Ghost Wars – Steve Coll

Two events on successive days in September 2001 changed the trajectory of modern Afghanistan. On the 11th, terrorists hijacked four planes in the United States, crashing two into the Twin Towers in New York and one into the Pentagon in Washington DC. On the 10th, suicide bombers posing as reporters assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir, the leading Afghan leader opposing the Taliban. Coll’s book tries to explain what led to these two events.

The story in “Ghost Wars” begins in 1979 with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Afghan government was in effect a client state of the Soviet Union, but plagued by civil war and insurrection, leading to a stream of military aid, which grew to a flood and finally a full-fledged invasion. As part of its Cold War strategy, the US worked in tandem with Pakistan’s ISI and the Saudi intelligence services to funnel resources to Afghan rebels.

The rebels were not a united front and aid was not distributed evenly. Pashtun mujahideen in the southern part of the country received the lion’s share, for a number of reasons. They were close by Pakistan and so easy to supply, as well as being the preferred allies or clients of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. At the same time, devout Christians saw fundamentalist Muslims as natural allies—fellow religionists in the fight against Communism.

Ahmed Shah Massoud, the independent Tajik leader in the northern Panjshir Valley received the short portion, being harder to supply, attached to illegal opium smuggling, and not as fanatical in his religion. In years to come this choice would prove costly. The actions of the CIA, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia in the last years of the Cold War kicked off a transnational, radical Islamist movement of which Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda was just one particularly virulent strain.

Coll tackles the monumental task of mapping the shifting currents of Afghan politics, including the rival alliances during the 1980s, the rise of the Taliban after 1994, and how these developments were related to the other political developments in the Middle East, but it is made even greater still by also charting how American interest in the region waxed and waned throughout the region. The result is both the story of the situation in Afghanistan and an enormously frustrating one of bureaucratic and political calculus in America. Nowhere was this more evident than in the 1990s when the US administrations declared the Cold War won and Afghanistan a lost cause that was not worth engaging with. The result was that the US had effectively no presence in the region for years, until after the threat from terrorists trained in Afghan bases originally supported by the United States was beyond dispute.

There is too much in Ghost Wars to do a summary justice, but several themes stand out. One is the wide the blind spots of many US policy makers. These included the decision to cultivate militant religious fanaticism and to abandon the region after the end of the Cold War, both of which smacked of short-term thinking with little long-term planning. But equally frustrating were those issues that the US policy makers were concerned with. In the 1990s this meant a focus state-sponsored terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, to the exclusion of transnational actors and conventional attacks. The deliberations in Coll’s recounting, moreover, seemed to register too little awareness that the agendas of even American allies would not necessarily align with the best interests of the United States. The confluence, then, went to explaining how the United States lost touch with, let alone control over, this powerful movement it had helped set into motion.

A second, related, theme is the deep divisions between Afghan and Arab. Coll makes clear that the Arabs were outsiders in Afghanistan, sometimes tolerated, but never really accepted, which added a second level of complexity to the situation. Moreover, it was in this somewhat fragile situation where Osama bin Laden began his slow rise—tolerated because of his wealth, but a relatively minor player until the United States made him the face of transnational Islamic terrorism.

Ghost Wars is a deeply frustrating book to read, by turns making the reader feel for for the Afghans, the CIA, and becoming infuriated by the seemingly-obvious mistakes out of blindness, short-term thinking, and a host of other considerations. But it is also a compelling look at developments that continue to affect the world today even as it seems that US administrations (not simply the one in office today) continue to make some of the same mistakes of policy and rhetoric that characterized the US interactions with Afghanistan from 1979 until 2001. Radical Islamic terrorism is not a phenomenon that developed in a vacuum and the United States is complicit in its rise.

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I am now reading Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem and so far I’m finding it as good as it is touted to be.

Alexander the Globalist

A link to a JSTOR-Daily post came across my Twitter feed this morning commenting on an article arguing that Alexander the Great was the founder of globalization because his vision of a universal empire of “indeterminate identification,” led by humanist transcending the limits of any one identification. Since the chapters I’ve been buried in the past two weeks now walks, talks, looks, and feels like a dissertation chapter (finally) and happens to focus on Alexander, I thought I’d offer a few of thoughts.

