Burnt by the Sun

15 July 2014

Tuesday


On the plane home, looking tired after Sardinia and the Camargue.

On the plane home, looking tired after Sardinia and the Camargue.

There is a fascinating Russian film titled Burnt by the Sun, which manages to put an interesting spin on the most repressive Stalinist period of Soviet history. The analogy here is that Russian society was “burnt by the sun” of the revolution, which like the summer sun that leaves us burnt, was so brilliant that some were “burned” by its energy. One could consign this to mere apologetics that fails to take the victims of Stalinism seriously, but it is a good film, and a morally serious film, that is not so easily dismissed.

On the plane home from Lima, looking tired.

On the plane home from Lima, looking tired.

In a literal, rather than a metaphorical sense, I often feel burnt by the sun after one of my touring holidays. At home, I lead a primarily nocturnal life, working mostly at night, and so am little exposed to the sun. It is different on holiday. Sightseeing can be surprisingly hard work if you take it seriously — and I do take it seriously. There is nothing else that has taught me as much as travel. So I push myself pretty hard, walking hour after hour through towns and museums in the heat of the day when such sights are open and available to the public. And I am part of that sightseeing public.

Another time flying home from Lima, and looking tired again.

Another time flying home from Lima, and looking tired again.

On the flight back to Portland I watched the (relatively recent) film The Grand Budapest Hotel, which centers on the life of a concierge at a famous hotel in a fictional eastern European country. In reciting a litany of the duties of a concierge, the protagonist mentions in passing the acquisition of private showings of art for guests, and I immediately wondered who merits such special access — something I have mentioned before in my book Variations on the Theme of Life:

“A dozen years after I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, I read Auden’s poem, Musée de Beaux Arts, and realized that I had stood in the same room of Bruegel’s paintings, as have thousands before me and thousands after, from the famous to the unknown. I thought of another room filled with Bruegel’s images, where I have also been, at the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, where tourists with glazed eyes file past while students take notes, and where, no doubt, royalty and the fabulously wealthy receive private showings outside regular hours — but all in the same space. At any present moment, space is the principle of individuation that separates us, but, once outside the eternal now, time is the principle of separation — between Bruegel and ourselves, between myself and Auden, between those who enjoy private showings and those of us who shuffle through with the masses. Time and tide, it is said, wait for no man, but while time cannot be stopped, it can be managed — our regime of clocks and calendars compartmentalizes us as effectively as any wall, barricade, fence, or velvet rope.”

J. N. Nielsen, Variations on the Theme of Life, section 57

I have shuffled through with the masses because it was that or nothing — Hobson’s choice in the acquisition of the Western tradition. Like the velvet ropes that restrained my access to the Strahov Monastery library that I mentioned in In Praise of Private Libraries — but which were held aside for others with better connections — these symbolic barriers separate us from another life that is denied us.

Looking tired on my last day in Rome in the fall of 1997.

Looking tired on my last day in Rome in the fall of 1997.

Just so, for ten days or two weeks a working class individual from the industrialized world can live like the one percent, but then the interval passes and we return to our place and position and society, only because we lack the resources to continue. Coming back can be difficult; in fact, for me it seems to get increasingly difficult. Perhaps for others it is different. But now I sit at my desk, burned by the sun, and daydream of Sardinia.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Monday


Feria du Cheval activities in the streets of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Feria du Cheval activities in the streets of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a charming beach town that, like Aigues-Mortes, is not spoiled by its touristic character. There are many restaurants and hotels, and a lively street life based around the tourist trade. There is also a lot of beach front here, which attracts a lot of families with children, who were taking the sun and playing in the surf. Without planning it, I happened to arrive at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer during the annual Feria du Cheval, with events from morning until late into the night associated with the horse culture of the region.

The pilgrimage church at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is Romaneque in spirit, but has a transitional vault of lancet arches.

The pilgrimage church at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is Romaneque in spirit, but has a transitional vault of lancet arches.

The Camargue is known for its white horses, which are very much in evidence wherever you drive in the region. There are numerous ranches and tourist businesses advertising horse riding. The Feria du Cheval puts the horses at center stage for several days, as well as the strongly Spanish-influenced culture of the region, which seems to go hand-in-hand with equestrian culture. Food, music, dance, and equestrian activities were all influenced by Spanish equestrian culture, though the language was always French.

The three saints Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe are the focus of devotions at the pilgrimage church.

The three saints Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe are the focus of devotions at the pilgrimage church.

In addition to the Feria du Cheval, it is also Bastille Day, symbolically recognized as the anniversary of the beginning of the French Revolution, when on 14 July 1789 the Bastille, a prison and symbol of French royal authority, was taken over and occupied by the Bourgeois Militia of Paris (i.e., rioters), which had earlier the same day stormed Les Invalides for firearms, and now wanted the gunpowder stored at the Bastille.

Spectators gathered on the beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer waiting for Bastille Day fireworks.

Spectators gathered on the beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer waiting for Bastille Day fireworks.

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer was packed and busy on Bastille Day, and as evening came people began to assemble on the beach. It seemed pretty obvious that a fireworks display was planned, as I had seen similar expectant crowds on the beach in my childhood at Seaside, Oregon, for the 4th of July fireworks displayed. Given that I began this journey the day after 4th of July, having seen some of the fireworks, I feel that I have come full circle in this particular voyage with the Bastille Day fireworks at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

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Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer fireworks display for Bastille Day.

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer fireworks display for Bastille Day.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Summer Vacation

6 July 2014

Sunday


Sardinia 2

One hundred years ago in July, 1914, as the July Crisis slowly gained momentum, much of Europe went on vacation. Like a classic exponential growth curve, the July Crisis began as a gradual and shallow escalation, and it was not until later in the month that the curve of escalation reached its inflection point and began to shoot upward. At the beginning, very little happened.

Sardinia 1

Immediately after giving carte blanche to Austria-Hungary for any actions it might take to punish the Serbs, the Kaiser left Berlin for Kiel to sail for Norwegian waters aboard his yacht, the Hohenzollern. The day before, German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow left for his honeymoon in Lucerne — it would seem that no great sense of crisis attended the early days of the July Crisis, and no great weight was attached to decisions made at this time, which at least partially explains the Kaiser’s readiness to grant Austria-Hungary carte blanche backing in dealing with Serbia.

Sardinia 3

I, too, have departed for a summer vacation. Though I usually don’t travel in high summer (in the northern hemisphere), and I usually don’t travel to Europe during the season (since it is crowded and expensive), I thought that Sardinia would be sufficiently off the beaten path of tourist traffic to be spared the brunt of the traffic and would be bearable. So far, I have been right. Maybe it is simply because buses can’t drive directly from the continent that reduces the absolute numbers of tourism. There is something about islands that makes them different — and long before buses were an issue. Islands tend to inspire particularism, as well as loyalty to this particularist alternative to nationalism. This is very much in evidence in Sardinia.

