Banality Creep

Bradley Manning, If You See Something, Say Something ... Unless It's U.S. War Crimes

The thing to know about Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden is Sir Thomas Gresham’s principle that bad money drives out the good. So long as the government continues to prosecute a secret war beyond the principles on which this country was founded, people of conscience will continue to come forward with these kinds of revelations. We cannot drill into young people the American mythos and require new recruits into government service to take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic without planting the seeds of the very dissidents we now simultaneous seek to suppress. At some point the government will figure out how to screen out people of conscience, after which time our secret wars abroad and the surveillance state will be administered by scoundrels and unthinking bureaucrats. That power corrupts is as true of institutions as it is of individuals. Bad money drives out the good.

The Dormancy of War

There are a number of alternate histories that place the beginnings of globalization much earlier than our current 1970s era pop-sociology conception.1 In these alternate conceptions, rather than a twentieth century phenomenon, a result of air travel or information technology, globalization is a continuous process stretching back hundreds of years, or perhaps running throughout all human history. Or perhaps it is something cyclical, proceeding in fits and starts, but the current bout only the latest in a long series.2

Another indicator here might be found in military history. We are blind to it because of a certain misnomer: only in the twentieth century are wars declared ‘world wars’ right in their titles. Ergo prior wars must have been parochial. But consider an alternate military history, more cyclical than linear. The trend in warfare towards globalization in scope (globalization as a continuation into the strategic of the tactical logic of flanking) and totalization in intensity is also long and runs a number of centuries prior to the twentieth.

Though only a European war, the Thirty Years War is often construed as the first time totalization comes clearly into view. There is a growing recognition that the Seven Years War / French and Indian War is “the first global war”.3

Battle of the Pyramids, 21 July 1798

Battle of the Pyramids, part of France’s Egyptian campaign, fought 21 July 1798, portrayed by François-Louis-Joseph Watteau

There is similarly growing recognition that the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were also total and if not global, at least on the way to global. They were the impetus for Clausewitz’s idea of absolute war. David Bell has called them “the first total war.” They were fought from Spain to Moscow, in north Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, Syria and the Caribbean. Napoleon briefly considered marching the French army overland to attack the British in India. It was first in 1795 at the Battle of Muizenberg during the French Revolutionary Wars, then again in 1806 at the Battle of Blaauwberg during the Napoleonic Wars that the British acquired the Cape Colony from the Netherlands (at the time a vassal of France). The Mauritius Campaign was a series of naval and marine operations fought between the British and the French in the Indian Ocean from 1809-1811. In the midst of the penultimate example of first-generation warfare, France simultaneously fought a counterinsurgency war in Spain. On a brief hiatus from fighting Napoleon, Britain took on the United States in the War of 1812. The French Revolutionary War entailed the Levée en masse, the sort of mass conscription that would not be seen again until the First World War. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was comprised of 600,000 multi-national soldiers. The British naval blockade of France caused Napoleon to create the Continental System, a continent-wide embargo of Britain.

Imagine what the nineteenth century would have looked like had the Crimean War, the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, the Boer War or the Spanish-American War continued the trend from the Thirty Years War to the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars to the First World War. But that’s not what happened. Instead, total war, global war went dormant from 1815 until 1914. What transpired during this period were classical wars as a continuation of politics, wars fought for limited objectives, not wars of survival and annihilation. And then, after a century of dormancy, global total war returned.

One theory is progressive. That the wars of the twentieth century were so destructive that humanity looked over the precipice and took a step back, that great power wars came to an end in the cataclysms of the twentieth century, that this is the end of history. After the end of history, there may still be limited wars as a continuation of normal politics, wars of the type of the nineteenth century, but there will never again be the absolute war that we have seen in the past.4

But perhaps war is like solar cycles, with periodic minima and maxima. There does seem to be an alteration between twenty to thirty years of great wars followed by centuries of peace (see graph below). There was the bellum phase of The Thirty Years War from 1618 until 1648, followed by a pax phase of 144 years from 1648 until 1792. The bellum phase of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars lasted the 23 years of 1792 to 1815 followed by the Pax Britannica of 1815-1914.

Pax-Bella Cycle, 1618-2013

This was followed by the thirty year bellum phase of 1914-1945. Some historians — taking as inspiration Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s assessment of the Treaty of Versailles that “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years” — have begun to unify this period under the title of the “Second Thirty Years War.” This is not an unreasonable thing to do. The first Thirty Years war wasn’t as unified as its modern title would suggest. It had its lulls and different phases involving different constellations of combatants as well.