First, the basic argument (as is often the case with this topic) is rehashed to the point of exhaustion and reframed, but not new. The principle adaptation that the article advocates for is to consider the supposed “universal empire” described by Plutarch as a truly humanistic impulse rather than a sign of philosophical training or of his determination to Hellenize the world. The basic observation that Macedonia was at a crossroads and introduced young Alexander to a variety of cultures is a valuable observation, but why this would make him more tolerant of exotic cultures than his Macedonian followers is not explained. Most likely, Macedonian resistance to the elevation of others was the result of political friction as their place within the hierarchy was challenged. It is easy to be humanistic when you aren’t being threatened.

Second, the article’s main point is that the “indeterminacy of identity” is at the root of globalization, as distinct from moral or economic factors. This is fair, but hits a snag because he hinges much of the argument on the idea of national origin in antiquity. Taking on these multiple roles was also nothing new for ancient rulers. The Macedonian kings were kings of the Macedonians, but were also alone formally ruled to be Greeks—-similarly the Spartan kings were formally not Dorian because they were descended from Heracles instead of the later interlopers. Cultures and identities, in those examples, but also elsewhere in the Greek world and beyond, were much more fluid than are often imagined, so why Alexander ought to be special in this regard is a mystery.

Third, and most importantly, I question the idea that globlization is something that can be achieved by individuals rather than larger forces. This is not to say that I particularly like or subscribe to the idea of the invisible hands of markets, but rather that a truly humanistic globalization as described by the article is, when made by an individual, a political decision that, in this case, was a way to unify an empire that consisted of a large number of disparate forces and factions. The easiest way to rule such a state was for Alexander to wear all of the hats simultaneously—-and when the easiest way to conquer or rule the state was bloody slaughter, that is what he did. Alexander was a pragmatic and (usually) open-minded political actor whose policies cannot be divorced from his drive for domination. The fact that he dominated Greeks and Macedonians as well as barbarians is irrelevant.

I do believe that we should look at the ancient world as an interconnected system not unlike globalization. However, genuine globalization cannot seen as the work of an individual without recognizing the benefits that person gains in pushing the agenda.

The Struggle for Sea Power, Sam Willis

I have said in the past that if I was not studying ancient Greece there is a short list of other subjects that I would study. One of those is 18th and 19th century naval history. I have a print of a watercolor rendition of the USS Constitution on my wall and used to eat up stories about Horatio Nelson, of whom I own a two-volume biography, Stephen Decatur at Tripoli, and many, many more. I did eventually move away from simple fascination with adventure stories and became more interested in the social and economic aspects of naval powers and a personal favorite in my library is the history of the British Navy by N.A.M. Rodgers, volume two, The Command of the Ocean. Two weeks ago I saw that the library received a copy of a brand new history of the American Revolution, The Struggle for Sea Power by Sam Willis.

Willis’ central claim, that the conflict known as the American Revolution was fundamentally determined by and ultimately about maritime power, is aptly shown. Here is a presented a catholic definition of naval power to include the rivers, lakes, and bays of America in addition to the seas from the Caribbean to India and Willis notes that the success of most major land campaigns were determined by the abilities of sailors accompanying the fleet. Similarly, from his perspective, nearly all British campaigns during the war were a projection of naval power from a handful of port cities along the American east coast. But the war in America was just one part of a larger conflict that drew in The Netherlands, Morocco, Spain, France, Russia, and the Indian Sultan Hyder Ali. For Americans, sea power was a means to receive supplies and impede the British ability to persecute the war, but Willis shows that there was a broader concern among the other powers, namely whether it would be possible to wrest control of the seas from Britain for their own use.

Covering such a broad sweep, Willis frequently boils success and failure of operations to clashes of personality. The inability of commanders, whether between political parties, between nations, or between land and sea, to work in concert frequently determines the course of the action, perhaps even to too great an extent. Other than the individual merits of the commanders, Willis is keenly aware of the perils of sailing, including the deterioration of ship, the need for local guides, and dangerous storms, all of which appear. Willis draws together a wide range of specialized studies, on the navies of the different colonies, on the European navies, and more, and is thus able to weave in issues of naval funding, nutrition, and technology. The last is particularly notable in that the ironic twist to this story is that the American Revolution was a defeat for the British, but the innovation and mobilization meant that they emerged from the conflict in an even stronger position on the seas.

Even being predisposed to liking this topic, I enjoyed The Struggle for Sea Power, though its language was at times overly casual for my taste. To give one example, there were several examples of people being “shot in the balls.” I also wanted to know more about some of the more picayune aspects of technological development and the like, but I can’t hold those against Willis since the point of the book is how those played out during the American Revolution, which is adequately discussed.


