Saturday
Sep062014

The Courageous French Soldier 

The other day I was consuming some Twitter and read a tweet by Dan Snow, a historian who hosts on the BBC. It was the 100th anniversary of the Germans first aerial bombing of Paris during WW1 – five small bombs and some “Surrender!” leaflets. All the responses were some variant on “Hur-hur-hurrr, cowardly Frenchmen surrender!” This kind of sneering has become more common since the French took a pass on joining the invasion of Iraq.

Ca suffit!

Even the most minimal survey of military history will show that French soldiers have maintained, and suffered from, an excess of valor. The fatal flaw of the French military has been incompetence among the generals.

Writers as far back as Aristotle have commented on the excessive bravery of the Gauls. The Roman historian Polybius considered them braver soldiers than the Romans.

At the battle of Agincourt in 1415 mounted French knights charged into a hail of English arrows and perished by the hundreds. After witnessing this, thousands more French knights on foot immediately pressed another attack and were slaughtered as well. It was a case of pride leading to tactical incompetence, but the French had no lack of bravery.

During the Napoleonic wars at the turn of the 19th century French troops often advanced in column, that is, a mass of men perhaps 40 files wide. The 40 men in the front line, along with the two or three lines behind them, bore the brunt of enemy fire and had a low chance of survival. And yet they did bear it, and carried Napoleon almost as far as Moscow.

In the First World War the French command had a theory of the “offensive à outrance” or the    “attaque à outrance,” which translates roughly as “attack to excess.” The French military operated by a handbook written by a misguided student of General Foch, which advocated constant massive attacks. The gallant French soldiers charged to their deaths again and again. Charles de Gaulle later wrote about the first French assault into Alsace:

“Second by second the hail of bullets and the thunder of the shells grew stronger.  Those who survived lay flat on the ground, amid the screaming wounded and the humble corpses.  With affected calm, the officers let themselves be killed standing upright, some obstinate platoons stuck their bayonets in their rifles, bugles sounded the charge, isolated heroes made fantastic leaps, but all to no purpose.  In an instant it had become clear that not all the courage in the world could withstand this fire.”

The story of the French 137th Regiment and the so-called Tranchée des Baionnettes (Bayonet Trench) is illustrative. During the fighting around Verdun in 1916, the 137th was surrounded and partially obliterated by German artillery. Quoting Alistair Horne from his book, The Price of Glory:

“It was not until after the war that French teams exploring the battlefield provided a clue as to the fate of 3 Company. The trench it had occupied was discovered completely filled in, but from a part of it at regular intervals protruded rifles, with bayonets still fixed to their twisted and rusty muzzles. On excavation, a corpse was found beneath each rifle. From that plus the testimony of survivors from nearby units, it was deduced that 3 Company had placed its rifles on the parapet ready to repel any attack and — rather than abandon their trench — had been buried alive to a man there by the German bombardment."

“Cheese eating surrender monkeys,” indeed.

Of course, what garners the most abuse for the French is their (temporary) defeat by the Nazis at the beginning of World War 2. Again, it was a case of bad strategy.

During the 1930s the French had committed much of their military budget to the static defenses of the Maginot Line along their border with Germany. Some members of the French general staff had advised against static defense, emphasizing tanks and air power. They were overruled by General Petain and other veterans of the failed attempts at dynamic warfare 25 years earlier.

The Wehrmacht did an end run around the strongest parts of the Maginot Line and the Luftwaffe flew over it. Still, French troops engaged in the tenacious defense of the strong points, some units fighting to the last man. The French were defeated in weeks, not due to any lack of courage, but adherence to outdated ideas.

The French weren’t even unique in their strategic errors. “The generals are always fighting the previous war” has been true for many nations in many conflicts. Considering that the most recent surge in anti-Gallic slander was prompted by their refusal to join in our invasion of Iraq, perhaps their strategic drought is over. So, I say, enough. Let’s stop this libel against the French.

Saturday
Aug302014

Violence; A few cheerful thoughts 

In light of all the ongoing violence in the news, I thought I would finally get around to writing about a book by Randall Collins, Violence; A Microsociological Theory (hereafter VAMT). Collins, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, studies the face-to-face interactions that build up into what we call society. I wrote earlier about his book Interaction Ritual Chains.

