Everyone will be talking about American politics today. However, Iowa is just the first step in the race for the Presidency, and its darlings are often eclipsed by candidates with stronger showings down the road. I don't have much to say about it. Instead I would like to comment on a different electoral victory. As it is already happened I can skip most of the guesswork you will read in the Iowan hot-takes. I speak of the Justin Trudeau's sweep to power several months ago. Looking back on it now I realize many people commenting then missed one of the most significant things about Mr. Trudeau's new program for Canadian politics. 

When Justin Trudeau announced his new cabinet back in November, his declaration set progressive media outlets across the English speaking world ablaze. Most of the attention focused on Trudeau's decision to make his cabinet gender balanced, but ample praise has been found for the cabinet's ethnic diversity as well. This tweet gives you a flavor of the coverage, condensed into a meme-friendly form:

People seem to like my analysis of the new Canadian Cabinet Ministers. Feel free to share. #canadianeh
Posted by Alana Phillips on Wednesday, November 4, 2015

All of this is history for the record books. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of governing I suspect that the most remarkable things about Trudeau's cabinet will not be the gender, race, or religion of its members, but their newness. When Trudeau chose his cabinet in November he selected a cabinet of greenhorns.

Eighteen of Trudeau's thirty cabinet members are first-time MPs. Only six (Ralph Goodale, Stéphane Dion, Scott Brison, Carolyn Bennett, John McCallum, and Lawrence MacAulay) have previous minister experience. While Stéphane Dion has been assigned to serve as Minister of Foreign Affairs, the other weighty assignments have gone to parliamentary neophytes: Bill Morneu as Minister of Finance, Harjit Sajjan as Minister of Defense, and Jody Wilson-Raybould as Minister of Justice.

When analyzing Ottawa politics one needs to be careful not to get too caught up in Cabinet choices. Many Cabinet positions are relatively inconsequential. The true levers of power are not found in general meetings of the Cabinet, but in the work of the main Cabinet Committees. It is entirely possible to pick a Cabinet that looks pretty in the public eye while reserving more serious committee assignments for a less sexy set of party power brokers. I was surprised to find that in Trudeau's case this has not been true. The composition of Trudeau's committees does match that of his Cabinet. This includes the political experience of those selected. The most important of Trudeau's committees is the Committee on Agenda and Results (Trudeau's version of the Priorities and Planning Committee, sometimes called the "inner cabinet"). Of its eleven members, six are first time MPs. The Committee of Intelligence and Emergency Management is the only other committee chaired by Trudeau himself. Two of its eight members are fresh MPs, and one of them, Jody Wilson-Raybould, is the Vice-Chair. Wilson-Raybould seems to be the workhouse of the new administration, Trudeau's woman in the trenches: she sits on six committees, and is Vice-Chair of two of them. This includes the Committee and Canada in the World and Public Security. Six of its ten members are first time MPs.

You can play this game with all of the committees. The end result is clear: Trudeau has put political neophytes in key positions across the government, including foreign relations and military affairs. To put it frankly, this is a bold experiment that takes Anglophone politics into uncharted waters. Canada's political establishment has been turned upside down, and the recent history of other Anglosphere nations offers no precedents here. I suspect, however, they will be keenly interested in how well the Ottawa rookies perform. In recent months both the United States and the United Kingdom have seen vicious arguments about the relevance of prior political experience for actual political performance at the national level. In Canada that question is no longer a theoretical one.  Canada has handed the reins over to the rookies. It is too early to tell if this decision was a wise one. 2016 is the year to test if the political greenhorns can run a country as well as the old guard.

Sometimes I wonder: do those on the mainland realize just how despised they are?

Meet Chou Tzuyu (周子瑜). She is 16. She is a part of the K-Pop group TWICE. One of these days I will have to write about what one must to do to succeed on the Korean pop scene. Today I'll be brief: you must do a lot. Making it in the K-Pop world is an impressive accomplishment for any young performer. It is an especially impressive accomplishment for performers who are not Korean. Chou Tzuyu is Taiwanese.

Miss Chou made the mistake of appearing on a Korean television show with a pair of mini flags in hand. One was South Korea's. The other was Taiwan's. I expect she wanted to show that her success in Korea was evidence of the two countries coming closer together. Maybe she did not expect to show anything--the clip is a few seconds long; she waves the two flags in greeting from her bunk, a place where personal items and trinkets are often stored. But why she did it really does not matter. Thoughtlessly or not, Chou Tzuyu appeared on a Korean television show with a Taiwanese flag in hand.

This was a sin. Or so it would seem. It did not take long for the Chinese internet to blow up. A hash tag campaign to boycott Twice was launched. It grew into an effort to boycott all musicians and groups from JYP, her label. Chinese television channels dropped scheduled concerts; Chinese companies have dropped merchandising offers. I haven't seen any evidence that the CPC has actively supported this, or that the government put any overt pressure on JYP. But they certainly have done nothing to blunt the nationalist social media crusade, as censors often do when tensions with Japan or South China Sea claimants are on the rise. JYP, for its part, tried valiantly to fend off the wolves, but they could not keep them at bay for long. This week JYP asked (read: forced) their little 16 year old star to issue a public apology, to be released on all of its social media channels. The video for the apology is embedded above. [1] Here is what she said, first in Chinese, then in English:

大家好, 我是周子瑜. 對不起, 本人應該早先出來道歉. 因為(我)不知道如何面對現在的情況, (我)一直不敢直接面對大家, 所以現在才站出來中國只有一個, 海峽兩岸是一體的 我始終認自己是一個中國人而感到驕傲. 我作為一個中國人, 在國外活動時, 由於言行上的過失, 對公司, 對兩岸網友的情感造成了傷害. 我感到非常非常地抱歉, 也很愧疚.我決定終止目前(在)中國一切的活動, 認真反省. 再次再次地向大家道歉, 對不起.
Here is my translation of this into English:
Hello. I have something to tell everyone.