Next up, I am still reading (and enjoying) Palace Walk, but recent events have caused my reading to slow. I am also irrationally excited for the arrival of my newest book order, which includes an Indonesian novel Man Tiger and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

King of Kings – Asfra-Wossen Asserate

Ras Tafari ruled Ethiopia as regent starting in 1916 and then under the regnal name Haile Selassie when he ascended to the position of Negusa Negast in 1930. His reign lasted until 1974 when the Derg, a council of military officers propelled by famine, military frustrations, and student protests ended the monarchy. This long reign—too long, according to the author—brought about remarkable change in Ethiopia, and Africa more broadly, but those changes quickly left the country behind. Yet, according to King of Kings, the many virtues of Haile Selassie’s rule only became evident in the bloody years of dictatorship, civil war, and now apartheid-esque federation that followed his death.

Descendants of the “House of David” were said to have ruled Ethiopia for three thousand years, but the political landscape of the country into which Ras Tafari was born in 1892 was a patchwork of semi-independent kingdoms all of which traced their descent from Solomon through the Queen of Sheba, with one of those ascending to the position of Negusa Negast. (The way tradition is presented by Asserate, this loose confederacy is actually a precondition of having a a singular Negusa Negast, since without kings underneath him, how could there be a king of kings?) The supreme leadership in Ethiopia was therefore not hereditary, but determined by political alliances, force of personality, and, importantly, the capabilities of each king’s personal army. Ras Tafari was born into a princely family and his father won renown for his role in the Battle of Adwa in 1896, but there were more powerful contenders in 1916 when a regent was chosen for the Empress Zauditu, the daughter of the former emperor Menelik. Ras Tafari was likely chosen because he was not a threat, either in terms of his land holdings or in terms of his physical build. However, his rivals clearly did not count on the young man’s political acumen, and he proceeded to rule the country for nearly six decades.

The Haile Selassie presented by Asfra-Wossen Asserate (whose grandfather was a cousin of H.S.), is a man of contradictions. For instance, he was liberal reformer determined to modernize the country in terms of schools, hospitals, and industry, one who introduced the first two constitutions to Ethiopia, who brought the country into the League of Nations, decried European colonization of Africa, tolerated religious differences, and help found the Organization of African unity. Yet, he used the constitution to centralize power in the absolutist monarchy, firmly believed that he was “The Elect of God,” a title he enshrined in the constitution. By this account, Haile Selassie was the best of paternalistic rulers: he was fair and just, generous with his people, including that he distributed money liberally, paid for students to study outside the country and guaranteed them jobs upon return, and lived frugally himself—-he even accepted the final coup without brutal crackdown. But he also resisted endowing representational bodies with any actual power and became increasingly paranoid about delegating power at all after an attempted coup in 1960 that his oldest son cooperated with. Simultaneously progressive and regressive, Haile Selassie believed himself to be the country and, for a time, he was.

The picture presented here is that Ethiopia was rent apart by two divergent forces, liberalism and conservatism, that, for a time, were successfully united in the person of Haile Selassie to allow modernization. The crisis that precipitated Ras Tafari’s rise to the regency exemplifies these tensions. His cousin, Lij Iyasu, who shared some of the same liberal tendencies (though they evidently hated one another), was designated (though never crowned) emperor of Ethiopia. The monarch was supposed to be chosen by God, but one of the requirements was that he had to belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which, in turn, supported the institution of the monarchy. Lij Iyasu was accused, libelously, of converting to Islam, probably because he endorsed laws upholding some version of freedom of religion. The deeply conservative kings and princes used this as an opportunity to supplant him and raise a man they thought would be more malleable. Of course, they succeeded in empowering a man whose political acumen was greater than his cousin and was able to push a liberal modernizing program in a deeply conservative way.

Asfa-Wossen Asserate suggests that a more flexible monarch and possible a younger one who was willing to accept a constitutional monarchy would have led Ethiopia in a radically different direction. He describes the final coup as taking place slowly over a matter of months where the opposition groups maintained a great deal of reverence for the monarchy, but the monarchy did not change and when they made their first slow attempt on the palace, the whole monarchic system fell apart without resistance and without any popular support.

