Day before yesterday in Philosophies of the Secret Garden I discussed a passage in Nietzsche where he compared his philosophical efforts to tending a secret garden, and I suggested that there are “secret gardens” in both science and philosophy that fall between Kuhnian normal science (or philosophy) and revolutionary science (or philosophy). Some of what I said applies to military doctrine, though the intrinsic properties of an essentially social experience make it a slightly different case that the essentially solitary activity of philosophy. This makes the example of science particularly interesting, since it occupies a position between philosophy and doctrine.

A philosopher and a mathematician can work in near isolation. Most, as a contingent matter of fact do not work in complete isolation, but prefer the stimulus afforded by interaction with like-minded thinkers, but some do in fact isolate themselves, and often this is purposeful. Descartes reputedly moved his residence repeatedly in order to avoid unannounced callers. Even today there are some well known thinkers who work in near isolation. Perhaps the most famous example in the present age is Grigori Perelman, the mathematician who proved the Poincaré conjecture.

Some creative undertakings demand the contributions of many persons and many talents. One cannot produce a show on Broadway or a film in Hollywood without the collective efforts of a great many people. One can write a screenplay in isolation, but it will never be produced as a film without the participation of others. Similarly, a visionary architect can design a building in isolation, but without the efforts and cooperation of a great many others, his buildings will never get built. The isolated novelist or philosopher or mathematician can hope that their work will survive and resonate with future ages, even if it falls flat in their own time, but the more that a creative expression is communal, like film or architecture, the less likely this will happen, or, if it does happen, that it will resemble the vision of the isolated visionary.

Military doctrine — whether strategic, operational, or tactical — is a social art, like film or architecture. As a social art, military doctrine is less open to the work of an isolated genius. There certainly is normal doctrine and revolutionary doctrine, parallel to normal science and revolutionary science, but there is far less latitude for a secret garden of strategy. Furthermore, doctrine is not only a social art, it is also an overwhelmingly contingent art that has little to do with necessary, a priori truths. Doctrine is learned from particular, empirical states of affairs. This knowledge can, of course, be acquired in isolation, like a knowledge of philosophy of literature, but the most recent developments are not likely to be widely available, and in fact most of the relevant details may be classified, or, if not classified, certainly difficult of access.

Having made the case for doctrine as a social art, and acknowledged the difficulty of acquiring knowledge of doctrine in isolation, not to mention the near impossibility of attracting any interest in such an effort, it remains to point out that, while difficult and rare, it still remains possible for there to be a secret garden of strategy, and the very possibility of this, as slim as it is, presents the possibility of a game-changing confrontation with established doctrine. No one can afford to neglect the possibility, since it presents the aspect of a strategic shock that could upset accepted calculations.

As I noted above, individual pursuits like literature present no great difficulties to the individual enthusiast. Science was once like this, and science was once primarily the pursuit of gentlemen amateurs. Some of these gentlemen amateurs made great contributions, and the greatest of them — Charles Darwin — not only made contributions, but probably changed the way that science is done and effected a conceptual revolution as profound as that of Copernicus. Elsewhere I have called this the heroic conception of science — an individual, working alone, on a project that would transform the world, knowing that if the project is made public precipitously, it will certainly invite ridicule rather than foment revolution. Darwin knew well, as Nietzsche counseled, how to keep silent long enough.

Today science is mostly Big Science, but it isn’t all Big Science. There remains the possibility of the heroic individual scientist going against the establishment, which pursues the iterative conception of science with an army of scientists, organized in a top-down hierarchical structure that resembles military organization more than it resembles the discoveries of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein.

One could say that the more institutionalized science becomes, the more resources it will have at its command, and therefore the more difficult it would be for any individual to make a meaningful contribution to science outside this structure. But at the same time as institutionalized Big Science has many resources and an army of contributors jointly pursuing the same end, the spirit of individual initiative is weakened and the institution becomes vulnerable to group think that simply dismisses anything outside its purview as irrelevant and uninteresting. Institutionalized power carries with it the ability to pursue and attain ends that lie far beyond the ability of the individual, but it also carries with it the risk of stifling innovation.

To return to my distinction above between social arts and solitary arts, what could be more of a social art that politics? And is not politics the very soul of institutionalized power, being institutionalized power in its purest form, unencumbered by any desire other than power? As a nearly perfect exemplification of a social art, it ought to be the case that only those with extensive knowledge and experience within the social milieu that defines the art of politics would possess the particular epistemic background that it would make it possible for such an individual to make innovations within the field. But what we find in fact is that politics is the most uncreative arts, in fact, nearly hostile to innovation, and those who have been in it the longest are the most impervious to new ideas. Thus in the case of the social art of politics, institutionalized ossification so dominates political discourse that trying something new has become a near impossibility — indeed, as I have observed elsewhere, it literally takes a revolution to effect political change.

