29 November, 2013

The First Thankgiving: Climax of America's Greatest Science Fiction Flick

Science Fiction Hero? 

Photo of Massoit statue overlooking Plymouth Rock. Taken by Greg Kullberg, 14 Dec 2007. Wikimedia.

 Why have most Americans never heard the actual story behind Plymouth Bay Colony's first thanksgiving feast? Scott Alexander suggests that the problem comes down to narrative. The real tale just does not fit easily into any of the standard genres Americans usually use to tell stories. For the truth to be known the story of Squanto and the Pilgrims must be retold in the only genre it fits: science fiction. To quote:
Mr. S, an ordinary American, is minding his own business outside his East Coast home when he is suddenly abducted by short large-headed creatures like none he has ever seen before. They bring him to their ship and voyage across unimaginable distances to an alien world both grander and more horrible than he could imagine. The aliens have godlike technologies, but their society is dystopian and hivelike. Enslaved at first, then displayed as a curiosity, he finally wins his freedom through pluck and intelligence. Despite the luxuries he enjoys in his new life, he longs for his homeworld. He befriends a local noble who tells him that the aliens in fact send ships to his world on a regular basis, quietly scouting and seeking resources while the inhabitants remain blissfully aware of these incursions. He gets passage on such an expedition.

Before his ship gets far, he is abducted and sold into slavery again, only to be rescued by a sect of alien priests who believe he may hold the key to saving his entire race. They are kind to him and ask him to stay, but when he refuses they reluctantly arrange him passage home.

Yet when he returns, Mr. S finds a postapocalyptic wasteland utterly unlike the world he left. America is empty, its great cities gone, a few survivors fighting for scraps among the ruins. 95% of the population is dead, slain by a supervirus unlike any doctors have ever seen. The few rumors from afar say Mexico, Canada, and lands further abroad have suffered the same or worse. He finds the site where his hometown once stood. There is nothing.  [1]
Read the whole thing here.


[1] Scott Alexander. "The Thanksgiving Story is a Science Fiction Story." Slate Star Codex. 28 November 2013.

26 November, 2013

Notes From All Over (26/11/13): Germs, Governments. and Gettysburg

A collection of articles, essays, and blog post of merit.

This is the first "Notes From All Over" I have written this month, so this list is a long one.


 When We Lose Antibiotics, Here’s Everything Else We’ll Lose Too
Maryn McKenna. Wired. 20 November 2013.
If we really lost antibiotics to advancing drug resistance — and trust me, we’re not far off — here’s what we would lose. Not just the ability to treat infectious disease; that’s obvious.

But also: The ability to treat cancer, and to transplant organs, because doing those successfully relies on suppressing the immune system and willingly making ourselves vulnerable to infection. Any treatment that relies on a permanent port into the bloodstream — for instance, kidney dialysis. Any major open-cavity surgery, on the heart, the lungs, the abdomen. Any surgery on a part of the body that already harbors a population of bacteria: the guts, the bladder, the genitals. Implantable devices: new hips, new knees, new heart valves. Cosmetic plastic surgery. Liposuction. Tattoos.

We’d lose the ability to treat people after traumatic accidents, as major as crashing your car and as minor as your kid falling out of a tree. We’d lose the safety of modern childbirth: Before the antibiotic era, 5 women died out of every 1,000 who gave birth. One out of every nine skin infections killed. Three out of every 10 people who got pneumonia died from it.

And we’d lose, as well, a good portion of our cheap modern food supply. Most of the meat we eat in the industrialized world is raised with the routine use of antibiotics, to fatten livestock and protect them from the conditions in which the animals are raised. Without the drugs that keep livestock healthy in concentrated agriculture, we’d lose the ability to raise them that way. Either animals would sicken, or farmers would have to change their raising practices, spending more money when their margins are thin. Either way, meat — and fish and seafood, also raised with abundant antibiotics in the fish farms of Asia — would become much more expensive.
Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future
Maryn McKenna. FERN News. 20 November  2013

CDC Threat Report: Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States, 2013  and Press Briefing Transcript: CDC Telebriefing on today's drug-resistant health threats
Center for Disease Control. CDC Online Newsroom. 16 September  2013. (H/T Fabius Maximus).

This month's top billing goes to Maryn Mckenna's efforts to raise the alarm about the coming 'post-antibiotic' future. This is something no one in the futuristics community ever seems to talk about despite its obvious globe-spanning implications. I thank Ms. Mckenna for writing these pieces - as both she and the other sources make clear, the post-antibiotic future is a choice, not an inevitable reality. 