To recap the foundation of his theory: We spend our lives engaged in interaction rituals, most of which Collins calls “status rituals,” these being involved in group membership and position. Much of what we do has a constant subtext that runs,

“We are members of the same group, right?”

“Yes, we are, and these are our relative status positions in that group.”

This happens every time we interact with another human being. Through this group solidarity we attempt to extract what Collins calls “emotional energy,” that positive, energizing, affirming sense of self. By the time we reach the end of childhood we are firmly patterned to seek this group solidarity with everyone we meet. This makes perfect evolutionary sense, as we are a species that has survived on the strength of our gregarious nature.

This is why Collins’s book VAMT tells us that everything we thought we knew about violence is wrong. Popular media (films, television, books, what passes for news) tell us that interpersonal violence is a constant threat, that it is easy for even ordinarily peaceful people to devolve into violence, that violence is contagious, and that humans are naturally predisposed to violence.

On the contrary, Collins proposes that this impression exists because of the demands of narrative drama and sampling bias. “Nothing happened” doesn’t make the headlines and peaceful cooperation never sold tickets.

Certainly, Syria, Iraq, Libya and eastern Ukraine are not vacation spots right now. However, even organized violence is affected by the problem of status ritual.

Collins observes a natural resistance to interpersonal violence. He observes two things. One, most personal confrontations devolve into bluster and display rather than overt physical violence. These verbal standoffs don’t make the news, of course. Compare “Man stabs roommate in argument over TV remote” vs. “Two men trash talk each other in dispute over TV remote, one finally hands it over.” Two, only a small percentage of people are both willing and competent to commit violence.

After watching hundreds of hours of film and video of mob violence, as well as studying photographs, police records and personal accounts, Collins finds that in a riot by 10,000 people, about 9,900 will be standing back watching, 75 will be close to the action shouting, and 25 will actually be fighting and breaking things.

The same goes for soldiers at war. Historically, large numbers of soldiers end up being essentially spectators, rarely using their weapons. A minority actually fire, and only a percentage of those actually fire effectively. When interviewed, soldiers in a platoon all agree on which of their comrades are the aggressive ones. An interesting fact that I will get into later is that soldiers firing crew served weapons, where a group of soldiers cooperates (heavy machine guns and mortars, for example) fire more consistently and competently than soldiers with individual weapons. The U.S. military has spent considerable time and effort on training individual soldiers to actually fire their weapons consistently in combat.

Bringing us into the news, police officers act in a similar way. Most officers rarely draw their sidearms, rarely fire them, and rarely, if ever, get a physical force complaint against them. A small percentage of officers draw their weapons often, get into physical confrontations regularly, and accumulate complaints of excessive force. Again, as with soldiers, everyone in their group can identify them as the aggressive minority. As with soldiers, the percentage of people in this group is in the low single digits.

On the other side of the law, street gangs have a few members who are the enforcers. The other members will fight if absolutely necessary, but there are always one or two violently charismatic individuals who are the go-to guys.

Collins describes the buildup to violence as one filled with confrontational tension. The tension is between the desire of an individual to win a conflict and that person’s lifelong practice of establishing group solidarity with others. To attack someone physically is the ultimate expression of rejection from one’s in-group. It goes against our social programming. In order to fight, individuals have to go through a set of rituals to break through this barrier. They also generally have to have an audience that supports the idea of fighting.

On a topical note: Having read VAMT, reading about a police officer in Ferguson calling black protestors “fucking animals” was both unsurprising and illuminating. It was an indication that the virtually all white police force had long since identified the black population as an absolute out group. No need to overcome confrontational tension before violence when there is no such tension to begin with.

In VAMT Professor Collins also introduces the concept of the “forward panic.” We are all familiar with a backward panic. It’s the disorganized rout of a group of people rendered weak by fear. The opposite effect happens when a group prepares itself emotionally for physical conflict and then encounters weak resistance or none at all. The group is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Two examples at the opposite ends of the scale: The “Rape of Nanking” by the Japanese army in 1937 and the beating of Rodney King by police in Los Angeles in 1991.

