Saturday, May 23, 2015

Timeline to War Update

I have updated the “Timeline to War” page.  This update includes relevant dates from the book “Advance to Barbarism,” by FJP Veale, and the book “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” by Timothy Snyder, as well as other minor additions and clarifications.  The new items are in red. 

Items in parenthesis refer to (book:page); book references can be found at the end of the post.  Where helpful, I have added hyperlinks in addition to page references.  I have also added specificity to several previously unspecific dates.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Centralization and War

One stereotype of the Middle Ages is that of continuous war.  Conflicts during the time tended to be small and local – more like feuds between families involving the lords and nobles, rarely the serfs or other freemen.  Decentralized government resulted in decentralized warfare, drawing in only those who were obligated due to voluntary commitment.

I have previously examined the centralizing desires of Charlemagne, and the warfare that this required.  He not only consolidated many disparate kingdoms, he brought together Church and State – being the first emperor crowned by the Pope in some three hundred years – and at least minimizing the beneficial conflict between competing institutions of authority.


After the demise of Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire, decentralization returned to much of Europe.  Thereafter, political development took different turns in different regions.

…the civilization of Latin Christendom was by no means uniform.  On the contrary, there were at least two distinct cultural traditions, one in the north and west, the other in central Europe.  The first was primarily French….

In Germany and Italy there was a different culture and different political background.  The Germans, indeed, might have been described (from a French point of view) as ‘backward.’  They were slow in developing feudalism beyond its Carolingian stage, being in this respect a century behind France and England.

There you have it: modern France and England, backward Germany and Italy.

The distinction between Italy and Germany on the one hand, and France and England on the other, was fundamental for the whole period from 900 to 1250.

I suggest it was fundamental for at least another two-hundred years beyond this, but I am getting ahead of the story.

What was this distinction?

It was not merely cultural in the narrow sense of the word, but it was political also.  Italy and Germany were the home of the Papacy and Empire, France and England of feudal monarchies and (ultimately) of nation-states.

During this period – beginning in the tenth century – what is today known as France began to take political form; the Capetian dynasty.  Around the same time, the monarchy in England took form – of course to include a defining event of conquest by the Norman William the Conqueror in 1066, who thereafter took all of the land in the king’s name.

It was not until the latter part of the nineteenth century that Germany took its centralized political form (of “nation-state”); the timeframe was similar for Italy.


The Hundred Years' War was a series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453 between the House of Plantagenet, rulers of the Kingdom of England, against the House of Valois, rulers of the Kingdom of France, for control of the latter kingdom.

Hence, I suggest that the distinction was fundamental for at least another 200 years.  Since the fall of Rome, Europe had seen nothing like this.  Sure, there were wars – but never before was it possible to command enough wealth and servitude to fight almost continuously for 100 years on behalf of another.

It was the most notable conflict of the Middle Ages, wherein five generations of kings from two rival dynasties fought for the throne of the largest kingdom in Western Europe.

It took centralized nation-states to make this happen – a one-hundred year war between England and France.  While Germans and Italians were involved in their feuds (think Hatfields and McCoys), life was a multi-generational hell for those living to the north and west:

Bubonic plague and warfare reduced population numbers throughout Europe during this period. France lost half its population during the Hundred Years' War. Normandy lost three-quarters of its population, and Paris two-thirds.

War and the centralized state went hand-in-hand…:

The Hundred Years' War was a time of rapid military evolution. Weapons, tactics, army structure and the social meaning of war all changed, partly in response to the war's costs, partly through advancement in technology and partly through lessons that warfare taught.  The feudal system was slowly disintegrating throughout the hundred years war.

…and re-invigorated nationalism…

The war stimulated nationalistic sentiment. It devastated France as a land, but it also awakened French nationalism. The Hundred Years' War accelerated the process of transforming France from a feudal monarchy to a centralised state.

…and made possible the re-introduction of the common man as an asset to the war-fighting state:

By the end of the Hundred Years' War, these various factors caused the decline of the expensively outfitted, highly trained heavy cavalry and the eventual end of the armoured knight as a military force and of the nobility as a political one.

No longer was significant wealth necessary to be a fighting man.  Equal opportunity employment was offered, making possible standing armies:

In 1445 the first regular standing army since Roman times was organised in France partly as a solution to marauding free companies.

And, unlike the small and localized feuds between members of the noble class, this war ushered in the emotion of national pride in the people:

The conflict developed such that it was not just between the Kings of England and France but also between their respective peoples. There were constant rumours in England that the French meant to invade and destroy the English language. National feeling that emerged from such rumours unified both France and England further.

And this all occurred not in “backward” Germany and Italy, but between the progressive, modern, and centralized nation-states of England and France.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Quo Vadis, America?