The Wired article is really just a preview for her longer Food and Environmental Research Network report. McKenna writes with a journalist's flair; a more measured look at the issue can be found in the most recent CDC "Threat Report" on anti-biotic resistance and the interview with the press that accompanied its release.

See also:
China has a plan to stem the rise of antibiotic resistance, and it’s working
Gwynn Guilford. Quartz. 19 November 2013.


Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays
 Peter Turchin. Bloomberg. 20 November 2013

Cliodynamist Peter Turchin provides a popular overview of one of his most important theories: elite over production. This is the article to send to your friends. Those wanting to dig deeper into the empirical data or the mathematics of Mr. Turchin's model should see his follow-up post for the Social Evolution Forum:

 How Elite Overproduction Brings Disorder

 Peter Turchin. Social Evolution Forum. 20 November 2013.

The American Police State
Marc Perry. Chronicle of Higher Education. 18 November  2013

On the Run: Wanted Men in a Philadelphia Ghetto
Alice Goffman. American Sociological Review. (2009) vol. 74: 339-357. 

I often express a healthy amount of disrespect for American academics and public intellectuals who pontificate about working class life without ever having experienced anything remotely close to it themselves. As a general rule of thumb:  the more education they have received, the less attention you should pay to them. 

This rule does not hold for Alice Goffman:
"Goffman's book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (University of Chicago Press), is an up-close account of that prison boom told largely through the story of a group of young friends in Philadelphia's 6th Street neighborhood. (The location and names in the book are pseudonyms.)... Over six years of fieldwork, Goffman shed much of her old life to view the world through her subjects' eyes. With them, she dodged police, partied, and discussed shootings. She watched a nurse's aide pull a bullet out of one boy in an off-the-books, kitchen-table surgery; accompanied various people who arranged for drugs to be smuggled into jail; and attended nine funerals of young men killed in the neighborhood. This drama came to a boil the year Philadelphia police officers brought her in for the interrogation."

 I strongly recommend her essay in the American Sociological Review. Her description of the way poor, urban black life is dominated by the police closely matches the observations I made during the two years I spent living as a LDS missionary  in very similar ghettos.

Obama Meant to Destroy Solidarity, Not Save It

Brandon McGinley. The Federalist. 19 November 2013
"Our choice is not, as is popularly believed, between individualism and collectivism; the former, as it dissolves the fibers of civil society, is merely an antecedent to the latter. Our choice is between civil society—specifically a civil society bolstered by a robust solidarity—and statism."

Some mind-blowing facts about US metro economies

Mark J. Perry. American Enterprise Institute Blog. 19 November 2013. (H/T John Kranz).


Reflections on the Gettysburg Address
 Peter Lee. International Policy Review. 19 November 2013

Gettysburg Gospel How Lincoln forged a civil religion of American nationalism

 Richard Gamble. American Conservative. 14 November 2013.

 Peter Lee (whose blog is generally excellent) discusses the political and military context for Lincoln's famous address; Mr. Gamble, in contrast, provides the intellectual context for the thoughts expressed therein. 

See also:
150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln praised 'government of the people, by the people, for the people' – but the words were not his
Daniel Hannan. The Telegraph. 19 November 2013.

Crops, Towns, Government
James C. Scott. London Review of Books. (Volume 35 No. 22, p. 13-15). 21 November 2013. (H/T to Bryn Hammond).

A strong, but not polemical, critique of the Jared Diamond/Steven Pinker narrative of human civilization. Everyone remotely interested in premodern societies should read it.

Translations of The Secret History
Bryn Hammon. Amagalant. 27 October 2013.

I use the Igor de Rachewiltz translation -- mostly because it is the version I found on the shelves of the local library!


Best take of the Third Plenum comes from Blood and Treasure:

Boss Xi's new deal
Jamie K. Blood and Treasure. 15 November 2013.
Taken together, you can see the outline here of a kind of new deal between the Party leadership and the wider party-state. Internally, the grassroots Party must lose powers, subject itself to greater internal discipline and put up with more aggressive policing by CDIC. In return it will be protected from even the most rudimentary form of external challenge. You can see the tactical necessity of this. If the Party is to be subjected to serious internal strain, then it makes sense to protect it from external assault. But you can also see a general policy triangle emerging: satisfy the people; discipline the party; obliterate the opposition. Obviously, one should never underestimate the pure dysfunction of the CPC. But if enough of this goes right then you have a fairly robust template for the future, almost a sort of platonic ideal of 21st century dictatorship.
See also:
James Mann And His Prescient Book “The China Fantasy”
Bill Bishop. Sinocism News Letter. 7 April 2011.