Just as the intensely social milieu of political thought takes a revolution even to implement small changes, so too the intensely social milieu of military thought requires the military equivalent of a revolution in order to effect changes. However, while in politics social conflicts are primarily resolved within a single social system, military conflicts primarily resolved in a contest between different social systems, except in the case of civil wars. This is an important distinction. The political life of a political entity may become so institutionalized that change becomes unthinkable, but the military life of a political entity can be decided from without, but those who have no stake whatsoever in the welfare of that political entity, and may even seek the dissolution of that political entity.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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North Korea and Areté

18 December 2011


Aristotle as depicted by Raphael in the Vatican stanze.

Aristotle said that excellence is not an act, but a habit.

Aristotle is famous for saying, among other things, that excellence is not an act, but a habit. The Greek word for excellence — areté, ἀρετή — is also translated as “virtue,” so the same Aristotelian quote is sometimes rendered virtue is not an act but a habit. These variant translations are justified, as they point to the close interrelationship between excellence and virtue in Aristotle.

Kim Jong-il impoverished his people and left the world a worse place than he found it.

Aristotle was a common sense philosopher before there was any such thing as common sense philosophy, and his moral psychology is equally commonsensical. Aristotle maintained that people enjoy doing the things that they are good at doing, and so people make an effort at getting good at doing certain things so that they can enjoy these activities all the more. I think that this is largely correct.

The elder Kim looking frail a few months before dying; the younger Kim Jong-un, heir apparent, looking scared.

It would not be overstating the case to say that many individuals actively seek out opportunities for cultivating excellence. These opportunities can vary dramatically from place to place and time to time. Certain socio-economic systems will be richer in opportunities for certain kinds of excellence, so we find excellence unevenly distributed across history and geography.

The blackout of North Korea is both literal and metaphorical. If it was not the Hermit Kingdom in the past, under its communist autocrats it certainly has become a Hermit Kingdom today.

If Aristotle’s moral psychology is more or less correct, it would then stand to reason that we will find excellence-seeking individuals at all times and places, so that these efforts toward excellence are likely to be directed into whatever channels happen to be available.

They know how to goosestep in the DPRK.

Today the news has brought word that Kim Jong-il, the North Korean despot, has died. I have written repeatedly about Kim Jong-il and North Korea, as these provide a radical example of state failure. Even while North Korea is the paradigm case of a failed state, there is a sense in which its rulers have chosen to rule over just such a failed state, though we usually think of failure as an accident. This is failure by design. But what then is the design? In a word: the military.

While the Kim family has been the despotic focus of attention in North Korea, the country is really ruled by the military. And while it is often reported that North Korea maintains an enormous military of a million men under arms, it is rarely reported how the North Korean military is not merely large, but is also an innovative, aggressive, and essentially meritocratic institution (assuming you also know to say the right thing and not say the wrong thing).

Sometimes dictators will create a bloated military of conscripts for bragging rights, but this does not accurately describe the North Korean military. People who study such things say that the North Korean military is an impressive institution in terms of its discipline, organization, and training. While they cannot count on having the most advanced technology and the most sophisticated weapons systems, they can train relentlessly and by all reports they do.

Knowing this to be the case, I would guess that one of the few opportunities to pursue excellence in North Korea would be by way of entering the military. Another opportunity would be to be a gymnast, dancer, or other performer in the enormous spectacles that were staged for the “Dear Leader.” Those are narrow options, but in the nation-state in which saying the wrong thing can mean a life sentence to the gulag for you and your family, it is best not to even try to pursue excellence in literature, art, entertainment, or anything else that might “send a message” and therefore be considered dangerous or subversive. Sports are relatively safe, and we all recall how the Eastern Bloc Warsaw Pact nation-states cultivated extensive sports training programs during the Cold War.

If the only (safe) outlets for a people’s pursuit of excellence is the military or sports, this is going to profoundly affect the cultural life of a country. It is also going to channel a lot of very clever and innovative people into the military who would not, under other circumstances, choose a career in the military. The talents of these intelligent men and women, indirectly conscripted through the suppression of other activities by which they might have pursued other forms of excellence, are in North Korea at the service of the military and therefore at the service of the state. These are the people who rule North Korea.

How will the military rule North Korea after the death of Kim Jong-il? Will they allow his inexperienced son, Kim Jong-un, to assume his place as a figurehead, and continue to rule the country to the greater glory of the DPRK military at the expense of all else? Some self-perpetuating institutions do exactly this; they have an overriding incentive to maintain the system that has put them in control and which disproportionately benefits them at the expense of their countrymen.

There are problems, however. A military establishment of more than a million soldiers is a sufficiently large organization for factions to emerge, and for those factions to be quite large. If, say, each son of Kim Jong-il could command the loyalty of a third of the army, each would still have military forces far larger than those of most nation-states. Internal power struggles have almost certainly already begun, and the issue of these struggles is not likely to be decided for months, if not years. Kim Jong-un is still quite young, and much could happen before he has any opportunity to exercise control (or for others to exercise control in his name).

Internal power struggles in the DPRK could be an opportunity for outside powers to intervene, or to use whatever levers they have available to influence the outcome in North Korea. But China and South Korea, the geographical neighbors, will be most concerned about stability and avoiding a flood of refugees should a crisis emerge. Furthermore, China will not want to take any action that might be interpreted as condoning either interference in internal affairs or questioning the legitimacy of a one-party state, since either action could be turned around and used against China in turn.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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