ewx: (Default)

From Deep State To Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution And Its Jihadi Legacy, Jean-Pierre Filiu, ISBN 978-1-84904-546-9

This book analyses the background to, and aftermath, of the Arab Spring: the military despotisms in Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, with a lesser amount of material on Tunisia and Libya.

The question the book asks, essentially, is how the contests between military oligarchies, street protesters, political Islam and violent ‘jihadi’ movements ended with the first of the above remaining in charge, the middle two components crushed, and the latter successful and destructive. Filiu’s answer is essentially that the jihadists were indirectly, and in some cases directly, supported by the governments they supposedly oppose, both as a warning of chaos and as “my enemy’s enemy”.

The most blatant example is Bashar al-Assad, initially providing support for Iraqi enemies of the USA (including the local precursors of IS) and subsequently emptying its jails of jihadists in order to support its own propaganda once popular protests erupted in Syria.

The author also touches on Tunisia and Libya. In both cases the dictator fell, but the outcomes were very different. The reasons can be found both in the pre-revolutionary structure of the two countries and in the subsequent political processes.

The military oligarchies are characterised as ‘modern Mamluks’, alluding to historical military rulers. In their modern form, the author finds them excellent manipulators of both world powers and their regional neighbours, successfully extracting support in the form of money, weapons and oil; and vigorous defenders of their own privileges; but poor rulers of their countries.

This is a pretty depressing book. The only remotely successful entities in places like Syria are those that are prepared to burn the country to the ground to keep or take control, and when compared with the similar situation in Algeria in the 1990s, neither the ferocity of the conflict nor the negligible Western response seem particularly surprising.

ewx: (penguin)

A History Of Christianity, Diarmid MacCulloch, 978-0-141-02189-8

Set aside some time to read this; at comfortably over a thousand pages, you’re unlikely polish it off in a weekend.

MacCulloch nominally starts his history in 1000BCE, though devotes just a few dozen pages to the Greek/Roman and Jewish background. The following 2000 years get considerably more detailed attention, across a broad geographic range. Western Europe, Russian, the Greeks, the Miaphysites and Dyophysites of the Middle East, China, Africa (especially but not only Ethiopia) and the Americas are all covered (and I’ve probably missed more than a few from this list).

It is of course thoroughly entwined with other elements of history: Constantine, Charlemagne and colonialism all make an appearance. Some appreciation of (particularly, western-oriented) history over the last couple of thousand years will surely help the reader but the wider context is not neglected. Equally, you will find a lot of philosophy and science in here, covering both religious background to new thinking and subsequent engagement with it.

The writing is excellent, informal without being lightweight, and making occasional but good use of sarcasm; the result is a pleasure to read. Particularly well done is the 16th chapter, which despite the dry-sounding title ‘Perspectives on the True Church’ in fact engrossingly lays the intellectual and political groundwork for the Reformation.

I’ve previously reviewed The Popes by John Julius Norwich. Where that was the narrowest of vertical slices through history, this book may be as broad a slice as is possible while still representing a single coherent theme. Recommended both for readers interested in Christianity in particular, but also world history in general.

(A curious detail that I’d not previously been much aware of is the growing strength of Dyophysite Christians among the Persian elite in the first half of the 7th century. Given the previous Roman experience, it’s interesting to wonder how that would have played out had the Sassanian empire survived any longer.)

God’s Crucible, David Levering Lewis, 978-0-393-06472-8

A history of Islamic Spain and its context and impact. The first quarter of the book quickly covers Roman and Persian background material leading (in the west) to Visigothic Spain and (in the east) to the rise of Islam, before putting the two together with the Islamic conquest of Spain in the early 8th century. The rest covers the history of ‘Al-Andalus’ and its interactions with its geographical and ideological neighbours. (Sadly for my particular interests the author simply states one of the theories for the etymology of the name without alluding to the difficulties in this areas.)

