The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Book Review: DG's The Edge of the Sword

The Edge of Sword is now a classic French essay on military leadership. Charles de Gaulle’s thoughts on the nature of leadership are condensed into this little book (80 pages). De Gaulle meditates on such topics as military-civilian relations, ‘great men’ in history, past wars, prestige and, perhaps most important, the qualities of a great leader. He writes succinctly, poetically, full of wise and witty quips.

Written in the 1930s, one finds many telling comments on the era. De Gaulle shows what seems like a dangerous militarism in his glorification of (well) glory as he condemns “a thousand [post-WW1] paintings applying themselves to depict the ravages while hiding what is effective and glorious.” He criticizes the Cartesian tendency for abstraction in French military thought, instead praising then-Colonel Pétain for the victories he achieved in WW1 thanks to flexibility for the circumstances on the battlefield (IE, not systematically attacking the enemy as the doctrine of élan prescribed). He even complains, we are still in 1932, that “from Sydney to San Francisco” education, shops, accommodation and clothes are becoming more and more similar…

De Gaulle’s description of the leader is paradoxical. He both says “thought” is opposed by changing circumstances and uncertainty on the ground, so the leader must have solid instincts and good intuition, but “the man of war must be capable to consider intensely and at length the same objects without tiring.” All great men of action, he says, “possessed the ability to turn in on themselves.” At the same time, thoughtfulness must not turn into waffling or indecision, for De Gaulle says, citing no less than Alexander the Great, Galileo, and Columbus, that there are no great accomplishments with “base prudence and cowardly modesty”.

A wonderful paradox emerges from De Gaulle’s description of war and power, for he knows the horror of them, yet he has committed his life to them. On weapons he writes “shameful and magnificent, their history is that of mankind.” No doubt thinking of his own struggles with depression, he notes that the leader is a lonely man, and there is a choice between “happiness and power.” Ultimately, however, his choice is clear: “it is not a question of virtue, and angelic perfection does not lead to empire.”

Finally, I want to quote him at length, because the book ends with a bang. He says that “nothing great is done without great men, and they are what they are for having wanted it. Disraeli got used, from adolescence, to thinking like a prime minister. In the lectures of [French Field Marshal] Foch, then still obscure, one could see the generalissimo.” De Gaulle almost seems to be predicting a glorious destiny for himself: as a child in school he himself had written of a story featuring himself as “General de Gaulle” chasing the Germans out of France…

De Gaulle wrote this book at the age of 42. He was not yet “le General” and the (twice) savior of France, but only a mid-ranking officer in the French army, one who had so far had a very slow, unspectacular rise in the ranks. Yet he dreams. He tells us what ambition is. A definition contrasting with the advice a letting agent gave me, during one of Birmingham’s darker hours, that if I were ‘ambitious’ I might open a fast food restaurant… (How ugly.) Hear De Gaulle speak:

“But, may the ambitious of the first rank be haunted by such a zeal, - artists of effort and leaven of the dough, - who see in life no other reason than to make their mark on events and whom, from the riverbank which ordinary days fix them at, dream only of the heave of History! These ones, despite the turmoil and illusions of the century, should make no mistake: there is not in the military an illustrious career which has not served a great cause in politics, nor any Statesman’s great glory which was not lit by the brilliance of the nation’s defense.” The dullness and disappointment of everyday life, the hopes and ambitions for greatness and glory are all in the same breath. In short, De Gaulle is entre le néant et l’infini…

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


I've been having trouble deciding what this blog is really about. So, here we go... here's some other quotes I had in mind for the topics of books, commentary and history.

I want to squeeze in these quotes somehow:
"I cannot live without books." - Thomas Jefferson
"There are too many idiots in this world." - Frantz Fanon
"Man in a word has no nature, what he has is history." - Jose Ortega y Gasset

Other ones I considered below.