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Sardinia 4

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Saturday


A Century of Industrialized Warfare:

Wilhelm II or William II (German: Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albrecht von Preußen; Frederick William Victor Albert of Prussia; 27 January 1859 – o4 June 1941) was the last German Emperor (Kaiser) and King of Prussia, ruling the German Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia from 15 June 1888 to 09 November 1918. (Wikipedia)

Wilhelm II or William II (German: Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albrecht von Preußen; Frederick William Victor Albert of Prussia; 27 January 1859 – o4 June 1941) was the last German Emperor (Kaiser) and King of Prussia, ruling the German Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia from 15 June 1888 to 09 November 1918. (Wikipedia)

Germany Signals Support for Austria-Hungary


One hundred years ago this 5th of July, a letter from Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, carried by Count Alexander Hoyos, was delivered to Kaiser Wilhelm II. Hoyos, like many Austrians, wanted to see the Serbs punished for the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and is supposed to have said of the ultimatum issued to Serbia by Austria-Hungary, “…the demands were really such as to make it really impossible for a state with any self respect and dignity to accept them…” Franz Josef’s letter was discussed by the Kaiser and the Austrian Ambassador to Germany, Count L. de Szögyény-Marich. No documents survive from this meeting, but this was the occasion of the famous “blank check” given by Germany to Austria-Hungary, that Austria-Hungary could “rely on Germany’s full support” in any actions taken in relation to the “Sarajevo outrage.” Later the same day the Kaiser reviewed his assurances to Austria-Hungary with Bethmann Hollweg, Moritz von Lyncker, chief of Wilhelm’s military cabinet, and Erich von Falkenhayn, Prussian War Minister, who concurred with the Kaiser’s support for Austria-Hungary. This was not a hasty decision taken in isolation, but a matter discussed and reviewed at the highest levels of government.

Kaiser Wilhelm lI, Emperor of Germany from 1888 to 1918 with Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria from 1848 to 1916.

Kaiser Wilhelm lI, Emperor of Germany from 1888 to 1918
with Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria from 1848 to 1916.

The next day, a Telegram from the Imperial Chancellor, von Bethmann-Hollweg, was sent to the German Ambassador at Vienna, Heinrich Leonhard von Tschirschky und Bögendorff (15 July 1858 – 15 November 1916), which read as follows:

Berlin, July 6, 1914

Confidential. For Your Excellency’s personal information and guidance

The Austro-Hungarian Ambassador yesterday delivered to the Emperor a confidential personal letter from the Emperor Francis Joseph, which depicts the present situation from the Austro-Hungarian point of view, and describes the measures which Vienna has in view. A copy is now being forwarded to Your Excellency.

I replied to Count Szögyény today on behalf of His Majesty that His Majesty sends his thanks to the Emperor Francis Joseph for his letter and would soon answer it personally. In the meantime His Majesty desires to say that he is not blind to the danger which threatens Austria-Hungary and thus the Triple Alliance as a result of the Russian and Serbian Pan-Slavic agitation. Even though His Majesty is known to feel no unqualified confidence in Bulgaria and her ruler, and naturally inclines more toward our old ally Rumania and her Hohenzollern prince, yet he quite understands that the Emperor Francis Joseph, in view of the attitude of Rumania and of the danger of a new Balkan alliance aimed directly at the Danube Monarchy, is anxious to bring about an understanding between Bulgaria and the Triple alliance [...]. His Majesty will, further more, make an effort at Bucharest, according to the wishes of the Emperor Francis Joseph, to influence King Carol to the fulfilment of the duties of his alliance, to the renunciation of Serbia, and to the suppression of the Rumanian agitations directed against Austria-Hungary.

Finally, as far as concerns Serbia, His Majesty, of course, cannot interfere in the dispute now going on between Austria-Hungary and that country, as it is a matter not within his competence. The Emperor Francis Joseph may, however, rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship.

BETHMANN-HOLLWEG

This isn’t quite the “smoking gun” that we would like to see, but it is clear enough is asserting that the Kaiser, “will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary,” and it also demonstrates a certain degree of prescience in “Serbian Pan-Slavic agitation” — which would, eventually, bring Russia in the fray.

Franz Joseph I or Francis Joseph I (German: Franz Joseph I., Hungarian: I. Ferenc József, Slovene: Franc Jožef I.,18 August 1830 – 21 November 1916) was Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary from 1848 until his death in 1916.  (Wikipedia)

Franz Joseph I or Francis Joseph I (German: Franz Joseph I., Hungarian: I. Ferenc József, Slovene: Franc Jožef I.,18 August 1830 – 21 November 1916) was Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary from 1848 until his death in 1916. (Wikipedia)

In the run up to the First World War, this blank check given to Austria-Hungary by Germany was one of the pivotal triggers of the July Crisis. Although I don’t want to undermine the assertion that the assassination in Sarajevo was a trigger of the First World War, I would insist that it was a trigger and not the trigger, and it would be just as profitable, from an historiographical perspective, to consider a sequence of triggers of which the assassination was the first. In other words, there is not single, unique trigger for the First World War, but a sequence of escalating triggers, each contingent upon the preceding the the following trigger for the events of 1914 to eventually pass the threshold of openly declared war and thus to become the first global industrialized war.

Alexander Graf von Hoyos, Freiherr zu Stichsenstein, Chef de cabinet of the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, and courier of a request for support from Franz Josef to Wilhelm II.

Alexander Graf von Hoyos, Freiherr zu Stichsenstein, Chef de cabinet of the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, and courier of a request for support from Franz Josef to Wilhelm II.

This sequence of triggers might as well be called a continuum of triggers, and we might plausibly select and argue for any arbitrary point along the continuum as the crucial trigger that made the whole of the First World War possible. To recognize a continuum of triggers, one following another, is to understand that the triggers occur in the context of structure forces that make it possible for the trigger to be a trigger. If the structural forces, both local and global, and causes both short-term and long-term, were not already in place, the trigger would have come to nothing. The understand the origins of the First World War, then, one must attempt to understand the whole of the European system on the even of the First World War, because it was the entire military, political, diplomatic, and social system of the time that was ultimately the “cause” of the First World War. Let us, then, consider a little more context in order to make sense of the outbreak of the First World War.