Reuters Investigates published a major report on Ayatollah Khamenei and the personal corporatist empire he has built up over the last two decades. The Iranian people are milked for his personal benefit - the standard model for governments the world over, it seems. The report comes in three parts:

Khamenei controls massive financial empire built on property seizures
 Steve Stecklow, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Yeganeh Torbati. Reuters Investigates. 11 November  2013

Khamenei conglomerate thrived as sanctions squeezed Iran
 Babak Dehghanpisheh and Steve Stecklow. Reuters Investigates. 12 November  2013

To expand Khamenei’s grip on the economy, Iran stretched its laws
Yeganeh Torbati, Steve Stecklow and Babak Dehghanpisheh. Reuters Investigates. 13 November 2013

See also:
Ayatollah Khomeini: Crony Capitalist and Slumlord
Mark Safranski. Zenpundit.com 13 November 2013.


Families made us human
Stephen T Asma. Aeon. 7 November 2013.

This essay's title is poorly named: its true topic is the evolution of language and social complexity among homo sapiens. The article's breadth impresses me: Mr. Asma synthesizes a wide range of research in neuroscience, primatology, evolutionary theory, and anthropology to reach his conclusions.

War's Enduring Effects on the Development of Egalitarian Motivations and In-Group Biases.
Bauer M, Cassar A, Chytilová J, Henrich J. Psychological Science. 12 Nov 2013.
We found that greater exposure to war created a lasting increase in people's egalitarian motivations toward their in-group, but not their out-groups, during a developmental window starting in middle childhood (around 7 years of age) and ending in early adulthood (around 20 years of age). Outside this window, war had no measurable impact on social motivations in young children and had only muted effects on the motivations of older adults. These "war effects" are broadly consistent with predictions from evolutionary approaches that emphasize the importance of group cooperation in defending against external threats, though they also highlight key areas in need of greater theoretical development.
What Mass Killers Want—And How to Stop Them
Ari N. Schulman. Wall Street Journal. 8 November 2013.

Changing the Global Food Narrative
Jonathan Foley. ENSIA. 12 November  2013,


Who is J. C. Wylie?
Lynn C Rees. Zenpundit.com. 23 November 2013. 

He may be the brightest strategic theorist America has ever produced. Have you heard of him?

Recommended Chinese Historical Drama Series (Eng Dubbed)
wonderwealthwisdom. Chinese History Forums. 14 June 2013.

20 November, 2013

Another Look at 'The Rise of the West' - But With Better Numbers

Why the West? I do not think there is any other historical controversy that has so enthralled the public intellectuals of our age.  The popularity of the question can probably be traced to Western unease with a rising China and the ease with which the issue can be used as proxy war for the much larger contest between Western liberals who embrace multiculturalism and conservatives who champion the West's 'unique' heritage.

A few months ago I suggested that many of these debates that surround the "Great Divergence" are  based on a flawed premise--or rather, a flawed question. As I wrote: 
"Rather than focus on why Europe diverged from the rest in 1800 we should be asking why the North Sea diverged from the rest in 1000." [1]
I made this judgement based off of data from Angus Maddison's Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD and the subsequent updates to Mr. Maddison's data set by the scholars who contribute to the Maddison Project.

As far as 1,000 year economic projections go this data was pretty good. But it was not perfect. In many cases--especially with the Chinese data--it was simply based on estimates and extrapolations from other eras. A more accurate view of the past would require further research.

That research has now been done. The economic historian Stephen Broadberry explains:
As it turns out, medieval and early modern European and Asian nations were much more literate and numerate than is often thought. They left behind a wealth of data in documents such as government accounts, customs accounts, poll tax returns, Parish registers, city records, trading company records, hospital and educational establishment records, manorial accounts, probate inventories, farm accounts, tithe files. With a national accounting framework and careful cross-checking, it is possible to reconstruct population and GDP back to the medieval period. The picture that emerges is of reversals of fortune within both Europe and Asia, as well as between the two continents. [2]
Drawing on a multiple specialized studies, Mr. Broadberry is able to create a table that is more accurate than the one I used earlier:

Taken from Stephen Broadberry. "Accounting for the Great Divergence." voxEU.org. 16 November 2013.