Since 1945 we have lived in the logic of pax phase named “The American Century,” and rather than seeing it as but the latest iteration of a cycle, under our comfortable conception of progress, we imagine it as eternal: it is the end of history (Francis Fukuyama is but this iteration’s Norman Angell).

How could there be such cycles? Perhaps a century is how long it takes society to unburden itself from a particularly painfully ingrained ‘lesson of history.’ A century is the timeframe of historical forgetting. By the time the July Crisis came around, the peoples of Europe had forgotten the cataclysm of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and once more longed for war. Similarly today the United States is in the process of unlearning the meaninglessness of modern total warfare. Or perhaps a century is the durability of institutions. The Concert of Europe lasted that long. America’s international liberalism (the UN, GATT / WTO, IMF and IBRD, the EEC, NATO) will have a similar life expectancy. Or perhaps there is a relationship (that perhaps we might theorize via a Marxist- Leninist dialectical materialist mechanism) between state power shifts and economic Kondratiev supercycles.

This is perhaps preposterous. A grand narrative positing this level of law-adherence was the sort of thing that a historian of three or four generations ago could expound. But today we recognize that the phenomena under consideration are too complicated to be treated like physics, to be modeled as a variant of a sine wave. With only two and a half cycles — and a little cobbling and fudging to get even that — we certainly don’t have large enough of a sample size to induce any sound laws. Can the First and Second World Wars so easily be considered a continuity? What about the Seven Years War about which so much was made above? What about the American Civil War, often considered a preview of the totalization of war that was to come. In this regard, postmodernism, with its rejection of grand narratives is an attempt to become more scientific, more empirically grounded, is a rejection of grandiose abstractions. Today we are more prone to write off such a periodization of war and peace as merely an artifact of the evolutionary happenstance that primates have ten fingers (hence a base ten number system) rather than anything real.

But my real point here is not this particular theory, but that in our everyday thinking about this matter we’ve already taken a law and chalked it up as a safe operating assumption. Every bit as absurd as a simple cyclical theory of global war is the similarly simplistic theory of progress. I think there is a more limited point to be taken, compatible with modern sensibilities concerning the limits of historical enquiry — namely that rather than progress having safely transported us to the far shore of war, progress is as much a scientifically unsound derivation as is cyclicality and that absent human vigilance, total, global war stands ever ready to make its return.

Why does this matter? Because, again, the progressive, end of history theory is one in which many of us place a great deal of confidence. Uncontrolled escalation is a thing about which politicians no longer trouble themselves. That U.S. involvement in Syria might result in a larger conflict of the United States with Russia, or that a U.S. strike on Iranian nuclear facilities might produce a war engulfing all of Central Asia are scenarios that are beyond consideration owing to our confident, but implicit, knowledge of the laws of history.

But it should be noted how often the logic of history has covertly altered. The inflection points between the pax and bellum phases are subterranean. Its changed circumstances are only uncovered by us creatures of limited perception in out-of-control moments of shock and surprise.


  1. World Systems Theory, Janet L. Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (1989), Andre Gunder Frank’s The World System: Five Hundred Years or Five Thousand? (1993), Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson’s Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy (1999).

  2. Harold James’s The End of Globalization: Lessons from the Great Depression (2001)

  3. Daniel Baugh’s The Global Seven Years War 1754-1763: Britain and France in a Great Power Contest (2011); William Nester’s The First Global War: Britain, France, and the Fate of North America, 1756-1775 (2000); Tom Pocock’s Battle for Empire: The Very First World War, 1756-1763 (1998).

  4. Another, perhaps less grandiose expression of a similar sentiment would be James J. Sheehan’s Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe (2008).

International Finance and the First World War in the East

The two things I’m working on right now are:

  1. Non-state actors and the First World War contest over areas of the near eastern empires — Hapsburg, Ottoman and Russian competition over the Balkans, Galicia, the Caucasus, Central Asia (“the Great Game”), the Adriatic Sea, the Black Sea and the Turkish Straits; and

  2. International financial and monetary economics in the late Long Nineteenth Century, namely from the late 1880s to the turn of the century. Specifically I am researching on a Master’s thesis on the classical gold standard, the Goschen Conversion, British international investment, “the economic taproot of imperialism”, the Long Depression of 1873-1896, the Baring Crisis, the U.S. Panic of 1893, the depression of the 1890s and the Morgan-Belmont Syndicate of 1895.