I went into this book knowing next to nothing about Ethiopia. I can locate it on a map, don’t like their coffee, and a scattered handful of facts like the Italian use of chemical weapons there in the 1930s, but that is it. I came out of King of Kings knowing a little bit more about Ethiopia and a lot more about Haile Selassie. Asfa-Wossen Asserate is at his best when he is teasing out the intrigues within the highest echelon of Ethiopian society, including the royal families, the major players within the army, and the civil service that came into being. In particularly, he does a nice job of charting H.S.’s rise to power and how he managed to position Ethiopia within a radically changing world of colonialism and the early Cold War. However, the accounts of revolts and foreign invasions do not provide a good sense of space and the maps are of limited help. Particularly, I wanted to know more about the regional conflicts within Ethiopia and how these issues contributed to Haile Selassie first gaining and then losing support. As it stands, when someone disappoints H.S., they are dispatched from Addis Ababa to the outer reaches of the Empire and largely cease to matter. These frequently are issues with biography, but my problem with it here was that Asfa-Wossen Asserate had a tendency to overuse shorthands like “student protests” without offering any actual details about the movements.

At times the writing can be a little bit casual and forty page chapters without any sort of section break made King of Kings difficult to read at times. Still, Haile Selassie jumps out of these pages as a remarkable individual who helped guide his country through great upheaval.

Present, meet past

Let me begin with five loosely bullet points.

  • I am particularly wary of the adages that posit recurring pasts and arguments of immediate pecuniary or political value to studying the ancient past.
  • My dissertation is a regional history of of Ionia in fifth, fourth and early third centuries BCE. The project examines the position of these twelve majority Greek communities on the Anatolian coast and heavy islands in relation to each other and in relation to a series of imperial entities that exerted control over the region.
  • A couple of years ago I got the idea from another scholar on Twitter to set up a Google-alert for the subject of my research. Since then, I have been getting daily updates about bodies washing up on Chios and boatloads of refugees fished out of the sea around the island.
  • A few weeks back, I decided that I am going to dedication my dissertation and, if I reach that point, the resultant book, to the Syrian refugees passing through Ionia.
  • Yesterday, Turkish police raided an illegal factory that was making life preservers from non-buoyant material using child labor. Life preservers that do not float made by refugee child labor. Words cannot express how repellent this is.

Objectivity as a historian is a nice idea, in theory, but is quixotic in practice. One is always going to be influenced by whatever s/he is exposed to. This can be as simple as reading good prose improving the “ear” of the writer to more complex and subtle influences such as the theoretical framework one views the world or his or her moral universe rendering judgement. Frequently, the issues one holds close draws attention to particular details in a source that otherwise would have passed by.

When we think of the connections between the Ancient Near East and the Aegean, it is common to think of the maritime trade routes that ran from Egypt to Phoenicia, Cyprus, the Aegean, and then up to the Black Sea. These routes are critically important for trade and the spread of ideas, but (to my knowledge) were not the usual way to transfer people. Travel by sea was expensive and risky, unless transporting bulk goods. Thus people were often more likely to travel by land. Ambassadors, refugees, and people who aspired to overthrow the Persian King from both the Greek states and the Persian Empire frequently traveled from the Aegean to Syria or beyond and then back by one route: a path that took them from Ephesus or Erythrae (or sometimes another polis), which were connected by road to to the Lydian city of Sardis. There, they picked up the Persian Royal road, which took them the length of Anatolia and then across the Taurus mountains and into Syria, usually to Damascus and from there to anywhere else in the Persian Empire. My source material is usually more focused on people from the Aegean taking this path toward the interior of the Persian Empire, but the road ran both directions.

The constant updates have heightened my awareness and interest in population movements, which is a difficult issue to measure in ancient Greece, and in that it is easy to demarcate (falsely or otherwise) borders between countries or between east and west, but the people don’t care about that. Rostovtzeff described the Ionian communities as fragments of the Western World on the fringe of the Eastern, but that gives the impression of an actual difference on either side. The Ionians were peripheral to Persian and Athenian systems, but throughout the fifth and fourth centuries they also served to link the two together.

A spruced-up variation on these thoughts will appear in the introduction or preface of my dissertation.