At the political level those interactions generally produced much heat and little light, although the Byzantine gift of De Materia Medica to ’Abd al-Rahman III is a notable exception - essentially a bribe to maintain opposition to the Abbassids, but in practice a substantial injection of knowledge into the western Caliphate and (eventually) Catholic Europe. And it underlines the case the author really wants to make: for an extended period Islamic Spain was the major intellectual and cultural centre of western Europe, for instance putting Alcuin’s efforts in the Carolingian empire into the shade, and moreover that it had an outsized impact on the rest of western Europe.

The case is not badly, though I thought that the balance between the political and intellectual history could be shifted further towards the latter with little real loss. Maimonides, for instance, has to share a chapter with the comparably significant Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and the two of them don’t even get the whole of it. Still, this is a minor flaw. An enjoyable book about an interesting episode in history.

ewx: (photos)
We visited the Centre for Computing History in October. Although a bit haphazard in places there's a lot to look at and much of it was familiar.

[livejournal.com profile] naath playing Atic Atac. You run around a castle collecting keys (to get through doors) and the fragments of a quest object. I spent a lot of time playing this; I remember one of my brother and I finishing it though I can no longer remember which of us did so!


+2 )
ewx: (penguin)

A Savage War of Peace, Alistair Horne, ISBN 978-1-447-23343-5

This is an account of the Algerian War of Independence.

It covers the background quickly: French colonization in the 19th century (an attempt to shore up the Bourbon monarchy, which did not really work), the establishment of the Pieds Noirs (i.e. European-origin colonists, not all French by any means), and early hints of trouble (at least some of it recognized, but never meaningfully acted upon).

Having set the scene it really gets going in 1945 with the Sétif massacre, with around 100 Europeans killed and shortly afterwards many thousands of Muslims being killed in official and unofficial retaliation. As well as being an appalling crime this was a serious mistake, being the event that radicalized many of the future leaders of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the key resistance organization.

The FLN’s initial strikes were not particularly effective, but got the attention of the French state and even generated some recognition at high levels that reform and negotiation were required - but (in fact despite several attempts) significant reform was never actually delivered, not least due to persistent Pied Noir obduracy. For a long time nor was negotiation, partly for the same reason (i.e. the political impossibility of being seen to negotiate) but also due to the difficulty of identify a negotiating counterparty. The latter seems to have been partly a result of the colonial strategy of disrupting rather than co-opting the local elite.

Instead the response was to send in the troops. The FLN’s rapid and effective adoption of asymmetric warfare (maquis tactics in the countryside and bombings in the cities) saved them from complete destruction but the military part of the story is, ultimately, one of gradually increasing French success, and brutal tactics on both sides (with the French military tactics often acting as recruiting adverts for the FLN - “The stupid bastards are winning the war for us”). The FLN managed to find a degree of sanctuary in recently independent Tunisia (whose initially good relations with France were repeatedly degraded by ill-considered French military action) but weren’t able to exploit it other than tying down a lot of French troops in the form of a highly effective border force.

The result was a disastrous situation for France. The army felt they were doing the politicians’ dirty work, but that the politicians did not have their backs; a problem compounded by France record of repeated military humiliation (in WWII, in Indo-China, at Suez) - the army wanted to win something and thought (quite possibly correctly, in narrowly military terms) that they could do it in Algeria. In Paris meanwhile politics fell deeper and deeper into crisis, with independence politically impossible but no other realistic political solutions on offer and no government able to stay in power for long in any case. Moreover the combination of these two factors had led to the armed forces developing a politically unchallenged habit of independent action.

The result in May 1958 was a military revolt, with General Jacques Massu and others seizing power in Algeria, capturing Corsica, and preparing to take Paris. Their condition was that Charles de Gaulle must return to power, and in this sense, they got what they wanted.

Having taken the reins, however, de Gaulle was faced with much the same difficulties as his predecessors: the military campaign would probably work on its own terms but will not actually solve anything - it would be a permanent occupation, at considerable financial and moral cost.  However, despite the hastily papered-over irregularity of his accession, he was equipped with a considerably stronger mandate to do something about it. In this sense, Massu and his allies did not get what they wanted, but exactly the opposite. By 1961 this had lead to a second military revolt, but this one failed dismally, and subsequently the remains of the war party resorted to the same terrorist methods under the name Organisation de l'Armée Secrète (OAS), in both Algeria and France, that their FLN opponents had long practiced. Nor did it stop there: the Gaullist paramilitaries of the Mouvement pour la Communauté (MPC) were in the habit of blowing up cafés frequented by members of the OAS. (The Day Of The Jackal is fiction, but the OAS really did try to kill de Gaulle).