Do these have anything to do with one another beyond chronological adjacency? My interests here have been partly inspired by a few observations made by Samuel R. Williamson, Jr. at a Wilson Center discussion (July 1914: Revisited and Revised—or The End of the German Paradigm, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C., 19 March 2012). In an answer (to a question posed by one of my advisors) during the question and answer period, he said, “The financial thing is one of those subtexts that needs to be studied” (at 1:09:31). Then in his concluding remarks he spent some time looking ahead, assessing what about the origin of the First World War remained understudied, returning to the issue of finance:

As we were talking about the financial thing, I was thinking about an injunction I was given in 1962 on the way to England by Ernest May, Sam Wells and my mentor, which was, “Look for the finance papers. You’ll find that’s what you need to be looking for. Look for the finance papers.” Well, I didn’t find the finance papers, but I found a lot of other good stuff. But the finance papers, there’s some real loads of stuff that are going to change the way people look at this and about the interaction. What’s interesting is, is whether many of the banks will not have destroyed this simply over the course of passage of time. The banks, just like about everybody else, prunes papers. And so this may be one of the things we will never know as much as we want to know about, but it’s an important subtext for the future. (at 1:22:10)

In this regard there are two research projects in progress that I can hardly wait to get my hands on:

  1. The first is that of Jennifer Siegel, an Associate Professor of modern European diplomatic and military history in the Department of History at Ohio State University. Her dissertation, completed at Yale University under the guidance of Paul Kennedy was published as Endgame: Britain, Russia and the Final Struggle for Central Asia (I.B. Tauris, 2002). She is currently working on a book to be titled For Peace and Money: International Finance and the Making and Unmaking of the Triple Entente, which will be “…an exploration of British and French private and government bank loans to Russia in the late imperial period up to the Genoa Conference of 1922…”

  2. The second is history doctoral candidate Hassan Malik’s dissertation, Bankers and Bolsheviks: International Finance and the Russian Revolution, 1880-1930, to be completed this year at Harvard under the supervision of Niall Ferguson. A longer description of what his dissertation will deal with can be found at the Social Science Research Council Dissertation Development Fellow page for his project. His twitter feed is here.

From these two projects, it seems that Professor Williamson’s assessment that finance remains one of the fecund future areas of research on the First World War era is an astute one (presumably it’s based on his finger on the pulse of research underway, not just proscription or surmise).

As long as I’m on the topic, I may also mention a third, related work that I am on watch for. In the new Preface to the 2010 reissue of Feroz Ahmad’s The Young Turks: The Committee of Union and Progress in Turkish Politics, 1908-1914 he writes that he is working on a sequel to cover the war years. His faculty page at T.C. Yeditepe Üniversitesi also lists a work, Turkey and the First World War, 1914-1918 as forthcoming. There have been a few recent books on the role of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, but one by Feroz Ahmad could be the most significant of the crop.

For a student such as myself, the next few years are on a course to be promising ones.

Update, 19 May 2013: And Sean McMeekin’s forthcoming book on the Russian Revolution of 1917 will focus heavily on financial aspects as well.

Martin van Creveld’s Simulacra and Simulation

Here is Martin van Creveld in The Transformation of War (1991) essentially agreeing with Jean Baudrillard, that not just the Gulf War, but nearly every conflict of the post-nuclear era, did not take place:

One factor affecting conventional war as waged by both the super-powers and, increasingly, by other countries, is that nuclear weapons make their dampening effect felt in such wars even when nobody threatens their use. As a result, the United States for one has only been able to employ its conventional armed forces in cases where its vital interests were not at stake. The war fought in Korea, a small appendix of Asia several thousands of miles away, provides an excellent case in point. The American Chiefs of Staff recognized this even at that time, emphasizing the fact that the really significant areas were Japan and the Philippines. The same also applied to Lebanon (1958), Vietnam (1964-72), the Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1972-75), Lebanon (1983), and the Persian Gulf (1987-88). Looking back, so microscopic were the stakes for which GI’s were supposed to shed their blood that most of the cases could hardly even be explained to the American people. On occasions such as the Mayaguez Affair (1975) and Grenada (1983), so puny were the opponents against which American forces pitted themselves that hostilities took on a comic-opera character. (p. 14)

In the convoluted logic of the post-nuclear world, if a state goes to war, it is prima facie because it is an objective not a vital national interest. Any interest that is actually vital would involve levels of determination that are simply too dangerous to test. Vital national interests are those interests for which states were willing to pay prices in other ages that can no longer be afforded in an era of total annihilation.

New Aesthetic, 1975-1979

The aim of all these conferences is to be like the Broad Street water pump: a hub where everyone gets infected. The cholera outbreak of South by Southwest 2012 is New Aesthetic.