There are a few things here worth commenting on.

The greatest difference between Mr. Maddison and Mr. Broadberry's numbers concern China. Maddison's Chinese only experienced "extensive growth" -- that is to say, the total GDP of China increased over time, but the wealth available to the average Chinese peasant did not change. China's wealth increased because it had more people, not because these people were getting richer.

Broadberry's data presents a more nuanced picture. In it we can clearly see the economic "efflorescence" of China's medieval economic revolution and the wealth that came with the mid-Ming economic reforms. In many of these periods the average Chinese man was more wealthy than his European counterpart. China was far from stagnant for 1,000 years. 

But it also never had sustained economic growth. As happened across the premodern world, successful dynasts would establish a system that allowed commerce to flourish, urban centers to grow, and wealth to increase. In the words of Jack Goldstone, these societies would undergo an economic "efflorescence" that historians of later days would remember as a Golden Age [3]. These Golden Ages would not last. After a few centuries these societies would push agrarian civilization to its limits and contraction would begin.

This process is seen quite clearly in the Chinese data. The decline in GDP per capita between 1600 and 1750 hides the fairly impressive economic achievements of the early Qing: despite a fourfold (!) increase in population, Chinese living standards remained on par with most of Europe, even though most of this expansion was happening in unproductive, virgin lands far away from China's traditional urban centers while expensive levies were continually raised to pay for one war after another. [4] Alas, this type of efflorescence could not endure; as the centuries passed the condition of the Chinese peasant plummeted. It is sobering to realize that the average Chinese of 1000 was twice as rich as his descendents were 850 years later.

Broadberry's data for Western Europe and India are very similar to the data sets compiled by Maddison and company. In both data sets India's GDP per capita starts at a fairly low point and then falls over the centuries. By 1200 Western Europe has a GDP per capita higher than most parts of the world, but (with two exceptions ) by 1500 this number stops increasing. In both data sets the two exceptions are Netherlands and Great Britain. These North Sea economies experienced sustained GDP per capita growth for six straight centuries. The North Sea begins to diverge from the rest of Europe long before the 'West' begins its more famous split from 'the rest.'

There is an important difference between Madison's and Broadberry's data sets, however. Madison worked in 500 year intervals. Broadberry's sources are much more specific. With his data we can pin point the beginning of this 'little divergence' with greater detail. In 1348 Holland's GDP per capita was $876. England's was $777. In less than 60 years time Holland's jumps to $1,245 and England's to 1090. The North Sea's revolutionary divergence started at this time. 

Acknowledging this leaves us with a different set of questions than the ones that animate the traditional "Why the West?" debates. It forces us to look past industrialization and colonization and pay attention to deeper changes of earlier eras. Broadberry's short analysis tries to do just that. I encourage you to read it. I do not agree entirely with his explanation - but he, at least, is trying to answer the right questions.


[1] T. Greer. "The Rise of the West: Asking the Right Questions." The Scholar's Stage. 7 July 2013.

[2] Stephen Broadberry. "Accounting for the Great Divergence." voxEU.org. 16 November 2013.

[3]  Jack A. Goldstone. "Efflorescences and Economic Growth in World History: Rethinking the "Rise of the West" and the Industrial Revolution." Journal of World History. vol 13, issue 2 (2002). 323-389.

[4] ibid., 339-353.

11 November, 2013

The Nomadic Survival Strategy: Salzman's 20 Observations

  A Taureg nomad in the Sahara. 

Photograph by Carsten Peter, National Geographic. ©
"The nomadic strategy is one means by which people adapt to thinly spread resources and to the variability of the resources across space and over time. It is also a strategy for avoiding other deleterious environmental conditions, such as extreme heat or cold, disease, or predators. Furthermore, as human predators are always a risk, every adaptation is political, relating populations through power. Above all, the nomadic strategy is a means of maximizing, given circumstances, culturally defined objects, such as production, survival, and independence."
--Philip Carl Salzman. Pastoralists: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004). p. 39.
Nomads are hard to wrap your head around.

 I have suggested before that we moderns face a formidable conceptual block when we try to understand the politics of ancient, classical, and medieval societies like the Roman Empire or the Han Dynasty. The central problem: our world is not like theirs. The Growth Revolution transformed the nature of civilization and the dynamics that drive it. If we do not understand the rules their world operated on then we are forever doomed to  misunderstand  what happened there.

