Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Algerian Connection

A few observations on the last day of the month, the last day of the third quarter, the 273rd day of the year: September 30, 2007.

I have a little book called A Book of Days for the Literary Year, a gift some years ago from my younger sister Nancy. Among its notes for September 30 is this: 1937 Albert Camus notes: "It is in order to shine sooner that authors refuse to rewrite. Despicable. Begin again."

Camus was a fine writer, if somewhat crazy. The story goes that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature at a relatively early age because the committee was aware that his lifestyle made it unlikely that he would live to be old. He was awarded the prize in 1957, just fifty years ago, and he died in 1960. According to my almanac, he was awarded the prize "for his important literary production, which with clearsighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times."

Camus was counted as a French author, and, of course, he wrote in French and was a French citizen. He was, however, as Alistair Horne puts it, a typical pied noir. This is an expression applied to the French and, quite often, Spanish, settlers of Algeria after the French took it in 1830. Generations of pied noirs lived and died in Algerie francaise. Camus most famous novels, La Peste (The Plague) and L'Etranger (The Stranger) are set in Algeria. They are very effective novels, and they evoke Algeria, at least French Algeria, very successfully. The Algerian sun is very nearly a character in L'Etranger. Having lived in Algiers (1979-80), I can testify that the sun is very much with one in Algeria.

I saw the line from Alistair Horne in his The Savage War of Peace, which I have just started reading. It was originally published in 1977, but there is a 2006 edition in trade paperback. It has a very good reputation, and the other works by Horne I've read (many years ago) were quite good. I'm looking forward to it. Horne has a number of references to a literary/historical conference held in Algiers in 1984, on the 30th anniversary of the revolution. I missed that one, but I was in Algiers for the 25th anniversary, at which celebration the U.S. was represented by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security advisor. That was the week that our embassy in Teheran was captured, and the assistance of the Algerian government on that occasion led to their continuing involvement in the negotiations for the American hostages in Iran.

In later March and early April of this year I happened to read a memoir by Robert Gates, now Secretary of Defense. I was interested to note that Mr. Gates accompanied Dr. Brzezinski to Algiers. Gates' account mentions some circumstances that lead me to believe I may have met him, or, more probably, that we were both in the room at the Aurassi Hotel with Dr. Brzezinski at the same time. The trip to Algiers wasn't a big part of Mr. Gates' career, or his account of it. But I found it interesting that our career arcs, his steeply upward, mine much less regular, crossed at that out-of-the way point.

My opinions on the war in Iraq and how it has been handled have been influenced by my time in Algeria, and I wonder if Mr. Gates gained any insights into Arab life that have helped him deal with his current responsibilities.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Conservative and Liberal Brain Function

On Monday, my local paper, the Colorado Springs Gazette, carried a story from the L.A. Times asserting that a psychological study had found that liberals and conservatives achieved differing results in a simple test of brain function. First, I would urge anyone who has not seen some version of this story to read it, so that you may judge for yourself the importance of it, and so that you can assess whether I'm making too much of it. I could, myself, raise a number of methodological questions. (For example, there isn't a lot of detail about the protocol used to identify the "conservatives" and the "liberals.") But that's not my intent here.

I have said this before, and now that this bit of research has come out, I have the opportunity to say it again: Underlying a lot of the reasoned arguments, and the impassioned concerns, driving the contest between liberals and conservatives in this country (and in others, as well), are deep-seated personal preferences which are not accessible to evidence, to argument, to persuasion of any form. Liberals, very broadly speaking, like change. They expect good things to happen when circumstances change. This bespeaks a certain confidence, even arrogance, about their ability to read the trends and to control their destinies. Conservatives, on the other hand, distrust change. They like the "tried and true". They like systems that inhibit change.

What did the psychological test find? Well, they asked the subjects to press a button whenever they saw a "W" after a sequence of "M"s. MMMMWMMWMMMW. Something like that. Previously identified (and probably somewhat self-identified) liberals made many fewer errors than the conservative subjects. Why? The interpretation is that conservatives readily fall into a mindset in which they anticipate the next letter to be the same as the last, and so they are more likely not to perceive the change. Does that really tell us that conservatives resist change? I'm not sure. But it does seem to find a readier acceptance of the occurence of change among liberals than among conservatives.

By the way, for the rest of this article, I am going to use the term "conservative" in an attitudinal, not in a programmatic sense. I don't believe that everyone who opposes abortion is a conservative, for example. I tend to think that, the law of the land having allowed abortion for over 30 years, the conservative position is to support the status quo. Be that as it may, my use of "conservative" is about resistance to change, reluctance to adopt new ideas or practices, and a tendency to oppose "change for change's sake."

One way to look at the difference between conservative and liberal positions is to consider an analogy from evolutionary biology. (If you prefer, you can just think of this as an example from ecological biology. In that case, you'll probably want to substitute individuals for species, and changes in behavior for speciation events.) I'm talking about the so-called adaptive landscape. Let us visualize a perfectly flat terrain. All species are capable of surviving in this domain with a same degree of ease or difficulty; there are no advantaged species and no part of the terrain advantages one species more than another. But things begin to change. Just as erosion cuts a flat valley floor into ridges and gullies, so the abundance of food species changes the adaptive landscape.

In one area, a particular plant drives out rival vegetation; this becomes low country for those species that lived on the unsuccessful plants, but it becomes a pleasant upland for those which can use the successful species. In another area, a predator finds the climate unfriendly, and the prey begin to thrive and multiply.

