About This Blog

Welcome to the blog documenting my experiences at King’s College London as a Rotary Global Grant Scholar!

I will keep this blog regularly updated with my experiences both in and out of the classroom. The topic of the week will be whatever comes to my mind first so the themes might be varied, but they will center around my life in London.

The purpose of the blog is primarily to keep my family and friends, especially the Rotarians of District 5830, updated on my life during this journey. Click the “About” tab above for more about me and my contact information.

A Long Wait

I’ve been dealing with a lot of guilt as my plan to write a post at least once a month has failed, so I am sorry about the long delay in posts. I’m planning to make up for that with a high volume of posts coming all at once now that my exams are over.

By way of catching up on my life, I have now completed all of the requirements for my Master’s degree except for my dissertation, which I have been reading and taking notes for all year. I think I have a good start on it, but I know that I will struggle to narrow it down as it can only be 15,000 words. I know that sounds like a lot, but I’ve already written couple thousand and have only scratched the surface of what I want to say. My main problems are really methodological, dealing with determining how I want to address my areas of interest. I am writing about the effect of US ‘security force assistance’ missions, also known as ‘advise and assist’ or ‘train and equip’ missions. My approach will not be focused on the tactical level (ie whether or not the US does a good job of making foreign militaries better at fighting and winning wars) but on the developmental level. I am examining how the practice of sending the US military to train a foreign military to win a civil war in a developing country effects the long-term development of that country, in terms of political stability, anti-corruption, democratic institutionalization, and civilian control of the military. Since these indicators of development are often not mutually reinforcing (although many post-conflict programs administered by the UN, US, EU, or NATO treat them as if they are), I want to see how the decision to use military influence changes each one. Like I said though, my problem is a methodological one in determining if it would be better for me to tackle one or two case studies in depth at the expense of missing insights from the full spectrum of cases, or doing a historical analysis on the whole range of cases of US military intervention at the potential expense of missing contextual nuances in individual cases. I am leaning toward the latter because it suits my strengths better (I’ve always been better at the ‘big picture’ than the details), but I’m afraid that a good MA dissertation ought to be more focused on specifics.

Anyway, exams were one of the reasons that I was off the grid for so long. The other was that I recently started a job at a think tank called the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI. Founded by the Duke of Wellington (that’s the general who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo) in 1831, RUSI lays claim to being the world’s oldest think tank. It is one of the top three think tanks in the UK alongside Chatham House and IISS. This has been a great opportunity for me to do research on relevant army issues, expand my understanding of multinational military operations, get one of my articles published, meet some brilliant co-workers, and work extensively on a number of events, including a massive conference coming up in June. When I explain this new job to people who aren’t studying in the War Studies Department at King’s, they usually ask what a ‘think tank’ actually is. It has nothing to do with my future role as a tank platoon leader, for the record. These are different kinds of tanks..

The role of a security and defense think tank like RUSI is to be a bridge between academia and practitioners in government and the military. A fundamental problem with making policy is that you can become so enmeshed in the bureaucratic processes and the immediacy of situations and crises that you don’t have time to take a step back from decision-making to see the bigger picture or to think deeply about the second- and third-order consequences of your plans. Academics, who generally do a great job of seeing this bigger picture can often struggle to understand that the ideal academic solution to a problem is not always feasible to implement. Additionally, it is easier to speculate about problems and ideal solutions as an academic, when you are divorced from the consequences of those decisions. This is part of the beauty and necessity of a strong, independent academic community in a democracy. Some academics are also thoroughly unconcerned with problem-solving at all, and enjoy studying for its own sake, intentionally neglecting the application of their work to the real world. All of this makes the role of the think thank an important one. Part of what RUSI does is leverage deep connections between the academic and policy communities to host roundtables, panels, small group sessions, and closed door meetings to ensure that practitioners in the ministry of defense of the foreign office have a maximum amount of information from which to make decisions. Another role is to produce our own content for the general public, academia, and government, that ‘raises the level of the debate’ on popular issues to something that is more intelligent and informed. We also use our venue to give a voice to international politicians and academics when they visit the UK, or for UK speakers to voice their ideas to the general public. I hope that description suffices, but I would just add that I personally think that the role of think tank in any society is an important one.

Between final essays, exams, and working 3-5 days a week at RUSI, my schedule has been much more busy, so I apologize to everyone back in Texas who has been hoping for more updates. The beauty is that I have much more experience to draw from and write about for the next few months, so I will be more regular with my entries in the future. This week I’m planning on posting some adapted versions of two of my latest essays and an adaptation of a talk that I gave on creativity at the Kentish Town Fleet Festival earlier this month. It involved quite a bit of rapping, so I’ll include some videos as well if possible.

Ambiguity and Political Campaigns

 

The Donald Trump campaign videos just keep coming don’t they? Regardless of what you think about the politics of this year’s US Presidential nomination campaigning season, it has certainly upturned much conventional wisdom about how to win a campaign, and Trump’s run has especially embodied this shift. One video that captured international attention last week showed his remarks about the fabled wall on the US-Mexico border that he plans to force Mexico to fund. When he was challenged on this plan by a journalist who referenced a CNBC interview with former Mexican President Felipe Calderon (http://www.cnbc.com/2016/02/08/mexico-wont-pay-single-cent-for-trumps-stupid-wall.html), in which Calderon said Mexico would never agree to such a proposition, here’s what Trump had to say:

 

 

 

Note how Trump never explains why Calderon is wrong to think Mexico won’t pay for the wall. He never addresses how he would convince Mexico to do it, he just ambiguously reinforces the idea that they will. This video is particularly interesting because it emphatically reinforces a “huge” (read this in Trump’s ‘HUGE’ voice https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHxqAxNU3Is) theme in Trump’s campaign- the power of ambiguity. Donald Trump’s transition from national reality television and business icon to a viable presidential candidate has been largely fueled ambiguity. This seems counterintuitive at first glance. In a political climate in which citizens are constantly calling for increased transparency from their leaders, how does dodging questions, being intentionally vague, and deliberately ignoring issues help to gather a crowd of supporters behind a candidate? Why does it work for some candidates but not for others? Those are the questions that I want to answer in this latest and long-awaited (by my mom at least) blog post. For full disclosure, the idea to link the Trump campaign to the benefits of ambiguity didn’t just come to me in a dream. In my course on the evolution of insurgency yesterday, we were discussing the power of images to catalyze revolution. The lecturer, Dr. Neville Bolt, noted that one of the effective aspects of images that help them to drive change is their ambiguity. Because the viewers of a revolutionary image weren’t at the event, the image forces them to fill in the context themselves and imagine what happened before and after it was captured. The famous photo of the Chinese protester standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square, for example, forces the viewer to imagine what had led to that moment and what would happen immediately after it. The ascendency of Trump in the US resembles a social and political ‘insurgency’ of sorts that has benefited from ambiguity as a driver for action against the status quo in the same way.

 

Ambiguity benefits Trump’s campaign because it gives voters a sense of ownership in his campaign. In the words of my professor, referencing image ambiguity in insurgencies, “message ambiguity allows us to construct our own message; it allows popular participation.” This was the line that struck me and really allowed me to go inside the head of one of those Trump supporters in the video- the dark-haired woman yelling “Mexico!” and throwing her arms in the air, for example. In the mind of a Trump supporter, there is a plan to make Mexico pay for the wall. Maybe they imagine Trump strolling into President Nieto’s office, slamming a stack of papers on the desk as a flock of eagles circle behind him and yelling, “how do you like them apples?!” Maybe he base jumps out of Marine One into a session of the Mexican Congress, fights his way through security while dual-wielding ninja swords, and then forces Mexico to ratify his wall proposal. Maybe he’ll call Nieto into his office on the set of The Apprentice and sit him down at the end of a long boardroom table, intimidating him into paying for a wall.

 

Of course all of those explanations are far-fetched, but understanding this movement means understanding that Trump’s supporters all consciously or unconsciously have already scripted his Presidency in their heads, probably- although not definitely- in a less dramatic fashion than I just did. It doesn’t matter to them that Mexican leaders have said that they won’t pay for the wall. They are voting for Trump the person, not his policies. The policies, they imagine, will succeed by virtue of the man’s strong personality. When he refuses to address how he will force Mexico to pay for the wall, he is enabling his base of supporters to imagine how it will happen. He is creating buy-in by allowing for imaginary participation. Trump supporters know he will succeed. They’ve already seen it in their mind’s eye, and that image is more powerful than any point-by-point, data-driven plan that he could produce. They are on board with his campaign because they all helped to create it. In this way, removing ambiguity with actual plans or definitive statements would be counter-productive. It would push his thousands of imaginary campaign strategists out of their jobs. Furthermore, this ambiguity is most salient to to people who feel uninvolved or unheard in politics. Most of Trump’s supporters fall into this anti-establishment camp.

 

Ambiguity doesn’t always help candidates, however. One of the harshest criticisms leveraged against the Bernie Sanders campaign, for example, is that it is far too ambiguous in regards to how it will fund his “free college for all” plan or his social security expansion. This skepticism (often from the same voters who are whole-heartedly supportive of Trump’s ambiguity) has forced responses from Sanders. Ironically, although he is regularly criticized for his inability to explain how he fund his programs, Sanders has perhaps been the most diligent candidate in providing quantitative support for his proposals (see https://berniesanders.com/issues/how-bernie-pays-for-his-proposals/). While there are plenty of economists who say his plans won’t work (http://thehill.com/policy/finance/269697-former-wh-economists-sanderss-economic-math-doesnt-add-up), the fact of the matter is that Sanders has been forced respond to the ambiguity criticisms and Trump has largely chosen not to (although he has gone into a minimum required amount of detail on his wall http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/donald-trump-says-his-wall-would-cost-8-billion).