"If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it." Toni Morrison

“A book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.” – Franz Kafka

“Oh, my body, always make of me, someone who questions.” – Frantz Fanon

“The point is not merely to understand the world, but to change it…” – Karl Marx

History quote:
'When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness'. - Alexis de Tocqueville

Only a good-for-nothing is not interested in his past - Sigmund Freud

'History is life; he who has not lived, or has lived only enough to write a doctoral dissertation, is too inexperienced with life to write good history'. - Louis Gottschalk

“He who does not remember... is condemned to repeat it…” - (too common) Santayana.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Quote of Mo': DG again

I think this one was expressly made for my fascination with Fanon and Mobutu... well, Mobutu didn't really have a cause higher than his own ego, but still. Antoine Parmentier was a 18th century French agronomist and pharmacist whose achievements include popularizing the potato as a European staple.

"One can observe, indeed, that the leaders of men - politicians, prophets, soldiers - who obtained more than others, identified themselves with high-minded ideas and drew from them great movements. Followed in life by virtue of suggestions of greatness, rather than interest, their fame is later measured less by their utility than the vastness of their work. Whereas, sometimes, reason condemns them, sentiment glorifies them. Napoleon, in the rankings of great men, is always ahead of Parmentier. To the point that certain individuals who were only, essentially, pushed to revolt and excess, keep nonetheless in front of posterity like a dark glory when their crimes were comitted in the name of some higher aspiration." - De Gaulle, The Edge of the Sword

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Letter to Newsweek: 'I do believe in national character'

I was rather bemused to read in Denis McShane's article that "Berlin and Warsaw have not been able to agree on a common line on Russia for the past three centuries." Between 1795 and 1914, 'Warsaw' did not have a state to govern (Poland was ruled by Russia, Germany and Austria, with a brief partial independence under Napoleon) while between 1949 and 1989 both 'Berlin' and 'Warsaw' were ruled by pro-Soviet Communist parties.

Of course, I can appreciate the broader point, that certain nations by virtue of their history and geography are almost congenitally inclined towards a certain attitude towards the outside world (and in this case, regarding Russia). However, I think we can challenge this. Many observers thought German reunification would mean the return of great power politics in Europe. Margaret Thatcher said that "I do believe in national character... Germany is thus by its very nature a destabilizing rather than stabilizing force in Europe."

It has been almost two decades since German and European unifications, marking an unprecedented era of general peace (without the crises that marked earlier eras) in Europe. Clearly we are not slaves to our history.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Stopping the Infernal Machine (Book Review)

There’s been a curious inversion of roles between the United States and Europe. While Europe was the scene of the greatest wars the world has ever seen, in 1939, the US military was smaller than that of the Netherlands. Today, Europe is sometimes as a sort of post-modern Kantian zone of peace, while the US spends more on its armed forces than the rest of the world combined. The US, to use Zakaria’s phrase, went “from wealth to power”, Europe has done the opposite.

James Sheehan’s Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? is an attempt to grapple with this issue. His thoughtful romp through Europe’s 20th Century is refreshingly brief. Instead of being bogged down in detail, his is a concise and leisurely tour of the major changes in Europe’s character. He traces the origins of militarism and pacifism in early 20th Century Europe and their relationship with the relentless logic of European ‘progress’, that is, the exponential growth of the means of destruction so that our wars were fought, in turn, with weapons that were democratic, industrial and (almost) atomic. Sheehan chronicles the ‘invisible revolution’ that occurred after WW2 under the American nuclear umbrella: European states found their militaries increasingly impotent (useless), under-funded, and even their very culture ‘civilianized’. With this happening in the West, the transformation of the East and the end of the Cold War seem almost an afterthought, despite the fact that “Nowhere in the world, [were] there so many soldiers, so much war material, and so many nuclear weapons concentrated in such a compressed area as in the 2 German states.”

The book is not a comprehensive description of developments in Europe. Nor is the work notable for the intensity of its analysis. This makes the book a very pleasant, easy read, neither a slog nor demanding intellectually. It is more a narrative made up of little known facts on the topic, like The Economist’s prediction in September 1914 of the “economic and financial impossibility” of continuing war for more than a few months or a Summer 1941 British report that only one third of bombs over Germany were within five miles of their target.