The divide between the ever growing, post-industrial, mass societies of today and the static, agrarian, imperial centers that dominated the ancient world is vast. The gap between modern society and the nomadic pastoralists who terrorized these agrarian centers is even greater. Making sense of a particular nomadic empire or its leaders was a difficult task for the sedentary historians and statesmen of their own day; moderns face just as difficult a challenge. Fortunately, it is not a problem without solution. Just as the decisions of ancient statesmen are better analyzed once we understand the way agrarian empires functioned, so will the actions of ancient khagans begin to make sense only after we understand the inner workings of the nomadic societies they ruled.

Amongst the narrow band of scholars who concern themselves with such questions this is an intensely controversial topic. I shall lay the most controversial debates aside for a different day; I here I will focus on generalities most scholars agree upon before moving to more troubled waters. 

Enter Philip Carl Salzman's Pastoralists: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State  

Dr. Salzman is the rare anthropologist who has no patience for the post modernist "intellectual fashion" that has degraded cultural anthropology to his current sad state. [1] His work has a strong empirical character to it; in many ways Pastoralists is a summary of life-time of fieldwork among and study of pastoralist peoples. Salzman began this fieldwork in Iran, and it is to the nomadic peoples of Iran he turns to introduce '20 observations' that inform the rest of this work. These observations were drawn from studying four Iranian nomadic groups - the Baluch of southeastern Iran, the Komachi of Kerman, in southern Iran, the Basseri of Fars, and the Yomut Turkmen living near Iran's northeastern borders -- but Salzman makes it clear that these observations are applicable to pastoral nomadic societies in general.

Salzman's General Observations on Nomadic Pastoralists [2]

1. Nomadism can be used to gain access to resources that are sparse.

2. Nomadism can be used as an opportunistic response to temporary availability of irregular and unpredictable resources.

Example: In Baluchistan both pasturage and water are extremely limited. If pastoralists were limited to one location their flocks and herds would soon use all resources available there. Mobility allows access to the additional resources the Baluch need to survive and thrive.

3. Nomadism is unlikely to be oriented to just one productive activity (i.e., pastoralism), but to several.

Example:  Baluchi nomads who move from one place to another do not just keep flocks. They also tend to date orchards. These orchards can be left alone for large parts of the year and returned to at harvest time. Thus "nomadic mobility is not infrequently from a location of one productive activity, like pastoralism, to another" [3], such as aboriculture in Iran or trading along the old Sino-nomadic frontier.  

4. Nomads do not "wander" in the sense of purposeless or directionless movement.

5. Nomads do not "wander" in the sense of continually moving to new lands. 

Meaning: Pastoral nomadic movements are both purposeful and limited to certain areas and spaces. Unless threatened by disaster, nomadic pastoralists stick to a specific route or territory. 

6. Nomadic migration patterns are more regular and repeated where macroeconomic features (e.g. seasons) determine availability of resource.

Meaning: Groups like the Baloch, who live in an environment where resources are sparse and whose distribution differs year to year, have less predictable migration routes than groups like the Komachi, where resources are more predictable. If you cannot count on a watering whole having the same amount of water every year, odds are you will not visit annually! 

7. Nomadism is not tied in a determinate fashion with political structure.

8. Nomadism is not tied in a determinate fashion with economic orientation (e.g. specialization vs. self sufficiency).

9. Nomadism is not tied in a determinate fashion with land tenure or ownership.

Meaning: All three points meant to discourage people from concluding  that nomads always choose nomadic pastoralism (or choose to abandon it) 'because' of one thing. There is no universal explanation for why people are nomadic or sedentary; common explanations for these choices, be they related to ruling political regimes, economic specialization, or land tenure have too many exceptions to be useful.

10. Nomadism is found both in isolated, remote regions and crowded, developed ones.

Examples: When we think of nomadic pastoralists, isolated peoples like the Baluch are usually what come to mind first. But other groups, like the Basseri, migrated through populated agricultural zones over the course of their travels. In the case of the Basseri, major cities were a part of the migration cycle because they offered the Bessari a chance to profit from selling their pastoral goods to settled populations. 

11. Independent or qausi-independent nomadic tribes vary considerably in political structure.

Examples: The four nomadic peoples surveyed differ drastically in their political structures. The Bessari have strong, hierarchical chieftains who control migration routes of the entire people, while the Baluch political order is decentralized in the extreme, verging on anarchy. 