Hello, I am Chou Tzuyu. I am sorry, I should have apologized earlier. Because I did not know how to deal with this situation, and I didn't dare to face everyone, I am only saying this now: there is only One China. Its two parts are one. I have always been Chinese--here she stops reading for a moment--and am proud of this. As a Chinese person, during my overseas activities, my irresponsible words and actions have damaged my company and have offended the feelings of people on both sides. I am incredibly, incredibly sorry and ashamed. I have decided to stop all activities in China and will earnestly search my conscience [in the meantime].

Once again, I apologize to you all. I am sorry.

In the two days since it was published, the video has been viewed more than 4 million times, by both Koreans and Taiwanese. It will undoubtedly be seen by many more. If my Facebook feed is anything to go by, this apology has created larger stir in Taiwanese society than the election of Tsai Ing-wen. I don't imagine it will sate the nationalist masses of the Chinese net, however. For them it will never be enough to hear her claim "我是中国人“ (I am Chinese). Miss Chou must also mean it. But how could she mean it? She read her apology from a script.

That is how the internet crusaders will spin this video. But I am sure they are right. Chou Tzuyu probably does not mean it. You cannot watch her pitiful performance and think she would ever do this if she was not being coerced into to doing so. But that is the entire point, isn't?

I did not realize until quite recently just  how many people here in Taiwan despise mainland Chinese. In China people often deride the Taiwanese as spoiled, girlish, and trouble making, but they do not hate them. [2] In Taiwan things are different. I was not quite prepared for this. I have met hundreds of Taiwanese before I moved to Taipei, but most of my close Taiwanese friends I met through Church.  There the warm feeling of brother and sisterhood that attends the saints wherever they gather dampened nationalist tensions a great deal. Most Taiwanese are not Mormon, however, and even those who are do not go to church every Sunday with mainlanders, as they would if they were living in America. Here there is no respite from the anger. The hate is real, especially among the young.

I did not get it. I love China. I love Chinese people. Honestly, I get along with the average mainlander--especially mainlanders from the North--better than I do the average Taiwanese. Their derision did not fit my experience.

But now I get it.

See, there was always this idea that the Chinese people have been fooled--a people indoctrinated, or brainwashed, but salvageable if only you could get the truth to them . The Chinese people are not the Chinese government, folks would say, and what the Chinese government does is not what the Chinese people want. And in some realms that is true. But not here. It was not the Chinese government that forced Chou Tzuyu to renounce her country. No one in Zhongnanhai condescended to ban TWICE concerts or curb their ticket sells. The feelings of the Chinese people were offended, and the Chinese people retaliated. The government did not need to get involved.

To restate the point: Taiwan's problem is not the Communist Party of China. Taiwan's problem is the billion Chinese men and women who would rather a 16 year old girl debase herself in front of the world than wave a flag on Korean television.

Now, with twenty years of internet contact and unhindered cross strait travel behind them, the Taiwanese have begun to realize this. They have seen the enemy for themselves. They know that it is not the Chinese Party, but the Chinese people. And so they despise.

There is danger here of falling prey to sentimentalism, thinking that feelings matter more in the course of world affairs than power does. In the long run I do not think it will matter much how much the rising generation of Taiwanese despise those who live across the straits. Taiwan's independence will not be decided on Taiwanese emotion alone. But still I wonder. Do they know? Do those on the mainland realize how hated they have become?


[1] I have pieced this story together from Kevin Fox, "TWICE Halt Promotional Activities In China Due To Political Controversy Surrounding Tzuyu," K-Pop Starz (14 Jan 2016);  ; Adrienne Stanley, "2PM's Chinese Activities May Be Canceled Due To Tzuyu's Scandal: Is This The Reality Of K-Pop In China?," K-Pop Starz (15 January 2016); Jeremyn Chow, "K-Pop Winner Apologizes in Video For Holding Taiwanese Flag," Straight Times (16 January 2016).

[2] If you wish to see how this plays out in popular entertainment, I would direct you to the 2014 film Women Who Flirt (撒娇女人最好命), whose Taiwanese antagonist manages to combine all three traits.

I have argued before that any potential American foreign policy or 'grand strategy' that requires  statesmen with a nuanced understanding of a foreign region's cultures, politics, and languages to implement it is doomed to fail. Regional acumen is a rare trait, and one I greatly admire. But it is rare for a reason. Regional acumen just does not scale--or at least, Americans do not know how to scale it.

I have said this before. But it was reinforced tonight when I stumbled--quite by accident--across this old New York Times Magazine personal by Lydia Kiesling. In it she describes her experience learning Uzbek with a FLAS grant from the Department of Education. I encourage you to read the entire thing, but here are few key excerpts:

Four years ago, the federal government paid me a large sum — a year of graduate-school tuition, plus a stipend — to study Uzbek at the University of Chicago. Uzbek is among the least commonly taught of the so-called Less Commonly Taught Languages, or L.C.T.L.s. So uncommonly is it taught, in fact, that without federal largess it would hardly be taught at all. Because I happened to speak decent Turkish, a cousin of Uzbek, and because I spent a week in Uzbekistan when I was 22, and because life is nothing if not a sequence of odd choices vaguely considered, for two years I sat in a room with two other students and produced some extremely literal translations. 
Uzbek is a member of the sprawling Turkic-language family, which comprises­ around three dozen members in six major branches. As in any human family, there are varying degrees of affinity: If Uzbek and Turkish are cousins, Uzbek and Uyghur, which is spoken in western China, are fraternal twins. But Turkic grammars and numbers are surprisingly uniform, and it is theoretically possible for someone to buy milk in Sevastopol (Crimean Tatar) or Ashgabat (Turkmen) or Bishkek (Kyrgyz) using more or less the same words.... 
Years before I studied Uzbek, it seemed like a cosmopolitan miracle, with my bumbling Turkish, to be able to read an exit sign or negotiate a cab fare in Tashkent. If you sit around long enough in Uzbekistan — on a bus or a park bench — eventually someone will invite you to her home. I would prattle at my hosts until we found common ground. ‘‘Elma,’’ I said, gesturing to the very small, very sweet apples we ate in one woman’s courtyard. ‘‘Olma,’’ she gently corrected. 
That was nine years ago, and since then, I have spoken Uzbek outside the classroom on exactly two occasions, once in a pan-Turkic Creole with a Chicago cabdriver named Tilek who was actually from Kyrgyzstan, and once with an Afghan Uzbek in Izmir, Turkey, who looked at me in bafflement and answered in Turkish
Uzbek exists in my life now as an Eastern echo in the Turkish I have more opportunities to use. When I’m feeling beery, I look for Uzbek songs on YouTube with titles like ‘‘That’s Not Life’’ or ‘‘Life Is Passing.’’ I pick out lines like ‘‘My beautiful one, this is your wedding night.’’ This is perhaps not an ideal use of a highly specific skill acquired at the expense of the American taxpayer. (My halfhearted assay into the security sector fizzled because of unspecified ‘‘information in my background.’’) 
I’m settled now, no longer nomadic. But Uzbek is my little insurance policy, a crumpled bill rolled into a stocking, against some unforeseen contingency." [2] (emphasis added)