In the case of Nanking, the Japanese were expecting the level of resistance justified by the defense of a major city and prepared for a major battle. When the Chinese army collapsed after token resistance, surrendering in large numbers, the Japanese broke through the barrier of confrontational tension with a huge amount of energy.  What resulted was what Collins calls a moral holiday. The slaughter and mistreatment of both soldiers and civilians was akin to mass insanity on the part of the Japanese and took weeks to run its course.

In the case of Rodney King, he had led the police on a high speed chase before offering token resistance to arrest by multiple officers. Keyed up and ready for a fight, perhaps even a gun fight, the officers unleashed hugely disproportionate force on King, several of them beating his prone body with nightsticks. A supportive audience of fellow officers stood around and witnessed the event.

Collins observes that when equal forces meet face to face, neither turning aside, both with equal emotional energy, what usually results is a non-violent standoff. In mob violence, physical attacks tend to involve isolated, retreating individuals attacked by small groups. He expands on this in a useful article on his blog, “Tank Man, and the limits of telephoto lenses; or, how much can individuals stop violence?” 

His advice is that in a confrontation, your face, your eyes, and your voice are your best defense. Never turn away from a confrontation, because that allows an aggressor to avoid engaging with you as a person.* He notes that when police are in full forward panic mode, people who turn away and run are more likely to be beaten than people who non-violently stand their ground and attempt to verbally engage the police. That can re-channel the interaction into a status ritual.

*(Why did the Storm Troopers in Star Wars wear that utterly useless all-covering white “armor”? To deny them faces so they could be slaughtered by the heroes without qualm.)

Back to the crew-served weapons: The reason that these weapons are used more effectively by soldiers is a function of two factors.  The group solidarity in the face of confrontational tension reinforces the soldiers in their actions. As important, it allows the soldiers to focus their attention on each other rather than the enemy. Firing becomes less of a confrontation and more of a group effort. The marching formations and coordinated pike and musket drill of centuries past were similar in their group enabling power. Simply moving in physical coordination with others is a powerful status ritual.

Amidst all the violence we see in the news, it is reassuring to think that interpersonal violence actually requires quite a bit of effort to initiate. More than that, it requires a specific series of events to precipitate, and can be derailed at a number of points. Or, for that matter, prevented at a number of points. One of the main points of VAMT is that violence is not the inevitable result of culture, poverty, or childhood abuse. It is situational, and we can plan and structure our society to trend towards some situations and away from others.

Just to bring this into the topical realm, in light of the police shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, here’s a question: How many police officers do you know, and know well? If you aren’t a police officer or related to a police officer, the answer is probably zero. I wouldn’t be the first to observe that over the past few decades law enforcement officers have become an insular subculture. Cops socialize with cops; civilians –the rest of us – socialize with civilians. That goes a hundred-fold in communities such as Ferguson. I don’t have a glib answer for this problem, but I have an idea that it involves day to day social interactions. That’s what makes us see each other as allies rather than enemies.

Saturday
Aug302014

Violence; A few cheerful thoughts 

In light of all the ongoing violence in the news, I thought I would finally get around to writing about a book by Randall Collins, Violence; A Microsociological Theory (hereafter VAMT). Collins, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, studies the face-to-face interactions that build up into what we call society. I wrote earlier about his book Interaction Ritual Chains.

To recap the foundation of his theory: We spend our lives engaged in interaction rituals, most of which Collins calls “status rituals,” these being involved in group membership and position. Much of what we do has a constant subtext that runs,

“We are members of the same group, right?”

“Yes, we are, and these are our relative status positions in that group.”

This happens every time we interact with another human being. Through this group solidarity we attempt to extract what Collins calls “emotional energy,” that positive, energizing, affirming sense of self. By the time we reach the end of childhood we are firmly patterned to seek this group solidarity with everyone we meet. This makes perfect evolutionary sense, as we are a species that has survived on the strength of our gregarious nature.

This is why Collins’s book VAMT tells us that everything we thought we knew about violence is wrong. Popular media (films, television, books, what passes for news) tell us that interpersonal violence is a constant threat, that it is easy for even ordinarily peaceful people to devolve into violence, that violence is contagious, and that humans are naturally predisposed to violence.