Theobald Theodor Friedrich Alfred von Bethmann Hollweg (29 November 1856 – 1 January 1921) was a German politician and statesman who served as Chancellor of the German Empire from 1909 to 1917. (Wikipedia)

Theobald Theodor Friedrich Alfred von Bethmann Hollweg (29 November 1856 – 01 January 1921) was a German politician and statesman who served as Chancellor of the German Empire from 1909 to 1917. (Wikipedia)

Europe has a long history of descent into shockingly violent fratricidal warfare, followed by a period of reflection, in which social and political measures are taken in an attempt to prevent another similar outbreak in the future. This pattern is not limited to the twentieth century. The Hundred Years’ War witnessed several cycles of political violence followed by uneasy peace, the Thirty Years’ War was a particularly brutal nadir, though the settlement of the Thirty Years’ war resulted in the nation-state international system we have today, and eventually a reaction against superstition and religious absolutism that we call the Enlightenment (which I discussed yesterday in The Right of the People to Alter or to Abolish). After the series of Napoleonic Wars that drew in most of Europe, the victors — or perhaps I should say the survivors — as always sought to construct an international order that would prevent political violence on this scope and scale from again breaking out.

Szőgyény-Marich_László_1890-52

One of the results of the settlement of the Napoleonic Wars was the emergence of Belgium as an independent kingdom. This was a process that began with the Belgian Revolution in 1830, which led to the 1830 London Conference in which Europe’s major powers recognized the independence of Belgium on the condition of strict Belgian neutrality. The Dutch didn’t sign on to the Treaty of London until 1839, so that the formation of Belgium as we know it today required about ten years of political negotiations. Belgium has been called “the crossroads of Europe” as so many armies have marched across its territory — the Battle of Waterloo was fought in what is now Belgium — and it was thought, in the best tradition of European good intentions, that a Kingdom of Belgium formally committed to neutrality would contribute to ongoing balance of power politics that would prevent (or, at least, hamper) any one of the great powers from causing the kind of trouble that Napoleon caused for the other European powers. In fact, German violation of Belgian neutrality in August 1914 became an additional trigger that brought England into the war on the side of France.

Heinrich Leonhard von Tschirschky und Bögendorff (15 July 1858 – 15 November 1916) was a German diplomat and politician, who served as Foreign Secretary and head of the Foreign Office from 24 January 1906 to 25 October 1907. (Wikipedia)

Heinrich Leonhard von Tschirschky und Bögendorff (15 July 1858 – 15 November 1916) was a German diplomat and politician, who served as Foreign Secretary and head of the Foreign Office from 24 January 1906 to 25 October 1907. (Wikipedia)

In 1914, the whole of Europe was predicated upon a war that all the great powers expected, but no one knew exactly when or where or how it would start. Europeans had been expecting and planning for a war between the great powers literally for generations. The attempts to create an international order that would make war less likely ironically created a climate in which the whole of Europe was primed for war, prepared for war, and ready to go to war on a moment’s notice. The international system as it existed in the Europe in 1914 was not, appearances to the contrary, a stable and peaceful equilibrium into which a random and arbitrary trigger brought death, misery and suffering on an unprecedented scale. Rather, the period between the Napoleonic wars and the First World War was more like the Cold War — a peace not worthy of the name, so we call it something else. All through the Cold War we lived in fear of a random, arbitrary trigger that would mean a massive nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union. Fortunately, this did not occur, but if it had occurred, it would not have occurred in a vacuum. A match can light a fire only where tinder and fuel are ready to hand.

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1914 to 2014

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A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

3. The July Crisis

4. A Blank Check for Austria-Hungary

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Friday


Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were named to a committee to prepare a declaration of independence. Jefferson (standing) did the actual writing because he was known as a good writer. Congress deleted Jefferson's most extravagant rhetoric and accusations. (Virginia Historical Society)

“Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were named to a committee to prepare a declaration of independence. Jefferson (standing) did the actual writing because he was known as a good writer. Congress deleted Jefferson’s most extravagant rhetoric and accusations.” (Virginia Historical Society)

On this, the 238th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, I would like to recall what is perhaps the centerpiece of the document: a ringing affirmation of what would later, during the French Revolution, be called “The Rights of Man,” and how and why a people with “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” should go about securing these rights:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

The famous litany of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness names certain specific instances, we note, among the unalienable rights of human beings (a partial, and not an exhaustive list of such rights), and in the very same paragraph the founders have mentioned the Right of the People to alter or to abolish any form of government that becomes destructive to these ends. This is significant; the right of the people to alter or abolish a government that is destructive of unalienable rights is itself an unalienable right, though qualified by the condition that established governments should not be lightly overthrown. The Founders did not say that long established governments should never be overthrown, since they were in the process of overthrowing the government of one of the oldest kingdoms in Europe, but that such an action should not be undertaken lightly.

In keeping with with a prioristic language of self-evident truths, the Founders have formulated the right to alter or to abolish in terms of forms of government. In other words, the right to alter or abolish is framed not in terms of particular tyrannical or corrupt regimes, but on the form of the regime. This is political platonism, pure and simple. The Founders are here recognizing that there are a few distinct forms of government, just as there are a few distinct unalienable rights. For the political platonism of the Anglophone Englightenment, forms of government and unalienable rights are part of the furniture of the universe (a phrase I previously employed in Defunct Ideas and some other posts).

It has always been the work of revolutions to alter or to abolish forms of government, and this is still true today, although we are much less likely to think in these platonistic terms about the forms of governments and unalienable rights. To be sure, the idea of rights has become absolutized to a certain extent in the contemporary world, but it is a conflicted absolute idea, because it is an absolute idea stranded in a society that no longer believes in absolute ideas. In just the same way, the governmental tradition of the US is a “stranded asset” of history — an anachronistic relic of the Enlightenment that has survived through several post-Enlightenment periods of history and still survives today. The language of the Enlightenment can still speak to us today — it has a perennial resonance with human nature — but if you can get a typical representative of our age to engage in a detailed conversation about political ideals, you will not find many proponents of Enlightenment ideals, such as the perfectibility of man, throwing off past superstitions, the belief in progress, the dawning of a new world, and a universalist conception of human nature. These are, now, by-and-large, defunct ideas. But not entirely.

If you do find these Enlightenment ideals, you will find them in a very different form than the form that they took among the Enlightenment Founders of the American republic — and note here my use of “form” and again the platonism that implies. Those today who most passionately believe in the Enlightenment ideals of progress, perfectibility, and a new world on the horizon are, by and large, transhumanists and singulatarians. They believe (often enthusiastically) in an optimistic vision of a better future, although the future they envision would be, for some among us, a paradigm of moral horror — human beings altered beyond all recognition and leading lives that have little or no relationship to human lives as they have been lived since the beginning of civilization.

Transhumanists and singulatarians also believe in the right of the people to alter or to abolish institutions that have become destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — but the institutions they seek to alter or abolish are none other than the institutions of the human body and the human mind (or, platonistically, the form of the human body and the form of the human mind), far older than any form of government, and presumably not to be lightly altered or abolished. Looking at the contemporary literature on transhumanism, with some arguing for and some arguing against, it is obvious that one of the great moral conflicts in the coming century (and perhaps for some time after, until some settlement is reached, or until we and our civilization are so transformed that the question loses its meaning) is going to be that over transhumanism, which is, essentially, a platonistic question about what it means to be human (and the attempt to define the distinction between the human and the non-human, which I recently wrote about). For some, what it means to be human is already fixed for all time and eternity; for others, what it means to be human is not fixed, but is subject to continual change and revision, taking in the whole of human prehistory and what we were before we were human.