This article gets to the heart of why America will always lack the kind of language and area expertise needed to succeed in the kinds of things the American people (or American leaders) often demand the United States government do. Uzbek is an obscure language. But it is an obscure language at the center of the national security concerns that have bedeviled the United States over the last decade and a half. To give a brief picture:

  • There are about three million Uzbeks who live in Afghanistan. Uzbeks were an essential part of the Northern Alliance's resistance against the Taliban, and Uzbek leaders became an important part of the government established by NATO forces once the Taliban was driven from power. This is still true. Afghanistan's current vice-president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, is an Uzbek. 
  • Uzbekistan is the central hub of central Asia. One of the greatest defeats of our Afghan campaign happened not on the battlefield, but at the diplomats' table. Uzbekistan's decision to withdraw American basing and supply rights was nothing short of a disaster, forcing the United States to be even more dependent on Pakistan (our true enemy in the region) for logistic support. 

This is a language that matters. What happens to the woman who spent a year of her life studying it? She was rejected from the CIA (or wherever) on background technicalities, and has not used her language since. Or to be more precise, she has used it twice. Twice in four years. Twice.  

This gets to the heart of America's problem with regional acumen. Area expertise simply doesn't pay. You may count the number of private sector jobs currently on the market that demand Uzbek fluency on two hands. And even if there were a multitude of jobs that required proficiency in Uzbek and English, there are undoubtedly several hundred--perhaps several thousand--Uzbekistanis who speak English better than Ms. Kiesling speaks Uzbek, and who will work for less pay to boot.

 As for government postings--getting hired is tricky. To pass the proper security clearances the ideal candidate is not married to or romantically involved with a foreigner (or a foreign born citizen with family members still living abroad), does not have financial interests in any foreign countries, has not been employed by or has not had extensive relations with foreign governments, is not living with foreign room-mates, and only has 'casual and infrequent' contact with foreign friends and acquaintances--in essence, this candidate will do none of the things that give one language fluency, 'regional acumen,' and 'cultural understanding,' in the first place! Add to this the usual requirements regarding drug use, financial stability, and personal conduct (none of which, in my experience, correlate closely with the character of those wanderers crazy enough to throw themselves into rare, off-the-beaten-path locales where languages like Uzbek are spoken) and the chances of landing a well paid government job on the strength of your language skills narrows further.   

And this is all with a language widely recognized as a critical one. Conflict hot-spots cannot be predicted decades ahead of time, but it can take a decade to master a foreign language and culture. Thus Kielsling's story is repeated with one language after another.  The same tale can be told for those learning any other language in Central Asia (including Farsi), the majority in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, and just about all of them in India and Africa. Years are spent studying a language students will not use.  In that case, why bother studying them at all?

This is why America will always fail at regional expertise. 


[1] T. Greer, "Wanted: A StupidProof Strategy," The Scholar's Stage (30 October 2015). 

[2] Lydia Kielsing, "A Letter of Recommendation: Uzbek," New York Times Magazine (15 August 2015).

Every Book I Read in 2015  

Posted by T. Greer in

The library I brought with me when I moved to Taipei in November. This and a kindle.

A new year has arrived, and that means it is time to post my annual list of every book I have finished since the last new year's day. I have kept a list of every book I have read, along with a few short comments summarizing and casting judgment on each title, since 2010 (you can see my lists for 2013 and 2014 here and here). As in past years I have bolded and linked to the Amazon page of the ten best titles of the year. Only books that I read for the first time in 2015 qualify for inclusion in this category.

As is often the case, my reading list is closely connected with what I have written for the Stage, and careful readers of the blog can probably piece together when I read many of these books by looking at the blog posts published throughout the year. I will forgo the usual attempt to place a link to the individual posts related to the readings next to the book that inspired them, for several of these posts (especially "Darwin and War in Ancient China, Sengoku Japan, and Early Modern Europe," and "The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program") drew on a dozen or more of the books included here. It would be impractical to place a link next to every title.

I began bolding my ten favorite books of the year with the hope that it would stop readers from asking me what the "best" book of the year was--when you are reading between 65-80 books a year choosing just one really is an impossible task. 2015 is different. This year has a clear winner. I found the story of this book I read so arresting that I read all five of its volumes twice. Had I copy with me here in Taiwan I would not hesitate to reread it all again. Never has a book jumped so fast to Quantum Library status.

This book is Cao Xueqin's Dream of the Red Chamber, translated by David Hawkes and John Minford with its alternate title, The Story of the Stone. Dream of the Red Chamber is one of the "Four Great Classic Novels" of Chinese literature, and is almost universally described as the best of the four--and by extension, the best novel of Chinese history. I have been making my way through the classic novels through the last few years, but I gave priority to marshal epics like Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh (Water Margin) over Dream, whose story centers around forlorn love and domestic squabbles. This was a mistake. Dream is just as good as the critics claim, and is in contention not just for the title of "best novel ever written in Chinese history," but "best novel written in human history." It is a book I shall treasure for the rest of my life.