Ultimately de Gaulle conceded enough about the future disposition of Algeria for negotiations to start making real progress, leading to the Évian Accords concluding the war in 1962. In principle he had been attempting to secure some kind of life for the Pieds Noirs in Algeria after independence; what happened in practice was that hundreds of thousands of them emigrated. He also failed to secure any practical protection for the Harkis, natives who had fought for the French and were subsequently treated exceptionally badly by the country’s new rulers.

History has not treated independent Algeria well. Its first independent government was quickly replaced by military dictatorship. It spend much of the 1990s in civil war.

Why was the conflict so intractable for so long? Many among the French governing elite understood that the game was up, but the persistent weakness and instability of French governments prior to 1958 meant they were unable to act on this. The Pieds Noirs and their military and nationalist allies, as well as being the immediate cause of that instability, were convinced they could and should win, although rarely within any kind of coherent idea of what the outcome should look like - the most clear-headed saw South Africa as their model, but others imagined even into the 1960s that they could reach some kind of accommodation with the Muslim population, which over the course of the previous decade had gone from optimism to fantasy. Finally, the FLN also thought they could and should win, but were actually right: they knew how to use their enemy’s strength against them, by provoking them into ever more brutal measures. Essentially they discovered how to make victory - or even a frozen conflict - too painful for France, and then they just had to wait until France broke, at which point they achieved their goal of total independence.

The reason I really bought this book, though, was to learn more about the May 1958 crisis.

de Gaulle does not (at least in Horne’s account) seem to have been involved with the planning and initiation of the coup. Rather he seems to have been ‘waiting for the call’ - but there is no clear indication that he was expecting to come from the army rather than, say, popular demand or a political party. However, he made himself complicit with Massu’s revolt both by announcing once it was underway that he was ready to assume power, and (in response to the last gap of parliamentary resistance) remarking “I shall have no alternative but to let you have it out with the paratroops”.

In particular, after reading books by Javier Cercas and Serhii Plokhy, I wanted to know how the coup compared with the failed coups in Spain and the USSR in the second half of the twentieth century.

In Spain, the golpistas perceived a country in serious trouble, just as France was in 1958, and General Armada planned to follow in de Gaulle’s footsteps by using military pressure to ensure he won a vote. But unlike the French example, where President Coty and the National Assembly conceded, Armada was unable to constitutionalize the coup, due to the failure to successfully co-opt the Spanish monarchy; whether he could have won a vote in the Cortes is unknown. And while 1980s Spain did have some serious problems, the country was in an ongoing process of reform; in contrast France in 1958 was demonstrably not coping and there did not seem to be any reason to think matters would improve - there was no light at the end of the tunnel and no realistic alternative to de Gaulle to rally opposition.

In the Soviet Union the country was also in a bad way - it had run out of money, had already lost territory and key regional elites were agitating for independence. Indeed the worst fears of the coup plotters were ultimately realized: the USSR destroyed itself from within not long after they had been defeated. While their actions no doubt contributed to this, the internal destructive processes were already well underway and I don’t think it’s controversial to say the outcome would have been essentially the same.
ewx: (penguin)

The Anatomy of a Moment, Javier Cercas, 978-1-4088-2210-4

Some time ago I read The Battle for Spain by Anthony Beevor, an account of the Spanish civil war leading to the triumph of Franco. I don’t think I wrote a review but I did post a choice quote.The eventual sequel to that conflict was the Spanish transition to democracy after Franco’s death. I was vaguely aware that he’d been succeeded by Juan Carlos as King of Spain, who had reintroduced democracy, and that there’s been a failed military coup attempt that the King had had some hand in putting down.

Of course, it was a lot more complicated than that.