It is likely that the coming moral conflict over transhumanism (both the conflict and transhumanism itself have already started, but they remain at the shallow end of an exponential growth curve) will eventually make itself felt as social and political conflict. The ethico-religious conflict in Europe from the advent of the Reformation to the end of the Thirty Years’ War brought into being the political institution of the nation-state and even created the conditions for the Enlightenment, as a reaction against the religious excesses the Reformation and its consequences. Similarly, the ethico-social conflict that will follow from divisions over transhumanism (and related technological developments that will blur the distinction between the human and the non-human) may in their turn be the occasion of the emergence of revolutionary changes in social and political institutions. Retaining the right of the people to alter or abolish their institutions means remaining open to such revolutionary change.

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Happy 4th of July!

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The July Crisis

1 July 2014

Tuesday


A Century of Industrialized Warfare:

July 18 fleet

The Escalating Crisis of July 1914


One hundred years ago the month of July became the “July Crisis.” We know in hindsight that the July Crisis culminated in the outbreak of what would become the First World War, but it was not at all clear at the time that the July Crisis would result in anything out of the ordinary. For much of July 1914, it was an open question whether the July Crisis would be just another crisis in the long sequence of crises (and small wars) that had punctuated the long peace since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. A hundred years of European peace is enough to make even the most suspicious and edgy among us complacent.

And there were many crises of the international system, especially after the Franco-Prussian War:

● 1885-1888 Bulgarian Crisis

● 1898 Fashoda Incident

● 1905-1906 Tangier Crisis (First Moroccan Crisis)

● 1908–1909 Bosnian Crisis (First Balkan Crisis)

● 1911 Agadir Crisis (Second Moroccan Crisis)

● 1912 First Balkan War

● 1913 Second Balkan War

From a contemporaneous perspective, there was no particular reason to suppose that the July Crisis of 1914 should have been any different from the almost annual series of crises that preceded it.

Moreover, these continual crises did not occur in a vacuum, but were punctuations in the dynamics of great power politics: the Ottoman Empire was the “Sick Man of Europe,” there was the “scramble for Africa,” and the naval arms race between Britain and Germany to see who could build the most Dreadnaught class battleships raged. Europeans nevertheless found a way to go about the ordinary business of life. Indeed, it seemed to be a July like any other July. There is a now-famous quote from Stephan Zweig that attributes a unique quality to that portentous summer:

“The summer of 1914 would have been memorable for us even without the doom which it spread over the European earth. I had rarely experienced one more luxuriant, more beautiful and, I am tempted to say, more summery. Throughout the days and nights the heavens were a silky blue, the air soft yet not sultry, the meadows fragrant and warm, the forests dark and profuse in their tender green…”

Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, Chapter IX, “The First Hours of the War of 1914″

When Stefan Zweig was enjoying, “…those radiant July days which I spent in Baden near Vienna,” it was, incidentally, the July that my maternal grandmother turned 18. I mention my grandmother here because she is my personal link to the past. Being born in the 19th century, she was old enough to remember the war in its entirety, the dancing in the streets when the armistice took effect, and the Spanish flu that followed, which took one of her close friends. I often imagine what my grandmother was doing as these events unfolded in order to anchor myself in past that I know and which has personal significance to me. You could dismiss this as sentimentalism, or, if charitable, call it a thought experiment.

In 1914 a thought experiment would have been a luxury, as the events were unfolding in the real world, but in early July, still at a slow pace. Keep in mind, however, that, of these many crises that preceded the First World War, many of them did in fact erupt into wars — though these wars were short, limited, and local. Europe had not seen a continental wide war since the Napoleonic wars, and arguably the international system had not seen a global conflict since the Seven Years’ War.

From the perspective of contemporaries, even if the July Crisis erupted into a war involving one or several of the great powers, there was no reason to suppose that this war would differ qualitatively from any of the last dozen or so wars. Even when France and Germany last went to war, this too was short, limited, and local. The Franco-Prussian war perfectly conformed to “the dogma of a short war,” and even once the First World War got underway, most expected it, too, to be a short, sharp war that would either rapidly confirm Germany’s preeminence on the continent, or which would return Alsace and Lorraine to France while checking (if not humiliating) the ambitions of growing Germany.

What John Maurer (among others) has called “The Short War Dogma” was a pervasive presupposition of war planners at the time. Here is how Maurer described the outlook:

“The dogmas of political economy that then held sway — the interdependence of great power economies, the seemingly prohibitive cost of waging a modern war, the supposed limited ability of the state to intervene in a country’s economic life, and the fear of social revolution — appeared to dictate the necessity of short wars in the modern era.”

John H. Maurer, The Outbreak of the First World War: Strategic Planning, Crisis Decision Making, and Deterrence Failure, p. 3

…and…

“…military planners could not provide a neat operational solution to the strategic problems posed by a protracted conflict. Instead of dwelling on contingencies that seemed problematical, war planners before 1914 concentrated on the task of securing a knockout blow to the enemy’s armies in the first round — the decisive battle or battle of annihilation. This ‘decisive battle of annihilation’ would overwhelmingly dictate the outcome of the wars fought between continental European states. Bereft of its army, a continental state would have no alternative but to seek an armistice and negotiate for the best terms it could obtain to end the war. The essential component of the short war dogma, then, was the climactic battle of annihilation.”

John H. Maurer, The Outbreak of the First World War: Strategic Planning, Crisis Decision Making, and Deterrence Failure, p. 4

The coming four years were to send the Europeans to the school of Thucydides, in which war, “proves a rough master, that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes.” However, even while war brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes, the character of newly industrialized nation-states was to prove that the presumed insuperable difficulties of economic interdependence, the cost of modern war, and the possibility of social revolution (which latter was in fact realized in Russia, as well as in the French trenches) could be borne, though at a cost. The cost was staggering, but the fact that nation-states could and did bear a staggering cost in blood and treasure had the consequence of the scope and scale of the First World War, which definitively demonstrated the falsity of the short war dogma.

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1914 to 2014

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A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

3. The July Crisis

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twentury century war collage small

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Sunday


A Century of Industrialized Warfare:

Assassination may lead to war

Headlines around the World


The day after Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, the event was headline news all over the world, reaching all the way to Klamath Falls, Oregon, where The Evening Herald, a local newspaper that published from 1906 to 1942, boldly proclaimed that the assassination may lead to war. They were right — more right than they knew.