With that said, it is not a book for everyone. If you have no patience with the carefully constructed prose and clever ripostes of, say, a Jane Austen novel, then you might find Dream unfit for your tastes. Like Austen, Cao Xueqin is fascinated with the manners and mores of the aristocratic class, and he finds nothing more interesting than the inner lives of women. He is also just as discerning a wit. But where Austen's books all end on happy note, Cao Xueqin's story is one of bitter tragedy. One might call this tragedy Shakespearean in scope, but this is not quite right, for Cao Xueqin lets you into the head of his characters in a way that Shakespeare never did--tragedy as told by Dostoevsky or Conrad, with all of their psychological realism, is a better comparison. What is Shakespearean about Dream is its scope. There are hundreds of characters in this novel, ranging from fantastically rich aristocrats to their servants in the kitchen. Shakespeare was one of the few authors who could see the world through a dozen different social ranks and a hundred different ideologies. Cao Xueqin was another.

I include all these references to Western authors to give you a sense for just how compelling Dream of the Red Chamber is. But Cao Xueqin was not a Westerner, and his book, written when the Qing Dynasty was at its height, is very much a part of the Chinese tradition. Cao Xueqin alludes to, quotes, and occasionally outright refutes poets, historians, philosophers, playwrights, and thinkers from across the 2,000 years of Chinese history that preceded him. His novel is in many ways the culmination of an entire civilization's heritage--the last great hurrah of Chinese thought before the West came in and broke it all down. You don't need to understand or catch all of these references to enjoy Dream, but a working knowledge of Daoism, Confucianism, and so forth will increase your appreciation for it's intellectual depth. However, it's prose (and here Minford and Hawkes' superb translation skills must be credited) will draw anyone in, regardless of their familiarity with traditional China. Indeed, Dream works as well as any book I know as an introduction to late imperial China, a society alien to modern Westerners and Chinese alike. Cao Xueqin paints a beautiful portrait of his time; if you want to understand what it felt like to live in the China at its zenith there is no better starting place than Dream of the Red Chamber. 

Well, that's enough of all that. As a primary source Dream of the Red Chamber is priceless, as an intellectual statement it captivating, and as a work of literature it is heart-rending. If all of this has not been enough to convince you to buy the book, nothing I could write ever will be.

The other bolded books always have my strongest recommendation.

What were the best books you read this year? 


Plato, The Republic, trans. Alan Bloom, 2nd ed (New York: Basic Books, 1991) 

Streich, Philip, “The Failure of Balance of Power in Warring States Japan, 1467-1590” (PhD diss., Rutgers, 2010). 

Strayer, Joseph, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999). 

Ferejohn, John and Frances Rosenbluth, War and State Building in Medieval Japan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010). 

Tilly, Charles, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 900-1992 (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1992). 

Hui, Victoria Tinbor, War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). 

Conlan, Thomas Donald, State of War: The Violent Order of Fourteenth Century Japan (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003).  

Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, or The Dream of the Red Chamber, vol I: The Golden Days, trans. David Hawkes (New York: Penguin Books, 1974) 

Li Feng, Landscape and Power in Early China: The Crisis and Fall of the Western Zhou, 1045-771 BC (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). 

Wu Cheng-En, Monkey: A Folk Novel of China, trans. Arthur Waley (New York: Grove Press, or. ed. 1941). 

Souyri, Pierre, The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society, trans. Kathe Rothe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003). 

Pomeranz, Kenneth, The Great Divergence China, Europe, and the Making of the World Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000):  

Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, or The Dream of the Red Chamber, vol II: The Crab Flower Club, trans. David Hawkes (New York: Penguin Books, 1974). 

Duffy, Eamon, The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992). 

Lamers, Jeroen, Japonius Tyrannus: The Japanese Warlord Oda Nobunaga Reconsidered (Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2000). 

Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, or the Dream of the Red Chamber, vol III: The Warning Voice, trans David Hawkes (New York: Penguin Books, 1981).           

Chiang Chi Lu, “The Scale of War in the Warring States Period” (PhD Dissertation. Columbia University, 2005).          

Rogers, Clifford, eds. The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe  (Boulder, CO; Westview Press, 1995). 

Mann, Charles, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, rev. ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 2012). 

Cao Xueqin and Gao E, The Story of the Stone, or the Dream of the Red Chamber, vol IV: the Debt of Tears, trans. John Minford (New York: Penguin Books, 1982). 

Ertman, Thomas,  Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).     

Cao Xueqin and Gao E, The Story of the Stone, or the Dream of the Red Chamber, vol V: The Dreamer Wakes (New York: Penguins Books, 1986).       

Hall, Jon. W. and Toyoda Takeshi, eds. Japan in the Muromachi Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977) 

Schwartz, Stuart B,  All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance in the Iberian Atlantic World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).    

 Hall, John. W.,  Nagahar Keiji, and Yamamura Kozo, eds. Japan Before Tokugawa: Political Consolidation and Economic Growth, 1500 to 1600 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).   

Schell, Orville, and John Delury, Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the 21st Century (New York: Random House, 2014).  

Addison, Joseph. Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays, ed. Christine Dunn Henderson and Mark E. Yellin (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004).  

Shakespeare, William. Othello. In Globe Illustrated Shakespeare: The Complete Works Annotated. ( New York: Greenwhich House Publishing, 1984).  

Mahnken, Thomas. Secrecy and Stratagem: Understanding Chinese Strategic Culture. (Syndney: Lowy Institute For International Policy, 2011) 

Krepenivich, Andrew. Maritime Competition in a Mature Precision Strike Regime. (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, 2015). 

Wang Wensheng, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates: Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire (Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press, 2014). 

Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, or The Dream of the Red Chamber, vol I: The Golden Days, trans. David Hawkes (New York: Penguin Books, 1974) .

Tacitus. Annals. in Complete Works of Tacitus,.Moses Hadas, ed. and introduction, Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, trans. (New York: Random House, 1942), 3-339. 

Tacitus. Life of Cnaeus Julius Agricoloa. in Complete Works of Tacitus, Moses Hadas, ed. and introduction, Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, trans. (New York: Random House, 1942), 677-709. 

Tacitus. Germania. in Complete Works of Tacitus,.Moses Hadas, ed. and introduction, Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, trans. (New York: Random House, 1942), 709-735. 

Stockman, Daniela, Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).  

Heather, Peter. The Fall of Rome: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). 

Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, or The Dream of the Red Chamber, vol II: The Crab Flower Club, trans. David Hawkes (New York: Penguin Books, 1974). 

Mattern, Susan. Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). 

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. (New York: Scholastic Books, 1998). 

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (New York: Scholastic Books, 1999). 

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban (New York: Scholastic Books, 1999). 

Ward Perkins, Bryan, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). 

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. (New York: Scholastic Books, 2000). 

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (New York Scholastic Books, 2003).  

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (New York Scholastic Books, 2005). .  

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (New York Scholastic Books, 2007).  

Luttwak, Edward, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1987). 

Burns, Thomas, Rome and the Barbarians: 100 BC-AD 400 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2003).  

Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, or the Dream of the Red Chamber, vol III: The Warning Voice, trans David 

Hawkes (New York: Penguin Books, 1981).   

Cao Xueqin and Gao E, The Story of the Stone, or the Dream of the Red Chamber, vol IV: the Debt of Tears, trans. John Minford (New York: Penguin Books, 1982). 

Schwartz, Benjamin, The World of Thought in Ancient China (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1985). 

Cao Xueqin and Gao E, The Story of the Stone, or the Dream of the Red Chamber, vol V: The Dreamer Wakes (New York: Penguins Books, 1986).       

Macmullen, Ramsay. Corruption and the Decline of Rome (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).           

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. In Globe Illustrated Shakespeare: The Complete Works Annotated. (New York: Greenwhich House Publishing, 1984). 

Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. In Globe Illustrated Shakespeare: The Complete Works Annotated. (New York: Greenwhich House Publishing, 1984). 

Pye, Lucian. The Mandarin and the Cadre: China's Political Cultures. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988).  

Achebe, Chinua.Things Fall Apart. (New York: Anchor Books, 1994; or. ed. 1959)             

Hamilton, Sue. Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). 

Tagore, Rabindranath. Home and the World. Translated by Surendranath Tagore. (London: Macmillan, 1915).  

Blackman, Caroline. Negotiating China: Case Studies and Strategies (Crows Nest, Australia: 1997). 

Mill, J.S.  On Liberty. (New York: Walter Scott and Publishing Co, 1903, or. ed. 1859). 

Achebe, Chinhua. Arrow of God (New York: Anchor Books, 1969). 

Mintzberg, Henry; Bruce Alhlstrand, and Joseph Lampell. Strategy Safari: A Guided Tour Through the Wilds of Strategic Management (New York: Free Press, 1998).  

Sun Bin, attr. Sun Bin’s Art of Warfare: A Translation of the Chinese Classic of Philosophy and Strategy, trans. D.C. Lau and Roger T. Ames (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003).  

Hand, David. Statistics: A Very Short Introduction. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).  

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepali and Charles Moore. A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957). 

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings, 50th anniversary ed. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004). 

Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, e-book ed. (Gutenberg, 2008).

Moore, David S. The Basic Practice of Statistics. (New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 2010). 

Harmsen, Peter. Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2013).  

Mitter, Rana. Forgotten Ally: China's World War II, 1937-1945 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). 

I also read substantial portions of, but did not finish (or am still reading), The Rise of Fiscal States: A Global History; The Rise of Fiscal States in Europe, 1200-1815; War in Human Civilization; The Military Revolution; Cambridge History of Japan, Vol 3: Medieval Japan; Cambridge History of Ancient China; Evolutionary Biology; What It Takes to Win: Succeeding in 21st Century Battle Network Conditions; Records of the Grand Historian, Deciphering Sun-tzu; Sharpening the Spear: The Carrier, the Joint Force, and High End Conflict; the Edward Slingerand, Roger Ames, and James Legge translations of the Analects; The Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling; and The Rising Sun: Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire. 

Recently the Samurai Archives devoted a few episodes of their podcast to dissecting the relationship between military history and Japanese studies. The lead discussant on the program is Nathan Ledbetter, who blogs once a year or so at Sengoku Field Manual but comments regularly at the Samurai Archives forums.  In these episodes his focus is on Anglophone scholarship, and he traces attitudes towards Japanese political and military history among Anglophone scholars from the days of George Bailey Sansom to the present. The episodes are interesting, and I suggest you take the time to listen to them. Many of their themes mirror what I have written about the historiography of Chinese military history. Indeed, the historiography of the two subjects match each other well enough to to justify analyzing both under a broader term like "East Asian military history." [1]  In that vein, there are a few points I would add to Ledbetter's analysis:

On the decline of military history generally: Ledbeter starts his discussion by describing the fortunes of academic military history in general. Military historians are few and far between in today's academy, and Ledbetter pegs this as a consequence of the Vietnam War. As he tells it, opposition to that war led to distaste for all wars, which in turn led to disdain for the formal study of any of them. This account is true but incomplete. A narrow focus on military history may mislead us here, for the changes that overtook academia in the late '60s and early '70s were in fact much broader than one sub-discipline, or indeed the discipline of history as a whole. The Vietnam war was a part of this, but so too was the Civil Rights Movement, the dismantling of Europe's colonial empires, the May 1968 strikes, the Watergate Scandal, and the complete collapse of institutional Christianity in Western Europe. These events changed the way Westerners thought about their world, empowering voices once ignored and discrediting traditional authorities across the board. Power was no longer in vogue. For historians this meant casting aside narratives that took the perspective of the powerful–and out went the sub-disciplines that which specialized in telling stories from this perspective. Military history was one of these sub-disciplines, but it was not the only one. Political history, diplomatic history, intellectual history, and economic or business history also took a hit. Indeed, these other sub-disciplines fared much worse than military history, in proportional terms. [2]

Fig. 1 and 2 from Robert Townsend, "The Rise and Decline of History Specializations over the Last 40 Years,"
Perspectives on History (December 2015).