The Surreality of Humanitarian Crises Online

It is depressing to watch on Twitter as humanitarian disasters unfold, again and again and again. It happened in the Tahrir Square protests (and counterrevolution) in Egypt, with Ansar Dine in Mali, the original civil war in Syria, and ongoing refugee crisis. And many more; those were only the ones that have been most on my radar the past couple years. The abject suffering makes the American political discourse, such as holding reviews of Planned Parenthood’s budget without anyone from Planned Parenthood seem like a joke, even as it threatens to pull even more medical care from poor women. These are both rancid fruits, but on different scales. In Syria, a nation that had about 22 million people, there have been about ten million people displaced internally and externally, or about the same number of people executed in the Holocaust. I am not casting judgment, just putting the numbers in context. In a recent fit of helplessness, I donated some money to an organization that is supposed to help bring supplies and care to refugees from Syria.

I have a set of Google Alerts set up for places associated with my dissertation topic, just so that I can stay abreast of what comes up. Ephesus alerts usually consist of Ephesus lighting and bible references or tourism, but updates about Chios for more than a year have brought back a steady stream of stories about refugees making it to Greece. Recently, though, there has been an uptick in awareness of the refugee crisis, in large part because of children drowning at sea, refugees suffocating in the back of trucks, and the Macedonian government tear gassing migrants, not to mention Balkan states closing their train stations to migrants, quota plans being pushed forward in Europe. This is just a snapshot, with other stories coming out about Australia and Canada and many other countries, including Lebanon.

Other people have done a much more thorough job than I can hope to do chronicling the conflict, including Thomas van Linge, a nineteen year old Dutch activist who compiles some of the best maps of the Syrian conflict currently available. However, I want to give just a bit of a overview in light of the news that Turkish tanks have moved into Cizre, a town in Turkey near the Syrian border. This will consist of nothing more than a list of groups involved and who they are ostensibly shooting at, and without the nuance of, for instance, differentiating between Syrian rebel groups.

Group : shooting at
USA : ISIS
France : ISIS
UK : ISIS
Australia : ISIS
Canada : ISIS [Civilians, accidentally and probably not in isolation]
Russia : ISIS, Syrian Rebels
Israel : ??? in retaliation for shelling the Golan. Possibly Syrian government forces of Hezbollah. The Syrian government says they were civilians, Israel says they were Iranians.¯_(ツ)_/¯
Syrian Government : Syrian Rebels, ISIS
Hezbollah : Syrian Rebels, ISIS [on behalf of Asad]
Syrian Rebels : Syrian Government, ISIS
ISIS : Iraqi Government, Syrian Rebels, Syrian Government, Kurds, everyone shooting at them
Kurds : Syrian Government, Turkey [at least the PKK is], ISIS
Turkey : ISIS, PKK

The refugees are not leaving willy-nilly, but are fleeing a brutal conflict that is literally tearing apart the fabric of their home. Not of the nation state, the ship for which has sailed, but of their homes. The reason I’m posting this now is that Turkey has just stepped up its attacks, amid warnings that it, too, is facing a civil war, and the ceasefire between the military and the PKK has dissolved. Meanwhile, the US has sent warnings to Turkey that their airstrikes have been too close to where US soldiers have been training Kurdish Peshmerga. To make matters worse, this is a conflict that includes not just small-arms fire and roadside bombs, but tanks, drone and aircraft strikes, and chemical weapons and is taking place in the space around what used to be considered the Iraq-Syria border, but now obeys only the lines on the map that are enforced through force of arms. Everyone is seemingly shooting at everyone and millions of civilians have been caught in the cross-fire. At this point I have been watching it all unfold on Twitter for years.

The Bagel, Maria Balinska

Sometimes when Amazon reviewers give low marks to a book the comments indicate that a book is not good. Sometimes the comments reveal that the Person Angry on the Internet didn’t actually read the same book that the author wrote. Sometimes the reader understood the book but is just angry that it isn’t the book he or she wanted. The last scenario is true of Maria Balinska’s The Bagel, which the reviewer lamented was principally a history of Jewish labor history, rather than a history of the eating of bagels. This is a valid observation, though Balinska does her best to lay out what evidence there is for how bagels were consumed, too.

Balinska starts with an overview of what she considers to be related breads from China to Italy, all wheat breads (distinct from rye, barley, oat, etc) made into dense loaves that go stale quickly, are usually eaten by dipping in tea or other hot liquids, and are baked into rings. One of the closest relatives to the bagel is the pretzel, with the three holes taking on religious significance. Balinska traces the bagel from medieval Poland, where it diverged emerged from a Polish wheat ring bread owarzanek, a luxury in a region that mostly produced rye flour, but one that was a Sunday food because it was associated with purity. The bagel separated from the Christian version by being boiled when the Polish monarchy issued restrictions against Jewish bakers making owarzanek.