So firstly, for me Javier Circas’s book shed some light upon the events, their background, and the personalities involved. By the time of the coup the Spanish democracy had been underway for long enough that the King’s original choice of Prime Minister, Adolfo Suaréz, had spent all his political capital and more. The economy was in trouble; ETA terrorism was out of control; the communists were legal again; social reform was underway; it was now obvious that Suaréz had not just reformed Francoism but totally abolished it (which was why he’d been appointed). Many of the country’s problems hurt everybody but the conservative establishment felt particularly aggrieved (and with ETA’s campaign principally impacting the security forces, this wasn’t entirely sour grapes).

Talk of a coup, “a hand on the rudder,” was in the air from all sides, even from people who ought to have known better. Everyone wanted Suaréz gone, but the golpistas wanted a change of direction too. In the event they got what the former without a coup - Suaréz resigned - but they did not get the latter and that is why his resignation did not prevent the coup: and so as the deputies in the Cortes voted on his replacement they were interrupted by an armed incursion. You can watch it on Youtube.

Circas analyzes who was behind the coup. The key figure is General Armada (and for an English reader it’s hard to imagine a better name for Spanish villain), who wanted to put himself in charge but nevertheless maintain constitutional appearances by winning a vote in the Cortes, presenting himself as a compromise. This was ultimately revealed to be a fantasy by the subsequent King’s broadcast against the coup, though as Circas points out, had he been more successful the broadcast may have been re-interpreted as a condemnation of the initial violent incursion rather than the entire project of the coup.

The brains of the operation is also the most mysterious and most colorfully described character, intelligence officer José Luis Cortina, described as a “twelve-faced character” and, even more remarkably, a Marxist-Falangist. Cercas is sure that he supported the coup at its inception, but equally sure that he opposed once the writing was on the wall. (Ultimately he escaped conviction.)

The man on the ground was Lieutenant Colonel Tejero, who took over the Cortes. Between him and Armada was a dangerous difference in expectations: Tejero’s goal was the re-introduction of military rule. He was supposed to seize the Cortes peacefully - but in the event sent bullets flying, which in Cercas’s analysis gave what had been intended as a “soft coup” the unavoidable appearance of a “hard coup”, one of the first things that went wrong.

This is the moment that Cercas relentlessly anatomizes. When the guns open up, most of the deputies in the Cortes dives to the floor. But Suárez sits impassive, along with Santiago Carrillo (the communist leader, compromising from left to establish Spanish democracy) and Suárez’s deputy General Gutiérrez Mellado (compromising from inside the army, to the same ends), before turning to protest. This refusal to submit to the attack is revisited again and again through the book and analyzed from every angle.

Ultimately Armada’s attempts to constitutionalize the coup by invoking the monarch are frustrated by the King himself: the King refuses to talk to him and ultimately broadcasts on the television against the coup. Armada’s only remaining avenue is to attempt to be the hero by negotiating with Tejero - but this founders on the differences in the two men’s goals and on Tejero’s unwillingness to sacrifice himself to Armada’s soft coup.

Of course, it was a lot more complicated than that.

If you want to know more than I can recommend reading the book. It’s a colorful and entertaining account of a critical moment in Spanish history, written in a style quite unlike any work of history that I can bring to mind, endlessly questioning itself and second-guessing itself and third-guessing itself, and the actors, and the evidence, and the events, within every other sentence. The author has brought a novelist's sensibility to a work of historical analysis and this shines through in Anne McLean’s translation.

ewx: (penguin)

Muhammad: A Biography Of The Prophet, Karen Armstrong, 1-84212-608-3

This is a sympathetic biography of the Prophet Muhammad. While the (very broad) outlines of his life and achievements are familiar to me from a variety of works, I didn’t really have any of the detail, so there was much here that was new to me.

The book is specifically aimed at western audiences and as such includes a fair bit of material intended to put the story into context, for instance to square the religious figure with the military leader. Of course this is aimed squarely at the long-standing and widespread western perception of Islam as inherently violent - though I think anyone even slightly familiar with the period would conclude Muhammad was no more violent than any other leader of the time: the Byzantine Emperor of the day, “God’s vicegerent on Earth”, for instance, was busy invading Persia at the same time Muhammad was prosecuting his conflict with the Quraysh.

