting way to close. In his book Levi argues passionately that,

It is naive, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims; on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself.

Such was the fate of Reserve Police Battalion 101.

Dave

*Browning also traces the evolution of their anti-semitism.  In time many came to hold the same kinds of beliefs about the Jews as Hitler and Himmler.  They didn’t start that way, but their actions formed their beliefs.

The Psychology of Encounters

As an author A.J. Toynbee could be controversial and intimidating.  His grand theories of the scope of history naturally had adherents and skeptics.  Toynbee repeated himself numerous times over the scope of his 12 volume magnum opus.  At times too, Toynbee’s “insights” seem like little more than average common sense, such as his observation that geography must present a challenge to encourage the development of a civilization.

But sometimes his insights, even if not earth-shattering, are nonetheless important to contemplate, and show their worth because of their applicability in different circumstances.  I have always thought that the book The World and the West a great entry point for those interested in Toynbee’s work.  My favorite chapter (the book is a collection of speeches given on a theme) is “The Psychology of Encounters” (available here for those interested).

His main point deals with how cultures interact with one another.  One of his arguments entails showing how when a culture gets transplanted into “non-native” soil, it may not “take” in the way it did so where originally planted.  He uses the rise of nationalism from the mid 19th-early 20th centuries.  The idea of nationalism grew up slowly and organically in England and France, and perhaps to a lesser extent in Russia.  But the exportation of this idea to other areas could have unintended and dangerous consequences.  I quote at length,

We can see why the same institution has had these strikingly different effects in these two different social environments. The institution of ‘national states’ has been comparatively harmless in western Europe for the same reason that accounts for its having originated there; and that is because, in western Europe, it corresponds to the local relation between the distribution of languages and the alignment of political frontiers. In western Europe, people speaking the same language happen, in most cases, to be huddled together in a single continuous and compact block of territory with a fairly well defined boundary separating it from the similarly compact domains of other languages; and, in a region where, as here, the languages are thus distributed in the pattern of a patchwork quilt, the language map provides a convenient basis for the political map, and ‘national states’ are therefore natural products of the social milieu. Most of the domains of the historic states of Western Europe do, in fact, coincide approximately with homogeneous patches of the language map; and this coincidence has come about, for the most part, undesignedly. The west European peoples have not been acutely conscious of the process by which their political containers have been moulded on linguistic lasts; and, accordingly, the spirit of nationalism has been, on the whole, easy-going in its west European homeland. In west European national states, linguistic minorities who have found themselves on the wrong side of a political frontier have in most cases shown loyalty, and been treated with consideration, because their coexistence with the majority speaking ‘the national language’ as fellow-citizens of the same commonwealth has been a historical fact which has therefore been taken for granted by everyone.

But now consider what has happened when this west European institution of ‘national states’, which in its birthplace has been a natural product of the local linguistic map, has been radiated abroad into regions in which the local language map is On a quite different pattern. When we look at a language map, not just of Western Europe, but of the world, we see that the local west European pattern, in which the languages are distributed in fairly clear-cut, compact, and homogeneous blocks, is something rather peculiar and exceptional. In the vastly larger area stretching south-eastward from Danzig and Trieste to Calcutta and Singapore, the pattern of the language map is not like a patchwork quilt; it is like a shot-silk robe. In eastern Europe, south-west Asia, India, and Malaya the speakers of different languages are not neatly sorted out from one another, as they are in western Europe; they are geographically intermingled in alternate houses on the same streets of the same towns and villages; and, in this different, and more normal, social setting, the language map—in which the threads of different colours are interwoven with each other—provides a convenient basis, not for the drawing of frontiers between states, but for the allocation of occupations and trades among individuals.

I thought of Toynbee’s insight when reading Ivan Morris’ excellent The Nobility of Failure.  In his book Morris examines the idea of the Japanese hero through mythology, folklore, and history.  By comparing various stories over two millennia a consistent picture emerges.

  • The hero must be sincerely dedicated and have a purity of devotion.
  • Japanese heroes often dedicate themselves to hopeless, or nearly hopeless causes.  The fact that the cause is relatively hopeless demonstrates his purity and sincerity.  That is, the cause itself is not particularly important — rather, the character of the hero takes center stage.
  • The Japanese hero invariably ends his life in a noble death, one that he himself controls and determines.  This death validates the purity of his cause.  We might assume that the method was always sepiku, the ritual disembowlment.  Not so, Morris explains.  Originally, ritual suicide was performed by slicing the carotid artery on the neck.  Sepiku probably became part of the samurai tradition because it is a much more painful form of death, one that allows for a greater demonstration of suffering and courage.

The last chapter naturally deals with the kamikaze attacks at the end of W.W. II.  Previous to W. W. II heroic status could only be attained by the aristocratic class & samurai class.  But Toynbee’s theory of the unpredictability of cultural transference applies in this case.  This transference on a cultural level can have the same kind of unpredictable detrimental effect as it can on the ecological level.  Think of the kudzu plant, which serves a good purpose in Japan’s unusual geography.  Transplant it to the southeastern U.S., however, and it will take over entire forests. Beginning in the mid-19th century Japan got exposed to western ideology, including obviously the idea of equality.  But what equality meant for Japan in this case became a horrifying kind of parody — now everyone can kill themselves and attain heroic status.

Hence the kamikaze pilots.  As Morris points out, the Japanese did not carry out these attacks primarily because they believed it would lead to victory.  No one really believed in victory by the end of 1944.  Such attacks, however, would certainly lead to the pilots achieving hero status in Japan.  They mimicked almost exactly the form and pattern laid down in Japan’s past.