12. Chiefships arise in nomadic tribes in confrontation with powerful external populations.

13. Nomadic pastoralism is politically centrifugal, militating against central and hierarchical power.

 Note: These two points are related. (They also are a major theme of this book). The gist is this: states are not a natural feature of the nomad's tribal world. Collectivization is not necessary for economic reasons; because property is not permanent (land is not owned and surpluses in the only property pastoralism produces--animals--rarely last more than one generation) the nomadic world is an egalitarian one.  The only thing that sets one nomad apart from another is the esteem of his peers. No one nomad has the coercive power to establish an autocracy - and they never will, so long as they are left to squabble amongst themselves. 

External powers interfere with this dynamic. On the one hand, external powers usually demand to work with one person who they can recognize as the leader of the group. This recognition (often coupled with gifts, knowledge of outside affairs, or promises of assistance) elevates him above the other nomads. On the other hand, if the outside power is hostile to the group, then the nomads have reason to unite and cede power to whatever man they think can lead them to victory.

14. Nomadism is not determinatively tied to a particular kind of physiobiotic environment.

15. In some cases the political use of nomadism predominates over direct productive use.

Example: The Yomut Turkmen live in an area of rich abundance. Agricultural life is quite possible in the valleys in which they live. Many Persian farming vllages dot their traditional range, and in normal years the Turkmen did not migrate far (usually close to 25 miles during the winter season). The Yomut Turkmen are not nomadic because the environment forces them to move around, nor do they choose nomadism because it maximizes production. They remain mobile for a different reason: independence. When the Turkmen felt threatened by the Persian state or Persian villagers they would simply pack up and leave. Their mobility gave them a powerful political advantage over their neighbors.  

16. Nomadism and pastoralism are capabilities that can and are taken up and set aside, sometimes temporarily and sometimes indefinitely.

17. Decreasing nomadic mobility is often a voluntary choice of nomadic peoples facing changing traditions.

18. Some nomads who might settle if they had access to good agricultural land continue thir nomadism because they have no viable alternative.

19. Sedentarization is not always a collective event.

20. Governments often want to settle nomads as a way of gaining greater control over them.

These last items are rather self-explanatory and do not need any additional explanation on my part. 

Reflecting upon these observations, Dr. Salzman concludes: 

"What kind of people, we may ask, are nomads? But this is the wrong question and it leads to false conceptions. In fact, nomads are not a kind of people but different kinds of people who use a particular strategy--that is mobility of household---in carrying out regular productive activities and defending themselves. We may better understand the lives of these people if we ask what they are trying to accomplish through this strategy, how they implement this strategy, why they do not choose apparent alternatives, and in what ways this strategy is tied to the environmental conditions in which they live. Nomads do not live to migrate; they migrate to live." (emphasis added). [4]

Salzman reached this conclusion by studying the nomadic peoples of the present, but the questions he raise are just as applicable to nomadic societies of the past. It is very easy to take nomadism of these peoples for granted. We must avoid this temptation. The first step in understanding the Xiongnu, Seljuqs, or Mongols is to ask why these people chose the nomadic strategy in the first place.


[1] Philip Carl Salzman. Pastoralists: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State. . (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004). p. 154

[2] Every point in this list is taken from Chapter 2, "Agency and Adaptation: Pastoralists of Iran" (Salzman, Pastoralists, p. 17-41). I have paraphrased most, but not all, of these observations to make them more concise.

[3] Ibid., p. 24. 

[4] Ibid., p. 40

06 November, 2013

Introducing: The Mongol Project

The world before the Mongols.

Map Created by Thomass Lessman for Wikimedia

"I will now tell you all about the Tartars and how they acquired their empire and spread throughout the world."

- Marco Polo, The Travels [1]

I suspect the Mongol Empire needs no introduction to the readers of The Stage. No conquests so expansive (and few so destructive) can be found in the annals of human history. The creation of the Mongol Empire is rightly seen and depicted as a pivot upon which the history of human civilization turned. These events deserve serious study and reflection.  

While the Mongol conquests are not as well known [2] as their exceptional role in world history  warrants, they are not ignored or forgotten by those who speak, write, and think about history, great power politics, or military affairs. References to the Mongol experience can be found in both scholarly tomes and common conversations on a variety of topics. As I study and think about these things I have noticed a curious impulse that afflicts historians, military writers, and intelligent people of all stripes: a habit of equating the Mongol empire and its conquests with all of the nomadic empires and peoples to emerge from the steppe.

