Social Sciences as Sorcery (Complete)

nier replicant girl

All of the excerpts from the Social Sciences as Sorcery series.

#1 – Social Sciences as Sorcery – Introduction post.

#2 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – On the manipulation of crowds.

#3 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – Jargon and frameworks.

#4 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – The pseudoscience of counting.

#5 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – Grandma’s wisdom.

#6 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – The gravest kind of danger.

#7 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – Do it with math.

#8 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – On ideology.

#9 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – On socialization.

#10 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – Vague associations.

#11 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – The Americans.


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The First Thing They Hear

Most people, in fact, will not take trouble in finding out the truth, but are much more inclined to accept the first story they hear.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

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For Whom the Bell Tolls, pt. 2

sullen soldiers

Yeah, it was good.

Just good.

In their steel helmets, riding in the trucks in the dark toward something that they only knew was an attack, their faces were drawn with each man’s own problem in the dark and the light revealed them as they would not have looked in day, from shame to show it to each other, until the bombardment and the attack would commence, and no man would think about his face.


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For Whom the Bell Tolls, pt. 1

book at funeral for whom the bell tolls cyberpunk

Believe it or not, it took me decades to get to this novel.

I thought it was, good.

Maybe I missed something, but it was just good.

I enjoyed it, but it didn’t do much for me.

Maybe I’m jaded.

Here’s a line that hit, though:

In him, too, was despair from the sorrow that soldiers turn to hatred in order that they may continue to be soldiers.


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(More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – on socialization

nier replicant girl faded

I remember in high school, if you wanted to weasel out of a question in a social science class, you just had to say “I think it has a lot to do with society, you know what I mean?”

One can hardly remain in the company of a psychologist, sociologist, anthropologist, politologist or educationalist for more than a few minutes without hearing many times the word ‘socialization’. Now, this relatively recent fashion does not result from the emergence of a new idea which ‘socialization’ connotes, because (apart from mental defectives and children everybody knows that an individual’s character is formed by the environment in which he lives, and which gives him his language, skills, tastes and morals. The word ‘education’ used to be employed in such a wide sense; and when Durkheim (to quote one of the innumerable available examples) wrote about ‘éducation morale’ he did not confine himself to formal lessons in schools.

Military training manuals have always been full of counsels on how to maintain morale and to inculcate the soldierly virtues.

Nor could the psychologists and sociologists be credited with having discovered the less conspicuous and formal determinants of character such as the influence of companions (now scientifically renamed ‘peers’), because this has always been common knowledge among teachers and mothers concerned about the company their children keep.

Illiterate peasants have many apt proverbs to illustrate this piece of folk wisdom. Nor has this process only recently become a subject for learned disquisitions, as Plato has a great deal to say about it.

Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery

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A sideshow of a sideshow: Fever Dreams and Diathetics

cairo conference picture at the pyramids
Center: Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, and T.E. Lawrence in Cairo, 1921

Great book review over at the Modern War Institute.

The iconic figure of T.E. Lawrence remains draped in myth. He appears to modern observers as the pensive Englishman photographed in flowing white Arab robes, or the hero portrayed by Peter O’Toole in the Academy Award–winning 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. His writings on guerrilla war and on advising indigenous forces, meanwhile, are perhaps best known today for their brief appearances to buttress American and British counterinsurgency theory and doctrine.

Seven Pillars Revisited: The Myths and Misreadings of T.E. Lawrence – Modern War Institute

Outside of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, I’m not sure there is a figure that is mined for knowledge more than T.E. Lawrence.

He is an endlessly fascinating figure, whose popular image has surpassed the actual man. This makes understanding the “real” Lawrence difficult.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s account of his role in the Arab Revolt, is an amazing read. The flowery prose can be frustrating, and you get the sense that Lawrence enjoyed flaunting his intellect.

The book, written some years after World War I, is his attempt to categorize the Arab Revolt as a new form of warfare while atoning for the failure of the Arabs to achieve self-determination (and his role in that). He meanders, at times seemingly remorseful for the way the Arabs are treated in the end.

He also clearly understood that the Arab Revolt was just a tiny piece in a much greater game – a “sideshow of a sideshow.”

