Friday, September 26, 2014

"The army of lawyers will be annihilated"

From S. Walt, Revolution and War (1996), p.71:
Prussia's desire for action [in 1792] was based on the same sort of optimistic beliefs that the Girondins had promulgated so effectively within France.... The belief that the revolution had sapped French [military] strength was widespread.... [O]ne of Frederick William's chief advisors predicted, "The comedy will not last long. The army of lawyers will be annihilated in Belgium [i.e. the Austrian Netherlands] and we shall be home by the autumn."  

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Degrade, not destroy

You (a generic "you") may notice that I haven't been writing recently about what's going in the world now, preferring instead to meander through the French Revolution and Napoleon. Ok. Time to opine on ISIS and the air campaign. Actually I don't have much to say about it beyond the thought that Obama should not have set the goal as being to "destroy" the group. That's too high a bar, and also not necessary. "Degrade seriously" would be enough.    

Tocqueville and Napoleon

Alexis de Tocqueville was born in 1805, the year of Napoleon's victory over Russia and Austria at the battle of Austerlitz (one of the consequences of which was that, the following year, the Holy Roman Empire finally went out of existence).

Was Tocqueville one of the many caught up, retrospectively, by Napoleon's mystique, one of those who breathed in what David Bell (see the previous post) refers to as the "intoxicating fumes" of Napoleon's legend?  Apparently yes, at least to some extent.  In Tocqueville's Discovery of America (pb. ed., 2011), Leo Damrosch writes (p.187) that Tocqueville "was quite starstruck by the memory of Napoleon, much though he deplored his imperial rule," though Damrosch doesn't cite a passage from Tocqueville in this connection. 

Damrosch does, however, quote Tocqueville's reaction to hearing the Duke of Wellington speak in the House of Lords: "La gloire is invested with such extraordinary prestige that when I saw him take off his hat and begin to speak, I felt a shudder run through my veins" (Voyage en Angleterre, 1833).  T. evidently had a weak spot for generals, especially perhaps titled ones, who had won famous victories. Damrosch: "Tocqueville believed that only great generals, like ... Napoleon and Wellington, deserved political eminence" -- unlike Andrew Jackson, whom T. did not see in that light.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book review: The First Total War

David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It. Houghton Mifflin, 2007. 420 pp. (including notes, bibliography, and index).

Historians and social scientists do not agree, and likely never will, about when (or how) certain key features of the modern world originated.  One such feature or phenomenon that eludes universally accepted definition and a universally accepted date of origin is "total war."  International-relations scholars these days refer to "major war" or "hegemonic war" but don't use the phrase "total war" much, although Hans Morgenthau had used it, indeed had devoted a chapter to it, in Politics Among Nations.  At any rate, for most people the phrase "total war" brings to mind the world wars of the twentieth century; however, a good case can be made that the kind of war that engulfs whole societies was invented in the era of the French Revolution.  Although various writers have made this point before, in The First Total War David Bell explores it in detail, deftly combining cultural, intellectual, political, and military history.  

The intensification of warfare during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic period reflected, Bell maintains, a change in the prevailing "culture of war," from one that assumed war was an unexceptional, normal phenomenon to one that viewed war in apocalyptic terms:  "A vision of war as utterly exceptional -- as a final, cleansing paroxysm of violence -- did not simply precede the total war of 1792-1815.  It helped, decisively, to bring it about" (p.316).  He argues that a mindset that demonizes enemies and presents conflicts in stark good-vs.-evil terms continues to affect the way Western societies prosecute wars.  Clearly this argument is influenced, perhaps overly influenced, by the rhetoric of the G.W. Bush administration, during which The First Total War was written.  Bell refers to Carl Schmitt a few times, and those who see the 'war on terror' as a 'Schmittian moment' will find support for their position here.  The book's value, however, lies perhaps not so much in its main thesis as in the wide range that it covers, from works of philosophy to poems and paintings to rhetoric to battles and strategy, and in its effort to draw connections among these.  Most of the book's detail cannot be covered in this post, unfortunately.      


The opening chapter describes the aristocratic and relatively restrained character of eighteenth-century warfare (the key word being relatively).  The nobles who dominated European officer corps before the French Revolution viewed their behavior on the battlefield as a kind of elaborate performance, similar in that respect to their behavior on the dueling field, on the dance floor, and (in certain cases) in the bedroom.