This tendency is easy to understand. The Mongols were the most successful empire-builders the Eurasian steppes and deserts have ever produced; in the present day they remain the best remembered--often the only remembered--people of their type. If one wishes to understand the two thousand year struggle between 'sown and steppe' then the Mongols are the natural place to begin the analysis. Given the Mongol's unparalleled accomplishments,  it seems right to recognize them as the culmination of the Inner Asian tradition and the epitome of all nomadic hordes.

There is a flaw in this approach. If the accomplishments of the Mongol conquest were truly unparalleled (and they were) then it makes little sense to seek their parallels with other nomadic empires! The Mongols are a poor window into the world of nomadic warfare because their wars differed so dramatically from those waged by every other nomadic polity. Not a Scythian, Xiongnu, Cimmerian, Sarmatian, Xianbei, Hun, Yuezhi, Avar, Rouran, Magyar, Khazar, Göktürk, Uighur, Seljuk, Khitan, Tangut, Kipchak, Jurchen, or Khara-Khitai that preceded Chingis Khan nor a Crimean, Kazan, Uzbek, Zunghar, Timurid, Borjigin, Manchu, or Ottoman that followed him was able to achieve what Chingis and his three successors did. Most of them never wanted to.

The truly interesting question, therefore, is not "what can the Mongols teach us about the way nomadic empires worked?" Better to ask: "what made the Mongols different from every other nomadic empire?"

The question is harder to answer that it sounds. To even attempt to do so demands a detailed knowledge of the empire's early history, familiarity with other nomad peoples and their history, and the patience to wade through a fractious and often very technical debate waged between historians, anthropologists, and archeologists over why and how pastoral nomads created empires in the first place. 

If the task sounds a bit unpleasant or even asinine - well, it has been. But I have found myself so intrigued with the question that I cannot let it go, and as a result have spent the last few months diving into libraries attempting to read everything that I can [3] on the subject. 

I am not sure I have a definitive answer to this question. I do not think I will for some time yet. But as I was working on some notes related to this project it occurred to me that the material I have learned, summarized, and organized may be of interest to those who visit The Stage.

 This blog attracts an odd medley of readers; nomad studies may not be everyone's cup of tea. But it is my hope both those readers who come for the discussions of history and those who come for the discussions of military strategy that are hosted here will find this project engaging as I have.

To restate this preface in a simpler way: prepare for a lot posts on the Mongols. 


[1] Chapter XLVI. Trans. Ronald Latham (New York: Penguin Classics). 1958.  

[2] Contrary to my usual complaint, this can be said of both those in the West and East. The popular historical memory of the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese, whose societies fell under Mongol assaults or fought vigorously to repel them, give little room to the Mongol Empire. Only the Russians, it seems, have retained those conflicts as an honored part of their national identity.

[3]  On this account, Bryn Hammond's GoodReads reviews and John J Emerson's Master Bibliography on the Mongols were indispensable resources whose reading suggestions were integral to my entire course of research. 

03 November, 2013

A Few Thoughts on Ender's Game


This week the bloggers of Fabius Maximus have posted several times on the evils of Orson Scott Card's popular science fiction book, Ender’s Game. I figure I might as well pile on.

I read Ender’s Game for the second time earlier this summer. I noticed it was included in the quantum libraries of a few people I respect and was curious what they had found in it that I had missed. My conclusion upon the second reading was in accord with the first: Ender’s Game is one of the most over-rated science fiction novels published in the last thirty years.

Do not mistake me. I enjoyed the novel. The writing is excellent, the plot was intriguing, and a few select sections were nothing short of brilliant. The words “the enemy gate is down” have been engrained into my brain. This book is a superb selection for any literature class – I daresay it would be a good read for most philosophy classes.

But it is a horrible choice for the Marine Corps Commandant Reading List.

