[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
There’s been a few posts out there recently in the broad strat-FP-mil blogosphere that were collectively so outstanding that I wanted to take a spare moment and highlight them:
Razib Khan – ISIS Will Win Many Battles But Lose the War
….The piece in Aeon is a necessary corrective to two vulgar and populist reactions to the rise of radical groups like ISIS. First, there is the materialist viewpoint, which holds that a lack of economic opportunities is the dominant causal factor driving the violence. The first order issue to address is the reality that many regions of the world (e.g., non-Muslim Sub-Saharan Africa) have larger portions of the population which are underemployed or unemployed than the Islamic world, and yet do they not serve as sources of violent politically or religiously motivated terrorism. In fact, the best ethnographic work indicates that a disproportionate number of the young men involved in violent religious and political terrorism are not from the bottom of society, but closer to the top. In particular those striving and moving up the socioeconomic ladder in cultures undergoing modernization. The rural peasantry and the established upper classes are relatively immune to radicalization, but those whose roots are in the country but attempting to situate themselves in the middle class or higher are subject to more social dislocation, despite lack of material want. Most of the 9/11 bombers were Saudi, a nation which has a cradle-to-grave system of benefits for citizens, and which has been shielded and enriched by an alliance with the United States. Certainly marginalization, social and economic, are necessary conditions for recruiting from the Islamic Diaspora in Europe, but even here they are not sufficient conditions. The Roma are more socially and economically deprived than Europe’s Muslims, but do not engage in organized terrorism of any sort.
BJ Armstrong – The Strange Words of Strategy
Today we face a world which some tell us is new and different. We have been assured by some that the ideas of the past have little relevance and must be changed to adapt to the future. Yet, if we discard the past, we are left with no foundation to build on. The most recent example of this is the growing use of a new concept labeled “gray wars” or the “gray zone.” Leaders from the special operations community are telling us that the world is new and different. But there are some very important concepts foundational to past military and national strategy that should not be ignored in the rush to the new buzzwords. As Colin Gray writes in his latest book, “problems in contemporary strategy are ever changing, but they all have common roots.”
….The gray wars dialogue is just the most recent in a trend toward turning our back on historical precedent and previous strategic concepts. This past summer in the pages of Infinity Journal (free subscription), I attempted to make a similar case regarding to the idea of Air-Sea Battle, (or JAM-GC as it is now called). Debate over the operational concept which came to be known as Air-Sea Battle has been a large part of naval strategic discussion of the past several years. Despite the volume of words that have been spent on the subject, few have engaged with the actual theory and classical concepts of naval strategy. In my article, “D-All of The Above: Connecting 21st Century Naval Doctrine to Strategy,” I make the case that a better understanding of contemporary naval discourse’s place within the ideals of classical naval strategy will not only help us better understand proposals and counter-proposals, but it will also help strategists to better evaluate and develop future thinking.
In a previous article here at War on the Rocks, I argued that the “gray zone” concept — used to describe the strategic behavior of everyone from the Islamic State to Vladimir Putin — is hopelessly muddled and does not contribute much of value to the defense policy discussion. However, Michael J. Mazzarr thinks that there’s more to the concept than I give credit for. Mazarr concedes the main points of my critique, noting that I am correct to say that the gray zone concept is hopelessly muddled and is not novel. However, Mazarr nonetheless asserts that gray zone campaigns today differ in their “coherence, intentionality, and urgency,” thus justifying them as a “distinct approach to strategy.”
While Mazarr is certainly correct to express concern over enemy strategies — novel or otherwise — I nonetheless remain unconvinced that the gray zone concept is not just another example of the strategic studies community needlessly confusing itself by generating new terminology to replace what is not broken. Specifically, I argue once again that the gray zone concept is neither novel nor useful on its own terms. While Mazarr’s re-articulation of the concept rectifies some of its most egregious flaws, Mazarr ultimately cannot save gray zone theories from their own gaping conceptual holes.
Scholar’s Stage – Every Book I Read in 2015
….As is often the case, my reading list is closely connected with what I have written for the Stage, and careful readers of the blog can probably piece together when I read many of these books by looking at the blog posts published throughout the year. I will forgo the usual attempt to place a link to the individual posts related to the readings next to the book that inspired them, for several of these posts (especially “Darwin and War in Ancient China, Sengoku Japan, and Early Modern Europe,” and “The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program“) drew on a dozen or more of the books included here. It would be impractical to place a link next to every title.
I began bolding my ten favorite books of the year with the hope that it would stop readers from asking me what the “best” book of the year was–when you are reading between 65-80 books a year choosing just one really is an impossible task. 2015 is different. This year has a clear winner. I found the story of this book I read so arresting that I read all five of its volumes twice. Had I copy with me here in Taiwan I would not hesitate to reread it all again. Never has a book jumped so fast to Quantum Library status.
This book is Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber, translated by David Hawkes and John Minford with its alternate title, The Story of the Stone. Dream of the Red Chamber is one of the “Four Great Classic Novels” of Chinese literature, and is almost universally described as the best of the four–and by extension, the best novel of Chinese history. I have been making my way through the classic novels through the last few years, but I gave priority to marshal epics like Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh (Water Margin) over Dream, whose story centers around forlorn love and domestic squabbles. This was a mistake. Dream is just as good as the critics claim, and is in contention not just for the title of “best novel ever written in Chinese history,” but “best novel written in human history.” It is a book I shall treasure for the rest of my life.