Russia to Open Massive WWII Archive

Russia plans to open the world’s largest WWII archive, the size of which will “comply with the contribution of our country to the Victory.”  (The Russians have always insisted that they won World War II, not us.  The real answer is that we all won it.)  This archive project will apparently entail building new buildings to house the holding which will be brought in from numerous archives around the country.  The project will also include a major digitization effort and will apparently include some sort of commercial database dealing with Soviet casualties.  The article hints that similar efforts may be undertaken to assess German and Hungarian losses on the Eastern Front.

There are significant practicality issues associated with this project.  Furthermore, the desirability of taking war records out of existing archives and putting them into a purpose-built archive designed around an event as opposed to something that organically grew as out of an agency or other organization, is eminently debatable.  (For an excellent discussion of these issues, see the fine post at The Russian Front.)  On the other hand, many archives in Russia are in lamentable condition, so if the price of survival for these records is some disorganization, perhaps that is a price worth paying.  In addition, the digitization component of the project is certainly a good thing, though one does wonder what if any political criteria will be applied to select the documents and files that will be digitized.

Interestingly, Andrei Artizov, the head of the Russian Federal Archive Agency (Federal’naia arkhivnaia sluzhba Rossii aka Rosarkhiv) says that the new archive should include substantial German records “like those of Hitler’s chancellery, the Reich’s Security Services and others. In compliance with the existing legislation, they are part of Russia’s property.”  Meanwhile, a so-far very modest U.S. Government effort to do something similar with copies of analogous Iraqi records captured in 2003 generates accusation of malfeasance.

In any case, this will be an interesting story to follow.


Fighting the Jihad of the Pen

My good friend Heather S. Gregg of the Naval Postgraduate School has an article in the latest Terrorism and Political Violence entitled “Fighting the Jihad of the Pen: Countering Revolutionary Islam’s Ideology.” I commend it to you.  In it, she maintains that: “The United States has at least two strategies it can pursue in fighting revolutionary Islam’s ideas: helping to magnify the divisions and inconsistencies within revolutionary Islam and helping to create the space and culture of debating ideas.”

While recognizing the futility of the United States engaging in theological debate with Muslims, she does note a number of ways in which the United States is already doing the first, most importantly through the work of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.  I might add that al Qaida is already doing an excellent job of magnifying its own inconsistencies and divisions.  Its atrocities and its heated rejoinders to the various “revisions” published by former jihadists are all quite helpful in this regard.

The second part, “creating the space and culture of debating ideas” is the tricky bit. Heather writes: “Creating a marketplace of ideas requires at least two different components.  First, a marketplace of ideas demands an intellectual culture of questioning and debate…. Second, a marketplace of ideas requires a forum in which ideas can be discussed and debated.”

This forum can be either physical or virtual: newspapers, blogs, etc.  In fact, it seems to me that ideally “the” forum includes both physical and virtual spaces.  The more the merrier and, more to the point, the proliferation of fora encourages debates.  Imagine the lack of energy at the Daily Kos if there would be no the right-wing blogosphere.

This leads to perhaps the most telling part of the article.  Heather warns that:

“These two components of a marketplace of ideas—civic space and a culture of debate—are both necessary conditions for ideas to develop and prosper. Creating civic space alone is not sufficient for change; it could provide the forum for extremist groups to spread their ideology and propagate. Only can these groups be checked if there is also an intellectual culture in which all ideas are regarded as suspect and worthy of debate, and that truths—if they exist at all—are not fixed in time but must be constantly reevaluated, as well as the leaders that generate them.”

So, encouraging democracy and civil society is not enough.  The United States must find ways to encourage, or at least not impede, the development of questioning, critical societies.

Perhaps we could carpet bomb Muslim countries with postmodernist literature.  That was not Gregg’s suggestion, by the way.

In any event, kinetic action–killing people and breaking things–is absolutely necessary in the struggle against Islamist terrorism but it’s a  holding action.  Ideas such as Heather’s may not point their way toward the kind of action that makes good movies or lead to medals for valor, but ideas such as hers do point the way toward victory.  I look forward to the day when the last Islamist terrorist is on his deathbed knowing that everyone else in the world thinks his ideology is stupid if they think anything about it at all.  To me that would be even more satisfying than shooting the guy.

Check out Heather’s article.  It’s worth a read.

Published in: on March 29, 2010 at 6:55 AM  Comments (1)  

Air Power Theory Shaped by the Great Depression

It is generally understood that the form that warfare takes is a function of the societies out of which it grows.  I ran across a fascinating proposed example of that today in an article that Malcolm Smith wrote for the March 1990 issue of The Journal of Strategic Studies.  His piece was entitled “The Allied Air Offensive.”  In it he writes: “The idea that the bomber would be the decisive weapon in any renewed war rested on a depressed faith in the future of advanced industrial society, with its economic recessions and social divisions.”