I offer two complaints against Ender’s Game. The first concerns the twist that both marks the novel’s climax and destroys all claims it may make to realism. Ender Wiggins, child prodigy bred from birth to be the military genius needed to save all humanity from an existential alien threat, spends most of the novel training for war in a space station-turned-boot camp named the "Battle School". He spends his time playing war games that progressively become more difficult. After Ender and his team have overcome everything the Battle School can throw at them, they are moved to a new location and begin to play an even harder game. This game is meant to simulate fleet actions among the stars; it is played by buttons and analog control sticks; its objects are glowing 3-D models of the ships Ender will command in the future. The difficulty is that the game learns from each defeat. Ender can never use the same tactics in two battles, and the number and quality of ships available to him become smaller and smaller every time he begins a new game. His last battle is one of insurmountable odds: Ender is equipped with a few low-tech ships whilst his enemy has a planet and all of the defenses that come with it. Through a stroke of brilliance Ender wins the game – and then is told that there never was any game at all. His training had been real. Those models were not simulations but representations of real fleets manned by real men. The glowing ball of light he had just blown to pieces was now, though millions of light years away, a real asteroid field.

This twist blows away ability to suspend disbelief. War is just as much a matter of ethos and pathos as it is a thing of logic. One cannot play chess with men; that these soldiers would follow the orders of anonymous commanders millions of light-years away with the exactness needed to maintain the illusion of the “game” is absurd. War can never be a matter of blips on a screen. Those who try to make it so will find themselves defeated by friction.

It is my hope that no officer reading Ender’s Game take its climax seriously. I am not convinced that even Card himself does. This “game” was not designed to be realistic; it was a conceit written into the book to make a point. Ender’s Game is just as much a story about agency and morality as it a tale of adventure and war. The focus is not on the methods Ender uses to destroy one enemy fleet after another, but on how Ender is manipulated into doing so. With his crowning victory Ender has committed xenocide. He did not mean to. If he had known the nature of the game he was playing he may never have played it. But Ender did not know the nature of his game. He did not see the destruction of worlds, but the “bleeps” and “bloops” of a video game.

This is why I have trouble taking the comparisons made between the fascists of Europe and Ender (highlighted by Fabius Maximus in the post noted above) seriously. Ender Wiggins could never be Adolf Hitler. Hitler was not being manipulated by the system; Hitler was the system. He knew exactly what he was doing. Hitler and Ender lived parallel lives and committed parallel crimes – but their desires, intentions, and above all else, the extent of their knowledge was radically different. Condemning Ender is condemning a man for sins he never knew were his.

This is one of — if not the — overriding themes of Ender’s Game. Can a man who does not know the consequences of his actions commit a crime? This theme pervades the book; it can be seen from its first chapter to its closing page. Ender’s childhood story is one of pain and abuse at the hands of other children. The novel opens with a group of bullies cornering the young child – only to see Ender lash out and viciously attack the head bully, “hoping to win this now, and for all time, or I’ll fight it every day and it will get worse and worse” (Ender’s Game, p. 5). He leaves the scene, crying because of his own brutality but sure that the bullies will never bother him again. Colonel Graff, commander of the Battle School, visits him that very day to ask why he attacked with such ferocity. Upon learning that Ender acted in self defense the Colonel whisks Ender away to his school among the stars. Ender never learns what the reader knows by the end of the chapter: the bully Ender destroyed died of his wounds. Humanity would be doomed if their super-weapon was plagued by moral demons. Colonel Graff ensures that Ender would never know just how deadly a weapon he is.

Orson Scott Card wants his reader to question the ethics of this scene. Ender has just murdered, but is he a murderer? His intent was pure and he did not comprehend the consequences of his actions. Does that negate the crime? It is a quandary juries confront every year. The discussion Card seeks is one that every society seeking justice must have.

But not on the battlefield.

Soldiers operate in an environment where information is limited but the consequences of their actions are not. This is not the world of Ender’s Game. Ender plays as a prodigy, a superman among supermen, all powerful in the sterile and perfectly controlled BattleRoom. You will find no supermen among the soldiers of our armed forces – our men and women are but mortal beings, and their battlefields are anything but controlled. Some may claim a similarity in position: like Ender, most soldiers are pawns in the larger system. But unlike Ender, every soldier must bear the consequences of the decisions he or she makes. The soldier who accidentally kills an innocent man will have no Colonel Graff to come and hide the body before news of the death is known. That the deed is done in ignorance or by accident does not change that it was done. In times of war the fruits of a soldier’s labors will be tasted. That a soldier had the best of intentions does not lessen the moral shock of killing an innocent man. That a soldier acted without full understanding of the situation does not change the tactical or strategic consequences of his actions.

This is the fault of Ender’s Game. On the battlefield you do not have the liberty to stop and decide whether or not your intentions are pure. When the guns start firing it is the consequences that matter.

Originally published on 12 September, 2010. Republished (3 November, 2013) to mark this week's release of the Ender's Game film.