 

So why does ambiguity fuel Trump and slow Sanders? Two possible answers are the nature of the issues upon which the candidates are focused and the nature of their supporters. The primary point of emphasis for Sanders is the economy, an area where hard numbers, rationality, and long-term planning tend to be more convincing than emotional arguments. Trump’s area of emphasis on the other hand has largely been immigration policy, an area where emotional arguments can hold much more salience than they do for the economy. This is not to say that no one can be swayed by emotional economic policies or that no one is calling for quantitative data on immigration and the price of a wall. Certainly some voters fall into those camps, but it is generally true that the primary driver for economic change must be rationally-based, while immigration policy is often conducted in a less rationally-driven manner. Likewise, the support bases for the candidates are different. Trump supporters tend to think of the problems with government in terms of losing their voice and ability to participate. They really do want to “make America great again,” and 62% of the Republican primary voters in New Hampshire who want a candidate from “outside the establishment” voted for Trump. Sanders supporters, on the other hand, generally classify the problems with American government as ones of inequality, and 71% of democratic primary voters who are concerned primarily with income inequality in New Hampshire voted for him. The benefits of ambiguity outlined above are much more relevant to the non-establishment, personality-focused voters than for those who are genuinely interested in what Sanders can do to help them. The first group, empowered by ambiguity, can broadly imagine a “strong” leader creating a “strong” country, the latter is more persuaded by the specific plan that will solve inequality and less by the personality of the candidate himself.

 

Finally, I want to make one thing clear- I don’t think that this marketing tactic of ambiguity by Trump is necessarily intentional. When he says in the video “the President or ex-President or whatever, whoever….” he is not doing a rational calculation in his mind along the lines of, “Ok if I say this thing in this way it will degrade my political opponents and create more buy-in from my supporters.” I think he just genuinely doesn’t know who Felipe Calderon is. While ambiguity works in Trump’s favor, it is not because he is using it cleverly, it is just that the nature of ambiguous comments, even misled or confused ones, have appeal to an ever-growing group of US voters who feel like they have lost their ownership and participation in the political system, and that is the truly worrying thing about the trends exposed by Trump’s candidacy.

 

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Disclaimer: This post is not written in support of or against any particular candidate. It is an exposition on the utility of ambiguity in a US Presidential campaign. It only reflects my personal views on the subject, not those of any other organization.

NH exit poll data from http://edition.cnn.com/election/primaries/polls/nh/Rep and http://edition.cnn.com/election/primaries/polls/nh/Dem

Rotary Update

It has really been too long since my last post so I apologize to my loyal fan base (Sorry, Mom). I recently finished an update to send back to my home Rotary District and to my hosting district here in London, so I thought I’d post it here as well. I’ll get back to more regular and creative posts soon. Some of this material has already been covered in other posts, and it is all targeted toward a Rotarian audience:

 

Rotary Global Grant Scholarship: Term One Review

Micah Clark District 5830 (NE Texas, SE Oklahoma, SW Arkansas) –> 1130 (London)

This document serves as a review of my activities as a Rotary Foundation Global Grant Scholar. There are three sections outlined below: 1) An overview of what the Global Grant Scholarship is and how it is different from the previous Ambassadorial Scholarship, which ended in 2013, 2) A full review of my academic progress through the first term, and 3) An overview of my Rotary participation. If you are less concerned with my particular academic work, you may want to just skim the second section. To stay up-to-date on my time in London and see what’s going on inside my head while I’m here, check out my blog: www.micahinlondon.wordpress.com

 

The New Global Grant Scholarship Model

More specific and detailed information about the Rotary Global Grant Scholarship can be found here: http://isrotaryforyou.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/7-1-Global-Grant-Scholarship-Supplement.pdf I would recommend that even those Rotarians familiar with the Rotary scholarship program take a look at this document because the scholarship has recently changed in name (from the Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to the Rotary Global Grant Scholarship), application process, and execution. While the name change does not suggest that current scholars are no longer expected to be global ambassadors of Rotary values, there are important differences between the old and new programs that those who were familiar with the Ambassadorial model might find informative. Here are a few of the changes that some Rotarians may not be aware of:

 

  • Ambassadorial Scholars were required to make 10-15 presentations during their course of study. Global Grant Scholars obligation to make presentations is completely up to their host district. There is no formal requirement to make presentations, although scholars are certainly expected to actively participate in the Rotary community while abroad.

 

  • Global Grant Scholars are required to submit a report to their sponsoring Rotarians within one year of receiving their first payment. Ambassadorial Scholars were required to send a mid-year and year-end report to the scholarship coordinator.

 

  • Global Grant Scholarships must focus on one of Rotary’s six areas of focus. The Ambassadorial model did not restrict what scholars could study.

 

  • Global Grant Scholars study for one to four years at the graduate level. Ambassadorial Scholars could study at the undergraduate or graduate level, but only for one year.

 

There are many other changes outlined in the chart on the link above, but these are the ones that I have noted are most unfamiliar to those Rotarians who had worked on the Ambassadorial Scholarship.

 

 

 

My Academic Progress

 

I am currently a little over one third of the way through my King’s College London Masters program on Conflict, Security, and Development. The first two thirds of the program are focused on teaching through large group lectures and smaller seminars, and the last third is focused on writing my individual dissertation on a topic that I am passionate about. In my first term, I took a courses on Security and Development, Theories of War, and The Evolution of Insurgency. In this second term, which began in January, the Theories of War course has concluded and been replaced by a course on The Anglo-American War on Terror. All of these courses have supported my personal interests and the Rotary pillar of promoting peace very closely.

In the Security and Development course, I wrote my term-end essay on the effects of natural resource wealth on armed conflict. I analyzed how oil wealth in particular contributed to the ways in which non-state armed groups, state regimes, and external actors were able to use a country’s oil or oil revenues to influence the outcomes of war. I also analyzed oil’s effect on what I called the tactical and developmental dynamics of war. My conclusion in this essay was that oil’s effect are not uniform across cases. In fact, it can have contradictory effects. Oil has prolonged, shortened, brutalized, and pacified conflict in different countries. In order to understand how oil wealth will effect the prospects for and conduct of a war, therefore, it is necessary to understand the nature of the oil in a country. Is it off-shore or on-shore, refined domestically or internationally, shipped across oceans or through pipelines? All of these characteristics, and others as well, can make the presence of oil have different effects in different cases. My essay goes into more specifics on how these characteristics change conflict.

The course on Theories of War was a particularly good one, focused on small group discussion with a professor who has been teaching International Relations theory for fifty years. While my other two courses this term were more pragmatic in their approach to promoting peace and resolving conflict, Theories of War was much more tuned toward understand why wars happen on a macro level and how theorists have tried to describe them throughout history. We focused on classical and contemporary authors in order to develop our own theoretical perspective about what causes nations to fight one another and when they are likely to do so. I wrote one essay in which I examined Homer’s Illiad as an epic tragedy, illustrating the ways in which both Greeks and Trojans fall short of an ideally-ordered society. I argued that Homer’s work contributes to a better understanding of why men go to war and how they can avoid or resolve it. I showed that while war is almost described by Homer as an inescapable human condition, he does provide some ray of hope when his hero, Achilles, empathizes with his slain rival’s father. Rather than pessimistically writing off war as an inescapable tradition, therefore, Homer shows a contemporary audience that even the great war-like Achilles, the most violent of all men described in the epic, can appreciate the value of dignity, empathy, family, and hospitality. In my final essay for this class, I wrote my own theory of war that I found useful in explaining the world. It was centered on three precepts that are essentially a hybrid of two schools of thought in international relations, called realism and constructivism. I wrote that “a useful theoretical understanding of war relies on three primary assertions: 1) states are self-interested, and this self-interest includes both material and non-material desires; 2) state self-interest is bounded and changed by the norms that international communities generally agree upon; 3) domestic institutions within a state- especially its military- are also self-interested, primarily in self-preservation, which can lead to the creation of state enemies.” In other words, by realizing that there can be no war without enemies and focusing on why states create the enemies that they do, I was able to contribute a somewhat unique perspective to the literature on war. Being able to consume a great deal of theoretical literature on war and then compose my own theory, elementary though it may be, on why wars exist was an enriching experience for me.

The Evolution of Insurgency course in the King’s College War Studies Department is well-known and respected across political science academia, and I was excited to have the chance to take it. Since one of the greatest threats to national security is the increasing threat posed by small, non-state insurgent movements, it was particularly relevant to my career field. I wrote one essay on how the Chinese Communist Mao Zedong’s revolution served as a blue print for many modern insurgents and another on what the key elements of insurgency are and how they have changed from the time of the Roman Empire until the 1970s. While this was a challenging task, I focused on the domains of ideology, communication, and political violence as the key elements of insurgency and described how each has been changed with various technological developments. The development that make both the broadest and deepest impact on these characteristics was, in my opinion, the television, which delivered insurgent violence and messages directly into the home almost instantaneously in the form of a realistic moving picture. This effect went so far beyond what newspaper and radio had been able to do previously that it changed insurgent behavior for the foreseeable future. The proliferation of the “propaganda of the deed” tactic, by which small insurgent groups are able to attract attention to their cause by spreading images of massive violence, is the primary outcome of the television’s technological development.