The role of telecommunications and the media in the first global industrialized war was central, and this was revealed hard on the heels of the role of terrorism in the actual assassination. Still in our time, the role of the mass media in breathlessly reporting terrorism plays a central role in the 24/7 news cycle, shaping both public policy and public opinion, which latter, in mass societies, plays a driving role in events. Mass man and mass media feed off each other and escalate events, sometimes in destructive ways.

In an earlier age, it might have taken weeks for the news to travel around Europe, and months to make it around the world, but the technologies of newsprint (invented by Charles Fenerty in 1844), Linotype machines (invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler in 1884, the same year the Maxim gun was invented), the telegraph (first demonstrated by Samuel F.B. Morse in 1844, the same year newsprint was invented), transoceanic telegraph cables (the first completed in 1858, which failed shortly thereafter, but after several attempts regular transatlantic telegraphy was established in 1866), and the wireless telegraph (patented by Marconi in 1896, but preceded by a long train of antecedent science and technology), a nearly instantaneous global communications network was established and continually improved from that time to the present day.

With a global communications network in place, news of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was known around the world within hours of its occurrence, and global industrial-technological civilization responded as quickly with headlines and official responses to the assassination. Belgrade wired its official condolences for the killing to Vienna on the 29th, in England King George V decreed seven days of mourning, and then in Russia Czar Nicholas II, in a kind of grief one-upmanship, ordered twelve days of mourning.

Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić publicly renounced the Black Hand terrorist organization that was behind the assassination, even while Milan Ciganovich, a Serbian state railway employee who was also spying on the Black Hand for Pašić, was smuggled out of Belgrade by Pašić and sent to Montenegro. Despite official condolences wired to Vienna, when several days later the Austro-Hungarian government asked whether the Serbian government had opened a judicial inquiry into the assassination, the response was that, “nothing has been done so far and the matter is of no concern to the Serbian government.”

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1914 to 2014

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A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Saturday


A Century of Industrialized Warfare:

sarajevo postcard

Assassination in Sarajevo


There is something horrifically appropriate in the fact that the trigger for the First World War exactly one hundred years ago today was an act of terrorism. By the end of the twentieth century terrorism would again be a trigger for global events, but in the meantime the largest wars in planetary history were fought as symmetrical contests between peer or near-peer nation-states, and then the non-war, non-peace of the Cold War involved an ongoing contest between two power blocs that dominated the international system. Terrorism kicked off global industrialized war, and now since peer-to-peer global conflict has all but disappeared, terrorism is once again a power in the world, after being submerged by much larger and more systematic forms of violence. Terrorism has come into its own again, so that the assassination in Sarajevo appears not only as the momentous trigger of the first global industrialized war, but also has a foreshadowing of the world that would follow the long sequence of global wars of the twentieth century. We could, with some justification, call the twentieth century the Second Hundred Years’ War.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, with an elephant he shot in Ceylon. The Archduke was an avid hunter, so there is something of poetic justice in himself becoming the hunted.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, with an elephant he shot in Ceylon. The Archduke was an avid hunter, so there is something of poetic justice in himself becoming the hunted.

Before the First World War there had been smaller, regional industrialized wars. The American Civil War, with its use of rifled guns and artillery, the Gatling gun, and ironclads was an early glimpse of what was to come. The War of the Pacific (1879-1883) was another prescient conflict, as it may be thought of as the first “resource” war — it was also called the “Saltpetre War,” and demonstrated that nation-states would go to war to secure essential resources for their industries. Most demonstrative of all was the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Its use of machine guns (the Maxim gun was invented in 1884) and the Battle of Tsushima between steel battleships, in which wireless telegraphy played an important role, foreshadowed the kind of warfare that would typify the twentieth century. (American President Teddy Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Treaty of Portsmouth, which brought the war to an end.)

Gavrilo Princip postcard or dopisna karta published by Jakob Kappon in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, post-World War I, circa late 1920s, early 1930s. Printed by SHS Jugoslavija Zagreb. P. B. 4.

Gavrilo Princip postcard or dopisna karta published by Jakob Kappon in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, post-World War I, circa late 1920s, early 1930s. Printed by SHS Jugoslavija Zagreb. P. B. 4.

Despite these earlier intimations of industrialized warfare, the First World War was unprecedented in scope, scale, and catastrophic consequences. Millions died; empires fell; and a new way of war became inescapable. Any belligerent who persisted with outdated weaponry or tactics was not merely defeated in battle, but his social and political institutions were likely to be annihilated. Imperial Germany, Tsarist Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were all annihilated in a war they made possible. Global colonial empires were activated both to open new and distant fronts, as well as to bring colonial troops to Europe to witness the civilized Europeans at their most savage. After a long period of relative stability, the world was rapidly turned upside down, and in four years’ time the decisive break with the past had been made. Everyone knew that there was no going back. How could the assassination of one marginal man by another marginal man in a marginal provincial city be the trigger for the first global industrialized war?

Minutes before the assassination...

Minutes before the assassination…

In a relatively stable international system, wars almost by definition erupt only on the margins of the most advanced political institutions, and the more stable these institutions, and the longer lived, the further outward the margins are pushed, until the margins of the most advanced political powers are pushed into a region that has never benefited from the stability. The Balkans, always on the periphery of Europe but never one of the great centers of European civilization (at least, not since Periclean Athens), met this condition almost perfectly. Still largely rural, poor, and undeveloped, the peoples of the Balkans were nevertheless exposed to the most advanced ideas of Europe, and nationalism was one of the most powerful of these ideas. The idea of nationalism, and of a nation-state as the political expression of nationalism, was inflammatory in the ethnic mixture of the Balkans. The quotes that can be cited in relation to the Balkans are all so perfect that it is difficult to choose among them. Otto von Bismarck predicted, “One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” And, in explanation of why this should be so, Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” Sarajevo was, in a sense, at the center of this periphery, and we should, like Bismarck, expect an incident in such a place to be the source of instability in an otherwise stable international system.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie in state

Aged Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph had already lost his son and heir to a spectacular and scandalous suicide, and had to turn to the unpromising Franz Ferdinand as his heir. Though not the first choice in the succession to the throne of Austria-Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand took to the role as well as anyone might be expected to step into such a role. Although often described as something of a dullard (similar things were said of the last Russian Tsar, also soon to be shot), Franz Ferdinand was in fact a reformer, and it is impossible to imagine how different the twentieth century would have been if there had been no First World War, if Franz Ferdinand has ascended to the Dual Monarchy, and had been in a position to put his reforms into practice, dragging the reluctant Hapsburg Empire into the modern world without requiring the sacrifice of millions (starting with the heir to the throne himself) for this to happen. Precisely because Franz Ferdinand was in a position to influence the fate of the Hapsburg Empire, a strike at the Archduke was an existential threat to everything that empire represented — as it turned out, a successful existential threat, which, by striking the monarchy itself, decapitated the empire. Thus while authors have competed with each other to describe Franz Ferdinand in unflattering terms, he was the crucial man in the Hapsburg Empire, and not the marginal figure he is sometimes made out to be.