On the contrary, Collins proposes that this impression exists because of the demands of narrative drama and sampling bias. “Nothing happened” doesn’t make the headlines and peaceful cooperation never sold tickets.

Certainly, Syria, Iraq, Libya and eastern Ukraine are not vacation spots right now. However, even organized violence is affected by the problem of status ritual.

Collins observes a natural resistance to interpersonal violence. He observes two things. One, most personal confrontations devolve into bluster and display rather than overt physical violence. These verbal standoffs don’t make the news, of course. Compare “Man stabs roommate in argument over TV remote” vs. “Two men trash talk each other in dispute over TV remote, one finally hands it over.” Two, only a small percentage of people are both willing and competent to commit violence.

After watching hundreds of hours of film and video of mob violence, as well as studying photographs, police records and personal accounts, Collins finds that in a riot by 10,000 people, about 9,900 will be standing back watching, 75 will be close to the action shouting, and 25 will actually be fighting and breaking things.

The same goes for soldiers at war. Historically, large numbers of soldiers end up being essentially spectators, rarely using their weapons. A minority actually fire, and only a percentage of those actually fire effectively. When interviewed, soldiers in a platoon all agree on which of their comrades are the aggressive ones. An interesting fact that I will get into later is that soldiers firing crew served weapons, where a group of soldiers cooperates (heavy machine guns and mortars, for example) fire more consistently and competently than soldiers with individual weapons. The U.S. military has spent considerable time and effort on training individual soldiers to actually fire their weapons consistently in combat.

Bringing us into the news, police officers act in a similar way. Most officers rarely draw their sidearms, rarely fire them, and rarely, if ever, get a physical force complaint against them. A small percentage of officers draw their weapons often, get into physical confrontations regularly, and accumulate complaints of excessive force. Again, as with soldiers, everyone in their group can identify them as the aggressive minority. As with soldiers, the percentage of people in this group is in the low single digits.

On the other side of the law, street gangs have a few members who are the enforcers. The other members will fight if absolutely necessary, but there are always one or two violently charismatic individuals who are the go-to guys.

Collins describes the buildup to violence as one filled with confrontational tension. The tension is between the desire of an individual to win a conflict and that person’s lifelong practice of establishing group solidarity with others. To attack someone physically is the ultimate expression of rejection from one’s in-group. It goes against our social programming. In order to fight, individuals have to go through a set of rituals to break through this barrier. They also generally have to have an audience that supports the idea of fighting.

On a topical note: Having read VAMT, reading about a police officer in Ferguson calling black protestors “fucking animals” was both unsurprising and illuminating. It was an indication that the virtually all white police force had long since identified the black population as an absolute out group. No need to overcome confrontational tension before violence when there is no such tension to begin with.

In VAMT Professor Collins also introduces the concept of the “forward panic.” We are all familiar with a backward panic. It’s the disorganized rout of a group of people rendered weak by fear. The opposite effect happens when a group prepares itself emotionally for physical conflict and then encounters weak resistance or none at all. The group is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Two examples at the opposite ends of the scale: The “Rape of Nanking” by the Japanese army in 1937 and the beating of Rodney King by police in Los Angeles in 1991.

In the case of Nanking, the Japanese were expecting the level of resistance justified by the defense of a major city and prepared for a major battle. When the Chinese army collapsed after token resistance, surrendering in large numbers, the Japanese broke through the barrier of confrontational tension with a huge amount of energy.  What resulted was what Collins calls a moral holiday. The slaughter and mistreatment of both soldiers and civilians was akin to mass insanity on the part of the Japanese and took weeks to run its course.

In the case of Rodney King, he had led the police on a high speed chase before offering token resistance to arrest by multiple officers. Keyed up and ready for a fight, perhaps even a gun fight, the officers unleashed hugely disproportionate force on King, several of them beating his prone body with nightsticks. A supportive audience of fellow officers stood around and witnessed the event.

Collins observes that when equal forces meet face to face, neither turning aside, both with equal emotional energy, what usually results is a non-violent standoff. In mob violence, physical attacks tend to involve isolated, retreating individuals attacked by small groups. He expands on this in a useful article on his blog, “Tank Man, and the limits of telephoto lenses; or, how much can individuals stop violence?” 

