Sunday, September 12, 2010

A few thoughts on War and Peace

So having got a Sony Reader Touch for Father's Day (thanks, honey!), I finally got to read all of War and Peace (thanks, Project Gutenberg!).

I thought I would record a couple of observations. First, Tolstoy doesn't have an overly high opinion of Napoleon (to say the least). Following are two of my favorite passages:
With regard to legal matters, immediately after the fires he gave orders to find and execute the incendiaries. And the scoundrel Rostopchin was punished by an order to burn down his houses. (p.993)
With regard to legal matters, after the execution of the supposed incendiaries the rest of Moscow burned down. (p.996)

Tolstoy also accords the lion's share of the credit for defeating Napoleon (to the extent that any individual can be accorded credit for "historical movements of peoples from west to east and east back to west") to Czar Alexander. He is, of course, free to do so, but in order to do so Tolstoy has to engage in a bit of historical legerdemain. He somewhat dismissively addresses the performance of the Royal Navy, sniffing that Napoleon managed to elude the Navy twice during the Egyptian expedition. This begs the issue that Napoleon had to skedaddle back to the Continent without his army after Nelson destroyed the army's lifeline and ride home at Aboukir Bay.

Tolstoy also sort of forgets to note that the reason Napoleon didn't knock England out of the war was because he couldn't...because he couldn't move his army across the English Channel, a "mere" 20 or so miles as the crow flies. The Spanish ulcer may not have cost the French as much blood and treasure as the invasion of Russia (I'll have to look that up, and perhaps update this post), but it was sufficient unto the day. So it says here that Horatio Nelson and Arthur Wellesley had as much to do as Aleksandr Romanov with marooning Napoleon on St. Helena.

None of that detracts from Tolstoy's achievement, though. Now I've read War and Peace and Dostoevky's The Brothers Karamazov, and I see why people rhapsodize about Russian novels.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A few thoughts on Dreadnought

I've been reading Robert Massie's Dreadnought lately. Wonderful book, and if you've ever looked back at that era and thought to yourself, "Who the hell did those people think they were?" Massie will explain it to you. Here's a brief excerpt (p. 700 in the hardcover edition, sitting in front of me courtesy of my university library):

...After lunch at Kronberg, (British Foreign Office Undersecretary Sir Charles -- ed.) Hardinge's conversation with the Kaiser turned to naval limitation. Because, up to that point, the Kaiser had been so amiable, Hardinge forgot himself and said, "But you must build slower." Instantly, William drew himself up, and announced that no one could use the term 'must' to a German Emperor. If England insisted on German limitation, he said, "then we shall fight. It is a question of national honor and dignity."
 Which is to say, of course, a question of the Hohenzollern popinjay's ego (I can just imagine what would have happened had a French prisoner of war said, "Hey, Corporal!" to William, as Christopher Duffy records happened to Frederick the Great). The book is replete with examples of matters of personal pique suddenly becoming matters of the national interest and/or national honor. The Fashoda affair is a pretty good example.

...As an aside, my limited research in the subject suggests Dugout Doug had more than a bit of that, which makes me realize just how big a bullet the Republic may have dodged there. American Caesar, you betcha (and that one's gonna have to go on the reading list).

In any case, anyone who invokes the "national honor" ought to get the same degree of stink-eye as one who invokes "collective responsibility" (or any other appeal to group-identity in the pursuit of one's life, liberty, and property via Oppenheimer's political means). Both type seek to reify (confer independent existence upon) collectives: perniciously so, in my view, because it always ends up coming at the expense of the individual. "Citizen! It's your lucky day! You too can contribute blood and treasure to restore the national honor!"
I decided it would be timely to mention this, after getting involved in a discussion going on at Perfidy, Intellectual Detox, and Aretae.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Observations while gazpaching

I am neither physicist nor engineer (probably shoulda been the latter, and still kick myself periodically), but I today observed that the two biggest problems with the typical Osterizer-type kitchen blender are:

1. Surface tension (or maybe it should be viscosity?): to wit, the stuff wants to stick to the sides of the jar rather than going meekly to its fate 'midst the blades; and

2. Speaking of said blades...cavitation. When the stuff at the surface stops moving and the motor is howling, you know your blades are slicing mostly air. Shut it down and burp it.

I have a sort of hazy mental image of a triple-bladed blender setup, in which the center set of blades would rotate much more slowly, to break up (okay, maybe) the cavitation bubbles as they form while the upper and lower sets make with the chopping, pureeing, or what have you. I can only imagine how complex the gearing would have to be, and what such a blender would cost to make.

In other news, if that gazpacho recipe had been any bigger Elder Son and I wouldn't have anything to put it in.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Brave New War

I recently finished John Robb's Brave New War. Robb does a fine job laying out the asymmetric/4th generation warfare theme. It makes interesting reading in a number of respects, one or two of which may have been unintentional. First, Robb's discussion of Iraq is pre-surge (the book was published in 2007 and presumably written in 2006 and before), so his take on Iraq will undoubtedly be colored by one's view of the effectiveness of the surge.

On the other hand, much of what Robb says about Iraq is echoed to some degree in what Michael Yon is saying right now about Afghanistan.

On the other other hand, some of what Robb writes about is, in my view, very old wine in shiny new high-tech bottles. Although the analogies are not perfect, asymmetric warfare is not new: Bedford Forrest did a lot more damage and tied up far more Union resources chasing his forces around the landscape than he used himself. What is new is the increasing ability of non-state actors to play, but even this is not entirely new. After all, the Ujedinjenje ili Smrt (Union or Death, also known as the Black Hand) was not a state organization, and the FN 1910 pistol Gavrilo Princip used to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie of Hohnenberg sold for $64.95 in contemporary U.S. dollars.