Below I include various excerpts from Morris’ book.  Another quote from Toynbee illustrates the tragedy of Japan in W.W. II.

Since our discovery of the trick of splitting the atom, we have learned to our cost that the particles composing an atom of some inoffensive element cease to be innocuous and become dangerously corrosive so soon as they have been split off from the orderly society of particles of which an atom is constituted, and have been sent flying by themselves on independent careers of their own.

Excerpts from The Nobility of Failure

Testimonies of Kamikaze Pilots, 1944-45

If only we might fall

Like cherry blossoms in the Spring —

So pure and radiant!

  • Haiku by a kamikaze pilot in the ‘Seven Lives’ Unit, died Feb. 22, 1945, age 22. Kamikaze planes were called “Oka” bombs.  “Oka” is the Japanese word for “Cherry Blossom.”

“The purity of youth will issue in the divine wind.” [i.e., the “shimpu,” or “kamikaze.”]

  • Admiral Onishi, the probable originator of the “kamikaze” attacks.   He said to his officers, “Even if we are defeated, the noble spirit of the kamikaze attack corp will keep our homeland from ruin.  Without this spirit, ruin would surely follow defeat.  [The pilots] are already gods, without earthly desires.”

Beckoned to a chair, the young man [Lt. Seki] sat down facing us.  Commander Tamai patted him on the shoulder.  “Seki, Admiral Onishi himself has visited the 201st air group to present a plan of the greatest importance to Japan.  The plan is to crash-dive our Zero fighters, loaded with 250 kilogram bombs, into the ships of the enemy.  You are being considered to lead such an attack.  How do you feel about it?

There were tears in Tamai’s eyes as he spoke.

For a moment there was no answer.  Seki sat motionless, eyes closed, in deep thought.  Then calmly, raising his head, he said, “You absolutely must let me do it.”  There was not the slightest falter in his voice.

  • Lt. Seki was the first to lead a kamikaze squadron, and he successfully sank an escort carrier.

When it was clear that they understood my message [about forming a kamikaze squadron], I turned and said, “Anyone who wishes to volunteer for today’s sortie will raise his hand.”

The words were hardly spoken before every man raised his hand.  Several of them left their seats and pressed up against me, pleading, “Send me!  Please send me!”

I wheeled about and shouted, “Everyone wants to go.  Don’t be so selfish!”

[As the planes moved to the runway for takeoff] Lt. Nakano raised himself in the cockpit and shouted, “Commander Nakajima!”

Fearing that I had done something wrong I rushed over.  His face was wreathed in smiles as he called, “Thank you Commander!  Thank you very much for choosing me!”  I flagged him on with a vigorous wave of my arm, and other pilots shouted the same thing.  “Thank you!” they shouted.  I pretended not to hear these words, but they tore at my heart.

  • Official log of Capt. Nakajima

It is of no avail to express it now, but  in my 23 years of life I have worked out my own philosophy.  It leaves a bad taste in my mouth when I think of the deceits of the wily politicians upon the innocent population.  But I am willing to take orders from the high-command . . . because I believe in the beautiful polity of Japan.  

The Japanese way of life is indeed beautiful, and I am proud of it, as I am of Japanese history and mythology, which reflect the purity of our ancestors and our past.   And the living embodiment of all wonderful things in our past is the Imperial Family which, too, is the crystallization of the splendour and beauty of Japan and its people.  It is an honor to give my life for such beautiful and lofty things.

  • Last letter of Lt. Yamaguchi Teruo

Dear Parents:

Please congratulate me.  I have been given a splendid opportunity to die.  This destiny of our homeland hinges on the decisive battle in the seas to the south where I shall fall like a blossom from a radiant cherry tree.

How I appreciate this chance to die like a man!  . . . Thank you, my parents, for the years during which you have cared for me and inspired me.  I hope that in some small way this deed will repay you for what you have done.

  • From the last letter of Lt. Matsuo Isao

Never think of winning!

Thoughts of victory will only bring defeat.

When we lose, let us press forward, ever forward!

  • A popular kamikaze song

Cease your optimism,

Open your eyes,

People of Japan!

Japan is bound to be defeated.

It is then that we Japanese

Muse infuse into this land

A new life

A new road to restoration

Will be ours* to carve.

  • Last poem of a kamikaze pilot.  The “ours*” refers to the kamikaze pilots, whose death will plant the seeds of “new life.”

If by some strange chance, Japan should suddenly win this war, it would be a fatal misfortune for the future of the nation.  It will be better for our nation and people if they are tempered through real ordeals, which will serve to strengthen.

  • Sub. Lt. Okabe [?]

Listen carefully!  Imagine you have nothing in your hand but a pebble, and you need to take down a tree.  What is the best method?  To throw the pebble, or to take the pebble in your hand and strike it against the tree yourself?

  • Lt. Nagatsuka, last message to his parents.

Probably the most fearsome of all scenes took place on Saipan in 1944.  When organized military resistance became impossible soldiers  — some 3000 of them — armed with nothing but sticks came charging at the American concentrated machine-gun fire.   They were mowed down to the last man.   A particularly macabre note was provided by wounded Japanese soldiers who limped forward, bandages and all, to the slaughter.

Subsequently, entire units of Japanese soldiers knelt down in rows to be decapitated by their commanders, who then in turn committed ritual suicide.  Hundreds of others shot themselves in the head or, more commonly, exploded themselves with hand grenades.  As the marines advanced through the island they witnessed one mass suicide after another, culminating in the last terrible scene when Japanese civilians, including large numbers of women with children in their arms, hurled themselves off cliffs or rushed out into the sea to drown rather than risk capture.  

  • From Ivan Morris’ The Nobility of Failure