His advice is that in a confrontation, your face, your eyes, and your voice are your best defense. Never turn away from a confrontation, because that allows an aggressor to avoid engaging with you as a person.* He notes that when police are in full forward panic mode, people who turn away and run are more likely to be beaten than people who non-violently stand their ground and attempt to verbally engage the police. That can re-channel the interaction into a status ritual.

*(Why did the Storm Troopers in Star Wars wear that utterly useless all-covering white “armor”? To deny them faces so they could be slaughtered by the heroes without qualm.)

Back to the crew-served weapons: The reason that these weapons are used more effectively by soldiers is a function of two factors.  The group solidarity in the face of confrontational tension reinforces the soldiers in their actions. As important, it allows the soldiers to focus their attention on each other rather than the enemy. Firing becomes less of a confrontation and more of a group effort. The marching formations and coordinated pike and musket drill of centuries past were similar in their group enabling power. Simply moving in physical coordination with others is a powerful status ritual.

Amidst all the violence we see in the news, it is reassuring to think that interpersonal violence actually requires quite a bit of effort to initiate. More than that, it requires a specific series of events to precipitate, and can be derailed at a number of points. Or, for that matter, prevented at a number of points. One of the main points of VAMT is that violence is not the inevitable result of culture, poverty, or childhood abuse. It is situational, and we can plan and structure our society to trend towards some situations and away from others.

Just to bring this into the topical realm, in light of the police shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, here’s a question: How many police officers do you know, and know well? If you aren’t a police officer or related to a police officer, the answer is probably zero. I wouldn’t be the first to observe that over the past few decades law enforcement officers have become an insular subculture. Cops socialize with cops; civilians –the rest of us – socialize with civilians. That goes a hundred-fold in communities such as Ferguson. I don’t have a glib answer for this problem, but I have an idea that it involves day to day social interactions. That’s what makes us see each other as allies rather than enemies.

Saturday
Aug092014

The Anatomy of Revolution 

I just finished reading the book of this name by the late Harvard professor Crane Brinton. In it, he compares and contrasts four revolutions: The English Civil War of the 1640s, the American Revolution, The French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution of 1917. He finds many distinctive elements, but many commonalities. He strings these universals together on the theme of a fever, the course of an illness. (With no pejorative intent)

The prodrome to revolution is counterintuitive in several ways. It does not generally originate from what we’d call the proletariat. In each of the four cases the middle and upper middle classes are the movers. Nor does it tend to start in a time of economic losses. The grievances of the middle class come from a sense of advancing and then hitting a glass ceiling. They see an unjustifiable aristocracy above them gaining unmerited benefits such as relative freedom from taxation and government subsidies. For example, the core of the English opposition in the 1640s was the gentry, newly prosperous men of business who wanted a voice in politics equal to their economic force. Brinton describes them as not so much oppressed as “cramped.”

There are certain signals that Brinton sees in all these cases. One is defections from the aristocracy. Some aristocrats themselves lose faith in their own privilege and take up the cause of the lower classes. The intellectuals desert the rulers, refusing to continue to rationalize the status quo. The government becomes inept in maintaining its finances and providing services to the general populace. The response from the population is to form parallel organizations to do the work that the central government cannot or will not do.

Eventually these parallel organizations make demands on the government that, if granted, would amount to abdication. The revolutionary organizations engage in illegal activities that provoke the government into action. In the American colonies this took the form of the Committees of Correspondence, the local militias, and the state legislatures. The violent opposition to tax collectors and the stockpiling of arms were the triggers for the British armed response.

In all four cases the armed government response was ineffective or simply absent. Charles the First of England couldn’t muster enough competent troops and officers to beat the Parliamentary Army. The ministers of George the Third fumbled the initial response to American unrest with a provocative and yet feeble military presence, and then prosecuted the war in a disjointed way from across a six week ocean voyage. King Louis barely responded at all to the unrest in the streets of Paris, while his troops defected to the mobs. Russian Imperial troops refused to fire on the crowds, joining them instead.

Let me pause for a moment and ask if I am the only one thinking of Egypt. Stay with me.

Brinton compares the next stage to the crisis of a fever. Having overthrown the establishment, the revolutionaries have to decide on their own organizing principles and their program. There is an inevitable tendency towards centralization of power. The threat of counter-revolution and the jostling of factions provoke this.