The 1911 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were riding at the time of their assassination on 28 June 1914.

The 1911 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were riding at the time of their assassination on 28 June 1914.

Gavrilo Princip was a committed terrorist, i.e., a man who was prepared to kill and to die for ideological reasons. In other words, Gavrilo Princip was the prototype, the progenitor, and the model of a type of figure that would become increasingly common in the twentieth century, and who is still common in our time. Ideologically motivated terrorism requires an inscrutable synthesis of individualism and self-sacrifice that could not have been produced before the industrial revolution, and the conditions for producing the type in any number only came to full fruition in the twentieth century, with its mass societies of millions and its rising living standards that encouraged even the lowliest to think that they could leave their mark upon history. History was no longer beyond the reach of the ordinary man: history had become personal. A similar sentiment was expressed by a very different spirit, Rupert Brooke, in his poem Peace: “Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour.” Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand, and Gavrilo Princip were all together matched to their hour, and the confluence of these three meant that the global industrial-technological civilization taking shape at that time should be crucially shaped by global industrialized warfare.

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1914 to 2014

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A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

3. The July Crisis

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Thursday


Geocentric cosmology by Orance Fine (1494-1555)

Geocentric cosmology by Orance Fine (1494-1555)

Once upon a time it was believed that the world was eternal and unchanging. The inconvenient truth of life and death of Earth was accommodated by a distinction between the sublunary and the superlunary: in Ptolemaic astronomy, the “sublunary” was everything in the cosmos below the sphere of the moon, and this was subject to time and change and suffering; the superlunary was everything in the cosmos beyond the sphere of the moon, which was eternal, perfect, unchanging, and permanent. Thus it was a major problem when Galileo turned his telescope on the moon and saw craters, and when he looked at the sun he saw spots. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

As a result of Galileo and the scientific revolution, we are still re-thinking the world, and each time we think that we have the world caught in a net of concepts, it escapes once again. Up until 1999 it was widely believed that the universe was expanding at a decreasing rate, and the only question was whether there was enough mass for this expansion to eventually grind to a halt, and then perhaps the universe would contract again, or if the universe would just keep coasting along in its expansion. Now it seems that the expansion of the universe is speeding up, and it is widely thought that, in a very early stage of the universe’s existence, it underwent an extremely rapid phase of expansion (called inflation).

When the scientific revolution at long last came to biology, Darwin and evolution and natural selection exploded in the scientific imagination, and suddenly a human history that had seemed neat and compact and easily circumscribed became very old, large, and messy. We recognize today that all life on the planet evolved, and that in the short interval of human life, the human mind has evolved, language has evolved, social institutions have evolved, civilization has evolved, and technology has evolved perhaps more rapidly than anything else.

The evolution of human social institutions has meant the evolution of human meanings, values, and purposes: precisely those aspects of human life that were once invested with permanency and unchangeableness in an earlier paradigm of human knowledge. Human knowledge evolves also. Science as the systematic pursuit of knowledge (since the scientific revolution, and especially since the advent of industrial-technological civilization, which is driven forward by science) has pushed the evolution of human knowledge beyond all precedent and expectation. As I recently noted in The Moral Truth of Science, science is a method and not a body and knowledge, and even the method itself changes as it is refined over time and adapted to different fields of study.

Slowly, painfully slowly, we are becoming accustomed to an evolving world in which all things are subject to change. The process does not necessarily get easier, though one might easily suppose we get numbed by change. In fact, when all our previous assumptions are forced to huddle down in a single relict of archaic thought, it can be extraordinarily difficult to get past this last stubborn knot of human thought that has attached itself passionately to the past.

I think that it will be like this with our moral ideas, which are likely to be sheltered for some time to come, and in so far as they are sheltered, they will conceal more prejudices that we would like to admit. Even those among us who are considered progressive, if not radical, can take a position that essentially protects our moral prejudices of the past. John Stuart Mill was among the most reasonable of men, and it is difficult to disagree with his claims. While in his day utilitarianism was considered radical by some, now Mill is understood to be an early proponent of the political liberalism that is taken for granted today. But the quasi-logical form that Mill gave to his ultimate moral assumptions is entirely consistent with the fideism of radical Ockhamists or Kierkegaard.

Here is a classic passage from a classic work by Mill:

Questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof. Whatever can be proved to be good, must be so by being shown to be a means to something admitted to be good without proof. The medical art is proved to be good by its conducing to health; but how is it possible to prove that health is good? The art of music is good, for the reason, among others, that it produces pleasure; but what proof is it possible to give that pleasure is good? If, then, it is asserted that there is a comprehensive formula, including all things which are in themselves good, and that whatever else is good, is not so as an end, but as a mean, the formula may be accepted or rejected, but is not a subject of what is commonly understood by proof. We are not, however, to infer that its acceptance or rejection must depend on blind impulse, or arbitrary choice. There is a larger meaning of the word proof, in which this question is as amenable to it as any other of the disputed questions of philosophy. The subject is within the cognisance of the rational faculty; and neither does that faculty deal with it solely in the way of intuition. Considerations may be presented capable of determining the intellect either to give or withhold its assent to the doctrine; and this is equivalent to proof.

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter 1

Formulating his moral thought in the context of proof, Mill appeals to the logical tradition of western philosophy, going back to Aristotle. We can already find this dilemma of logical thought explicitly formulated in classical antiquity. Commenting on a passage from Aristotle’s Physics (193a3) that reads: “…to try to prove the obvious from the unobvious is the mark of a man incapable of distinguishing what is self-evident and what is not,” Simplicius wrote:

“…the words ‘the mark of a man incapable of distinguishing between what is self-evident and what is not’ typify the who who is anxious to prove by means of other things that nature, which is self-evident, is not self-evident. And it is even worse if they are to be proved by means of what is less knowable, which is what must happen in the case of things that are all too obvious. The man who wants to employ proof for everything eventually destroys proof. For if the evident must be the starting point of proof, the man who thinks that the evident needs proof no longer agrees that anything is evident, not does he leave any basis of proof, and so he leaves no proof either.”