Giulio Douhet and Billy Mitchell, of course, had set the course for this thinking in their writings which came out immediately after World War I.  This war had led to the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and the brief installation of communist regimes in Germany and Hungary.  It had also seen a borderline mutiny in the French Army and the temporary collapse of the Italian Army in the 1917 Battle of Caporetto, a debacle widely blamed on low Italian morale and the spread by the Austro-Hungarian of subversive ideas among the Italian troops.  Immediately upon the end of the war, the American military became preoccupied with the “Bolshevist” threat.  The War Department seriously contemplated the possibility of a revolution in the US in 1919-1920 and the famous Palmer Raids of late 1919 and early 1920 made these fears very visible to the public.  Then, of course, toward the end of the 1920s came the Great Depression, the American incarnation of a near-global problem.

Malcolm Smith elaborated how this environment shaped the receptivity and responses of national security leaders in Britain to the messages of the air theorists.

“The supposed ability of the bomber to bring a war directly to the home front, and to win the war there rather than in simply military conflict, made frightening sense in a period of economic dislocation, mass unemployment and political dissent.  It was no mere coincidence that [British Prime Minister] Stanley Baldwin chose the year of the General Strike to ask the House of Commons, ‘who does not know that, if another war comes, our civilization will fall with as great a crash as that of Rome?’  Civil Defense preparations in Britain were even kept secret until the second half of the 1930s, for fear that the very phrase ‘Civil Dense’ would spark off a public panic.  British pre-war preparations for evacuation and post-raid welfare reveal that the government believed that in the next war…the people themselves would be the real enemy.  ‘Civil Defense,’ indeed, was expected to be a policing activity to control an inherently panicky, even revolutionary, population.  Popular literature, as well as film, almost reveled in the fright of the prospect: no less than 133 books were published in English in the inter-war period on the war of the future, the large majority prophesying social revolution as an inevitable consequence of renewed conflict.  The bomber, in short, was molded by the Great Depression.”

It is also interesting, however, that the forms of warfare do not change as quickly as societies do.  Rather, there is a substantial time lag.  In particular, Western society today is vastly different from what it was in the 1920s and 1930s and yet the way we fight today is substantially influenced by the way we thought then.  People continue to read Douhet and Mitchell and Alexander de Seversky not just as purely historical documents (as we read Vegetius, for instance), but also because they purportedly relate to enduring realities of war.

I wonder how our air campaigns against Saddam or against the Taliban in 2001 would have been different if the 1920s and 1930s had not been times of Depression, revolution, and social strife.  What would the theory of air power look like today if the 1920s and 1930s had been like the 1950s: prosperous, self-satisfied, patriotic and featuring a public inclined to curse communists and build bomb shelters?

Mind you, the time lag between social forms and types of warfare isn’t always a bad thing.  Our adversaries aren’t immune to such problems.  In fact, I think one might argue that the persistence of a World War II metaphor of ground combat may have badly harmed Iraq in its face-offs with the US, et al.  It almost certainly would bite North Korea, as well, if there were to be a war on the peninsula.

The Latest from Anarchist News

Anarchist News has some interesting recent articles.

First, they reprint (almost certainly without permission) an article from the New York Times about flash mobs in Philadelphia.  What makes the Philadelphia flash mobs interesting is that they’ve been engaging in violence, albeit low-level violence: vandalism, pushing people around, etc.

I’ve been wondering for a long time when this was finally going to happen.  (Or DID it happen recently in Iran?  That’s not clear to me, perhaps some readers know.)  In any event flash mobs seemed to me the sort of thing that disgruntled and/or maladjusted people could not leave forever to people who only want to recreate Backstreet Boys’ choreography.  The comments on the article include a variety of different perspectives over how these youths are setting a good example (or not) and whether they require an anarchist “vanguard” to point them in the right direction.

Second, Anarchist News has a story about how three masked individuals, apparently radical vegans, attacked a speaker at the recent 15th Annual Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair with pies made from hot sauce and cayenne pepper.  (Youtube has many postings with video of the incident.  See e.g. here.)  The speaker who was speaking about the dangers of veganism and who herself is not an anarchist, apparently went to the police about the matter.  Anarchist News asked its readers for information about the attack and the perpetrators and said they would pass the information along to the woman who was attacked.

This led to a very lengthy discussion in the comments section.  Some people castigated Anarchist News for in effect going to and cooperating with the police.  A number of them said that a more appropriate response would simply be to find the perpetrators and beat them.  Other people seemed much less adamant on the point.  Another major theme in the thread is whether it is acceptable to attack women and children.  Some said this is beyond the pale while others argued that it was sexist to accord women exemption from attack when they deserved it.  Also many posters express a great deal of disdain for vegans in general.  The whole thread shows an impressive lack of conceptual coherence in anarchism, at least as represented by Anarchist News’ readers.  In fact, the whole thread ended generating so much more heat than light that one commenter indicated that the FBI wouldn’t need to mount “COINTELPRO” operations against the anarchists because the anarchists were so highly skilled at infighting and rendering themselves ineffectual.