It’s based on the Qu’ran and a handful of biographies written in the 8th and 9th centuries in the middle east. This is a tricky collection of source material to deal with: the Qu’ran is not even a narrative much less a biography, while even the earliest of the rest was written over a century after the death of their subject. While well-referenced it does not really display much interest in establishing the accuracy of its sources, so while it may well be a good presentation in English of the traditional understanding of Muhammad’s life, it seems reasonable to wonder how close to the facts it may be.

It’s definitely picking a particular viewpoint, too. Armstrong writes of the hijab: “in the Qu’ran it was simply a piece of protocol that applied only to the Prophet’s wives”. But it’s not hard for even an amateur to find statements in the Qu’ran that at least superficially seem to have more general application and Wikipedia makes it clear that there’s a variety of views on the subject.

Still, in a book that is about the person as traditionally understood, rather than about the theology, these aren’t major criticisms. Worth a read if you’re unfamiliar with the details of the background to Islam.

In The Shadow Of The Sword, Tom Holland, 978-0-74811-951-6

An alternative, wider and more questioning, view of the history of Islam, this book starts with a discussion of the historical background to the appearance of Islam: the Roman and Persian empires, the conflicts between them, and the religious and cultural situation within and beyond both. This is excellent stuff and it would make a good standalone work with only a little expansion. However the point of the exercise is to set the stage for the second half of the book.

The author is skeptical about (in particular) the location of the events of Muhammad’s life. As an alternative to the traditional story he proposes that they took place not far from the boundaries of the Roman empire of the time, essentially among the Arabic tribes that from time to time provided mercenary service for one empire or another (essentially analogous to foederati such as the Franks in northwestern Europe), historically attested examples being the the Ghassanids and the Lakhmids.

Various arguments are advanced in favor of this proposition. However I wasn’t entirely convinced; many of the arguments turn out not to be as strong upon further investigation as they may seem from the text in isolation.

Take one locational arguments, for instance. The traditional view is that Muhammad lived in Mecca and in 622CE fled to Medina. Holland argues that Mecca is exceptionally obscure in the 7th century and earlier, with very little material from the time referring to it. This does seem to be so. The only certain reference to it in the Qu’ran is to ‘the valley of Mecca’ (48:24) though the reference to Bakkah (3:96) is traditionally held to refer to the same place (or to some part of it). Holland suspects that this interpretation is mistaken, and that there really are two different places with two different names here, and that the latter was the original home of Muhammad and site of the Ka’aba (surah 3 mandates pilgrimage to it), with the significance of Mecca being a later development.

However, surah 48 immediately follows its reference to the valley of Mecca with a discussion of past and future access to the Sacred Mosque (a phrase also used in 2:144 when discussing the direction of prayer). Unless this is to be read as a non-sequitur, the location is evidently one that Muhammad considers to have non-trivial religious significance.

Holland also suspects that the qibla was not originally in the direction of Mecca. (Tradition does indeed claim a change from praying towards Jerusalem to praying towards Mecca, but puts it in 623CE, i.e. shortly after the flight to Medina and within Muhammad’s lifetime. This book is arguing for a much later change.) Various texts and archaeological sites are offered in support of this argument, for instance the remains of a mosque at Be’er Ora in the Negev Desert appears to have prayer niches pointing both south and east. A justification for interpreting both features as Muslim prayer niches isn’t given, unfortunately. Another bit of evidence is only alluded to but on tracking it down it seems to be a passage by the ninth century writer Al-Baladhuri, in which an arrow is fired towards the qibla and further arrows north, east and south, at the start of the construction of Kufa, a city in Iraq. As far as I can tell, which isn’t very well, the archaeologically discoverable remains at Kufa have a fairly conventional qibla; nevertheless for a ninth century writer to allow without comment the implication of a western-pointing qibla is somewhat curious.