Simplicius: On Aristotle Physics 2, translated by Barrie Fleet, London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 1997, p. 25

The axiological equivalence of self-evidence is intrinsic value, that is to say, self-value. The tradition of intrinsic value in English moral thought arguably reaches its apogee in G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, in which intrinsic value is a theme that occurs throughout the work:

“We must know both what degree of intrinsic value different things have, and how these different things may be obtained. But the vast majority of questions which have actually been discussed in Ethics—all practical questions, indeed—involve this double knowledge; and they have been discussed without any clear separation of the two distinct questions involved. A great part of the vast disagreements prevalent in Ethics is to be attributed to this failure in analysis. By the use of conceptions which involve both that of intrinsic value and that of causal relation, as if they involved intrinsic value only, two different errors have been rendered almost universal. Either it is assumed that nothing has intrinsic value which is not possible, or else it is assumed that what is necessary must have intrinsic value. Hence the primary and peculiar business of Ethics, the determination of what things have intrinsic value and in what degrees, has received no adequate treatment at all.”

G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, section 17

The English, for the most part, had little affinity for Bergson, but it was Bergson who opened up moral philosophy to its temporal reality embedded in changing human experience. In several posts — Epistemic Space: Mapping Time and Object Disoriented Axiology among them — I have discussed Bertrand Russell’s antipathy to Bergson, even though Russell himself was once of the most powerful and passionate advocates of science, and it has been science that has forced us to put aside our equilibrium assumptions and to engage with a dynamic world that forces change upon us even if we would deny it.

The world as we understand it today, from the smallest quantum fluctuations to the evolution of the universe entire, is a dynamic world in which change is the only constant. In such a world, which our traditional eschatologies have invested with eternal moral significance, we would be better served by also abandoning equilibrium assumptions in ethics. There are trivial ways in which this occurs, as when we recognize that different objects have different moral values at different times; there are also more radical ways to think of a morally dynamic world, such as a world in which moral principles themselves must change.

Qualitative risk categories, Figure 2 from 'Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority' (2012) Nick Bostrom

Qualitative risk categories, Figure 2 from ‘Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority’ (2012) Nick Bostrom

In Bostrom’s qualitative categories of risk, the risks of greatest scope are identified as trans-generational and pan-generational (with the possibility of a risks of cosmic scope also noted). Both the idea of the trans-generational and the pan-generational are essentially categories of intrinsic value over time. when existential risks of smaller scope are considered, they are limited to personal, local, or global circumstances. These smaller, local risks when understood in contradistinction to trans-generational and the pan-generational can also be seen as instances of intrinsic value over time, through shorter periods of time appropriate to personal time, social time, or global time.

While it is gratifying to see this recognition of intrinsic value over time, we can go farther by considering the natural history of value. The simple and fundamental lesson of the natural history of value is that value changes over time, and that particular objects may be the bearers of intrinsic value for a temporary period of time, taking on this value and then ultimately surrendering it. Moreover, intrinsic value itself changes over time, as do the forms in which it is manifested and embodied.

When Sartre gave his famous lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism,” he took the bull by the horns and faced straight on the claims that had been made that existentialism was a gloomy philosophy of despair, quietism, and pessimism. Of his critics Sartre said, “what is annoying them is not so much our pessimism, but, much more likely, our optimism. For at bottom, what is alarming in the doctrine that I am about to try to explain to you is — is it not? — that it confronts man with a possibility of choice.” For Sartre, existentialism is, at bottom, an optimistic philosophy because it affirms the reality of choice and human agency. And so, too, the recognition of the natural history of value — that value is not a fixed and unchanging feature of the world — is an optimistic doctrine preferable to any and all false hopes.

Questioning ancient moral prejudices, as Sartre often did, almost always results in claims on behalf of traditionalists that the sky is falling, and that by opening Pandora’s Box we have unleashed evils into the world that cannot be contained. But to observe that intrinsic value changes over time is no counsel of despair, as when Bertrand Russell (as I recently quoted in Developing an Existential Perspective) said that, “…only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” That intrinsic value is subject to change means that the intrinsic value of the world may increase or decrease, and if it may increase, we ourselves may be the agents of this change.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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ISIS and Sykes-Picot

18 June 2014

Wednesday


Isil

The recent military successes of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams — ad-Dawlat al-Islāmiyya fī’l-‘Irāq wa’sh-Shām — also known as ISIL, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in sweeping aside the Iraqi army and taking control of Mosul, Tikrit, and Falluja, has been a surprise. Iraq had fallen out of the news cycle, which has, of late, been dominated by Putin’s Russia and the turmoil in Ukraine. Now the cameras and reporters are heading back to Iraq to try to discover what went wrong, and in so doing they are also going back to school to try to understand why one of the rallying cries of ISIS is the effective nullification of the Sykes–Picot Agreement.

Here is one statement from an ISIS sympathizer that I managed to find, after hearing it quoted in another source (which latter I have since not been able to relocate):

“In the name of God, the beneficent, the merciful, this is one of the destruction (mechanism, devices) of the Safavid Iraqi army (referring to the Shiite Safavid dynasty in Iran). This is their flag. All the prayers belong to God. And to you [God] goes all our gratitude. This is the end of Sykes-Picot borders. This is God’s grace. What remains of any borders of Muslim land. Oh God all our prayers belong to you. This is their destruction. They ran away. By God’s blessing. They are the lions of the Levant. Peace be upon you, God is great. This is their evil flag, we will remove it, God willing. For ISIL. That is God’s grace. God’s blessing on them.”

I found this text at Raw: ISIL Fighters Attack on Iraq-Syria Border, and despite the fact that I have found the line “This is the end of Sykes-Picot borders” quoted in other media sources, this is the only place that I could find the context of this quote. There is more on the role if the Sykes–Picot Agreement in the ideology of ISIS in How ISIS Is Tearing Up The Century-old Map Of The Middle East by Charles M. Sennott on the MintPress news site.

It is all very well to chant about the end of Sykes-Picot borders, but what does it mean? How are we to understand Islamist militants being pushed out of Iraq into the civil war in Syria, only to burst back over the border and take possession of Mosul, Iraq’s second city. And why was one of the symbolic actions of that crossing back into Iraq from Syria the use of a bulldozer to push through the earthen berm that defines the border in this part of the Levant?

An intelligent (but limited) article on the BBC by Fawaz A Gerges, London School of Economics, Iraq’s central government suffers mortal blow, diagnoses the problems in Iraq exclusively in terms of short term causes (since the ouster of Saddam Hussein). Gerges even invokes the Weberian concept of sovereignty to explain Iraq’s state failure: “It is doubtful if Baghdad could ever establish a monopoly on the use of force in the country, or exercise authority and centralised control over rebellious Sunni Arabs and semi-independent Kurdistan.” Gerges implies by his analysis that one can adequately understand the conflict in Iraq (and presumably also in Syria) with reference to the last ten or twenty years of political developments. This is an inadequate historical framework. We must go back a hundred years to examine the Sykes–Picot Agreement, and this agreement came to have the significance that it did only because of what preceded it.