Best, however, are the pearls of wisdom Sheehan shares on war and peace, as relevant to today as ever. He describes the vicious circle, present in wars of occupation as much as any misplaced investment, that the need for victory demands sacrifice, which in turn makes victory all the more necessary. He describes the French WW1 commander General Joffre who “did everything to keep the offensive alive, exercising the kind of leadership which if successful seems brave and resolute, and if it fails, inflexible and wasteful.” This is what is at stake in the legacies of Truman, LBJ and Bush II. Noting how, although WW1 and WW2 had started over Serbia and Poland, no one cared about them by the end of the war, he explains with a quote from Raymond Aron: “The very situations that bring about a modern war are destroyed in its wake.” What does it matter, today, whether Saddam had WMDs? He also says how, perhaps with certain politicians in his sights, “Fatalism is often a mask for failure.”

Although Sheehan is clearly sympathetic to his subject, but he has no illusions and does not see how any common European defense or foreign policy could function in a crisis. He reserves a great role for the US in incubating the fledgling European zone of peace, arguing that peace made European unity possible, and not the other way around.

One might remain dissatisfied with the lack of any rigorous analysis, the uneven almost anecdotal description of events, or criticize the occasional resort to “great man” history on Sheehan’s part. Nonetheless, he has done a great service in clearly defining the nature of the great shift in Europe. To the question “How did Europe go from Y to X?” he has gone a long way to define exactly what we mean by the Europe of 1914 and the Europe of 2003.

Most disturbing for me were his notes on the Yugoslav Wars and his description of these people who had turned against their compatriots in war and genocide. We are used to blood and death in some part of Latin America, Africa or Asia, but it is different for Europeans to watch, in this nation sporting sunny Mediterranean coastal tourism, Yugoslavs slaughter each other even though they “look like us, wear jeans, trainers and carry their belongings in familiar plastic bags.” Some 19th Century thinkers thought (with alarm!) that if Europeans knew 2 generations of peace then they would were forget how to wage war and the meaning of sacrifice. Yugoslavia means, it seems to me, that even as Europe has for now surpassed the relentless logic of her history, it only takes a crisis for a vicious circle, the infernal machine, to return.

Finally over?

The Pain says:

Friday, May 16, 2008

Quote of Mo': DG on Character

"Much better, he embrasses action with the pride of the master, because he engages himself with it, it is his; enjoying of the success as long as it is due to him and even as he does not profit from it, bearing all the weight of setbacks not without some bitter satisfaction. In short, a fighter who finds in himself his fervor and his points of support, a player who looks less for gain than success and pays his debts with his own money, the man of character confers to action its nobility; without him a slave's dreary task, thanks to him the hero's divine game."
De Gaulle, The Edge of the Sword (1932)

Ignorance on Appeasement

I have a lot more respect for Chris Matthews now..

And a note: Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler in 1938 was wrong, but that shouldn't lead us to believe that it was stupid, or that the principles involved weren't complicated.

All he did was apply the legal/moral principle established by Woodrow Wilson of self-determination in the case of the Sudeten Germans of Czechoslovakia. If you believe self-determination is an inviolable natural right,that the right of a people to choose their own country is absolute, then you believe in Munich.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Letter to Newsweek: Diagnostic, Prescription

Hey, I just realised, if I have more to say on a topic in a LTTD... Why not just send another letter? Under a pseudonym is fine... this one's under Craig Haston, clocking in at a mere 102 words:

Fareed Zakaria is absolutely right in stressing the revolutionary character of the economic growth in Asia, Africa and Latin America. For a hundred years, between 1870 and 1970, growth was limited to North America, Europe, Japan and few lucky, small East Asian tigers. What remains to see if the 'Rest's' growth, and the socio-political issues that are arising because of it, will follow the relatively smooth path of North America, or the unstable, violent and terrible experiences that occurred in Europe and Japan. Ensuring the former is the historic mission of American and European foreign policies.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Letter to Newsweek: My Radical Edge

I really struggled to keep this to about 200 words. Here's a very slightly extended version of my response to Zakaria's self-publicizing cover story:

Dear Sir/Madam

You write that “the world will become enriched and ennobled” by globalization. While I do not dispute the former, is there any evidence which suggests that material progress means greater moral character?