I understand that all of this information might be quite boring and specific to those readers without much interest in political science or conflict. Suffice to say that I am greatly enjoying my time at King’s College so far. Neither the faculty of the War Studies department, nor the city of London itself have disappointed; in fact, they have exceeded my expectations. I have been challenged academically and have set a goal to graduate with distinction. There are three categories of degrees that students receive at the conclusion of the course, either an MA, MA with merit, or MA with distinction. The grades from my assignments and the feedback from my professors so far indicates that I should be able to achieve distinction if I continue to work hard and write well. In the coming months I will begin to develop ideas for my thesis, which I am writing on the subject of security sector reform. Particularly, I plan on examining how effective international intervention is at improving the effectiveness of military and police forces through so-called “advise and assist” missions, as well as whether or not these kinds of military intervention missions support the democratic control of the military in post-conflict states.

 

Rotary Connection

 

Not every postgraduate student is fortunate enough to have financial support to complete their course of study. Even less have the support of a network like Rotary International to aid in acclimating to a new country. The support that I have received from District 1130 here in London has been second-to-none, and the welcoming that the Rotary Club of the City and Shoreditch has provided in particular has been fantastic. Soon after my arrival in London, Rotary International in Great Britain and Ireland organized a weekend conference in Warwick, home to one of the most amazing surviving castles in the United Kingdom, for all of the Rotary Scholars studying in the UK. This was a great opportunity for the scholars to meet one another and learn about British culture before our studies started, and the event was run incredibly well by the Rotarians who oversaw it. I also had the chance to accompany my club to the district conference in Eastbourne, on the Southern coast of England. This conference was another chance to get to know both my fellow scholars and other Rotarians better, and it is fully documented on my blog (https://micahinlondon.wordpress.com/2015/10/26/rotary-district-1130-conference/ ). I have had the chance to assist with running many Rotary events including a Polio panel discussion of leading researchers that my club hosted, a Christmas program and dinner event for senior citizens, a Polio fundraising dinner and presentation, and others. I want to use my time in London to help give back to Rotary in whatever ways I can, and involvement with my host club has been a big part of that effort. I was honored to be asked to give a presentation at one of my club’s meetings about my life and my vision for the future. It was truly exciting to be able to explain to the audience how my degree from King’s will allow me to be a better officer in the U.S. Army at the same time that it supports the goals of the Rotary Club.

 

After about four months of time in London, I can safely say that I could not have picked a better program to study or have the support of a better organization. Thank you to all of the Rotarians in London and Texas who have made it possible.

 

War and Peace in “The Lines Where Men Win Fame”

Here’s another short essay from class (this time from a course called “Theories of War”) that some might find interesting. This course is taught by Social Sciences living-legend Ned Lebow who gives some of the most engaging lectures/seminars that I’ve been in. He has also been referred to as the “International Relations version of the teacher from Whiplash,” which I don’t think is fair because he isn’t sadistic like that. He can be demanding in class discussion, and he isn’t afraid to call people out for illogical or poorly constructed arguments though.. It can be a little intimidating. This prompt was to explain a core argument or insight from Homer’s Illiad. I wasn’t too happy with how this essay turned out because I think I got distracted from my main point midway through, but here it is.

The Fury of Achilles

War and Peace in “The Lines Where Men Win Fame”[1]

The work that Homer presents in the pages of The Iliad is primarily a narrative addressing the nature of man within society, particularly how he behaves in war. He conveys his message through a poetic retelling of the Trojan War. Whether the events described therein are real, slightly embellished, or entirely imagined is not particularly relevant to his purpose. This debate becomes secondary when The Iliad is read not as an historical account, but rather as work which seeks to achieve a two-fold purpose: to explain and idealize man. There are both positive and normative purposes to Homer’s epic. Overall, however, the normative elements take precedence. Homer does describe how men live and interact in communities, especially in communities at war, but he does so only to expose the tragic consequences that can result from an improperly-ordered society. In many ways Homer’s Iliad serves as an early narrative-type precursor to the Classical Greek philosophers’ quest to create and explain a just and well-ordered society. Aristotle and Plato endeavor to find truth about man and society through engaging in discourse, Homer does the same thing using narrative. The Iliad shows man and his communities in extremis in order to magnify and better describe the ideal types of man and society. Through showcasing the desirable virtues of individuals within societies at war, stressing the primacy of fame and honor in human interaction, and exposing the unexpected similarities between the Greek and Trojan societies, Homer’s epic illustrates the ways in which both Greeks and Trojans fall short of an ideally-ordered society, which in turn contributes to a better understanding of why men go to war and how they can avoid or resolve it.

The Iliad uniquely showcases the characteristics and virtues that societies praise during war. These traits, which Homer exalts in his lines, are meant to be understood as the apogee of human virtue. The tragedy that Homer implies in this description is that these traits are only on display in battle, the so-called “lines where men win fame.”[2] By describing these war-bound virtues in the context of The Iliad, the poet makes two cautionary claims: that when virtues which are inextricably linked to war hold high positions in a society that society will perpetuate war, and that all societies are naturally inclined to hold these same virtues in a primary position. The best way of describing these Homeric, war-bound virtues is to note the character who best embodies each within the story. The most prominent virtues include: the rage of Achilles, the wisdom of Nestor, the physical courage of Diomedes, the cunning of Odysseus, and the devotion to family of Hector and Priam. While these traits are not perfected in any of these characters- Hector, for example, ultimately places his own honor ahead of his love for his family and city when he stands against Achilles in single combat- they are displayed by them at some point. Additionally, all of these characteristics are fundamentally bound to war. Achilles’ initial rage only finds an appropriate outlet in his ability to sit out of the war. His rage after the death of Patroclus is similarly only expressed in battle, this time through participating rather than abstaining. Nestor’s wisdom is the product of his years of experience in fighting wars, and he is heeded by the Achaeans, most notably Patroclus who follows his recommendation to join the battle in place of Achilles, purely on the basis of his credibility gained through battle.[3] The courage that Diomedes displays, described by Ares as “something superhuman,” while fighting the Trojans, and even their supportive deities, finds no similar vein for expression in peace.[4] Although it could be argued that competitions like the funeral games of Book XXIII allow a peaceful way for men to display physical courage, there is not the same life-or-death stakes in these cases that exist in combat. Like the other virtues, ultimate courage can only be attained when ultimate stakes are involved. This is why Homer uses the greatest war in history at the time to magnify these virtues. Odysseus is constantly referred to as cunning in his Homeric epithet, and this combination of daring and deception is climatically exhibited in his foray into the Trojan camp with Diomedes in Book X. While Odysseus’ cunning is arguably on display throughout the subsequent Odyssey without war, it is only in war that his cunning receives acclaim from his comrades.[5] Finally, although it is not perfect, Hector displays a sentiment of devotion to family, as does his father Priam, perhaps more ideally. While Hector places his disdain of cowardice above his love for his wife and child, he tells Hecuba that the decision to do so “weighs me down.”[6] This characteristic is idealized in his father whose staunch commitment to preserving the honor of his son drives him to boldly venture into Achilles’ camp.[7] These are the primary virtues described in Homer’s epic.

Building upon the virtues that Homer describes, the primacy of honor in war is another fundamental theme of the Iliad.  This focus stems from a desire within the warriors of both Greece and Troy to leave a legacy that would endure beyond their brief life span. The quest for honor is not itself a virtue, but rather an instrument through which to preserve one’s virtues beyond one’s short life. The virtues themselves are only attainable through war and their preservation through the vessel of honor is likewise only achieved in conflict. Both Greek and Trojan alike believed in the primacy of honor. Achilles cites his honor, stolen by Agememnon, as the reason that he abstains from fighting.[8] Likewise, the preservation and gain of honor for Hector is what drives him to reject the advice of Hecuba and meet the Greeks in combat.[9] Just like the virtues are unattainable without fighting, so too are a fighter’s glory and legacy only cemented in the memory of his family and society through war.

While the Greeks and Trojans were engaged in a brutal war against one another, Homer is intentional about pointing out how similar the two societies are. Both Hector and Achilles mourn their impending untimely deaths in light of the families that they will leave behind. The champions of both armies mirror each other in battle and often fight to stalemates. The most striking similarity, however, is that both societies are pulled into war because of the unvirtuous behavior of their elites: Paris’ lust for Helen on the side of the Trojans and Agememnon’s hubris for the Greeks. By showcasing these similarities, Homer addresses the universality of the virtues and vices which he describes. One of The Iliad’s primary insights, therefore, is that when leaders lack virtue in any society, it is destined for perpetual war.