Like the division of Europe made at the Yalta Conference before Hitler was defeated on the battlefield (though the end was in sight), the Sykes–Picot Agreement divided the Levant before the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled these lands, was decisively defeated. But we all know that the Ottoman Empire was the “sick man of Europe,” and even the Tsar, precariously perched on his own empire as he was, seemed secure in comparison to the Ottoman sultans. All had witnessed the decline of the Ottoman Empire, and it only remained to wait for (or hasten) its fall.

The Sykes–Picot Agreement was controversial even before it came into effect. Stratfor noted in The Intrigue Lying Behind Iraq’s Jihadist Uprising by Reva Bhalla that:

“When the French and British were colluding over the post-Ottoman map in 1916, czarist Russia quietly acquiesced as Paris and London divided up the territories. Just a year later, in 1917, the Soviets threw a strategic spanner into the Western agenda by publishing the Sykes-Picot agreement, planting the seeds for Arab insurrection and thus ensuring that Europe’s imperialist rule over the Middle East would be anything but easy.”

In “Isis defies repeated efforts to destroy its capability” in the Financial Times (Thursday 12 June 2014), Erika Solomon writes, “Aspiring to create an Islamic caliphate, Isis is already operating over a state-sized amount of territory of its own, stretching east of Aleppo, through desert frontiers into western Iraq.” Solomon quotes analyst Hayder al-Khoei as saying, “A few months ago, Isis was mostly doing hit and run attacks, albeit sophisticated ones. Now it’s holding territory. That’s what’s scary: they feel capable of confronting the state,” and quotes ISIS sympathizer “Shami Witness” (who may be the same individual responsible for the longer quote above) as saying, “Their aim is to expand reasonably, and the goal is definitely Baghdad now.”

The establishment of a new caliphate, the Sykes–Picot Agreement, and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire are linked as differing perspectives on the same historical object. The end of the Ottoman Empire was, to be sure, an opportunity for European colonialism, but it was at the same time the end of an ancient Islamic institution that had endured for more than a thousand years: the Ottoman sultan was the last caliph to rule an Islamic territorial empire and to preside over a dynasty. The Sykes–Picot Agreement is symbolically important not only as an expression of European colonialism and imperial impunity, but also as the agreement that defined the terms by which the last caliphate came to an end (though it was the Grand National Assembly of Ankara who deposed the Ottoman sultan ‘Abd al- Majid II and abolished the caliphate in February 1924).

For many Jihadis and militant Islamists, the establishment of a new caliphate is the unwavering aim to which they are committed with a symbolic determination equal to the symbolic humiliation that they attribute to the Sykes–Picot Agreement. In The Management of Savagery, which I previously cited in The Farther Reaches of Civilization (and which we might characterize as a call for revolutionary violence on the part of Islamic militants), the author laments ineffectual Muslim efforts to secure an Islamic state:

…the Muslims and their organizations quarreled about what they had to do to establish the state of Islam according to the prophetic method. It is a dishonorable and disgraceful affair. Even though the people of Islam possess the largest resources (needed for) achieving success controlling the state, those who did not have the resources very easily became rulers of states and those who had the resources became exiles who did not possess a single meter of land on which to die peacefully.

The people built their states, laid its foundations, and buttressed them. They made its pillars firm and they secured its resources and they instructed the ummah as they saw fit. They acquired advanced positions while the people of Islam were still debating and quarreling about the ideal method for establishing the Islamic state! All of the debaters claim that their proof for what they believed regarding the establishment of the Islamic state was derived from the prophetic method.

Regrettably, some of the people still think that this method needs more investigation and research and many of the people of religion still gather the people together in order to tell them about the ideal method for causing the downfall of the Taghuts or the ideal method of reviving the State of the Caliphate.

The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass, Abu Bakr Naji, Translated by William McCants, Funding for this translation was provided by the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, and any use of this material must include a reference to the Institute. 23 May 2006

What is (or what was) the caliphate? Here is one perspective:

caliph, caliphate

The caliphate (al-khilāfa) is the term denoting the form of government that came into existence in Islamic lands after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and is considered to have survived until the first decades of the 20th century. It derives from the title caliph (khalīfa, pl. khulafā’ or khalā’if), referring to Muslim sovereigns who claimed authority over all Muslims. The caliphate refers not only to the office of the caliph but also to the period of his reign and to his dominion—in other words, the territory and peoples over whom he ruled. The office itself soon developed into a form of hereditary monarchy, although it lacked fixed rules on the order of succession and based its legitimacy on claims of political succession to Muhammad. The caliphate was constrained by neither any fixed geographical location or boundaries nor particular institutions; rather, it was coterminous with the reign of a monarch or a dynasty.

Gerhard Bowering, editor, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought, Princeton University Press, 2013, p. 81

As with any historical institution, the more one reads the history of the caliphate, the more complex the story becomes, and the more difficult it is to extract any one historical lesson from the tangle of particular instances that constituted the institution while it was viable. Whatever the historical ambiguities of the caliphate, the ISIS militants are among those Islamist groups for which the establishment of a new caliphate is a central imperative. It is, because of its historical complexity, an imperative that comes with strings attached, but ISIS may yet prove itself to be the organization that can realize this now century-old dream. I do not think that this is likely, but it is at least possible.

Despite the strong ideological orientation of ISIS, the militant group apparently has no scruples about profiting from its activities. An article in The Guardian by Martin Chulov in Baghdad, How an arrest in Iraq revealed Isis’s $2bn jihadist network, claims that a recent intelligence coup revealed ISIS to have amassed a fortune worth 875 million dollars, all meticulously documented. Try to imagine a group of radical militants with nearly a billion dollars in their control — it is a wonder that they only took Mosul and didn’t go all the way to Baghdad while they were on a roll. (As with the quote above, this story in the Guardian in the only source I could find for this information.)

In a further demonstration of pragmatism, the radicalized and ideologically-motivated militant Islamists of ISIS are not blind to the fact that they cannot merely proclaim a new caliphate, but that any new caliphate must be credible — militarily, politically, ideologically, and religiously. For a caliphate to be credible, it must be established across the divisions of the Sykes–Picot Agreement, and it must hold and administer this territory according to the contemporary paradigm of the nation-state, because this is the recognizable form of political power in our time. (It does not matter that the Islamic conception of the Ummah has more in common with the personal principle in law and the nation-state is the territorial principle in law made manifest.) A caliphate must furthermore be able to defend itself, and command the approbation of at least some Islamic scholars, preferably the most eminent among them. This will be difficult. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has already said, “Defense of Iraq and its people and holy sites is a duty on every citizen who can carry arms and fight terrorists.”

A new caliphate must be existentially viable in order to be credible. To establish a caliphate only to see it ignominiously go down in defeat would probably be a political disaster much greater than failing to re-establish a caliphate. In this, Islamist militants of many different loyalties who in common look toward a new caliphate seem to be as one, and ISIS seems to understand this as well. Whether or not they can make it a reality, only time will tell.

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