President Obama hosts a Gulf security summit, and most Arab leaders decide not to attend.  Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu comes to Washington to address Congress on Iran over protests from the president.  Britain ignores pleas from the United States and becomes a founding member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a potential competitor for the World Bank.  The Obama administration gripes that the Brits are pandering to the Chinese. Russia’s Putin, like Syria’s Assad, strides across American redlines with little consequence.  Beijing and Moscow announce joint military exercises…in the Mediterranean. NATO ally Turkey turns to China for new defense equipment.  The Dutch go to Huawei for internet security.

These are not random events. What’s going on?

-        Ian Bremmer

We have lived through a few meaningful inflection points in the last couple of decades: September 11, for reasons that need not be listed; the financial calamity that came to full force in 2008, making open to the world the festering wound that remained from Bretton Woods. 

Regarding military and foreign policy matters (which, for the US, has typically been the same thing), perhaps the most overt sign was regarding Syria two years ago, providing what could be determined as a real inflection point in the role of the US on the world stage.

Bremmer has written a book addressing the future possible paths that can be taken – or are possible – regarding the role of the United States government on the world stage.  The excerpt above is from the introduction.  (I have not read the book.)

…the lack of a coherent US foreign policy strategy didn’t begin with Barack Obama—though his second term struggles have made the problem more painfully obvious.  From the fall of the Wall and Soviet collapse, US presidents of both parties have defined America’s mission in terms of tactics.  US foreign policy has been reactive and improvisational for 25 years.  And we can no longer identify a Democratic or Republican approach to foreign policy.

Flailing might be an appropriate term.  Of course, the US used September 11 to galvanize the population against a new enemy – terrorism.  Convenient, as it – unlike a mortal enemy – would never pass from this earth.  Potentially a truly perpetual enemy.

Bremmer offers three possible paths for this American future.  He calls them “choices”; however, the term “choices” suggests that the individual or entity actually has a choice.  I am not so sure.

Indispensable America: This one will be the most familiar to readers. We live in a profoundly interconnected world.  No, America shouldn’t play the global cop, but if America doesn’t lead, nobody else will either.  International wildfires will burn out of control.  More Middle East states will fail, and terrorism will metastasize.  Russian revisionism will threaten Europe and beyond.  China will use its growing economic influence to expand its political leverage, undermining structures and standards created by advanced industrial democracies to strengthen individual liberty and free market capitalism.

To describe this as “the most familiar” would be an understatement.  This view is given glowing support virtually 24 / 7 – through public education, mainstream media, and politically acceptable dialogue.

Monday, May 18, 2015

ISIS to Get a Laser Cannon????

WHAT?  OK, I have been all for the non-aggression principle and all, but now my principle has met its match.  I give up – nuke ‘em all.

Scientists are considering plans to mount a laser cannon on the International Space Station (ISS) for shooting down debris trapped in orbit.

Something isn’t right; I thought ISIS stood for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.  Oh well, whatever they call themselves, they shouldn’t get a laser cannon.  Call out the Marines!

Some researchers are suggesting that the ISS be equipped with a laser powerful enough to shoot down space debris by disrupting the orbits of the pieces and sending them to burn up in the atmosphere.

Sure, those ISIS researchers might pretend that this laser cannon is for space debris, but I know that they are going to use it to bring Sharia law to Kansas.

Researchers estimate that a large-scale, debris blasting satellite could shoot down 100,000 pieces of space junk every year.

Don’t be fooled, Mr. President.  They are going to turn this laser cannon on Bible-thumping Americans before going to meet their forty virgins – already being in low-earth orbit, they will get there that much faster.

I say water-board the scientists working on this weapon from the devil.  Teach ‘em all about American values.

(OK, seriously.  Do you think if such a weapon was invented by NASA scientists that its only use would be to vaporize space debris?)

Is There Hope for the Bleeding Hearts?

Be still my beating heart…

Matt Zwolinski has authored “Three Problems for Libertarian Supporters of a Basic Income.”  Finally, is some sense coming to the perpetual bleeders (can you get blood from a turnip?)?  Of course, I can only think of one problem, but what the heck – if it takes Matt three problems to see the light, I won’t argue.  Let’s find out together, shall we?

I’ve written a few pieces defending a BIG from both a pragmatic and a more principled perspective. But it’s never been an issue about which I’ve felt absolutely settled.

Hooray Matt!  Turn to the light!  Don’t be frightened of the shadows it creates (borrowed liberally from John Petrucci).  We welcome all who do not advocate for or otherwise support the initiation of aggression.  (I have previously addressed his pragmatic perspective here, and his more principled perspective, such as it is, here.)

Here, then, are what I take to be three of the more pressing problems facing libertarian supporters of a BIG:

Yes, Matt, you already told us this in your title – get on with it, will you?  I can’t wait to welcome another member to the “we won’t steal from you” libertarians – you know, the ones who actually believe that initiating aggression is wrong.  In other words – libertarian.

Cost – There’s good reason to worry that the size of the grant provided by a BIG is either going to be too small to meet people’s basic needs, or to [SIC] large to be affordable.

Wait a minute; this is starting to go downhill.

What Programs to Replace? It’s easy to talk in the abstract about the BIG serving as a replacement for the existing welfare state. But exactly which programs is a BIG supposed to replace?