If a desire to display war-like virtues and be remembered through honor on the battlefield is a universal condition, as this essay argues was the case in The Iliad, is humankind deterministically doomed to live in a state of violence and perpetual war or fear of war? On the contrary, the last section of The Iliad serves as a prescription for peace by adding another element to the normative picture of man already represented throughout the work. Neither word is a perfect description, but this additional trait could be referred to as dignity or empathy, and it is the ability to place the immediate gain of advantage over one’s opponent as secondary to recognition of his status as a fellow human. Achilles returns Hector’s body to Priam because he sympathizes with him and considers his own father’s grief at the loss of his son.[10] Rather than pessimistically writing off war as an inescapable tradition, Homer shows a contemporary audience that even the great war-like Achilles, the most violent of all men described in the epic, can appreciate the value of dignity, empathy, family, and hospitality. By ending with this section, Homer encourages his audience that a path to peace does exist and that it can be found through a mutual understanding of this dignity concept. Honor that is tempered by dignity and lived out within communities rather than in isolation is Homer’s prescription for overcoming man’s natural propensity toward war and living justly.

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Group, 1998.

 

 

 

 

[1] This quote comes from Priam’s discussion with Achilles in Book XXIV.

[2] Homer, The Iliad, Trans. Robert Fagles, New York: Penguin Group, 1998, 24.461-2, p. 601.

[3] Nestor’s use of his fighting experience as his primary means of establishing credibility reinforces this idea. See The Iliad, 11.775-960, p.318 for his long speech about his former exploits to Patroclus.

[4] Homer, The Iliad, 5.1022, p. 193.

[5] After his marauding exploit he is renown by Nestor as “Achaea’s pride and glory,” an honor he never had bestowed upon him during his return journey, full of cunning though it was. Homer, The Iliad, 10.627, p. 294.

[6] Homer, The Iliad, 6.536, p. 210.

[7] Priam tells Achilles, “It’s all for him I’ve come to the ships now, to win him back from you.” Homer, The Iliad, 24.586, p. 604.

[8] Homer, The Iliad, 1.139, p. 81.

[9] Homer, The Iliad, 6.527-529, p. 210.

[10] Homer, The Iliad, 24.570-646, pp. 604-606.

Matching Mao: The Usefulness of Maoist Insurgency as a Blueprint

The essay below is from one of my courses, “The Evolution of Insurgency.” It is in answer to the following prompt: “Evaluate the claim that Maoist Insurgency is a blueprint for universal insurgency.” In other words: Should what Mao Zedong did in the Chinese Communist Revolution  be used as model for other revolutions? I thought this might be of interest to some readers. It was only 1000 words, so obviously there is much more that could be said. This is a little more “academic” than my other posts so continue with caution…

mao-zedong

The Maoist variety of insurgency is often considered a model for other insurgent movements to follow to success, but is this a useful tool for analysis? In order to show that Maoist insurgency can be considered a blueprint for universal insurgency, one must show that it meets two conditions. First, it must contribute some unique characteristics that had not been previously employed. If earlier movements embodied what are traditionally considered the original elements of the Maoist insurgency model, it cannot properly be called a blueprint. Second, it must remain relevant to some extent in explaining subsequent movements. This essay examines the extent to which Maoist insurgency is original in its design and what degree of relevance these originalities retain in light of the evolution of insurgency. While there are many unique aspects of the Maoist approach, only some of these can be applied to later movements. The use of the Maoist framework as a blueprint, however, is still a generally useful way to understand insurgency when it is applied correctly.

Regarding the uniqueness of particular elements within Mao’s model, his three-phased conception of insurgency is well-documented. Mao describes the transitions from strategic defense to stalemate to strategic offense by the insurgency force as predictable and necessary in insurgent movements.[1] This discrete and scientific pathway is one unique contribution that Mao makes to the practice and theory of insurgent warfare. Unlike the dominant war philosopher in the Western tradition, Clausewitz, who considered theories of war to be muddied by the brutality of war in practice, Mao believed that the path of insurgency was definitively predictable if theory was sufficiently informed by experience.[2] This predictable path was projected to culminate in an eventual overpowering of the status quo regime by the rebel group with traditional military force. The strategic offense phase was intended to be the point at which the rebels who had been formerly using guerrilla tactics and building secretive intelligence and logistics networks were finally able to match the regime’s military power on the battlefield.

As opposed to emphasizing this particular insurgency pathway, John Mackinlay outlines the more general unique contributions to the evolution of insurgency found within the “Maoist prototype.” [3] Primary among these contributions is Mao’s vision of moving insurgency from the domain of pure warfighting into the domain of politics. He does this by shifting his movement’s strategic focus from controlling physical space and territory to controlling the people who lived in those spaces.[4] What made his method even more unique was his mass mobilization of the Chinese population. It is not as if securing the allegiance of citizens was neglected by insurgencies previous to Mao, but none had undertaken the considerable efforts to gradually involve the entire country at which his strategy aimed.[5] Furthermore these early efforts at political mobilization were often afterthoughts in previous methods, whereas they assumed the primary role in Mao’s strategy. His methods of persuasion ranged from education and public works projects to subversion and mass execution, but they were all focused on this objective of popular allegiance.

In addition to this general paradigm was another strategic change: overcoming technological and military superiority with time. The Maoist war strategy was to create a “long and ruthless” struggle, emphasizing that it “cannot be won quickly and can only be a protracted war.”[6] This belief is at the core of the Maoist conception of trading space for time, or as he puts it “retreat[ing] in space but advance[ing] in time.”[7] Combining this vision of brutal and unconventional guerilla warfare with a simultaneous mobilization of the general population for the Communist cause was the core of Mao’s so-called prototype.  Two primary categories of unique Maoist contribution to insurgency have now emerged: a three-phased military strategy aimed at defeating the status quo government and a broader focus on a unique brand of guerilla warfare supplemented with convincing an ever-increasing mass of the country’s population that allegiance to the insurgency rather than the government was in their interest.

As a way of understanding later insurgencies, Mao’s general ideas of winning the human terrain, gaining additional time at the expense of losing territory, and preparing for protracted guerilla warfare are much more useful than his proposed three-phased trajectory of insurgency. In this way, part of Mao’s ideology can be understood as a blueprint but not all of it. These general elements of Maoist insurgency have retained their relevance even as interconnectedness, spurred on by globalization and the information revolution, have seemed to fundamentally change traditional conceptions of state power.[8] As sovereign territorial boundaries become less important and insurgent networks become increasingly globalized, a three-phased conception of revolution loses much of its explanatory power. Earning the population’s support and prolonging conflict, however, has become easier for insurgents at the same time as it has become more critical. Although its effect is often overstated and collective action problems persist regardless of the medium of communication, the digital space of the internet can now serve as forum for popular mobilization and a networking tool for extending conflict.

Although the term blueprint is misleading because the characteristics of particular insurgencies are largely dependent upon the nature of the societies from which they arise, certain principles of insurgency that were first systematically employed by Mao have been sufficiently accepted as the norm. The mass mobilization of populations in favor of the insurgency and the focus on securing the human terrain rather than the physical are foremost among these enduring characteristics. On the other hand, a three-phased model through which rebels eventually overpower the regime in the conventional battle space does not seem to be the contemporary norm. On the contrary, most successful modern insurgencies are characterized by a capitulation of the regime long before the rebels are able to challenge their conventional military power. This rigid doctrine of Mao’s can be generally cast aside without much loss for the modern scholar. The previously stated relevancies, however, are still useful as a starting point. When situated within the proper context, it is not simplistic or inaccurate to refer to Maoist insurgency as an early blueprint for universal insurgency, despite the phenomenon’s evolution over time. On the contrary, understanding Mao’s movement in China is a very useful and arguably necessary starting point for understanding other classical and modern insurgency movements.

 

 

Works Cited

Evans, Michael. “From Kadesh to Kandahar: Military Theory and the Future of War.” Naval

 War College Review 56, no. 3 (2003): 132-150.

 

Hanrahan, Gene Z., and Edward L. Katzenbach Jr. “The Revolutionary Strategy of Mao Tse-

Tung.” Political Science Quarterly, 1955: 321-340.

 

Mackinlay, John. The Insurgent Achipelago: From Mao to bin Laden. New York: Columbia

University Press, 2009.

 

Zarrow, Peter Gue. China in War and Revolution, 1895-1949. New York: Routledge, 2005.

[1] Gene Z. Hanrahan, and Edward L. Katzenbach Jr., “The Revolutionary Strategy of Mao Tse-Tung,” Political Science Quarterly, 1955: 330

[2] Peter Gue Zarrow, China in War and Revolution, 1895-1949. New York: Routledge, 2005, 224.

[3] John Mackinlay, The Insurgent Achipelago: From Mao to bin Laden, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, 12.

[4] Mackinlay, 17-18.

[5] Ibid., 19

[6] Mao, quoted in Hanrahan and Katzenbach, 325.

[7] Hanrahan and Katzenbach, 331.

[8] Michael Evans, “From Kadesh to Kandahar: Military Theory and the Future of War,” Naval War College Review 56, no. 3 (2003): 133.