Left Bank Books near Pike Place Market in Seattle (photo: schwartzray)

The third piece that caught my eye was of rather more personal interest.  Left Bank Books, a longtime landmark of Seattle’s Pike Place Market area will  have to close for up to three months for “earthquake retrofitting.”  There is concern that they may not survive.  While it would be more than fair to say that my politics do not accord with the politics of the proprietors, I will be sad if the store doesn’t make it.  Not only is it an integral part of one of my favorite areas of my favorite city (I grew up in the Seattle area) but I’ve spent a lot of money there.  Most of the books I own dealing with Marxism and radical leftism I purchased there.  The very earnest people there were always willing to sell me books about the Baader-Meinhof gang and such.  I have often wondered if they would have sold me books had they known that I’m an alum of the CIA.  Speaking for myself, I have a hard time disliking anybody who sells me books.  In addition, of course, though I admit to frequenting Border’s Books, I do lament the almost complete disappearance of independent bookstores.  Every independent bookstore has its own vibe and when it’s gone that vibe can never be recaptured.  On those grounds alone, I hope that Left Bank Books survives.

Jihadist Analyzes an American Analysis of a Jihadist’s Book

In browsing the “World News Connection” database (aka the Open Source Center) late at night, as one does, I ran across an interesting item from December.  Because I like to write about books, I’m sure you will forgive me posting somewhat stale news….

Last November, someone posted a comment and a twenty page paper to one of the jihadist forums.  The comment was intended to revive an online “book club” that had fallen into dormancy.  The poster offered several reasons why such a book club was a good thing.  Among them (as summarized by the Open Source Center or OSC):

to “fulfill the vacuum of intellectual, ideological, analytic, original, and serious thinking left untreated by other sites and to draw writers, thinkers, researchers, and others to reengage in debating and finding solutions to important issues;”… [I’m reminded of my earlier post.]

to encourage “the nation’s youth to revive the long interpretations of religious references and the original and pure words of God’s book, thereby producing a rebellious Islamic generation raised on the Islamic values, supporting and participating in the global jihad while exposing the doctrine and ideology of world order;”…

to read more extensive and various books and “utilize the advantages of the intellectual and ideological western thinking and ideas, and also benefit from such realistic writers as Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk, Samuel Huntington, and others;” [Bin Laden himself has previously recommended or comment favorably on all three of these authors.]

The poster then offers Norman Cigar’s book, Al-Qa’ida’s Doctrine for Insurgency: Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin’s “A Practical Course for Guerrilla War” for the book club’s consideration.  The OSC did not translate the twenty page analysis.  However we are assured that it is by and large a faithful summary of Cigar’s book, the majority of which, in turn, is simply a translation of Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin’s treatise.  (Al-Muqrin, you will recall, is a one-time leader of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula when it was a Saudi organization.  He got himself offed in 2004.  His work originally appeared in serialized form in one of the jihadist online magazines several years ago.)  The poster concludes with a paragraph about al-Muqrin noting that he:

“grew up as a strict and devout young man from Najd, the central province of Saudi Arabia, and…served jihad well and rivaled with his intelligence the old and present gifted thinkers and plannersof military theories, and [his] book is taught at the most famous military academies and that of the strongest army on earth, the US Marines.”

Ooh-rah.  Presumably the bit about the Marines and their military academies is a reference to the fact that Cigar taught (teaches?) at a part of the Marine Corps University at Quantico.

With regard to the Cigar book:  The introduction is well worth reading, though I occasionally got the sense that Cigar was going a little too far into US-centric military thinking in his analysis.  Al-Muqrin’s work, which forms the bulk of the volume, is going to be fairly old hat to anybody who has read even half-way seriously about guerrilla warfare.  That said, it does offer a fairly comprehensive treatment of the issue, situating guerrilla warfare in a taxonomy of warfare and then burrowing all the way down to how to conduct ambushes against cars.  It is also interesting that it was written by an Arab–they not being renowned for their contribution to guerrilla warfare theory–from a country, Saudi Arabia, that is quite unlike the leafy, wet places with which we often associated this form of war.  Perhaps al-Muqrin’s time fighting in Bosnia–a place with a serious guerrilla street cred–got him into the topic.  Who knows?

In any event, I’ll just close by saying that I find it fascinating how our writings and the jihadists’ writings bounce back and forth between us.  I wonder if the jihadists will ever notice my book (well, the book I did with Jessica Huckabey and John Schindler, that is!) and if so what they’ll say.  Hmmmm…Do I want them to notice my book??

Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 7:20 AM  Comments (3)  
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