All this does leave a question to be answered, and Saifullah et al put a lot of effort into challenging a version of it. I admit to only having skimmed it, but one can skip to the conclusion which is roughly that accurate methods of determining the prayer direction were simply not available in early Islam and the heuristics used instead were (by modern standards) not particularly accurate.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it’s an interesting book, engagingly covering a pivotal time in history.
ewx: (penguin)
The Last Empire, Serhii Plokhy, 978-1-78074-529-9

An account of the final months of the Soviet Union. Plokhy skims quickly through the background, before engaging with the details in the run-up to the August coup and from then until the formal dissolution of the USSR. The broad outline is familiar enough but, whether due to (necessarily) incomplete reporting at the time or simply forgetting over the course of nearly a quarter of a century, there is a lot of interesting detail that I don't recall from reporting at the time.

Most notably the role of Kravchuk’s Ukraine is emphasized. This isn’t to play down Yeltsin’s central position: after the coup his position was enormously enhanced and he was involved in key decisions. But the Ukrainian drive to independence, deftly piloted by Kravchuk, left Russia comparatively isolated within the rump USSR, and ultimately forced to seek its own exit.

Much is highly relevant today. The author documents Russian threats to tear up border treaties, and a plan (at the time not executed) to stir up unrest in majority-Russian parts of Ukraine. Interestingly, Kravchuk managed to achieve a majority for Ukrainian independence not only nationally but even within the Crimea, having put substantial effort into selling the idea to the locals.

Gorbachev struggled for power and relevance, right until the end, but it was always a doomed struggle - eventually he was fighting for little more than for relevance. The coup demonstrated that his power base was untrustworthy and its failure allowed Yeltsin to undermine much of the rest - in the end he was able to simply de-fund the USSR’s institutions.

The American viewpoint is also discussed in detail. Bush and his team supported Gorbachev, as far as they could, long past his sell-by date; only Cheney favored helping the USSR to its end. While this somewhat contradicts the subsequent (electorally targetted) rhetoric about victory in the Cold War, the reasoning was rational enough - the Americans had found Gorbachev a reliable negotiating partner when it came to arms control, while the leaders of the Soviet republics in which nuclear weapons were stationed were much less well understood - indeed the worst case scenario was characterized as “Yugoslavia with nukes”.

Comprehensively written and an easy read, well worth a look if you’re either interested in the fall of the USSR or want a bit of background on recent events.
ewx: (penguin)

(A bit sketchy in places but if I don’t post it now I suspect I never will...)

Books )


Oct. 27th, 2012 05:17 pm
ewx: (penguin)

Afgantsy: The Russians In Afghanistan 1979–89, Rodric Braithwaite

I didn’t really know much about the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and what I did know was, of course, very from much a Western viewpoint. Despite the British author this book presents a Soviet perspective.

There is a good chunk of narrative history here; if you want an overview of why the USSR went in and why it eventually gave up and left, there are surely worse places to start. Whether the KGB backed the original communist coup is left uncertain (people who ought to know deny it), but it did not do the USSR any favours; it badly destabilized the country. The initial Soviet reaction was not soldiers on the ground but advice and support for Taraki’s new regime, which they considered to be brutal and incompetent and with thoroughly counterproductive policies and methods. Matters came to a head when the internal power struggle among the Afghan communists resulted in a second coup. The Soviet reaction was to (equally violently) replace Amin’s government with one more to their taste, and put in (at its peak) over a hundred thousand troops in an attempt to put down the anti-communist rebellion.

In retrospect of course this was a disastrous error but it’s less clear what a realistic better policy would have been once the first coup had happened - staying out from the beginning would probably have resulted in an unstable, fundamentalist or American-backed regime on the southern border of the USSR, none of which will have been attractive prospects in Moscow.

Much of the book is concerned with the Soviet men and woman who served Afghanistan. There is an interesting section on the music and poetry composed by serving soldiers, for instance. Of more political significance are Anatoli Tkachev’s negotiations with Ahmed Shah Masud. At a lower level Alexander Kartsev’s experiences are an insight into the on-the-ground relations between the Soviet troops and the locals; at one point he is kidnapped to help out a mujahedin commander who has shot himself in the foot; later he persuades the same commander to release some prisoners he had been planning to kill.