The story crosses the Atlantic in the 1880s with the waves of Jewish immigrants and is wrapped around the labor politics, food safety standards, and anti-immigrant sentiments in the subsequent decades. Despite the complaint lodged in the Amazon review, this was the most interesting and strongest part of the book and one that I want to use should I ever find myself teaching the second half of US history. The stories about the conditions in these bakeries make me thankful for food safety standards, and the labor upheavals mirror the more well-known industries. The 1905 Supreme Court Case Lochner v New York, which ruled that the government could not limit the hours people worked, was brought by a bakery. At the NY bagel baker’s union’s height, Balinska argues that it was the shape and density of the dough, which defied mechanization, that gave the union power.

Balinska concludes the story by recounting how mechanization and big business in the form of Lender’s Bagels led to the Jewish bread conquering the United States. Frozen bagels made them last longer (fresh bagels earlier had a tendency to go stale in a matter of hours) and they became a readily available convenience food for homes and hotels alike.

The Bagel is an engaging read, though Balinska’s specific narrative is how special Jewish food in Poland became ubiquitous in America gives short shrift to the story of bagels in Montreal and tends to be somewhat reductive in order to trace this narrative. For instance, the existence of Bagel traditions in Florida, Buffalo, and those in New York run by organized crime are only accounted for in terms of the challenge they presented to the proliferation of New York style bagels. Being more comprehensive is impossible in a book so short, but what does appear hints at a larger, richer, and more complex story out there. The Bagel was published in 2008 and I was left wondering if, like other consumable products, there is an addendum to the big business, moderate quality climax–one where there has emerged a decentralized, artisanal bagel movement.

“It is never about the money”

There is a new History Channel documentary series that has been added to Netflix, called “The Men Who Built America.” The premise is that during the period of rapid industrialization that followed the Civil War, the one termed by Mark Twain the “Gilded Age,” there were a few men who led America to its position of of global prominence that it now enjoys. The first episode, which is the only one I’ve seen, follows the narrative of Cornelius Vanderbilt and John D Rockafeller’s rise to prominence and the business wars between railway and oil magnates, “locked in a battle of wills,” as they tried to destroy their competition–that is, each other. The show insisted at several points that in this battle, money was merely a way of keeping score, never the objective.

“The Men Who Built America” did frequently point out business practices that would be considered illegal under current laws, but it also made reference to all of the jobs provided by these magnates and, at one point, implied that the expansion of industry provided 100% employment for the country that was only broken when competition between businesses forced Rockefeller to shut down production in such a way that the loss of jobs spiraled into the depression of 1873. In this one instance everyday people were harmed by the business competition (according to their narrative), but the overall trajectory was one of progress and advancement, as directed by a few ruthless and brilliant entrepreneurs. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, they posit, the country needed a leader, but lacked politicians up to the task and so turned to the Captains of Industry.

Theirs is a powerful narrative, one that taps into the American Dream that everyone can make it rich if only he or she works hard enough and one that situated the United States as the beacon of civilization and locus of technological advancement. However, it is remarkable how much is left out of the narrative. The focus on the business competition means that the narrative stays in the east, so westward expansion and the dispossession of native land never show up. Even the charitable foundations created by the industrialists didn’t make it into this narrative. But neither does the show mention immigration or the conditions of the working poor. In fact, the only time that the show used images like those of Jacob Riis’ How The Other Half Lives was in conjunction with the lamentable (but seemingly unavoidable) Depression of 1873, when those workers didn’t have jobs. When business for the industrialists was booming, those people were employed and, they imply, housed and clothed. Never mind that these men who made America were worth the equivalent of 75 billion dollars or more, as the show admits but doesn’t dwell on. For what it is worth, their figures also probably underestimate the actual wealth of these men–Wikipedia places Rockefeller’s net worth at something like 650 billion, in modern figures. It will be interesting to see how the show handles unionization…if this episode is any guide, they will gloss over the working conditions…and progressive political reform.

How the show manages to present these men as both worse people, hoarding all their money and not giving them credit for philanthropy, and their actions less repugnant, sterilized of any negative effect on their workers or the general public is astounding. As I noted on Twitter, for being the men who built America, the Captains of Industry do a lot of standing around looking imperious while other people work.