And what did Princip accomplish with his $65 gun and two rounds? Why, the 20th Century, which saw state-organized murder on a scale to make even S.M. Stirling's Tchernobog burp and say, "No thanks, I'm driving." Pretty good return on investment...for given values of pretty good.

All that said, though, Brave New War definitely repaid the time I spent reading it, and Robb's blog is well worth perusing. He spends a lot of time discussing -- and attracts good comments further discussing -- the hollowing of the nation-state, resilient communities, and other interesting topics.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Done Lit Out for the Territories

I've been reading James C. Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of South Asia lately. The professor's argument, boiled down, is this: The idea of viewing certain groups of people as "primitive" or "barbarian" is a state-centric view, applied to people who have chosen ways of living that keep them out of the ambit of the State. Most of his evidence is drawn from his analysis Zomia, an upland massif of South Asia spanning parts of China, Burma, and several other countries.

To be sure, there's something to the argument; at any rate, something can be made of it. Even in a Lockean system (and Professor Scott nods toward Lockeanism, but that is not, I believe, where he is coming from philosophically -- he appears to be making more of a "commons"-based anarchist argument), the role of the State is to secure the liberty of its citizens (protection against invaders from without and criminals within). If one were so inclined, one could characterize it this way:

"Just over those hills there are the Bad Guys. They dress funny, act funny, worship funny, and all they say is 'bar bar bar.' And they're looking this way, and they're coming to burn your crops, steal your livestock, jostle your womenfolk, carry off your children, and extract tribute from you.
"In the name of the King, I am here to offer you sturdy farmers protection from the Bad Guys Over the Hills. All you have to do is, uh, well, pay taxes, render a few days of corvée labor working on the King's Road and the King's Wall we'll be building, uh, well, right through your pasture there, I guess, according to the Royal Surveyor, and, uh...say, is that your daughter? Wow, she's cute! About sixteen, is she? I might be able to find her a place at Court. Fine strapping sons, too, I see. The King's army can use likely lads like those."
Having said so, have I disposed of the question in a manner acceptable to anarcho-capitalists like myself? I have not. That will take more doing, and once in a while those Bad Guys Over the Hills are every bit that bad and then some.

But what Scott is proposing isn't really new, or limited to Zomia. The state periphery is always the province of those for whom life in the State doesn't sit well. "Lighting out for the Territories" is a significant part of U.S. history, and various bits of badland and hill country even now form a sort of refuge where the king's writ does not run, at least not as efficiently as it does in the settled valleys and flatlands.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

People were not only smaller and lived closer to water: they were more broadly and deeply educated

By way of relaunching my blogging career, such as it is, I wish now to share with you a pair of passages I recently read. Here's the first:
No man stands out a grand and solitary figure; mental pictures are constantly painted of what the people think and as to what the people will or may do: when the bulk of the people do not think at all; for as Henry Ford long ago discovered, to most minds thought is 'absolutely appalling,' and what very naturally the masses want to do is enjoy themselves thoroughly and cheaply.
And here's the second:
To-day slavery consists in binding ourselves to the myth that nations are economically independent and that prosperity can be cultivated by trade barriers and protective tariffs. Were it possible to-morrow to establish universal free trade throughout the world, then within a generation would nations be so completely de-capitalized, for wealth would become so distributed, that international war would be deprived of its reason and become inane.
The first passage -- to me, at any rate -- could have come from one of today's behavioral economists, although I doubt many behavioral economists would quote Henry Ford with approval. Alternatively, one supposes it could have come from that branch of libertarian/anti-statist thought that refers dismissively to "the sheeple" (not without evidence, one must admit, and one must also concede that among those expressing such views is Albert Jay Nock).

The second could have come from just about anyone at the Mises Institute.

In fact, both these passages are from the same author, in the same work, within two pages of each other. The author is the British general and military theorist J.F.C. Fuller, writing in The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant; the first passage can be found on pages 410-411, and the second on pages 411-412.

It's an interesting juxtaposition, says I, and the more so for having been written in the late 1920s, by a career officer in the Royal Army. Even more interesting is the fact that Fuller elsewhere in the book writes approvingly of Frederick W. Taylor; principles of scientific management (in the context of industrial-scale endeavors) and individual liberty appear on the surface to be little related, although one may suppose that liberty of contract remains the guarantor of the individual's liberty. Of course, when the political means has been employed to interfere with the ability of competitive enterprises to enter a market, and the state has eliminated the individual's ability to work unclaimed land (Nock writes on this in Our Enemy, the State: note that the preceding link goes direct to a PDF of the book), the exercise of liberty of contract increasingly resembles an academic exercise.

What do I make of it all? I don't know, although I am inclined to agree with Fuller's second passage. I have long believed, though, that most of those making up "the masses" are capable of far more than they know or have been taught to believe. One must be careful with such formulations, though: as a rule, I do not believe in false consciousness as advanced by collectivists. Finally, I am impressed with the apparent scope and depth of General Fuller's scholarship and education as expressed in his ideas (whether or not I agree with all of them) and writing ability. In addition to the work cited, I recently read Fuller's Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship, and it too is well written and a fine piece of scholarship; I think one would agree, whether or not one agrees with Fuller's rather boats-against-the-current assessment of Grant as a general.