Recall the rapid modernization of Japan and Germany in the 1800s: authoritarian nations with conservative, militaristic values acquired all the power of an industrial economy. We know the rest. Japan’s modernization was intimately related to its aggressive Empire-building in Asia. The Germans acquired the horrific distinction of being both the world's most educated nation and its greatest mass murderers.

In this light, we might find the breakneck modernizations of the Gulf and China to be alarming. It is more than just the irony of mosques beside mega-malls or a helping McDonald's and Mao. Is it any wonder that societies with almost medieval religious attitudes should use their oil-wealth to fund ultra-conservative mosques throughout the world? Is it not worrisome that China, with its insecure, angry nationalism, should experience simultaneously a vertiginous rise to power and monumental social change with all the instability that that entails?

Of course, these concerns may prove unjustified. These societies may well follow the Euro-Americo-Japanese pattern. They too may have money as their religion, epidemic obesity, thrivingly obscene porn industries and no higher ambition for the majority of their consumer-citizens than bigger cars, wider HD-TVs and snazzier gadgets… Noble indeed!

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Hoffmann VS Zakaria, 2003

Stanley Hoffmann is a Franco-American history and politics professor of Austrian descent. He is one of my heroes.

His special fields of study are international politics and French politics. He teaches French intellectual and political history, American foreign policy, post-World War Two European history, the sociology of war, international politics, ethics and world affairs, modern political ideologies, and the development of the modern state.

The stuff I'd like to teach, if it had a little Africa thrown in there! Hoffmann makes his living by appearing wise, explaining France to America (and somewhat less, America to France), and shooting down the sensationalist and reductionist theories of other scholars, among them, Francis Fukuyama, Sam Huntington and John Mearsheimer. He learns everything he can, using every resource, on a topic before teaching or writing about it. In order to earn his French citizenship he served as a conscript in the French Army, which he said was the most boring thing he'd ever done.

Here we have him sparring with a former student of his, Fareed Zakaria, a mere 10 days before the Iraq War. Hoff/Zak start 8 minutes into it and last half an hour.

After saying that, unfortunately, diplomatic legitimisation by the UN would be impossible, Fareed argues:

I believe that the only thing that can legitimise this operation, and I say this reluctantly, is the war itself. That is if the war takes place and it goes well, which I think it probably will. You will also see at the end of this war that Saddam Hussein was indeed a murderous tyrant, there will be stories, there will be evidence, and in that sense this war will look better in history perhaps than it does today.

Instead, he gets to what he believes is really at stake in world opposition:

But that won’t solve the fundamental problem of, which is what is motivating so much of the opposition, which is the fear of the arbitrary exercise of American power. I mean what has become absolutely clear is that this is not a debate about Iraq. This is a debate about American power. The war will I believe solve the legitimacy problem about Iraq. It will not solve the problem about America.

Five years later, and it is amazing watching this. Fareed Zakaria claiming that the whole pre-Iraq War diplomatic crisis was not about the war itself at all. That the question of actually invading and occupying a country did not raise any issues in itself. Let me brush my Hubert Vedrine of 1996 vintage and the reasons he says Mitterrand did not want to go to Baghdad in 1991:

To not make the Iraqi leader a marty in the eyes of an Arab public opinion already convinced of the unfairness of the Westerners. To not throw ourselves into an urban guerrilla war with unpredictable consequences. To not play with Iraq's breaking up. Indeed, the elimination of Saddam Hussein would lead to a Kurdish declaration of independence and, as a consequence, wars implicating Turkey, Syria, Iran, as well as Iranian maneuvers into Iraq's Shiite South.

A cool 9 years before the invasion, some people were thinking about the problems an occupation of Iraq would raise.

Stanley Hoffmann's response:

We have no idea how to democratise the region and this notion that it will spread like an oil slick from one country to other is preposterous. We may be bogged down in Iraq exactly the way that general Powell and George Bush the First said it have become bogged down if we had gone to Baghdad in 1991. … There is no agreement on how long the American occupation should last. And if one wants to create democracy in a society as complex and divided as this one, it means really stationing American forces there much longer I think than the American people will tolerate. … The other danger is of sinking the American economy with the costs of the war, occupation, reconstruction that very few other countries will want to share…. So it has the reckless nature of a gamble entirely predicated on a slightly pie-in-the-sky best-case hypothesis. Imprudent!