Military historians survived this upheaval by weaving their narratives out of a new sort of warp and weft. Most importantly, historians began to tell the story of warfare from perspectives rarely explored in earlier eras. This is where the "War and Society" version of military history started, as historians sought to highlight voices missing from the old bugle-and-battles narratives. Some of these new histories told stories that would not traditionally have been considered military history at all–how a war was experienced by its widows, for example, or how the imagery or poetry and art of a society at war changed as death tolls mounted. But more traditional campaign narratives also began to change. Traditionally, these narratives often took the perspective of commanders and generals; the battle maps marked with x's and arrows you find in U.S. Civil War atlases are products of this sort of thinking. In the '70s and '80s this focus began to shift. John Keegan's  Face of Battle and Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall of Great Powers are two landmark examples of the discipline's new priorities. Keegan's book posed questions like, "what compelled soldiers on the front line to fight in different eras of history?" and "what did it feel like to be a grunt at Agincourt, Waterloo, or the Somme?" While he was not the first to attempt these questions, he was one of the best prose writers to do so, and his book caught the attention of professional historians and laymen alike. As such Face of Battle was one of the most important works of military history written during the 20th century; after it was published no historian could get away with writing a narrative history of any war without describing what it looked like on the ground.

If Keegan telescoped in on the individual soldier, Kennedy's Rise and Fall expanded the narrative out until it included the workings of entire nations and economies. Kennedy suggested that success in battle had much less to do with operational art or strategic savvy than economic growth and industrial policy. For him victory in war was decided first and foremost by macroeconomics. Kennedy's presentation thus inverted the concerns of the War and Society researchers. Where they focused on how waging war changed a nation's social life, Kennedy asked how a country's social life changed the way it waged war.  A number of works in a field that would be later called "world history" anticipated Kennedy's quest to tie the history of military conquest to globe-spanning macrohistorical trends, but only a few of these were ever received with the enthusiasm that showered Kennedy's Rise and Fall. That has changed. Today one or two books of this type are published every month.

The popularity of Kennedy and Keegan's books with "general readers" suggests that there was more to military history's new direction than the whims of academic fashion.  There was real demand for works that presented warfare and strategy from new perspectives. While a few historians--here John Lynn comes to mind--have tried to revive the more traditional sorts of narrative campaign histories, most felt that this new style of military history was a necessary corrective to what came before. [3] The story of generals and statesmen had been told many times over the centuries; the stories of the soldiers, and of the societies transformed by soldiering, had yet to be told. For the past three decades Western military historians have busied themselves telling these stories.

This brings us to my second point. Contemporary historians of East Asia have the same basic set of priorities as the rest of their profession. They focus on structures, cultures, identities, and the hidden voices of history. This is unfortunate, for the historiography of East Asia--especially premodern East Asia--did not follow the same path of development as the historiography of  Europe and North America did. The flight from narrative campaign histories was an understandable reaction to high politic's dominance in the literature. However, in the study of East Asian history, narrative political, diplomatic, and military histories never dominated to begin with. The idea that East Asianists need to counter the biases of existing, politics-heavy narratives is mistaken, for in too many cases there are no existing narratives to counter in the first place. [4] We are left with huge gaps in the literature. In the case of military history, there are entire wars where millions of people fought and died, and whose stories are instantly recognized by people across China, Japan, and Korea today, that still have no books written about them in English.

Part of the problem is size. The number of East Asianists in academia is small. The number working on pre-modern East Asian history is pitifully small. You can count the number of American scholars who specialize in Silla Korea on one hand. You could count those who specialize in Sengoku Japan on two. You could fit all the specialists on the Northern Song Dynasty on a moderately sized tour bus. This is true now; back when narrative political and military histories was more academically fashionable (c. 1920-1960) the number of East Asianists were even smaller. Because only a few scholars specialized in East Asia then, the the peculiar research interests of one scholar and his pupils forty years ago has come to dominate entire fields today (one example of this is substantial amount of work done on medieval Japan's institutional history, something I credit entirely to the influence of John Whitney Hall, who taught Japanese history at Yale for the better part of the last century). There simply weren't enough historians writing then to fill in the gaps.

In addition, many of those who wrote then were relatively unconcerned with high politics, diplomacy, or military affairs. They came to the study of traditional Asia with a set of non-traditional backgrounds. Then—as now—a great deal of East Asian history is written by philosophers, philologists, and archaeologists. These are men and women who began to study East Asia because of a fascination with Pure Land Buddhism, Neoconfucian metaphysics, Shang Dynasty bronzes, or reconstructing classical Chinese pronunciation. In most areas linguistics, philosophy, literature, and religious studies are separate fields, but in the case of the East Asianists (and here a fruitful analogy with the Classicists can be made) they blur somewhat. The very term "East Asianist" (along with its subsets: "Sinologist,""Koreanist," etc.) express the expectation that those studying one aspect of pre-modern Asia should be conversant in all of its other domains. In this milieu intellectual history has always been king. This is partially because many of these disciplines began as an attempt to make the "Eastern mind" accessible to Westerners, and it is partially because it is incredibly difficult to understand even fairly mundane historical sources without a working knowledge of classical Chinese and the history of ideas in East Asia. [5]  The interdisciplinary nature of this sort of intellectual history sheltered it somewhat from the political storms and of the '60s and '70s. It is still the strongest strain of historical scholarship on the region. 

The downstream effects of all this are pretty easy to see. By far the most common textbook for introductory survey courses of East Asian history is Sources of the East Asian Tradition, a collection of mostly philosophical and literary documents from the last few thousand years of East Asian history. The Association for Asian Studies annual conference rarely has panels on the political or military history of Sengoku Japan, but there will always be room for one more panel on the Tale of Genji to be squeezed in. 