What struck me about the show most, though, is the format. There is a heavy does of reenactment, with more speaking roles for the industrialists than I expected. Usually in this sort of documentary the reenactment and narration is interspersed with comments from experts, and the History Channel did employ one of Vanderbilt’s biographers and one man identified as a historian. The rest of the speakers were CEOs, hedge fund managers and other modern captains of finance or industry, including Donald Trump and Mark Cuban. Partly as a result of this, the woman with the most air time was probably Rockefeller’s secretary, but he did say “thank you” when she brought him a note. Exploitation in all of its forms is presented in this narrative as a subtext, the unintentional and exceptional side effect of capitalism, rather than the backbone of the system. Because it is never about money.

Errol Morris’ “The Unknown Known”

“I bet Rumsfeld is one hell of a poker player.” –my first comment walking out of Errol Morris’ documentary about Donald Rumsfeld.

Before seeing the film I had heard Morris talk about sitting down with the former defense secretary and he contrasted the experience with that of filming McNamara for “A Fog of War.” McNamara, he said, grappled with the consequences of his policies in Vietnam while Rumsfeld was glib, disingenuous, empty, and not someone who was at all relatable. A review in the Atlantic follows this same tact by saying that Rumsfeld was unsuccessful in his verbal jousts and that Morris’ true target in the film was smugness.

I do not totally agree. Don’t get me wrong, Rumsfeld was absolutely smug and does not vindicate himself in the film, but focusing on this surface attitude overlooks some larger points.

The issue is that Rumsfeld appeared to have three modes: toeing in the party line, coyly defending Rumsfeld against the rest of the Bush-administration appointees, and the truth, from his point of view. My contention here is that Rumsfeld was telling the truth more frequently than he gets credit for.

One theme Rumsfeld repeated in his answers was his unflappable faith in rational actors. He is a realist, through and through and the great failing of realists is their faith in rationality in the face of an irrational world. Take two examples:

  1. With the prisoner abuse scandals Rumsfeld tried to justify the sequence of events and defend the D.o.D. by pointing out that 1) the interrogators went further than permitted and 2) they failed to heed a memo that retracted the order. On one hand, this is Rumsfeld passing the blame on down the line where another person would express remorse. On the other, I do not doubt that Rumsfeld believed that his responsibility was done with once he sent the memo. Does this absolve Rumsfeld? No, but given the situation, his power was a good deal more limited than many people would like to think and I can understand why he might have believed himself not responsible for the prisoners and certainly not solely responsible for the military decision in the Bush administration.
  2. In a line of questions that dealt with the capture of Saddam Hussein, Rumsfeld said he had no interest in talking with the Iraqi leader. Rumsfeld had met him in the 1980s and found him to be a pompous blowhard (in so many words), but had connected with one of Saddam Hussein’s lieutenants on that same trip. Rumsfeld said that that was who he wanted to talk to, rational actor to rational actor to learn how he could let Iraq get into a war with the United States–he was genuinely perplexed as to how the two sides got to the point of war, but it was clear that he expected Iraqi decision making to be based on the same rational process as his own.

But the world is not made of rational actors, on either side, which was one of Rumsfeld’s grand delusions. Likewise, there is a persistent glossing of WMDs (chemical, nerve, atomic) and a Nuclear Program that was used as justification for the invasion of Iraq, and The Terrorists were characterized as some sort of unified front against which the US and Co. fight against as the Defenders of Freedom. These are two of the great myths of 21st century political discourse that Rumsfeld used in his answers and Errol Morris slipped into his questions. Thus, a final point: n both the film and the clips of press conferences from Rumsfeld time at the D.o.D., Rumsfeld only answered the questions asked, and not all the questions were good.

“Unknown Known” didn’t do Rumsfeld any favors in terms of his legacy because he was smug, clever, sometimes coy, and unrepentant. But to dismiss him as such gives Rumsfeld both too much and too little credit.

Public Funding and Monumental Buildings, a few thoughts

I want to make a few observations about public funding of monumental buildings in ancient Greece and modern America–not so much for conclusions as for musings. To put it bluntly, I am thinking out loud.

Before diving in, I want to acknowledge a few caveats because it is always dicey business to equate the two time periods.