Speaking British

jeremy-corbyn-3

Before I left Texas for London many of my friends and family reassured me that it would be an easy cultural transition for me because they “speak the same language over there.” Well let me be the first to tell those people: they most definitely do NOT speak the same language over here. I have to give the Brits some respect since they are the ones who invented the language after all, but it’s kind of a KFC / Chick-fil-a situation. Sure, KFC invented selling fast food chicken, but then Chick-fil-a came along and improved the original so much that everyone else was like, “Hey, Colonel Sanders is old and cute, and he’s trying his best, but this new version is just so much better.” Maybe it’s not fair to compare the English language to fried chicken, and I know this metaphor breaks down almost immediately when you realize that I’m calling Dickens, Shakespeare, and Keats the KFC of the English language, but you get my point.. American English is what everyone else uses now and British English is just what people use when they grow up in a region where they have only KFC but not Chick-fil-a  (coincidentally, London has KFC but not Chick-fil-a)…. Actually, I think the point of this introduction is honestly just that I really miss Chick-fil-a so you can pretty much disregard the language metaphor now.

 

Anyway, I thought it would be entertaining for me to go through some of the language differences between the US and the UK and give my insight into them. This is pretty much must-read material for all US-based UK tourists. I actually think that it should be the first thing that comes up when someone googles “tips for Americans in London.” So with that in mind, I’m just going to take the next paragraph to throw in as many key words that might come up in google searches related to Americans travelling in London as I can. Here we go:

 

How can I tour the Tower of London for free? Does it always rain in London? Where can I buy an umbrella with a British Flag on it in London? Where is Trafalgar Square? How much does the British Museum cost? Why do I have to pay for public bathrooms in London? How much is 12 pounds in US dollars? Why is the London underground called the Tube? Who is Winston Churchill? Where are those guards who don’t move? Where does the Queen live? Kate Middleton Royal Wedding. How old is Kate Middleton’s sister? Is Kate Middleton’s sister single? Where is London Bridge? Did London Bridge really fall down? Which bridge is the one that looks cool? Where does Emma Watson live in London? Emma Watson Address. Where did they shoot Harry Potter in London? How do you pronounce ‘Thames’?

Ok cool, now that I’ve filled my blog entry with click-bait for American tourists so that it gets more hits I’ll go ahead with my list of distinctly British words:

Y’alright?

No description of the British language would complete without mentioning this oddity. This is an abbreviation of “Are you alright?” which is used in pretty much any context. The first time someone said this to me, I thought they were actually concerned about my well-being. They are not. If someone asked you if you were alright in the U.S. it would be after you were choking on something or if you were in a corner crying. They would really be asking “what is wrong with you?” The British, however, are not actually asking if you are alright or if anything is wrong with you. They’re just saying this to politely avoid telling you what they really think. For example, the barista behind the counter at the coffee shop does not want to know if you are ok when he says “y’alright?” He’s telling you “hey hurry up and decide between the options on the board or get out of line, buddy.” The interesting thing here is that when someone asks an American if they are alright, they tend to get a little bit self-conscious. That’s how I was here at first too. I answered this question guardedly at first. Kind of like, “Yeah I’m fine, does it look like something is wrong with me?” Now I realize, “Y’alright?” does not really mean “Are you alright?” It just means y’alright. It’s its own word entirely, and it is totally acceptable to answer the “y’alright?” with a reciprocal “y’alright” of your own. I can’t explain why this works…

Cheers

This is one word that we need in the U.S. Cheers is even more versatile than y’alright. To understand my theory on this word completely, you have to understand that the British are two things: 1) socially awkward and 2) very orderly. I imagine that sometime around the turn of the 20th century a bunch of British people held some kind of orderly summit to discuss how much they hated their awkwardness. The conversation went something like this:

-Thank you all for being here. I hope everyone has enjoyed their first 2 beers even though it is only 5:15 and work literally ended 15 minutes ago. Thank you for joining me outside the pub that is closest to the office as soon as humanly possible, just like every single British person does on every single work day. I hope you are enjoying your $10 pints. We are here today to figure out how to interact normally with other humans. Our biggest problem is that there are a bunch of situations where we don’t know what to say in conversations.

– Yeah, I never know what to say when the waiter brings me my food! I also don’t know what I would say if I was the waiter and I brought food to someone else..

– What should I say when someone does a favor for me?

– What about when I want to sarcastically tell someone that I don’t like them?

– I never know what to say at just generally any pause in any conversation!

– Wow everyone slow down, it sounds like there are a lot of issues here. I have an idea: What if we just pick one word, and we say that in every single case when we get confused or don’t know what to say to someone?

And that is how I imagine “Cheers” was born. As someone who is often awkward in verbal communication, I really appreciate this one and think we need an American word to serve a similar purpose. I would humbly propose, “swag”

How do you find ____?

This one was really confusing to me. It basically means “how do you like ____?” It took me a little while to figure that out. So when someone asked “how are you finding the lectures in your course?” I would respond with something like, “Um well the first couple days I used google maps to get to campus and then found the room number on a campus map, but now I know where everything is so I pretty much just walk straight there…” After this an awkward pause would ensue, we would look at each other like idiots for a second and the other person would deflect the whole situation with a well-timed “cheers.”

Mate

You don’t have friends in Britain, you have mates. The whole idea of a mate is so much cooler than the word friend to me. A friend is someone who likes when your profile picture changes on facebook, a mate is someone you can sail the open seas with searching for buried treasure and fighting pirates. You would think that this would open the language system up to all kinds of nautical terms. Unfortunately, the sailing references in common language stop here. You can’t call your professors “captain,” no one ever says “aye, aye” and “hunting for booty” means the same thing it would it mean in the U.S… There is also not a corresponding ranking system to go with the friends-are-mates system. You don’t get to pick a first mate and second mate on your friendship voyage. Everyone is equally mate.

Also, the British equivalent of bro is lad.

Queue

British people are amazed that “queue” is not part of common American vocabulary. I don’t want to give us a bad name in front of our generally more sophisticated Anglo brethren, but just to give my British friends some context, I once had a systems engineer instructor at West Point reference an engineering concept, queueing functions, as “quaying functions.” I do finally understand Eric Clapton’s “White Room” better because of this. I now know that he’s saying, “I’ll wait in the queue when the trains come back.” I used to always just mumble over that part in my head, so that’s a huge plus. Also, there are queues for everything in Britain, but more on that in another post.

Toilet/Washroom

If you ask people where the bathroom or restroom is here, they will look at you like you’re crazy. I mean, it kind of makes sense. You definitely don’t rest in restrooms and I’ve only bathed in a bathroom once, but it was at the Hard Rock Café in Orlando and there was a guy in there giving out soap and hand towels so I assumed that it was encouraged. Asking where the toilet is just sounds dirty to me though. I feel like when you ask someone where the bathroom is at a restaurant you’re asking about where the room is because you want plausible deniability that you’re actually going there to use a toilet. Like, “hey do you know where the restroom is? Not because I have to excrete human waste, I just need to rest.” Referring to toilets makes acknowledging bodily functions a requirement. Does it also imply that in some cases there might not be a room and just a singular toilet in the middle of the restaurant? Maybe. I haven’t run into this yet.

Sometimes bathrooms are just abbreviated with W/C. I don’t know what this means yet, and I know I could look it up, but I kind of just prefer the mystery of not knowing, so don’t tell me.

Cash Machine

ATMs are called cash machines. This is kind of disappointing. ATM stands for automatic teller machine so I’ve always imagined that there is a robotic bank teller counting out my money and handing it to me trough the slot. Calling it a cash machine ruins that illusion for me. Now it’s just an impersonal machine that doesn’t know my name or anything about me. There are more free ATMs here than in the US though, so that’s good. Probably because they don’t have to pay robot tellers for the 24-hour days that they put in.. That must be killer overtime.

There are other things that I don’t have time to go through here like “hiya,” or the way Brits add random r’s to words that end in a’s (ex. “for dinner I had pastar”), or the fact that they say bits instead of pieces (so do they still say “bits and pieces?” I don’t know yet..), but I hope you enjoyed these language differences.

 

Is Bob Dylan the Greatest Songwriter of All Time?

I went to a Bob Dylan concert at Royal Albert Hall the other night as a birthday present from my parents. If you don’t know, Bob Dylan’s live performances have been harshly critiqued over the past few years. Critics say he is cold to the audience, difficult to understand, and he doesn’t play many of his hits preferring instead to stick to newer works. Nevertheless, I am a pretty big fan of Dylan, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to see him while he’s still on tour. Another amazing fact about him is that he has been on his so-called “Never Ending Tour” since 1988. Yes, you read that right. 1988. Of course he doesn’t tour all year, but he is consistently performing shows for about 9 months out and usually does about 100 of them each year. He’s also 74 years old. By one website’s count (http://www.bjorner.com/still.htm), he played his 2000th show of the Never Ending Tour in 2007. I think after that everyone just stopped counting.  Just those stats alone were enough to convince me that I had to be there for one of his shows. As I anticipated, not everyone in the crowd knew exactly what to expect, which still amazes me in the age of the internet. We have perfect information at our fingertips! If you’re going to buy a $100+ ticket to a Bob Dylan concert, and you really want to hear a particular song, just google “Bob Dylan Never Ending Tour Setlist.” He has been on tour every year for 27 years in a row. At this point, the show is pretty much ironed out. There is literally a website that has every song listed for every show that he has ever played. For the last 5 years, it’s been the SAME EXACT setlist every night with one or two variations. If you want to hear him sing Desolation Row, but you look on the website and he hasn’t played it live IN OVER 25 YEARS, maybe you should just not buy a ticket….. Sorry I really jumped right into this one with some passion. As you can see, I did my research, I knew what he was going to play, and I still really wanted to go. I understand that some “fans” don’t like much of Dylan’s new work (they aren’t really fans, but we’ll get to that later), but I honestly don’t feel bad for them if they didn’t take 15 seconds to find out whether they would actually enjoy the show or not. I thought the show itself was good. Dylan was hard to understand at times, he didn’t really say anything to the crowd (at the intermission he said “we’re going to take a break, we’ll be back in a little bit” and that was the only indication that he knew we were there), and he didn’t play the songs that made him a popular icon, but I’m ok with that because it is Dylan the poet, not the guitar player (he didn’t play during the show, just the occasional harmonica) or the singer that I wanted to see. In the following post, I’ll try to explain why I think Bob Dylan is the greatest songwriter of all time.