There are many ways to read Lawrence. In the linked piece, Wilkins writes:

…he [Lawrence] sought to downplay British support for the Arab revolt and emphasize Arab contributions. In doing so, Lawrence sought to highlight what he perceived as the betrayal inflicted on the Arabs in the postwar settlement—in which the Western powers carved former Ottoman territories into French and British mandates, frustrating Arab dreams of self-determination—and to assuage his own ever-present guilt over this outcome.

Lawrence reveled in his role as advisor to the Arabs. But he also knew that his true role – the reason he was there in the first place – was to serve as a shaping operation to General Allenby’s main strike.

The truth was, he cared nothing for our fighting power, and did not reckon us part of his tactical strength. Our purpose, to him, was moral, psychological, diathetic; to keep the enemy command intent upon the trans-Jordan front. In my English capacity I shared this view, but on my Arab side both agitation and battle seemed equally important, the one to serve the joint success, the other to establish Arab self-respect, without which victory would not be wholesome.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Here, Lawrence discusses his “English capacity” and his “Arab side.” Out there in the desert, Lawrence is a warrior with his warriors. They have power and tactical strength, but Allenby doesn’t care for it. You can read this passage and come away thinking Lawrence felt sidelined by Allenby.

But the totality of Lawrence’s thoughts and writings points to his acceptance of this fact. His role (and that of the Arabs) was not to fight but to serve a “diathetic” purpose (more on that later).

It’s difficult to determine exactly what Lawrence was “feeling” out in the desert, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that at the time, he felt that he could do more with his irregular forces, and he may have felt frustrated with being out there on the edge. This was World War I and heroes were being made in Europe. The war in the Middle East was led by Allenby while Lawrence was getting sick in tents. Lawrence was ready to strike, but had to follow orders from the boss:

Weather and strengths might be matters of opinion: but Allenby meant to attack on September the nineteenth, and wanted us to lead off not more than four nor less than two days before he did. His words to me were that three men and a boy with pistols in front of Deraa on September the sixteenth would fill his conception; would he better than thousands a week before or a week after.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

While you may sense some frustration here, it seems that Lawrence understood his purpose. He enjoyed the opportunity to experiment with irregular warfare in the desert but lamented that there wasn’t more time to go further.

By careful persistence, kept strictly within our strength and following the spirit of our theories, we were able eventually to reduce the Turks to helplessness, and complete victory seemed to be almost within our sight when General Allenby by his immense stroke in Palestine threw the enemy’s main forces into hopeless confusion and put an immediate end to the Turkish war. We were very happy to have done with all our pains, but sometimes since I have felt a private regret that his too-greatness deprived me of the opportunity of following to the end the dictum of Saxe that a war might be won without fighting battles.

T.E. Lawrence, The Evolution of a Revolt

It is here where I think there is still room left to mine a little bit more out of Lawrence. Wilkins mentions it in his review:

These irregular raids also played on the “diathetics,” or psychology, of the opponent, leading soldiers to desert, cower in fixed positions, or conduct counterproductive reprisals against the local population. 

For the past year I’ve been working on a much larger research project focused on what Lawrence meant by “diathetics” or “diathetical.” It’s related to psychological warfare, but it’s not quite the same. As quoted above, Lawrence writes “Our purpose, to him, was moral, psychological, diathetic; to keep the enemy command intent upon the trans-Jordan front.” Lawrence here is making a distinction between moral, psychological, and diathetic.

What did he mean there? Is it just him showing off his Greek or was he actually on to something?

I think he was. And I think that’s why he laments the end of the war.

That said, it’s important to remember that these writings are Lawrence’s attempt to categorize his activity after the fact. He’s reflecting and doing his part in his own myth-making.

And while there may be something here, it may all be the imaginings of just another kindergarten soldier.


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Decorating the Palace

Saddam Hussein mural chariot arrow
Source: Iran Chamber Society

Remember those terrible ISIS videos showing the destruction of idols and museum pieces? I remember feeling sick to my stomach watching them. It’s very strange how powerful that imagery can be – and the anger that it can stoke.

Time has passed, and we’re at a place now where researchers and scholars are beginning to publish on those events.

I recently listened to a good interview with professor and researcher Aaron Tugendhaft on the New Books Network. The topic was his book titled The Idols of ISIS which discusses those events.