Most important of all, however, is a limited sense of audience on the part of the East Asianists. I hammered this point home in my "Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program" essays, so I'll be a bit briefer here. In essence, East Asianists are prone to write for each other. Only each other. This is partly because a lot of the legwork of East Asian history involves debating esoteric items like the details of a calendar system no one has used for a thousand years or reconstructing the pronunciation of 9th century Vietnamese and 17th century Manchu. It is also because popular interest in East Asia is really quite a new thing. But it is a thing. This is something few East Asianists realize. About a year ago I had an experience that brought this lack of vision to my attention in a rather forceful way. I was exchanging messages with a grad student writing in the beginning stages of a dissertation on the early Song dynasty. I asked him if he would ever be interested in writing a narrative account of the political and military events that occurred during the period in question. He asked in response: "Why would I ever want to do that? That would just be rehashing the Zizhi Tongjian. What would be the point?" This is an extraordinary statement. The Zizhi Tongjian is a 20 volume history written in the 1070s AD. It is regarded as one of the greatest historical works of East Asia. It also has not been translated into English! You could fit all of the Westerners fluent enough in classical Chinese to read the Tongjian in a small auditorium. Sharing the information contained inside the Tongjian with the millions who don't read classical Chinese would be a worthy deed. There are scholars who study political science, strategic studies, and world history who would be eager to read a narrative account of the period. If it was written well enough it might catch the interests of thousands of 'educated readers' outside the academy altogether. But it is not to be! The only audience that mattered to my interlocutor was  the one who could read the Tongjian already. 

Wang Wensheng made a similar critique in his book on the White Lotus Rebellion: "Most historians and social scientists tend to focus more on the explanatory power of structures while remaining less informed about the significance of events." [6]  Wang sees this as problem ailing all historians, but it is clear to me that it afflicts some sub-disciplines more than others. Were you to pick up the five or so most cited books on Europe during the Thirty Years War  or England and France during the Hundred Years War you would leave with a firm chronology of the main events of each. But in East Asian historiography there are some eras—for example, Sengoku Japan—which an extensive amount has been written about, but which still fail to provide the reader with any narrative account of what actually happened. In the case of Sengoku Japan, there are (thanks to John Hall's students) a great number of studies on the institutional history of late Medieval Japan. Many scholars have investigated how the relentless warfare of that era shaped the country's political and religious institutions, transformed its culture and arts, and altered its social structure. You can learn without much difficulty how Sengoku Daimyo funded their conquests, fed their troops, managed their inheritance, dealt with the Buddhist monastics and Christian missionaries roaming the country, distributed booty, passed laws, negotiated with the court, regulated industry and farming, selected generals, and thought about political and military authority in general. But if you want to discover the story of individual Daimyo or individual Daimyo domains, then there is little you can find in a book store to help you. Historians of Japan write with the assumption that the reader of his or her works is already familiar with the major events and players of the time period—and for the most part they are right, for no one but other specialists in Medieval Japan can read that sort of scholarship.

There is something of a self fulfilling prophecy at play here. I don't expect it to end any time soon. There is a strong demand for histories of East Asia's many wars. This demand is unmet. Until East Asianists deem readable narrative accounts as more than redundancies unworthy of their time, this will always be the case. 


"The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program, Part I" and Part II

-A more formal and in depth review essay on Chinese military history and strategic theory. 

"Darwin and War in Ancient China, Sengoku Japan, and Early Modern Europe"

-Why I read all those institutional histories of Sengoku Japan in the first place.

"The Road to Beijing Runs Through Tokyo"

-In which I argue that a cadre of Japan experts is a more critical national security need than a cadre of China hands.


[1] My analysis is limited here to Anglophone scholars. When I say "East Asianist," "historians of East Asia," "historians of Japan," and so forth, I mean historians of East Asia from the West, and especially those writing in English. The historiography of warfare in various East Asian countries is a fascinating topic, but one better left for its own post(s).  

[2] This attitude is not simply a relic of the '60s. See Adam Elkus's recent (9 Dec) post on those who attack scholars studying terrorism for producing 'actionable' insights. 

Also, the numbers in the graphs can be a bit deceptive. See John Lynn's article in note 3 for an explanation of why military history is in rather dire straights at the institutional level. 

[3]  John Lynn, "Breaching the Walls of Academe: The Purposes, Problems, and Prospects of Military History," Academic Questions 28, iss 1 (2008), pp. 18-36; “The Embattled Future of Academic Military History,” Journal of Military History 61, no. 4 (October 1997), pp. 777-89.

[4] An exchange I had about Muromachi era with one professor is a fairly typical example. He told me how much he loved Pieree Souryis'  The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society (Asia Perspectives: History, Society, and Culture) because it focused so much on the organizational efforts of peasants and Buddhist orders instead of just focusing on the samurai. "The problem with a lot of Japanese history is that historians are to apt to sympathize with the Samurai and tell the story from their perspective. Books like this show something different."

I concede that Souryi's book is fascinating, and probably the single best introduction to medieval Japan to boot. However, his notion that the majority of books are written from the perspective of the Samurai is absolutely false, especially if it is the Muromachi era up for discussion. This may be true in Japanese, but it is not true in English. Daimyo like Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin, who are household names in Japan, have no biographies in English. You will be hard pressed to find any book that tells their story even in a cursory fashion. And these are two of the most famous men in Japanese history! Were one to tally all the books published about Muromachi/Sengoku Japan up I suspect that you would find more about the beliefs, practices, and organization of Japan's monastic orders (or the culturally elite but politically marginal aristocrats in Kyoto) than you would about the Daimyo. 

[5] This is true for Western historical sources as well, of course, but it is less apparent to us because we are taught the basic ideas and references from a young age.  

[6] Wang Wensheng, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates: Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), p. 10.

Yesterday I was delighted to discover that Nibras Kazimi has started blogging in English again. Kazimi has played the part of both activist and analyst over the last decade, working out of Washington DC or Iraq as the occasion required. At the height of the old strategy blogosphere he was running one of the sharpest blogs on Iraqi politics around, Talisman Gate. Kazimi's internet musings began petering off in 2010 or so, and by 2011 he was writing mostly in Arabic. But it looks like he has set up a new English language blog, humorously titled Talisman Gate, Again. Over the last few days he has populated it with some excellent posts.