Whoa there, cowboy.  I thought you were about to replace all programs and BIG.  What gives?

Increased Xenophobia – In my the very first thing I ever wrote about the BIG, I worried that implementing would lead to increased hostility toward immigration, and therefore to worsening the situation of the poor outside the United States.

I won’t even bother with this one.

Now, the force of these problems depends to some degree on what one’s rationale is for supporting a BIG.

Where is Matt headed?  Oh dear, this isn’t going the way I was hoping.

Libertarians who take a pragmatic approach to defending a BIG, for instance, are going to find all three of these points especially troubling.

I don’t know of a single libertarian, pragmatic or otherwise, that supports big – so how can an empty set find anything “especially troubling” about any of these points?

On the other hand, most libertarians don’t believe that people have a right to get all of their needs met by others as a matter of justice.

All libertarians don’t believe this…full stop. 

Matt, I am really feeling cheated by your title.

If, then, the point of a BIG isn’t to meet people’s needs, but rather to compensate for past injustice, or to redistribute the undeserved economic rent held by owners of natural resources….

That’s it, Matt.  The wedding’s off.

There is only one problem for libertarian supporters of a basic income: there are no libertarian supporters of a basic income because it isn’t libertarian. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Making a Choice

The important question is: how could (how can) so many human lives be brought to a violent end?

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder

I return to this book by Snyder; I feel I have taken enough of a respite.  This will be my final post on this book.  Before addressing Snyder’s question, however, the final episodes of atrocity will briefly be covered.

Beginning in 1943 and continuing into the summer of 1944, Soviet troops were advancing westward toward Berlin.  Belarus – three years prior having been overrun by the Nazis, then suffering three years under the Nazis, was now the epicenter of the fight between the Soviets and the Nazis.  Just two weeks after the Allies landed 160,000 troops in Normandy, Stalin launched an offensive of one million in Operation Bagration:

The operation resulted in the almost complete destruction of an entire German army group, with the loss of Army Group Centre's Fourth Army, Third Panzer Army and Ninth Army. It is considered the most calamitous defeat experienced by the German armed forces during the Second World War.

Returning to Snyder:

The Germans lost some four hundred thousand missing, wounded, or killed.  Army Group Center was smashed.  The way to Poland was open.

Next stop, Warsaw, and one of many impossible choices facing those who lived in this region during those years – this by members of the Polish Home Army.  Having news of the rapid Soviet advance (and also having evidence, present in the countless Germans heading west), it seemed clear that the Germans would soon be defeated (good news) and the Soviets would soon replace them (not so good news):

If the Home Army fought the Germans openly, and succeeded, they might greet the arriving Red Army as masters of their own house.  If they fought the Germans openly, and failed, they would be prone and powerless when the Soviets arrived.  If they did nothing, they would have no bargaining position with the Soviets – or their western Allies.

In this short paragraph can be grasped the entirety of the situation and choices facing all those who lived in this region of hell on earth for the subject dozen years.  Every choice was bad, every outcome deadly. 

Illusion about Stalin was possible for the Allies; Polish officers and politicians could not afford to be so deluded.  They knew of the earlier occupation when Stalin went into eastern Poland; they knew of the deportations to central Asia; they knew of Katyn – the discovery of which prompted Stalin to break off diplomatic relations with the Polish government, an Allied government:

If Stalin would use his own massacre as reason to end relations with the Polish government, how could he be expected to negotiate in good faith about anything?  And if the Soviet Union would not recognize the legitimate Polish government during a common war against Nazi Germany, what were the chances that it would support Polish independence when the war was over and the Soviet position much stronger?

Someone might have told the Polish officers and politicians that they need not fret over such choices.  A clue might have been taken from British and American encouragement that the Poles accept the Soviet version of Katyn.  Just as the guarantee given by Britain and France in 1939 meant nothing (other than, perhaps, adding to Polish obstinacy), Poland in 1944 was of little concern to the Allies.

In any case, Roosevelt and Churchill had already agreed in late 1943 that the Soviet Union would reclaim eastern Poland as part of the Soviet Union after the war – in other words, half of their country had already been ceded (and kept secret to protect the Polish vote in FDR’s upcoming election).  Stalin, of course, had his plans for what was to become the new Poland.

Nevertheless, a choice was made – try to take control before the Soviets entered Warsaw:

Left alone by its allies, the Polish government in London ceded the initiative to the Polish fighters in Warsaw.  Seeing little other hope to establish Polish sovereignty, the Home Army chose an uprising in the capital, to commence on 1 August 1944.

You would think that the Soviets would be pleased with this – an uprising against the Nazis, weakening the enemy before the advancing Soviet army.  In a twisted sort of way, you would be correct.

Poles who revealed themselves to join the common fight against Germans were treated as people who might resist future Soviet rule.  The Soviet Union never had any intention of supporting any institution that claimed to represent an independent Poland.

The only institution in Poland immune from this concern was the Polish communist party.