In the end despite the fact that it “won all its major battles and never lost a post to the enemy” the Soviet army in Afghanistan withdrew in defeat; the current American campaign has largely the same goals and many of the same opponents, arguably making it a single conflict of three decades and counting. I can’t say this book offers a great deal of hope for the outcome.

ewx: (Default)

Visigothic Spain, Roger Collins, ISBN 0-631-18185-7

Review )
ewx: (Default)

The Origins Of France, Edward James, ISBN 0-333-27052-5

Review )
ewx: (Default)

Montaillou, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, ISBN 0-14-00-5471-5

Montaillou is a village in southwestern France. In the early 14th century many of its inhabitants were Cathars - a variety of Christian heresy - and as such came to the attention of the Inquisition. What makes it particularly special is that the written record of the resulting interrogations, made under the aegis of Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers and later Pope Benedict XII, survives to this day. The book at hand is a study of that record and its subjects.

Read more... )
ewx: (edna)

We watched City Beneath the Waves: Pavlopetri. Pavlopetri is an ancient Greek city that was inundated, probably as a result of earthquakes, three millennia or so ago; various modern techniques are being used to map it and attempt (necessarily speculative!) reconstructions. There’s some evidence for trade with Minoan Crete, which given its location - you don’t get much closer to Crete on mainland Greece - is not very surprising.

One thing I don’t recall being mentioned is the reason given for the name of the city; it looks like it might be “Paul’s rocks” or perhaps “Paul Peter”. However (although I don’t actually speak Greek, and therefore going by a combination of Wikipedia, Wiktionary and Google Translate) the morphology doesn’t look quite for either.

I also watched Kissinger, which was excellent. The program consists largely of old footage, Kissinger’s remarks in more recent interview and extracts from the Nixon Tapes, with only the most occasional question from Niall Ferguson. (Surprisingly it had previously not occurred to me just what a treasure trove those tapes must be for historians.) As I may have remarked before a lot of modern documentaries waste a lot of time getting between the viewer and whatever subject material and genuine expertise they may have to hand, and this program did a good job of avoiding that error.

It must be said that there is not much independent analysis here. Ferguson is supposed to be producing a “warts and all” biography of Kissinger, which hopefully will rectify this. Still, as an insight into Kissinger’s own experience it is remarkable. Nixon’s goals, as articulated here, and the horrendous destruction incurred in achieving them, seem entirely relevant to America’s wars today.

The Popes

Oct. 9th, 2011 09:42 pm
ewx: (penguin)

The Popes: A History, John Julius Norwich, ISBN 9780701182908

Review )
ewx: (Default)

22 Days In May, David Laws, ISBN 978-1-84954-080-3

Review )
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Cables From Kabul by Sherard Cowper-Coles (ISBN 978-0-00-743203-5).

Review )
ewx: (Default)

I recently read The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor by William Langewiesche.

After a bit of WWII-era history the book spend a while discussing the ease or otherwise of producing a non-state nuclear bomb. (If he is right then) there is some reason for hope (though not complacency) here; while security on HEU stocks appears to be very poor in places, there remain substantial difficulties for a non-state group attempting to acquire it and turning it into a usable weapon. The weakest link is presented as border security; the author’s prescription is to cut a deal with the people who control smuggling routes (primarily used for drugs, fuel, etc).

The bulk of the book, however, concerns the activities of Abdul Qadeer Khan, who used stolen European designs and more-or-less legitimately ordered components to create Pakistan’s Uranium enrichment program. In Langewiesche’s account, Khan puts surprisingly little effort into hiding what he is doing - he gets away with it due to the supine nature of his targets - for instance when a Dutch colleague at FDO reported his suspicions he was told not to stir up trouble. A similar pattern holds when he puts together the centrifuge program: although occasionally he used front companies, “generally he or his agents simply went out and bought the stuff”.

For all that Kahn’s program is depicted as a massive failure of intelligence and export control by western Europe, especially Germany, it is also held to be inevitable; the manufacture of nuclear weapons is primarily an exercise in engineering, not research, and a government that wants them is going to get them sooner or later. Kahn’s spying and his network of suppliers, much as his subsequent sale of Pakistan’s nuclear technology to other countries, was ultimately no more than a shortcut. The notion that Kahn acted alone in his proliferation activities is dismissed as a transparent lie.