Here is a bit from the first, "Sunni-stan vs. Fertile Crescent":
...Mr. Bolton’s own answer is to create a new state in the Middle East from the Sunni portions of both Syria and Iraq. I am sure that many will point out the problems with his formula. But he must be commended for at least trying to think through one. 
Essentially, the problem of the Middle East, for the last two centuries, has hinged on how to manage diversity and identity politics. This problem invited Western interference back in 1839, and continues to do so with the threat posed by the Islamic State. 
The problem is particularly acute in the post-Ottoman states of Iraq and Syria. However, let us not assume that the creation of these states was some sort of post-WWI bureaucratic fumble; the men (and woman) who sat down to draw these lines on the map were some of the most thoughtful and most knowledgeable characters in the annals of policy-making. 
There are two ways to think of both Syria and Iraq: Is it a hardware problem, or a software problem? 
Bolton thinks the fault lies in the hardware. I counsel that we should try one more software upgrade to fix the bugs. If that works, then maybe we can look towards extending the solution. If it doesn’t, then that would be the time to hear out proposals such as the one he laid out in the Times Op-Ed. 
The idea is to immediately turn Salahuddin Province into a stand-alone federal region, similar to the Kurdistan Regional Government. The provincial council of Salahuddin had asked for exactly that, in Nov. 2011, when it activated the clauses in the Iraqi constitution that allow for it. Maliki simply ignored the request. It was the most mature Sunni Arab vision for the future to emerge since 2003—an opportunity lost. 
The ISF and the Shia PMUs fought hard to liberate much of Salahuddin. They denied the caliph his hometown. They took back Saddam’s too. A federal region would show Arab Sunnis what the future looks like after ISIS. It would look like this: a regional capital in Samara, Regional Guard to protect Salahuddin, and turning political gripe into a very local affair rather than extending it to Shia-dominated Baghdad. If the clansmen of the caliph and his former neighbors can grudgingly accept it as the future, and if Saddam’s folk can do the same, then Iraq can turn a corner in the politics of sectarianism, by inverting identity politics into the politics of ‘local-ism’, as the constitution allows... [1]

And here is some from another excellent post, this time on the mechanics of defeating ISIS on the ground:
To place the center of gravity of the caliphate on a map, one needs to answer two questions: “How do the jihadists fight? What do they fight for in terms of military objectives?” And to understand jihadist military strategy one needs to understand the relative priority they give to the pursuit of war, rather than the pursuit of governance.
If they were indeed deeply committed to governance, common sense would have it that the jihadists would seek to consolidate gains, buy time, and protect territory. However, they seem to prefer to give up territory rather than fight pitches battles, they invite international and regional powers to attack them, and they seem to place more emphasis on cowing the populations they control through intimidation rather than adopting a conciliatory manner. 
I maintain that the jihadists do not legitimize themselves through statecraft. They draw legitimacy from the battlefield. This is an argument they began to make in 2005 when Zarqawi broke with his mentor Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. This was also their argument when they declared the Islamic State of Iraq, the proto-caliphate, in October 2006. In their minds, the argument had been settled, and vindicated by their return from the dead when seizing Fallouja (January 2014) and later that year when ISIS took out the 17th Division and the Tabaqa Airbase in Raqqa. The jihadists periodically revisit the argument for recruiting purposes in order to counter the narratives coming from regime-allied Salafists in the region. 
Many of those studying the jihadists are focused on the front-lines, justifiably so. The caliber of those undertaking the studies is stellar. They are right in looking at orders of battle, the differentiation of forces, tactics, captured documents, supply and logistics routes, as well as the caliphate’s war economy. The assumption is that if we should succeed at those front-lines—described by some as the “360 degree squeeze” strategy—then the defeat of the caliphate is assured, and its legitimacy is forever wounded. I disagree. I maintain that the strategic depth of the caliphate does not lie in Mosul, or in rural areas (for example: Garma, Hawija, countryside of Aleppo and Damascus, etc.), or the towns and orchards of the Euphrates Valley (Fallouja, Ramadi, Deir Azzour, Raqqa), or for that matter the areas it has already lost (Tell Abyadh, Jurf al-Sakhr, Diyala, the Turkumen towns of Kirkuk, Tikrit, and now Sinjar). The strategic depth for the caliphate lies in the deserts spanning Iraq and Syria, which the “360 degree squeeze” strategy does not address. If this depth is not shredded, then the jihadists will remain “in the fight” and hence, their cause will remain legitimate in the eyes of their core constituency....
The jihadists fight as if they were pirates, with the desert being their sea. Apart from the outlier battle of Kobani, the jihadists do not fight pitched battles. According to an Iraqi security source, only 97 corpses of jihadists were found when Iraqi forces retook Tikrit. More recently, the Kurdish Peshmerga counted under 300 jihadist corpses in newly-liberated Sinjar. Jihadist swarmed in from the desert when they took Fallouja, Mosul, Ramadi and Palmyra. They mistrust urban and rural populations after the experience of the Tribal Awakenings. From 2009 until 2012, the jihadists had to adapt to the desert as their strategic depth. They had to adapt to hostile skies too. They were largely driven out of major urban centers in 2004, and beyond that, they were driven out of the date groves and orchards of Mesopotamia. 
 Nowadays, they field various types of forces, but their elite and most successful ones, not to mention their best-equipped ones, are small, disparate mobile desert units that converge on a target when needed (for example, the inghimasiyeen forces). They treat the cities and towns they have captured as ports of call, for booty and resupply. When challenged by superior forces attempting to retake these ports, the jihadists dissolve away into the desert, leaving small and determined bands of fighters to deflect and bleed-out the invading force. Their best fighters are not garrisoned in those cities; they live in the skiffs that carry them around the desert, such as the ubiquitous Toyota pick-up trucks they favor. There may be several mother ships in the desert that steam towards a target around which the skiffs gather. They exercise strict force conservation, especially after the military debacle at Kobani. They have to do this either because the numbers of fighting men they have are too few (far less than intelligence estimates) or because they are holding them in reserve for big strategic pushes when the time is right. The instinctual individualism of piracy is mitigated by having a cohesive ideology. One may understand the perplexing nature of the Paris targets as that of a jihadist skiff sailing further afield.... (emphasis added) [2]
I encourage you to read both posts in their entirety and add Talisman's Gate, Again, to your RSS reader.  I have added it to the blog roll of the Stage on the right. 


[1] Nibras Kazimi, "Sunni-stan vs. Fertile Crescent", Talisman's Gate, Again (24 November 2015).

[2] Nibras Kazimi, "What is the Strategic Depth of the Islamic State?Talisman's Gate, Again (23 November 2015).