“The horror! The horror!
Charles Cameron sparked a discussion with his doublequotes post on two colonels, the late strategist John Boyd and the fictional monster, Walter Kurtz from Francis Ford Coppola’s classic Vietnam War film homage to Joseph Conrad, Apocalypse Now. Kurtz is a disturbing figure, one who is recurrent in literature and history going back to Homer’s Iliad. A superlative warrior who excels above all others who nonetheless sheds all trace of civilization in his descent into barbarism. While the fall of a heroic individual can take many narrative forms, Kurtz is of a particular and dreaded kind of fallen man, the warlord.
Warlords are fascinating and repellent figures who seem to thrive best when the normal order of a society is breaking down, permitting the strong and ruthless to carve out their reputations in blood and infamy. As I have written previously:
“….Via the Economist this week, we learn of the death of an adversary whose kind has nearly been forgotten. Khun Sa was a warlord who amassed a private army and smuggling operation which dominated Asian heroin trafficking from remotest Burma over the course of nearly two decades. In the end, despite indictment in US courts, the politics of a failed state permitted him to retire as an investor and business figure, and to die peacefully in his own bed.
The stories of men such as these however shaped more than a region. They are the defining features of the flow of events in a world of dark globalization. Yet these are not the biographies that are taught in international relations academia, nor even in their counterpart intelligence studies classrooms. The psychology of such men, and the personal and organizational decision-making processes of the non-state groups which amassed power to rival a princeling of Renaissance Europe, are equally as worthy of study both for historical reasons as well as for the lessons they teach about the nature of empowered individuals.
….There are no shortage of warlords for such a study. Among the living we have Walid Jumblatt, the crafty chief of the Druze during the 1980′s civil war in Lebanon, the egomaniacal and democidal Charles Taylor of Liberia, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar the Islamist mujahedin commander and a large assortment of Somali, Colombian, Indonesian and El Salvadoran militiamen and paramilitaries. The history of the twentieth century alone offers up such colorful characters as “The Dogmeat General“, the ghoulishly brutal Ta Mok of the Khmer Rouge, “The Mad Baron” Ungern von Sternberg, Captain Hermann Ehrhardt and Pancho Villa among many others.
What would such a historical/cross-cultural/psychological “warlord study” reveal ? Primarily the type of man that the German journalist Konrad Heiden termed “armed bohemians”. Men who are ill-suited to achieving success in an orderly society but are acutely sensitive to minute shifts that they can exploit during times of uncertainty, coupled with an amoral sociopathology to do so ruthlessly. Paranoid and vindictive, they also frequently possess a recklessness akin to bravery and a dramatic sentimentality that charms followers and naive observers alike. Some warlords can manifest a manic energy or regularly display great administrative talents while a minority are little better than half-mad gangsters getting by, for a time, on easy violence, low cunning and lady luck.
Every society, no matter how civilized or polite on the surface, harbors many such men within it. They are like ancient seeds waiting for the drought-breaking rains.
There are occasionally positive portrayals of warlords. Ahmed Shah Massoud, “the Lion of Panjshir” who fought tenaciously first against the Soviets, then later against the murderous Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s army of thugs and the Taliban’s fanatics, providing a modicum of civilized governance to ordinary Afghans wherever his power ran, until his assassination by al Qaida. The cagey and mercurial Walid Jumblatt, made the transition from Druze warlord in the 1980′s to Lebanese politician and something of an elder statesman.
In literature, Xenophon was the de facto strategos of the retreating Greek mercenaries in The Anabasis of Cyrus, cut a noble example, but like Massoud, this is a rarity. In recent fiction, Stephen Pressfield created as an antagonist in The Profession, General James Salter, a totemic and caesarian figure who takes on the great powers with his PMC forces with impressive ruthlessness. In the popular fantasy series of George R.R. Martin that began with The Game of Thrones, the notable warlord is the outlandish, cruel and somewhat demented Vargo Hoat, who leads a freebooting company of misfit brigands “The Brave Companions“, whose nonstop atrocities and ludicrous pretensions lead all the other characters to call them “the Bloody Mummers“.
Given the world’s recent experiences with the Lord’s Resistance Army, General Butt Naked and the uprisings in Syria and Libya, I think Martin and Coppola have captured warlordism in it’s most frequent incarnation.