The finger-wagging professor certainly comes out! Fareed does make a good point about whether there really is an unworkable dilemma between war on Saddam and reintegrating Saddam in the international community. Worth thinking about, and worth remembering that American containment worked well against a super-nuclear 300-million strong Soviet Empire, who is to say it couldn’t work against a small tin-pot dictatorship, unable to control two thirds of its airspace and one third of its territory?

Oh, and Fareed finishes with gloriously condenscending wishful thinking:
We are going to war in the face of international opposition, more isolated than we've ever been. At this point, lets do it, do it well. Then at the end of the war bring the world back in, do it under UN auspices, stun the French with our gratitude by asking them to be involved in the reconstruction... Demonstrate that many of the fears about American intentions were misplaced. I do believe that this war will look better in retrospect than it does now.
Yes, the French were going to be just dying to give their money to reconstruct the buildings the Americans bombed! Amazing. A mere 5 years ago the 'global story' was that of an unstoppable America stronger than any other power in history, now it's that of an anachronistic military power facing economic crisis unprepared for the rise of the Rest. No doubt both can be considered gross exaggerations..

There's a particularly intense way of hating if you once were it. It is almost a cleansing, purifying emotion.

I hate neoliberals and neoconservatives, one can argue about what the best words to describe these people are, but they are those who believe in a morally absolutist notion of history: freedom is liberal democracy, capitalism and globalization. There is no qualification. There is no humility. There was no colonialism, no slave trade, no enclosure movement, no 'satanic mill', no industrialization of war, no Great Depression, no racism, no death factories... there were only bumps and potholes on the road of progress. A road common to all mankind. All roads lead to suburbia. A hideous view of history.

Man's goal is merely go towards universal consumer capitalism and liberal democracy; which is self-evident (or worse, it is inevitable). They might even squirm about the means, especially if those involve the opposition of one nation (the US) against the world (they'd like to think, truly, that they are internationalists that have overcome the parochial Western or American origins of their beliefs). At the end of the day, however, they are no moderates. They are crusaders. They have moral certainty. And that is why almost all of these thinkers, Zakaria, Thomas Friedman, Francis Fukuyama, supported war in Iraq, no matter how much that support might be 'reluctant' or 'qualified'. For them, freedom does basically flow mystically from American occupation. It's all just simple. (And obviously, there is no Haiti, no Panama, no Philippines, no Cuba, no Liberia, hell before the 1960s, no Alabama...)

Hoffmann for me is the heir of a dying, venerable and distinguished tradition of very European 'liberal conservatives' in the line of Gaetano Mosca, Sigmund Freud and Raymond Aron. That is, thinkers who are at once realistic, guardedly progressive, anti-extremist, skeptical about universalist claims (moral or political) and humble about man's own abilities to shape his world. Today it seems, however, that they are the only ones with the honesty of intellectual modesty.

...and statistics

I've been watching French talk shows recently and surprised by the extent of 'declinism' in the conversation. All these scholars and intellectuals are convinced Europe and America 'don't get it' and are thoroughly unprepared for the new economic order emerging, essentially, due to the rise of India and China.

I am not an economist but I think it's worth saying that all these statistics on comparative GDPs can be pretty flimsy. First, the ones that say that China and India are important (1/4 and 1/2 of the US economy respectively are those that measure GDP through 'purchasing power parity'. There are apparently many ways of measuring it, but it involves a certain amount playing with the raw numbers.

I don't know how much this affects accuracy but, consider this. I have an Atlas from 1980 showing the wealth and poverty of the world. It claims that East Germany was as rich as France, that New Zealand was equal per capita to the Soviet Union and Poland, and that North and South Korea were equally poor.. I think 'a grain of salt' is my point, especially in places where measuring is difficult to begin with (because its communist regime provides official statistics on the economy, for instance..).