If Kahn is the villain of the piece, the hero is journalist Mark Hibbs, who spent many years joining dots and exploiting high-level contacts to bring the story into the public domain (albeit in publications that most would find obscure). Intelligence services knew more and earlier - but of course, they don’t publish at all.

The last word is given to Mubashir Hassan, a former finance minister of Pakistan:

“But you cannot have a world order in which you have five or eight nuclear-weapons states on the one hand, and the rest of the international community on the other. There are many places like Pakistan, poor countries which have legitimate security concerns - every bit as legitimate as yours. And you ask them to address those concerns without nuclear weapons, while you have nuclear weapons and you have everything else? It is not a question of what is fair, or right or wrong. It is simply not going to work.”

ewx: (sugden)

The Histories is the (only known) work of one Herodotus, and comprises three main elements: the nature and people of the world (as Herodotus understood it), the origins of war between Greece and Persia, and an account of those wars.

The first of these is concentrated in the early parts of the work. I’ve already mentioned the curious Egyptian mortgage laws. Much of it is interesting; some of it may be true. (It’s probably safe to dismiss the gold-digging giant ants as fictitious!) Indeed,Herodotus often expresses scepticism although it must be said that on occasion it plays him false:

After all, Libya is demonstrably surrounded by water, except for the bit of it that forms the boundary with Asia. King Necho of Egypt was the first to discover this, as far as we know; after he abandoned the digging of the canal from the Nile to the Arabian Gulf, his next project was to dispatch ships with Phoenician crews with instructions to return via the Pillars of Heracles into the northern sea and so back to Egypt. So the Phoenicians set out from the Red Sea and sailed into the sea to the south. Every autumn they, they would come ashore, cultivate whatever bit of Libya they had reached in their voyage, and wait for harvest-time; then, when they had gathered in their crops, they would put to sea again. Consequently it was over two years before they rounded the Pillars of Heracles and arrived back in Egypt. They made a claim which I personally do not believe, although someone else might - that as they were sailing around Libya they had the sun on their right.

Of course, their claim would be correct. One might reasonably be sceptical of their claim to have circumnavigated Africa, but their story about the sun does not support the doubts.

Many words, too, are spent on the history of the Achaemenid (i.e. Persian) Empire - an ancient precusor of modern Iran. Herodotus covers Cyrus’s rise to power, his conquests, and his death in central Asia; followed by the actions of his successors and the eventual turn of their attention across the Aegean.

The latter part is, largely without interruption, an account of the conlict in Greece, culminating in the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea. As the notes to the translation indicate Herodotus’s account is highly partial, even within the Greek side. However in places it is very detailed - the author was almost certainly getting his information directly from the people who were there on the day.

As an aside, Pheidippides’s athletics are even more excessive here than in the traditional 26-mile version: he arrives in Sparta a day after leaving Athens, well over a hundred miles away! He does however have the advantage of meeting the god Pan along the way - although this is something else Herodotus seems sceptical about.

Moreover, I couldn’t help but notice that this translation uses the name Philippides for this famous runner and mentions in the notes that Pheidippides (which is closer to the name I was originally familiar with) appears “in some manuscripts, but the name is very rare”. But it seems to me that this could be not simply a copying error, but rather the effect of the same sound shift as between Odysseus and Ulysses?

So much for Philippides. The work is full of digressions, varying from single paragraphs to multiple pages themselves containing further nested digressions. I don’t know what a modern editor would make of it! It works well, however.

The story ends with the ejection of Xerxes’s armies from Greece. Over a century later the Greeks were to take the revenge on Persia, conquering it under Alexander. I think this would have fit well into Herodotus’s worldview: Persia’s ascent could only be the precursor to its fall.


Aug. 4th, 2010 02:20 pm
ewx: (edna)
This looks interesting: BBC2 three-parter on the Normans. If you like that kind of thing.

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