In the end, we have a rugged landscape, with peaks on which live well-adapted species which enjoy an abundance of food, water, and whatever other goods are needed for the purpose of life: reproduction, and, on the lower slopes, species struggling against scarcity, competition, and predation, barely able to sustain themselves. (Down in the gullies are the remains of extinct and near-extinct species.)

Similarly, I would argue, conservatives tend to view themselves as in one of two conditions: Either they are living on an adaptive peak, so that any change will be for the worse, or - notably among contemporary religious conservatives, they have left such a peak for the lower slopes (dragged down by illusory progress), and their most desperate need is to struggle back to the top of the hill. Liberals, on the other hand, view themselves as moving toward a new, better, peak, and have little reluctance to abandon their current post, having convinced themselves that it is far enough down the slope to be barely tolerable.

One of the reasons for the impassioned defense put up by the conservatives is, in this view, that they see any move away from the present situation as a perilous descent into a steeper and steeper trough, with only the abyss of destruction at the end of this path. What the liberals discard as discounted through prior use, the conservatives cling to as a symbol of enduring happiness.

One reason I mention the second conservative position is the tendency, throughout history, for conservative thinkers to disguise innovation as a return to old, golden principles. I would note that, for example, a number of bills introduced in Congress which would, in the view of many, destroy the traditional barrier between church and state, are labelled as "restoration acts". One such bill, passed in the Clinton administration, was the "Religious Rights Restoration Act," which, in fact, gave religious practitioners privileges they had never enjoyed before. Putting new wine in old bottles is always more acceptable to conservatives than the admission that they enjoy the new vintage.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Interactive Nature of Warfare

The first couple of paragraphs here are quoted from a comment I left on another blog. After that I expand upon them, as is my wont.

It is unfortunately true that one's adversary seldom consents to sit immobile while one maneuvers against him. Here is a quote, from the book I recently reviewed on my blog, which doesn't blame the mess in Iraq on President Bush, but on our failure to recognize that there are other actors in this drama, and not just props. "After Vietnam, the U.S. military had vowed never to wage a counterinsurgency war again - indeed had largely stopped preparing for the possibility. In the year since Chiarelli had arrived in Baghdad, however, he had learned what so many commanders before him learned, and always the hard way: The enemy has a vote." Martha Raddatz, The Long Road Home (2007), page 291.

There are plenty of examples of this sort of thing. The Chinese winter assault in Korea comes to mind, as does the Battle of the Bulge. But there are also counterexamples: The enemy, too, is human and has his weaknesses. Ulysses Grant tells the story, in The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, of his first days as a colonel of Illinois volunteers in 1861. Grant was sent to confront a band of Confederate raiders who had crossed the river from Missouri. He was quite naturally concerned about his chances. His troops were green, they were not well-equipped, and their officers had little experience of command. Imagine his reaction when he came over a hill above the Confederate camp, to find his opposite number had packed up and fled. Grant, in what might have been the one great insight of his life, realized that his adversary had been as frightened of Grant as Grant had been of him. From that moment on, he stopped thinking of his opponents as supermen.

As to finding out more about our enemy, his plans and objectives, one of the books I read this summer related to U.S. national security and the war in Iraq was The Looming Tower, a rather good study of Al-Qaeda, its predecessors and genesis, its attitudes, objectives, and assumptions. It's a good starting point.

Cafe Third Edition

Terence Berres visited and left us a present: his own blog address. Terence's blog, Cafe Third Edition, is here: There are a number of interesting-sounding posts on the blog, and I tried to comment on a post by Agim Zabeli, but messed up somehow. That means, I suppose, I'll have to answer Agim's post on this site, thereby creating an inter-blog dialogue.

Good to know that Terence and Agim are still out there.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Long Road Home, by Martha Raddatz

On Palm Sunday, April 4, 2004, a platoon of the First Cavalry Division entered Sadr City, the Shi'ite slum in Baghdad, Iraq, for a routine patrol. Until that date, the Shi'ites had seemed relatively undisturbed by the American presence in Iraq and were, in fact, believed to be grateful to the Americans for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government. By the end of that Sunday, the military and political situations in Iraq would both have been shown to be more complex, and less amenable to American aims, than policymakers and military leaders alike had assumed. This is the story Martha Raddatz tells.

There is another account of the same incident in Rajeev Chandrasekaran's book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City. What distinguishes Ms. Raddatz's book-length account of the events in Sadr City is her description of the impact of these events on the families of the soldiers involved. These families, wives and children (and one husband) of officers and enlisted personnel alike, were mostly living in Killeen, TX, at the time. Killeen is home to Ft. Hood, which is the home base for the First Cavalry Division. The contrast between the safe, somewhat sanitized life on the base, in a town whose "nationally-known restaurants" are Bennigan's and Applebee's, and the chaotic life on the streets of Sadr City is particularly wrenching because the latter proves to have the power to reach into the former and negate the families' assumptions of security.

Ms. Raddatz deals with combat on an emotional, as well as a physical level, and she deals with her action sequences quite competently. I would say that she has as little squeamishness at handling combat as my friend David Drake - an author of military science fiction stories, which is to say, no discernable squeamishness at all.

There isn't a lot here about high policy, but there are plenty of comments on the effects of policy on the lives - and deaths, of soldiers. For example, some of the troops went into a hostile urban environment, with snipers firing at them from rooftops, in canvas-topped Humvees and open trucks.

Well-written, powerful, affecting, informative - I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to know about life on the ground in Iraq.

Introduction to Knight's Castle

I have created this blog to share my thoughts on a variety of topics, and to garner the reactions of other people. I will use it to comment on books and articles I have read, political issues of the day, and philosophical questions.