The striking point he makes during the interview is that it is not simply the destruction of the idols that was important, but replacing those idols with the image – the video – of those idols being destroyed. This is such an important and often overlooked concept. Someone is always holding the camera, and there is a purpose.

The book sounds fascinating and discusses Saddam’s appropriation of Assyrian iconology to support his political ambitions (a subject I’m endlessly interested in). I couldn’t help but think of the video of Saddam’s statue being taken down in 2003 (the statue is an idol). Taking down the statue was important, but more important was replacing that with the image of it being taken down. We think we are watching a video of something happening – but it is in fact the video itself that is the new thing.

I know this gets kind of meta – but this is an important and easily missed phenomena.

There’s also a portion of the interview that discusses how the ISIS aesthetic was inspired by imagery in video games – Call of Duty is mentioned.

There is an endless deluge of scholars who look at ISIS – and for good reason. It is refreshing to get a take from someone outside of “terrorism” studies.

Lastly, during the interview, the below political cartoon was mentioned. It’s tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it is still infuriating on so many levels.

PATRICK CHAPPATTEMosul Museum Devastated, 2015. Published in Le Temps, Switzerland, February 28, 2015. © Chappatte 2015.

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The Shadow Commander

Young qassem soleimani at an event
The life of the Shadow Commander.

Just finished this after hearing about it on the Angry Planet podcast.

In this gripping account, Arash Azizi examines Soleimani’s life, regional influence and future ambitions. He breaks new ground through interviews with Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians who knew Soleimani for years, including his personal driver, the aides who accompanied him to his Moscow meeting with Vladimir Putin, and his brother. Through Soleimani, Azizi reveals the true nature of Iran’s global ambitions, providing a rare insight into a country whose actions are much talked about but seldom understood.

The Shadow Commander

I listened to the audiobook version. It was a great narrative, telling the story of Soleimani’s life and the military-political machinations of the Middle East over the forty years. The mini-Cold War in the Middle East is such a deep and fascinating subject. There’s so much more we need to know.

I thought this quote from Ryan Crocker that comes towards the end of the book nailed it pretty well:

Over the last several years, it seems that General Suleimani allowed his ego to overcome his judgment. The shadow commander came out of the shadows, holding news conferences and conducting media tours. This time we were waiting. 

Opinion | The Long Battle With Iran – The New York Times

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The beloved captain and the infallible leader

Donald Hankey infallible captain
250px-Donald_Hankey

One of the benefits of having a CTLT cadet attached to your hip for a few weeks is you get invited to a bunch of events that lowly lieutenants would never get invited to. As the saying goes, the biggest demotion you get in the Army is when you graduate from West Point and pin on Second Lieutenant. Or so I hear.

During one of the half-dozen mandatory briefs/discussions, the III Corps Commander was talking about officership and mentioned, half-dismissively, A Message to Garcia (which I’ve only recently even learned of myself). Where that tome is supposed to imbibe the young officer with the propensity to find his own way in things, the general recommended another book that he thought would be worth reading called The beloved captain. He spoke about it for a moment as I made a note to check it out later.

Weeks later, after the CTLT experience had ended, I googled it and ordered a copy. It’s not really a book, it’s more of an essay. Actually, three short essays written by Donald Hankey who served and was killed in World War I.

I finished them all yesterday. The story is told from the perspective of a junior recruit, and begins with initial training and ends in the war. The recruit is writing about his “beloved captain” who was just a junior platoon leader when he first arrived, learning how to soldier just as the rest of them were.

Then he started to drill the platoon, with the sergeant standing by to point out his mistakes. Of course he made mistakes, and when that happened he never minded admitting it. He would explain what mistakes he had made, and try again.

The idea of the leader admitting his mistakes is one that I know a lot of junior leaders shy away from, instead going for “the infallible leader.” I’ve received much-unsolicited advice to always be the hardest one, always have the right answer, never mess up in front of the men, never let them see you sweat, and on and on. The advice comes from the right place, to ensure that you are capable of doing the things you ask of your subordinates, but it also seems a bit inhuman and realistically unachievable. Like most “advice for platoon leaders” it boils down to be great at everything at all times and you’ll be good to go.