This recent article in Rolling Stone (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/watch-bob-dylans-lyrics-evolve-take-by-take-in-new-animation-20151026) describes a project undertaken by one of my personal favorite websites, genius.com (formally rapgenius.com) which annotates song lyrics with their meaning. It’s a great concept. When you hear a line in a song that you don’t understand or that references some obscure section of pop culture, Genius tells you what it means. For most artists, it enables the listener to better understand their song. The project that they undertook with Dylan’s music was to compare earlier and previously unreleased recordings of his songs and compare them to his final products. Dylan is notorious for changing his lyrics over time, and especially during live shows so this concept seemed interesting to me. There are two problems with applying this line-by-line annotative method to the lyrics of Dylan’s music, however. First, as far as I can tell, he never intends for one word, or one line, or arguably even one song to stand alone in interpretation (if he even cares about his audiences interpretation at all.. but for the sake of argument, let’s pretend he does). This is why Genius editor Anna Oseran writes that “there is no way to make sense” of Dylan’s incessant, and oftentimes dramatic line changes to songs like Desolation Row or She’s Your Lover Now over time. It certainly doesn’t make sense for someone who expects each line to carry its own meaning, but the key to understanding Dylan’s lyrical genius is to see his work like an Impressionist painting.. bear with me here.. From afar, the picture is a coherent masterpiece. The closer you move to it, however, the blurrier and more disjoint it appears. Reading too much into one line of Dylan is like staring for too long at one dot of a Monet painting. Dylan puts this phenomenon in his own words in the song “Series of Dreams.” You can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgqGUBP3Cx0. Listening to this song was when I finally understood Dylan’s creative process and why I like his music so much. He sings

“[I] wasn’t thinking of anything specific

Like a dream where someone wakes up and screams

Nothing too very scientific

Just thinking of a series of dreams…

Wasn’t making any great connection

Wasn’t falling for any intricate scheme

Nothing that would pass inspection

Just thinking of a series of dreams.”

Dylan’s work is not a single dream presented to be painstakingly interpreted piece-by-piece. It is a series of dreams meant to leave the listener not with a singular spark of insight but a feeling that they can’t exactly place their finger on. The true Bob Dylan fan knows this indescribable feeling and knows that Dylan is both the champion and pioneer of engineering it in the heart of his listener. Van Morrison and Mark Knopfler both touch upon this genius. Morrison with a much better voice than Dylan and Knopfler with a much better guitar, but neither have the unique, animate poetry that he has in his lines.

The most valuable level of analysis of meaning in Dylan is the album. Each one conveys a coherent message, no matter how incoherent the individual lines or songs may appear. Each album also represents Dylan expressing himself based on his current state of life. This is why there is such wide variety in the songs and styles that his music conveys over time. As dynamic and varied as his style and themes may be from album to album, however, there is a surprising degree of singularity within most of his albums. This is not to say that coherence of message in individual albums equates to continuity of interpretation between listeners, but that is another part of the beauty of Dylan, and the second reason that the Genius.com interpretive approach is unfruitful: his songs mean something different to everyone who listens. There is not always an exact meaning. Of course some songs and lines do have exact and undeniable meanings or messages. I’m thinking of lines like Idiot Wind’s “you’re an idiot babe,/ it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” from the infamous break-up album Blood on the Tracks.. Pretty hard to miss the message there. [as an aside, I remembered as I was writing this that the cover of Blood on the Tracks is an impressionist portrait of Dylan. I’ve posted it below.. Does this support my thesis that his work is like a Monet painting? I think so…] The interpretation is still variable for that album on the whole, however, for some it’s a celebration of independence for others a relatable capturing of distress and for still others an impassioned, even hated-filled personal attack.

Dylan's work is best understood as an impressionist painting that losing meaning the closer you stand to it, just like this album cover.

Dylan’s work is best understood as an impressionist painting that becomes blurrier the closer you stand to it, just like this album cover.

One problem with this entire blog entry, however, is that you might think I am telling you that every Dylan album is autobiographical and describes a different part of his life. If you’ve read or listened to many Dylan interviews, you’ll know that he hates this notion. He has compared his writing and performing of songs to an actor in a play (specifically Lawrence Olivier in Hamlet). I think this is why when I watched him perform the other night he changed the lyrics of Tangled up in Blue to third person (ie “early one morning the sun was shining/ HE was laying in bed”) from their original first person. I think that as an artist he has grown tired of being so personally connected to his songs in the press. What I mean when I say that Dylan’s songs change as he changes, however, is not that he is always writing about himself, but that he is always writing from a new vantage point in life. While the sentiments that he writes about are not always his own, they are the ones that he is observing in the world based on where he stands.

Let’s take one quick moment, however, to explore this idea raised in the last paragraph, namely that Dylan sees music as comparable to acting. Is this perspective reflected in his body of work? Absolutely. The clearest way is through his changing voice from album to album. If you were to listen to Blonde on Blonde, followed by Desire followed by Tempest, you would think you had listened to three completely different artists. Another art comparison is helpful here. Many people’s first reaction to one of Picasso’s masterpieces, Guernica, is that he is a poor artist who couldn’t paint realistically so he resorted to the so-called abstract art form. However, Picasso, was actually an incredibly gifted realist painter (check out the portrait of his wife below, contrasted with Guernica), he just chose to convey his message through a different art form because it was a better vessel for explaining his perspective on the world to others. Many people believe, likewise, that Dylan is a poor technical singer who is forced to sing in the raspy way that he does later in his career. My hypothesis is that Dylan is the same as Picasso. I don’t think that his voice naturally changes across the span of his career as much as he manipulated it to best fit his message of each particular album. The best example of this is how he makes his voice adopt a sing-songy, pleasing, country-like tone on Nashville Skyline. The first few lines of Lay Lady Lay on that album are beautifully crooned in a voice that Dylan rarely replicates on any other work. I think that the emotion that each album carried for Dylan influenced his voice and vocal tone without a doubt. Of course his voice has deteriorated with time, but I think if he still wanted to belt out Sara from his Desire album he could do it. Instead he chooses to stick to the gravelly songs of later in his career because that is the character that he feels best reflects his vantage point in life right now.

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 2.42.06 PMScreen Shot 2015-10-28 at 2.42.47 PM

As I left Royal Albert Hall on the night of the concert, I heard a guitar and followed the sound down the road to a man dressed exactly like the Dylan of the 60s singing Mr. Tambourine Man. I heard person after person walk by and comment that this impersonator was “the real Bob Dylan,” the one they had come expecting to see. I understand their sentiment, but they’re gravely mistaken. The real Bob Dylan is the tired man who stood and forced out the words of songs about change, loss, and hopeless pursuits for three hours in front of a packed house without ever acknowledging that the crowd was even there. The real Dylan is the one still croaking out his Series of Dreams to anyone who will listen. The people who want to hear 74-year-old Dylan sing 24 –year-old Dylan songs are probably the same ones who still talk about how they should have won the state championship back in ‘72. They are the ones who think it’s awesome that Keith Richards still wears a headband and sings Gimme Shelter at his concerts. Dylan is not Richards, or Jagger, or ZZ Top, playing “high energy” shows and trying to recreate the madness that was once a reality for them. Dylan just continues to write honest songs, but as his life has changed so has his perspective. While he embraces this change and stays honest about it, so many other great artists either stop writing new material or simply recycle emotions that they haven’t really felt in 30 years to try to sell more albums. If you don’t like Dylan’s new music, that’s ok. You might identify with one portion of his life more than others and enjoy that era of his recordings more; you might hate his voice or think his guitar is out of tune; you might even think that his songs make no sense when taken as individual works, but if you listen closely, you can’t deny that no man has ever captured the imprecise pallet of the emotions of life like he has, and that is why Bob Dylan is the greatest lyricist of all time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the artist, my opinion, or your favorite Dylan album in the comments below.

Rotary District 1130 Conference

The only reason that I am able to live and study in London this year is the generosity of Rotary. After I finished commanding the Student Conference on US Affairs (SCUSA) last November, I had a lot of time on my hands. A few of my friends were looking into attending graduate school on Rotary Scholarships. Since I had been so used to working all day and night on SCUSA for so long I was in a high-energy mode and decided that I could transfer all that energy into applying for a scholarship and looking into programs and schools that I wanted to attend. I was familiar with Rotary because of my experience at the Rotary Youth Leadership Award (RYLA) camp in high school. At RYLA I had been exposed to like-minded young leaders like myself for the first time. The Rotarians who helped to run the camp also seemed to be impressive individuals who had donated significant amounts of time to making sure that the students had an enjoyable yet challenging time at camp. Based on that positive experience, I reached out to my home Rotary district, District 5830 to ask about scholarships. After a lot of hard work from District Governor Anson Godrey, District Foundation Chair John Jetter, and my club counsellor David Cockerham, Rotary International approved my Global Scholar Grant request and I received my funding to attend school here.