Revolutionaries also tend towards a social or spiritual purity. Each revolution had an element of “the perfection of mankind” to it. In the English Civil War it was overtly religious In the American, French, and Russian revolutions it was more of the Enlightenment era phenomenon, overtly atheistic in France and Russia, deistic in America. In all cases, people were expected to embrace a revolutionary asceticism.

The moderates lost. Power shifted from the status quo conservatives to the revolutionary/reform moderates to the hard line revolutionaries. The extremists tended to have the most monolithic and loyal organizations, as well as the willingness to use violence, deception, and dirty tricks to achieve their goals.

Again I’m thinking of Egypt.

In each case there was a period of terror: Anti-Catholic massacres in England, mob violence and the expulsion of Loyalists in America, death sentence by accusation in France, and the violent suppression of dissent in the Soviet Union. Brinton acknowledges that the period of terror in the Soviet Union quieted down and bureaucratized, but never really went away.

In each case there was a cooling off, known as the Thermidor period in France. The extremists are better at taking control than ruling. The terror burns itself out and the worst offenders often do not outlive this period. Robespierre, the leader of the French terror, mounted the scaffold himself only a few years after his ascent to power. And let’s face it; people get sick of high standards of virtue. Humanity returns to the mean.

As do political structures. England and France returned to monarchy, albeit constitutional monarchy. The Soviet Union became an oligarchy approximately as oppressive as the imperial government that preceded it. The new United States, thankfully, had a local and state democratic tradition to revert to. What happened in three of the four cases is that the middle class, people with some property, with something to lose, looked at the extremists and the conservatives and chose stability over the new brotherhood of man. In the Soviet Union power was centralized much more effectively, and under a philosophy that did not postulate a middle class. Not that there was much of a middle class, percentage-wise, before the revolution.

Egypt.

Professor Brinton was humble and hesitant in his conclusions. His caveats take up significant space in the text. Still, I consider his propositions to be remarkably applicable to recent history. The Chinese went from the excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the Red Brigades to mixed state/private capitalism in just a few decades. Wherever I see revolution in this world I see the train of Crane Brinton’s thought being validated. Do you?

The Anatomy of Revolutions is considered a classic of political and historical analysis. It gets the Minor Heretic Seal of Approval.

  

Wednesday
Jul022014

Vegetarian in the Garden of Earthly Delights 

Credit where credit is due.

A few nights ago I attended a dinner sponsored by investment advisors, including my friend The Broker. (I always wonder what clues he would leave for Batman. Holy hedge fund!) The dinner was held in a private room at Juniper, the restaurant at the relatively new Hotel Vermont on Cherry Street in Burlington, Vermont. The Broker assured me that the vegetarian offerings would be far better than what I had at Kismet. He was right.

The aesthetic of the place was based on modern spare design with local, natural materials. The servers were professional in demeanor and casual in clothing. A bright green “Keep Calm and love Vermont” t-shirt was the uniform.

The menu has snacks, appetizers, “shares” appropriate for just that, sandwiches, and regular entrees.  I saw roughly ten things that I could feel good about, which is stellar vegetarian fare for most conventional restaurants.

My choices:

Half Pint Farm greens, beets, sharp provolone, watermelon. A decent salad of a good size. The watermelon seemed odd but actually worked.

Eggplant caponata, vegetable crudo, Castleton crackers. Good, dense caponata in a big ramekin. Plenty of scooping items. Castleton Crackers rate a “meh” on my rigorous cracker scale, but I don’t blame the management for trying to keep it local.

Hemp seed whole grain burger, arugula, carrot ketchup. An actual restaurant-made veggie burger with an interesting flavor and texture. The carrot ketchup was also interesting but not socks-knocking. It needed a little something to make it more than just orange. I liked having the arugala on the side so I could choose my level of greenery. The bun had some real texture and crust.

Lemon tart. Tart lemon custard in a shortbread-ish crust. Slightly difficult to attack with a fork, but tasty even as it crumbled. Strawberries and blackberries as well as whipped cream on the side. A success.

My dinner companions seemed satisfied with their meaty entrees. However, my main point is that vegetarians will not be disappointed at Juniper.