According to Bell, this aristocratic ethos took war to be a normal, ordinary part of existence.  During the Enlightenment that assumption came under a dual intellectual assault: on one hand, from various philosophers who saw war as irrational, primitive, and likely to disappear as commerce, civilization, and morality progressed; on the other hand, from writers such as Wilhelm von Humboldt, who called war "one of the healthiest phenomena for the cultivation of the human race" (p.82).  The eighteenth-century nobility generally saw war as neither primitive (in d'Holbach's or Condorcet's sense) nor healthy (in Humboldt's sense), but as something one regularly did between May and October (see p.25).  The two-pronged critique of that view of war gave rise to what Bell calls "a new culture of war in embryo, one grounded precisely in the assumption of war's exceptionality" (p.82).  Add the idealization of the classical (Spartan and/or Roman) ideal of the citizen-soldier, as extolled by Rousseau and Mably and then by various orators in the Revolutionary assemblies, and the ground was prepared for a new style of warfare.  

Revolutionary and Napoleonic France led the way in the adoption of this new unrestrained and often brutal style of war, while the other European powers lagged behind.  And in the case of the counterrevolution in the Vendée and its violent suppression, described vividly in chapter 5, the French turned the brutality on each other.      

As for how and why the Revolutionary wars were launched in the first place, Bell emphasizes the belligerence of the faction known as the Girondins, and especially Jacques-Pierre Brissot.  They thought war would "regenerate" the Revolution.  While some scholars have seen France more as a victim of Austria and Prussia in 1792 than as an aggressor, Bell writes (pp.110-111): "The apparent weakness and chaos within [France] certainly tempted Austria and Prussia to behave more aggressively...but.... [w]hat proved decisive was that an influential group of French radicals [i.e. the Girondins] began to push for aggressive international action, in apparent contradiction of the declaration of peace [by the National Assembly in 1790]."   

After almost 200 pages, Bell turns to Napoleon, discussing Napoleon's character and the cult of personality that he fostered, as well as Napoleon's campaigns.  Even as French forces' often brutal suppression of insurrections in various parts of Europe (notably Spain) blurred or eliminated the civilian/combatant distinction, within France there was "a growing cleavage between military and civilian spheres" (p.217).  The legitimacy of civilian authority was eroded by crises, factionalism, and incompetence, while the citizen army's main loyalty increasingly went to its generals and to Napoleon in particular.  And although Napoleon as emperor was not exactly a military dictator, maintaining a civilian administrative apparatus and keeping or institutionalizing certain features of the Revolution, the influence of militarism on society and culture increased (p.243).  The casualty figures on all sides in the Napoleonic wars (not only from battle but, significantly, from disease) still have the capacity to shock, lending some credence to Metternich's claim in his memoirs that Napoleon told him: "I grew up on the battlefield.  A man like me does not give a shit about the lives of a million men" (p.251; see end-note on p.351).  Yet, as Bell remarks in the epilogue, Napoleon's legend has survived the gore for which Napoleon was responsible: "Julien Sorel [the protagonist of Stendhal's novel The Red and the Black] stands for millions of real men and women who have breathed in [the legend's] intoxicating fumes" (p.307). 


Not all historians are inclined to emphasize the discontinuities between the pre-1789 and post-1789 worlds as strongly as Bell does, nor will everyone be fully persuaded by his attempt to connect the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars to the early twenty-first century.  Some will be irked by his dismissal of "trend analysis" as applied to armed conflict (p.315).  Bell's stress on the causal role of ideas, rhetoric, and ideology will be congenial or not, depending at least partly on the reader's prior commitments.  But whether one cottons to the main arguments or not, this book is well worth reading for its engaging narrative backed by solid research.  Students of international relations will find much of interest in The First Total War, and they may find it worth comparing to the approaches of political scientists who have dealt with the same period, such as Stephen Walt (in Revolution and War) or Mlada Bukovansky (in Legitimacy and Power Politics).    

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Pictures of the Scottish highlands

Update (9/19): Now that the vote is over, the first part of this post on the implications is informative.

Since I have nothing notably insightful, informed or original to say about the Scotland referendum, here, in lieu of that, is a link to a report that aired on the NewsHour yesterday in which Dan Rivers of Independent Television News interviews some people in the highlands. Never mind the interviews; just look at the scenery. The word sublime means, among other things, awe-inspiring, and this is sublime, as the correspondent says. (Except my dictionary defines awe as a mixture of reverence, fear, and wonder, and I think there's not much to fear here, unless, I suppose, one were to go on a hike without the right equipment, or something like that.) 

P.s. The highlands segment starts about halfway through.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

'Offensive realism' and state motivations

One of the weak points of structural realist theories (or at least of Mearsheimer's, which has been the topic here recently) is their lack of a strong theory of state motivations. M. says states want more rather than less power, because that's the best way to be secure, or safe, in a world in which, according to M., "uncertainty about [other states'] intentions is unavoidable." (TGPP, p.31)  