Because the Rotary Scholarship is one of the internationally recognized scholarships that the Army recognizes, I was allowed to go straight from West Point to King’s College to pursue my degree. Without that funding I would have had to wait until 6 to 7 years from now to attend grad school, and I would have owed the Army 3 years of additional service for every year I spent at school. I was excited to have won a Rotary scholarship in particular because unlike many other funding sources, a Rotary grant is more than just money. I have been assigned a host club here in London that has gone out of its way to make me feel comfortable with the transition. My host counsellor, Suraiya Kassamally, has truly gone above and beyond her minimum requirements in that role.

The reason that I bring all of this up is to explain that this weekend my host club, The Rotary Club of the City and Shoreditch, sponsored my attendance at the Rotary District Conference in Eastbourne, a town on the south coast of the UK near Brighton. This was a great weekend full of spending time with the other scholars in the district (there are about 15 of studying at different schools across the country) and Rotarians from all over London and the surrounding communities. I had the opportunity to see speaker after speaker describe charitable opportunities, struggles that they had overcome, or educational endeavors that they had undertaken, all of which was deeply connected to the Rotary District. One speaker who made a profound impact on me was the captain of the British National Wheelchair Rugby team. He had been paralyzed from the chest down in a freak accident falling off of a balcony and turned to sport to rebuild his life. As he described the passion and training that went into his Olympic journey I was struck by his commitment. The stories that touch me the most are always the ones that involve complete and undeterred attention, even obsession, with a singular goal. Stories like Rocky, Rudy or Vision Quest (go watch Vision Quest right now if you’ve never seen it) on film, or real life events like Houston Texans’ Defensive End J.J. Watt’s response to teammates who made fun of him for not having more fun (http://www.sportstalkflorida.com/jj-watt-busy-chug-beers-personal-life-hes-still-awesome/), or just J.J. Watt’s life in general (http://grantland.com/features/j-j-watt-houston-texans-2014-nfl-preview/). Now I can add another story to that list: Steve Brown the wheelchair-bound rugby captain who trained for over 2,000 days with his squad to prepare for the 2012 Paralympic Games.

Besides the serious talks, there was also some fun to be had at the District Conference. In fact I think the whole reason that the young scholarship recipients were invited to the event was to get the party started at the “Disco” on Saturday night. Speaking from personal experience as the person who led a train of about 100 Rotarians ages 35-75 through the ballroom to the song Locomotion, I think we filled that role pretty well. I also had a chance to see a redobut (old military fortress with sloped walls defended by cannon) built during the Napoleonic wars to protect the British from French Invasion and the Seven Sisters cliffs, one of the most amazing natural features I have seen.

The entire event was a great reminder that if it were not for the thousands of Rotarians around the world who generously give of their time, money, and effort I would not have incredible opportunity that I am afforded today to sit in the castle-like Maughn Library at King’s College London studying how conflict and violence impact development efforts around the world and how to ensure that the US military uses our power and force prudently. I am incredibly grateful to Rotary Districts 5830 (NE Texas, SW Arkansas, and SE Oklahoma) and 1130 (London) for sponsoring me and specifically all the work that the Tyler Sunrise and City and Shoreditch Clubs have done to make this possible.

Here are some pictures from the weekend:

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All London-based scholars are introduced on stage at the conference.

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Lunch with fellow scholars from Canada, Japan, and Belgium

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Another shot of all of the scholars together. Eight different countries are represented.

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My Host, Suraiya, and I at the scholars reception

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Some shots of the Seven Sisters cliffs near Eastbourne

Why Is There a Civil War in Syria?

Ok I’m trying something new with this blog entry. The idea is to take a current event or issue that is in the news and concerns international politics or national security and explain it in simple terms. As someone who enjoys studying international relations and politics but still has a lot of friends who don’t enjoy these things, I’ve noticed something interesting: most people genuinely want to know about what is happening in the world around them. When they try to find information about the events they see passing through their Facebook news feed, however, they run into one of three problems:

  1. There is too much information on the subject, and readers feel like they can’t possibly digest it all and make their own conclusions based on the facts.
  2. The information is written by people trying to sound smart and writing to academic audiences. I’m talking about the kind of people who either don’t realize that the average person doesn’t know what phrases like “neoconservative national defense framework” mean, or who aren’t trying to reach the average person.
  3. If the author is trying to reach a mainstream audience, the information is either incredibly and obviously biased or too simple to actually relate real information about the issue.

It is with this in mind that I hope to deliver a brief, simply-worded, unbiased, background on current issues. This is geared toward a mainstream, non-academic audience. It’s for the average person, not the NPR listener/Economist subscriber, although I hope everyone can get something out of it. This means that if you are an academic who is reading this… Yes I might leave some important issues out; yes I know that international politics are probably more complicated and nuanced than the way I will explain them here. The purpose of this blog post is to give mainstream audiences an unbiased frame of reference through which to interpret what they hear about these issues in the news outlets that confront them each day.

You might have noticed the so-called European Immigration Crisis. A flood of refugees (people who are driven out of their country in order to escape some devastation, war, famine, or other disaster) are attempting to leave Syria and Iraq to find shelter in European countries. Someone that I know had seen this going on, but didn’t know what it was or why it was happening. The conversation went something like this:

“So where are all these people migrating from?”

“Mostly Syria and Iraq”

“Why are they all leaving right now?”

“Well things are pretty rough there right now. Especially in Syria.”

“There’s a war there, right?”

“Yeah the Syrian Civil War”

“So why is that war happening? Sorry I know I should probably know that”

“. . . Well it’s complicated”

“Ok”

“Yeah. . . Anyway did you see that thing about the raccoon that was raised by dogs and thinks it’s a dog now?”

“Yeah that was so funny”

That conversation really made me think. Obviously there was a desire there to know what was going on in the world and a feeling shared by many that they “should” know what’s happening. The problem was that even I didn’t really know what was happening. My suspicion is that most of my classmates in the King’s College London War Studies Department couldn’t really answer simple questions like this either. Sometimes, especially in academic cultures, it is so easy to get lost in theory and complexity that you get used to answering every question with “well, it’s complicated.” That’s an ok answer as an academic. In fact, the beauty of a university is that it allows you to explore many answers to complex questions without having to settle on one in particular. As a future practitioner in the Army, however, I need to be able to answer these simple questions conclusively for the soldiers that I will lead. They will want to know why we are fighting, and one of my most important jobs is to be able to explain that to them simply and convincingly.

With these thoughts in mind, I sent a follow-up email after that discussion to explain in relatively simple terms why there was a civil war in Syria. Here is that email with a few additions and changes:

You asked about why the Syrian Civil War is happening and displacing so many people. Here is a good timeline from the BBC on Syria: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-14703995.  If you start around 2011ish or earlier it helps explain the situation now. Here’s what I know about it:

The civil war in Syria is an old conflict, but it’s rooted in the rule of the Assad family, which started in the 1960s after Israel’s campaigns in the Golan Heights in the Six-Days War. During this time, Israel quickly and easily took a ton of territory from Egypt and Syria. Syria’s embarrassing defeat in this war (coupled with many other factors) created instability and popular discontent that the Defense Minister, Hafez al-Assad, was able to capitalize on. Three years after that loss, he led a military takeover of the Syrian government, and his family has been in power ever since.
It is important to note that the members of the Assad family are Alawite Muslims. There are two primary sects within Islam: Shia and Sunni. Sunni is the much more popular branch, and only Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, Bahrain and Lebanon have Shia majorities.
**Side note: If you are interested in the Sunni/Shia tensions this site from the Council on Foreign Relations has a lot of easy to understand resources and cool maps and graphics: http://www.cfr.org/peace-conflict-and-human-rights/sunni-shia-divide/p33176#!/?cid=otr-marketing_url-sunni_shia_infoguide**
The Alawites belong to a special sect of Shia Islam that is more secular, meaning that they are less focused on the implementation of Islamic law, than mainstream Sunnis or Shias. The majority of Syria is Sunni muslim. Having an Alawite leader in Syria, therefore created tensions. The Sunni majority within the country was hostile to leadership from a Shia muslim, and the Shia minority did not completely identify with him because of his membership within a sect that has historically been viewed suspiciously. This religious tension is where our next actor comes in to play: The Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni armed political organization in the middle east, has a very strong presence in Syria since the 70s and 80s and has historically clashed with the Assad family.
But if the root causes of this civil war are so old, how did it erupt in so much violence recently? Good question. The current conflict was renewed during the Arab Spring, a name given to the political revolutions that occurred in the middle east from about 2011-2013. The Muslim Brotherhood used this revolution in Syria to try to gain popular international and domestic support for its on-going struggle with the Assad regime. So that is part of the reason why the eruption of violence has occurred recently, but there are plenty of other economic and social reasons that I won’t go in to for now. That is one foundational cause.
The Assad regime has also had a long history of attempted nuclear weapon development (they were on President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” list after 9/11 along with Iran, North Korea, and Hamas). Anyway, during the Arab Spring revolution in Syria (capitalized on by the Muslim Brotherhood) the current president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, began using the military to put down anti-government demonstrations violently. The international community condemned this, and President Obama made his now-infamous comment that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would constitute a “red-line,” at which point he would use military force to intervene and end Assad’s rule. It was then revealed by a UN watchdog agency that chemical weapons had been used in Syria. Eventually the U.S. and regional partners began coordinating strategic air strikes on Syrian government positions and supplying weapons to Syrian rebel groups, but this was very tough to do. We tried to only give weapons to the “good” rebels who were more moderate, but those moderate groups have all but evaporated now. This cartoon illustrates that pretty well:
syrian-civil-war-baddies-vs-baddies
This is over-simplified, but the current struggle is essentially the Syrian arm of Al-Qaeda, the Islamic state (which was able to organize in Syria because of the turmoil caused by the civil war), and a few moderate groups like the Free Syrian Army (the group that the US and it’s allies has tried the most to support) fighting mostly separate, but sometimes combined, campaigns against Assad loyalists and government forces. Typically Russia, Iran, and China have supported the Assad regime and condemned US and NATO (US, Canada, most of Western Europe, and Turkey) airstrikes against government-held territory as illegal violations of state sovereignty. They say that the Assad regime has the right to govern its people how it wants and that to impose upon this government is not just.
The recent development in this war is that Russia has sent more equipment and surface-to-ground jets to Syria in support of Assad as the government loses massive areas of territory to the rebels.
The longer this war goes on, the more people are forced to either join a rebel movement or leave the country in search of somewhere more peaceful. Most are heading for Germany or other Western European countries where they have been promised refuge, but it has been very difficult for the first European countries that these refugees get to when they cross the Mediterranean Sea to account for all of them and process them into the European Union. This administrative failure mixed with the fear by many European workers that these refugees will take their jobs because they will be willing to work for less money, has led some countries to close their borders to refugees. The other problem is that it can be difficult or impossible to differentiate between refugees who are forced to flee their countries and economic immigrants who are leaving of their own free will in search of economic prosperity. Europe wants to welcome all refugees and give them asylum, but it is also afraid that many immigrants are taking advantage of the temporary lapse in the immigration system and exploiting it to get into the country quicker and cheaper. This is why the issue of a “European Immigration Crisis” is in the news so much now.
That is a very broad brush of what is happening. Some of those explanations could probably be contested, but that’s my quick summary of what is happening in Syria. I hope it’s helpful, and I would love to do this again on another topic. If you have suggestions for a simple issue that you are embarrassed to admit that you don’t understand just mention it in the comments or email me, and I’ll try to do another one of these soon!

This One Is Funny

My time getting settled in London has been full of adventures so far. Here are some of them:

  • Keep telling yourself “no I won’t stop there. There’s probably a better place to get lunch further up here” until you run out of options and end up in a back alley with an Eastern European guy with a beard asking you if you “fancy a 2 for 1 tattoo?”
    • Discover that people don’t ask if you “want” something here, they ask if you “fancy” it.
  • Learn that you can psuedo-iron your clothes by hanging them up in the bathroom, turning the shower all the way up, and closing the door
  • Try to figure out how to get the Army to pay for hotels while I wait for the current tenant in my apartment to move out
  • Walk around London until you get lost, then look at a map and go back to your hotel (This adventure has happened probably 22 times)
  • Download an app that tells you what bars are showing American sports so that you can watch college football because you need a break from embracing european culture
  • Find out that the “recommended reading” list for one of your classes includes a list of 200+ books
    • Spend an hour scratching your head asking yourself why the heck someone would take the time to put that many books on the syllabus when they can’t actually expect us to read them all
    • Give in to the eventual conclusion that they actually expect you to read them all, and that is why this is an elite institution

According to my mom, I probably lost my audience after the post on political economy last week (thanks for the support mom) so here is a lively recap of my thoughts during orientation today at King’s College. There are no references to trade policy or factor endowments here:

*The scene begins with Micah and 30 other overly-ambitious international students who have arrived at the Lucas Lecture Auditorium approximately 37 minutes early. I’m here so early because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find it in the building. When I got here, I realized that there are literally people lining the hallways telling you how to get to places.*

The following are my thought re-recorded in bullet form:

  • There’s a line outside of the lecture hall so it looks like something else is finishing up before we get started. This might also just be a random congregation of people and not related to the orientation at all.
  • I do that thing where I walk past everyone who is standing in line and they all look at me like “doesn’t he know we’re all standing here because we can’t go in yet,” but my personality is the kind where I have to walk up and check for myself just in case.
  • The room is full of people, and the doors are locked. Looks like everyone out here is waiting for orientation. I do my walk of shame to the end of the line asking myself why I didn’t just ask “are y’all here for orientation?” Before trying the doors myself.
  • More people trickle into the hallway, some of them try the doors themselves, others ask if this is the place for orientation, others just take their place in the hallway assuming they’ve made it. How could they be so bold?! The arrogance of those people baffles me..
  • I start trying to guess which of the three options people will take as they walk down the steps. I’m usually not right.
  • Should I talk to these people now? No one else is talking even though we’re all standing in a pretty small hallway.. Maybe none of them speak English that well? This year is supposed to be a broadening experience so I should get to know people.. I can do that later. I’m just going to play it cool and check my phone for now.
  • Realize my phone isn’t connected to a data plan, so I can’t actually use any apps, but this seems like a good go-to move to avoid making eye contact.
  • Start browsing through my contacts. Not really doing anything here, just scrolling down from A to Z to make it look like I’m doing something
  • New girl walks into the hallway and asks me if this is a line for orientation. I say, “yeah this is the orientation room, but it’s not really a line. We’re all just kind of standing here and not talking to each other”
  • That was the only noise in the hallway, so I’m pretty sure everyone heard it, and I thought it was pretty funny, but I got no laughs. One kind of half-grin from a Scandanavian-looking guy in a v-neck and skinny jeans.
  • Girl is from Brazil and asks me where I’m from. I tell her that I’m from Texas, which has turned out to be a huge hit with anyone who is international. “Oh, like with the big…?” She asks and makes a motion over her head. “Yeah actually we all have to wear cowboy hats and ride horses. It was just passed into law.”
  • She doesn’t laugh and looks concerned. “Everyone has to wear the hats?” At this point I realize that I’m going to be in a lot of trouble with this international student thing. Apparently it is really hard to understand sarcasm in a different language. The reason this is a problem is because about 75% of my daily interactions involve a sarcastic comment from me. I probably need to work on that anyway..
  • After we work out that it is not literally a law that all Texans wear hats and ride horses it’s time for orientation to start so we go into the auditorium
  • First thoughts:
    • This seems a lot less intimidating than the last “orientation” I had in “college”
    • When do we get our 90 seconds to say goodbye?
    • Oh wait this is real college. I go to real college now.
    • Pinch myself to make sure I’m not in a lucid dream and actually asleep in Rob Aud on a Tuesday afternoon listening to a driving safety brief.
    • Ok I’m not at a driving safety brief, or any other kind of brief actually. I think this is real.
  • Slowly realizing that the demographic in here is definitely way different from West Point, where it was about 4:1 guys to girls. Here it is about the opposite, and within the faculty of social sciences, as I will find out later in the day, that ratio is even more skewed.
  • After the first orientation session, we head up for “afternoon tea”
  • I get coffee, even though it’s called tea. Not sure if there are social repercussions for that..
  • I talk to the people that I’ve already met over tea for a little while: the Brazilian girl and an Indian theology student, then I work my way outside to meet some new people.
  • Once I get outside I remember that I’m really bad at these “mixer” type situations. I keep making awkward eye contact with people who are already in conversations and then keep walking. I do this for about three laps, then just decide to sit down at a table.
  • I end up talking to a woman from Ghana who is here to study gender and security. We talk about the U.S. Army opening Ranger school up to women. We talk about a lot of other academic/philosophic things involving gender and conflict, but I promised that I wouldn’t get boring with this post so I’ll save that for later.
  • When the “mixer” is finally over my Brazilian friend, Debora, and a small group of people that I’ve met head back for a session on British culture.
  • Quick version of the British culture session: British people act really nice, but they’re actually super passive-aggressive. I feel like living in Texas has prepared me really well for this
    • Sorry, didn’t mean that. People in Texas are genuinely nice. There’s nothing superficial in Southern Hospitality. What was I thinking? Sorry.
  • Before the student panel portion of orientation starts, my new friends and I decide to leave and grab dinner at a pub around the corner. We figure missing the last hour can’t hurt that much..
  • I realize about 5 minutes into dinner that I’m the only guy here. I think I need to join the rugby team here for the male bonding that I’m likely going to be missing in the classroom.
    • Now I’m realizing that rugby might not work because I don’t actually know how to play it.. Googling “how to play rugby”
    • How hard can it be? It’s like a game of football with no time in-between plays basically, right?
    • 5 minutes of watching rugby highlights, and I now know that is NOT true. Don’t think rugby will work.. Maybe Cricket?
      • Update: Cricket is worse, and it lasts 4 days. I have now ruled out rugby and cricket
  • More academic discussion ensues at dinner. I’m sparing readers the details because I’m afraid I haven’t lived up to the “This one is funny” title.

So that was orientation in a nut shell. I met some new people from all over the world, and I’m ready for this next adventure. Stay tuned next week for all the pictures I’ve taken (mom).