  1. The state of public financing, both in terms of state income and state obligations are hardly similar between modern America and ancient Greece. For instance, the United States doesn’t employ twelve carrier-archs to underwrite the cost of the navy.
  2. Obviously, the form and function of monumental buildings are different between the ancient and modern contexts, particularly since the most common of the monumental buildings in the American context, at least among those that are publicly funded, are sports arenas rather than temples, though I would be remiss if I overlooked the 1.5 billion dollars congress offered to build the Freedom Tower in New York on the site of the World Trade Center.
  3. I do not want to go into actual values because the problems, since, to provide one example, Modern America has a monetary economy, whereas there are a number of ways in which Ancient Athens was only partially monetized.

In the Greek context, monumental buildings often demonstrated the prominence of a city and of the state or people who commissioned or funded it. For instance, the Stoa Poikile in Athens, which contained painted panels of both mythological and historical images from the Athenian past was in part commissioned by the Philaid clan (the family of Miltiades, the hero of Marathon, and his son Cimon), but, probably as the result of political conflicts in the mid-fifth century, their names were removed from the structure. Later that century, Pericles oversaw one of the largest Athenian building programs that included the Propylaea and the Parthenon, which were partially constructed using the tribute from the Delian League. In addition to beautifying the city, these buildings provided the backdrop for city Dionysia, Lenaia, and Panathenaic festival, which people usually point out as sources of added income to the city because it would have brought people from the countryside and from abroad for the festival where they would have done what people everywhere on trips do–spend money on food, lodging, and souvenirs, but more on this below.

Miletus in Ionia, much like Athens, had a large number of monumental sanctuaries, with the most famous being the eternally incomplete sanctuary at Didyma, which has sometimes been taken to indicate that Miletus was exceptionally wealthy. The problem I have with this observation is that it one one hand fails to account for the source of much ancient wealth and on the other where the money for the sanctuaries came from. Miletus, in particular, was poor when it came to mineral wealth, though it was rich in terms of agricultural land, marble, and clay. The marble would have been of use in constructing the temples, but there is not much in the way of fungible assets that Milesians could use. The money spent on the sanctuaries, particularly Didyma, was not local, but the donation of foreign potentates, whose names are left inscribed on the buildings. Sure, the number of sanctuaries shows a certain type of wealth for the polis, but, at least in this example, it may be better to consider the sanctuaries more as a sources of wealth than as a demonstration of it.

Now to a modern context. I am not in any way an expert on publicly financed (or privately financed, for that matter) buildings, whether in an American or foreign context, but there has recently been quite a bit of controversy over the public financing for sports complexes. Supporters of public financing argue that the stadiums will bring in business–they will provide jobs for construction and to operate them, bring in concerts, and restaurants and hotels in the immediate vicinity to service the thousands of people who come to the events. Opponents point out that most of these stadiums seem to have a shelf-life of a decade or two before the teams begin to clamor for a new one, the jobs created through stadium construction tend not to be particularly well paying and are usually seasonal, and that a single sport-stadium is generally used at most a quarter of the days in a year, while creating a bubble around the stadium where the customer traffic is tied to the stadium’s use, meaning that it is largely abandoned three quarters of the year. Further, opponents point out that the owners of the sports teams (regardless of sport) are in multi-billion dollar industries that have government sanctioned monopolies and lucrative media contracts and ask for hundreds of millions of dollars of tax dollars to fund the stadiums, often with the threat of relocation should the city refuse.

The case of the opposition becomes heightened with the other massive sporting complexes created for events such as the World Cup or the Olympics where the price-tag is higher, most of the use is concentrated in a single extended event, and the majority of the complex immediately falls into disuse.

The industrialized nation state in a monetary economy wields far more financial capacity (at least in terms of spendable money) than many ancient states could and the ancient states often compensated for this weakness by relying on wealthy individuals to pay for buildings and services on a fairly regular basis. Sanctuaries benefited from donations by states and individuals and, when they weren’t being plundered by invading armies, became quite wealthy. Beyond the contributions of the wealthy, tribute that came into imperial states, such as Athens, could be used for building projects, as well as for defense. The modern state has far more obligations and more sources of revenue than most ancient states did, but, at least at first blush, enormous amounts of tax money being given to (effectively) private entities is an inversion of the responsibilities of the wealthy in the two societies–and no, using a cigarette or other regressive tax to raise money for a stadium, as is the case in Minnesota, means there can be no claim that the wealthy pay more than their equal share into the pot of money being used for the stadiums the way that it might with an income tax.

Of course, I am grossly oversimplifying both processes for this account. A larger consideration, and one that I just want to throw out there as a conclusion, is that perhaps sanctuaries and festivals should be thought about along these lines w/r/t the economy and prosperity of a state.