In the body of the text of Tragedy of Great Power Politics, M. says that "the only assumption dealing with a specific motive that is common to all states says that their principal objective is to survive...." (p.32) But because "there are many possible causes of aggression" [what are they? he doesn't say] "and no state can be sure that another state is not motivated by one of them" (p.31), assuming that all states all the time want nothing more than survival is not warranted. Indeed, in an important end-note -- why this material is buried in an end-note rather than being in the text is rather perplexing -- M. makes clear that:
Security concerns alone cannot cause great powers to act aggressively. The possibility that at least one state might be motivated by non-security calculations is a necessary condition for offensive realism, as well as for any other structural theory of international politics that predicts security competition. (p.414 n.8)
Again, he doesn't say what these "non-security calculations" or motives are [except for a brief discussion on pp.46ff.], but this is nonetheless an important clarification. It's one that tends to get lost later in the text, however, for example at the beginning of ch.6 when he writes that "security considerations appear to have been the main driving force behind the aggressive policies of Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union" in the twentieth century (p.170). This, of course, is in some tension with the statement in the end-note that "security concerns alone cannot cause great powers to act aggressively." It may not be a fatal logical contradiction; it's probably more the result of careless use of shorthand phrases (and, to be fair to M., I have quoted only part of the end-note here, not the whole thing). Still, someone who only reads the text of TGPP and doesn't read the notes is likely to be even more puzzled about this issue than someone who has read the notes.

Harknett and Yalcin, in their 2012 article "The Struggle for Autonomy," which I discussed in this post (where, I see, I also quoted the Mearsheimer end-note I've quoted here) recognized some of these problems about state motivation in realist theory and attempted to deal with the issue more satisfactorily than had been done previously. Although I was critical of their effort (not that I have gone back and carefully read that post), they should be given credit for having recognized and tried to address the problem.

Added later: For one useful discussion of this set of issues (and, of course, more thorough than the discussion in this post), see Jack Donnelly, Realism and International Relations (2000), ch.2, "Human Nature and State Motivation."

Friday, September 12, 2014

Pearl Harbor, once more

Since I occasionally make cryptic, sniping remarks about Mearsheimer's The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, I should make clear that there are at least a few things in the book that I find  illuminating. One of them is his discussion of the situation that Japan faced in 1941. (Btw, the prompt for this post is a discussion about Pearl Harbor on an LGM thread that started off being about the Russo-Japanese war.)

He notes that in mid-1941 the U.S. applied a "full-scale embargo" against Japan, "emphasizing...that it could avoid economic strangulation only by abandoning China, Indochina, and maybe Manchuria." (p.223) The U.S. was determined that Japan should not dominate Asia or be in a position to strike the USSR, then on the ropes against Hitler's invasion. This left Japan with two bad, from its perspective, choices: "cave in to American pressure and accept a significant diminution of its power, or go to war against the United States, even though an American victory was widely agreed to be the likely outcome." (ibid.) The Japanese chose the latter course, he goes on to say, as the less bad of two very bad alternatives. That does not mean the decision was irrational, though it was an extremely "risky gamble" (ibid., 224).

Where I would part company (or so I assume) with Mearsheimer is in seeing the entire Japanese militarist-imperialist enterprise as irrational -- and also immoral and criminal -- from the outset. However, given that Japan's leaders at the time were committed to that enterprise and given the particular circumstances that they faced, their decision to go to war with the U.S. was not 'irrational'. Whether the specific decision to attack Pearl Harbor was a mistake is really a secondary question; the more basic question has to do with the decision to launch war against the U.S.

ETA: And it's the more basic questions that tend to get shunted aside or overlooked when discussions focus narrowly on specific strategic decisions.

2nd update: Googling "sagan origins of the pacific war" brings up results, including Scott Sagan's 1988 article that M. cites (although my browser didn't like the pdf) and a 2010 paper at by a UCLA grad student ("Revisiting the Origins of the Pacific War") that appears, on a quick glance, to take M.'s view, more or less. (But I've already conceded in the comments that TBA could be right.)

3rd update: For a somewhat different take on this, see John Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday (1989), pp.229-30.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The 'authority' debate, once more

At the time of the Libyan intervention, there was a debate about the President's authority to participate, with air assets etc., in that French-initiated operation (without congressional approval). Now there may be a rerun of the debate with respect to his authority to expand air strikes against ISIS. Except that Congress is going to fall over itself in its haste to pass something that says "yes yes," so in the end the debate about presidential authority in this case won't, practically speaking, matter much. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Question of the day

Why has Kissinger, at 91, published a 400-page volume called World Order that seems, judging from this review, to be mostly a repetition of things he's said before?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

False confessions

It is well known that a problem with the U.S. 'justice' system is the way in which false confessions are sometimes obtained under often coercive circumstances from young or otherwise vulnerable suspects: see here (h/t P. Campos at LGM). See also here.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The alignments in the M. East

On Friday the NewsHour had a segment with Hisham Melhem and Steven Simon talking about the somewhat tangled alliance patterns in the Middle East: starts at about 14:00 here.

ETA: The segment referred briefly to this June post at ThinkProgress, which featured a chart of the "tangled web" of alignments in Syria.