Instead, as the recruit notes here, a leader who admits shortcomings and actively works towards getting better gains the respect of his subordinates.

The recruit also writes about the importance of physical presence:

No trouble of ours was too small for him to attend to.

Being physically present at the shittiest detail or most uncomfortable activity is probably the best piece of advice I received from a senior officer. It’s not always possible, but being present has an effect on a number of things; discipline and morale being the chief two. It also sends the message that whatever it is you’re doing is important.

The beloved captain is a super-short read, and worthwhile because the advice seems counter to what is popularly understood as good company-grade leadership, i.e.; the infallible leader. You can read it for free, here.


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Book Review: Hearts, Minds, and Coffee

About a month ago I was sent a book called Hearts, Minds, and Coffee: A Vietnam Peace Odyssey. It is the first novel by Kent Hinckley, a veteran who served in Military Intelligence for a year in Vietnam. In the book, Mr. Hinkckley slipped in a note with the following:

I judge by the address that you are stationed in Afghanistan. I’m sorry to hear that and hope we can bring our troops home. What a difficult situation.

If you have any questions, please let me know. Thank you for your service.

All the best,
Kent Hinckley

The younger me would have been offended by that sentiment. Shortly after coming home from Iraq, I remember hearing statements like that from lots of people I met. I didn’t like it. I was proud of my service, and it was hard for me to understand how someone could feel “sorry” for me or the situation and still be thankful for my military service. I just couldn’t compute it, and I am sure many readers of this blog probably still feel the same way.

Over the years, however, I’ve come to understand that war and military service are subject that generate deep emotional feelings, and none of them are more right than the other.

The book follows the tale of a young officer “Slater” who joins ROTC to help pay for college, despite his anti-war leanings. The story takes him from his days as a farmhand in Iowa, his time at Officer Candidate School under the strict tutelage of Captain Gray, and then to Vietnam. Slater is pegged early in his military career as being a trouble-maker and anti-war. When he gets to Vietnam, he is given an austere and dangerous assignment with Special Forces, despite him being branched Adjutant General. For military readers, this is one drop in a bucket of seemingly incredulous things (blanks being fired without blank adapters, the wearing of an NVA ribbon on the dress uniform, etc.) that might drive by-the-book military types nuts.

The book flows well and is engaging. The characters that Slater interacts with – especially in Vietnam – reminded me a lot of the guys in “Bravo Squad” in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Hinkley manages to paint the reader a vivid image of what it must have been like to be in the mind of an anti-war military officer in Vietnam, focusing often on the inner-monologue of Slater and his thought process. The situations that Slater finds himself in border on the ridiculous, which led me to think that if this were to be made into a movie, it might be a comedy. Hinckley even named two staff officers Major’s Laurel and Hardy after the comedians. The two intercede the narrative occasionally to update the situation, often with information the reader knows to be false.

In Vietnam, Slater sets out to make sure he and his team make it out of Vietnam alive. Without spoiling the book, the team goes to pretty extreme lengths to ensure they are “at peace.” It’s a wild story, and the reader wonders how much of it is fiction and how much of it is inspired by true events – and if it could have even happened at all.

There’s a “forbidden love” story embedded as well, which felt a bit forced and obvious at times.

For me, the most powerful part of the story came at the end, in what at first felt like a tacked-on epilogue following Slater and his team on their return to America and eventually the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC. Sitting in my room in Afghanistan, I couldn’t help getting a little choked up as I followed Slater’s eventual pilgrimage to The Wall, something he avoided for years.

Overall, the book is an interesting look into a rare genre – the anti-war military man. Slater is a character who did not believe in the Vietnam war, but went anyway. Once there, he did everything he could in his power to “make peace.” The usual depiction of the anti-war soldier is one of indiscipline – the pot-smoking draftee or the deserter. In this case, Slater and his team are actually pretty efficient, despite being anti-war.

While there may be more “Slaters” out there, this is the first I’ve read about the anti-war military man who still managed to work through the system. The author writes in the notes at the end that this is a story that needs to be told. I’m sure there were many who went to Vietnam who didn’t believe in the war but felt that it was their duty to serve as they were called.

Check it out if you’re interested. Thanks for sending the book, Mr. Hinckley!


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