A morning sessions on day four of the conference was dedicated to the subject and James Bridle, the prime mover of the theory, wrote up some notes of his talk in what is now the text of reference (“#sxaesthetic“,, 15 March 2012). The basis for Mr. Bridle’s talk is the material he has been collecting for nearly a year now via his New Aesthetic tumblr. Bruce Sterling attended the session and wrote it up in an effusive post for Wired (“An Essay on the New Aesthetic“, 2 April 2012). A significant conversation has broken out on twitter. Julia Kaganskiy at The Creators Project has collected up a number of responses (“In Response To Bruce Sterling’s ‘Essay On The New Aesthetic’“, 6 April 2012). Ian Bogost has responded in The Atlantic Monthly (“The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder“, 13 April 2012).

U.S. Navy MARPAT digital camouflage

In the military, where the people are tessellated.

And Mr. Bridle isn’t making this up. There is the example of New Aesthetic with which most people are probably most familiar, namely military’s new generation BDU, the ACUPAT / MARPAT digital camouflage, consisting of complex, non-repeating pattern generated by fractal equations. But before starting this post I decided to go out and walk around my neighborhood to see how much stuff I could find in half-an-hour with a vaguely New Aesthetic sensibility. The street that I live on is only five blocks long, boxed in by a school, sports fields and parks department superblock to the east and Rock Creek Park to the west. At the east end of my street, the local library is undergoing an expansion. Here is the new wing under construction:

New wing of the Mount Pleasant Public Library under construction, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 13 April 2012

At the west end of my street, this guy finished a repurposing of his off street parking into an outdoor area just in time for the best weather of the year:

Repurposed neighborhood back parking stall, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 13 April 2012

That’s two independent projects within five blocks of each other in my sleepy spur neighborhood. New Aesthetic is obviously real as a popular practice, not just a theory.

I’m sympathetic but skeptical for a number of reasons. I will detail what are my two major reasons for skepticism here.

Bricks: pixilated clay, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 13 April 2012

Bricks: pixilated clay

First, as Nathan Jurgenson has said, an oddity of New Aesthetic is that “many of the images rely on the techno-nostalgia of the near past.” New Aesthetic is technologically eclectic in its inspiration, with some of its images reliant on the most advanced scientific visualizations, but a significant portion of its most outstanding images rely on pixilation, low resolution, interpolation, false color, reduced data sets or the selectivity of only machine-decisive elements. So we end up with things like pixilated crayons and umbrellas.

But this isn’t representative of the influence of technology on contemporary technology. It is an anachronism, a recreation of an already superseded era of computer capability. To illustrate by reference to the development of stealth technology.

Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk

New Aesthetic, circa 1979

The first of the modern stealth airplanes was the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. In response to the effectiveness of surface-to-air missiles in the Vietnam and Yom Kippur Wars, and to significant improvements in the Soviet air defense system, in 1974 DARPA requested that contractors begin investigating the application of advances in theories of radiation deflection into the construction of low radar cross-section (RCS) aircraft. The problem that designers faced was the need to come up with shapes that balanced the requirements of both aerodynamics and radiation-deflection. The prototype that Lockheed Skunk Works developed came to be known as Have Blue. Aeronautical engineer Bill Schroeder worked with software engineer Dennis Overholser to write a program called ECHO-1, run on a Cray supercomputer, that would search a design space for an optimum tradeoff of aerodynamics and radar cross-section. The problem was the limited computational power at their disposal. Searching over the variability of smooth shapes would have resulted in an intolerably long run-time. The way around this problem was to limit the variability of the surfaces by what came to be termed within Lockheed Skunk Works as “faceting”: the larger the facets, the shorter the run-time. What determined the facet resolution of the plane that would become the F-117 Stealth Fighter was the desired run-time of the computer program to optimize its design trade-offs. In essence, the facets of F-117 are the resolution of the simulation used to select the optimum design. The F-117 is the Atari of fighter planes.

(Even having so optimized the design, the aerodynamics were sufficiently compromised by the demands of a minimal radar cross-section that the plane had to be fly-by-wire, with an onboard computer system making constant minor adjustments to engine thrust and control surfaces to stabilize the plane.)

B-2 "Spirit" stealth bomber

The new New Aesthetic.

But only a few years later the New Aesthetic moment has already passed. By the time that DARPA began contracting in 1979 for a stealth strategic bomber to replace the B-52, the availability of computer power had already improved markedly, to the point where the smooth surfaces of the Northrop Grumman B-2 “Spirit” stealth bomber are specified to such exacting precisions that most of the pieces for the stealth skin of the plane are cut and assembled by machines. A scant four years later the pixilated faceting of the F-117 had been superseded by organic shapes of the B-2, the Jurassic Park of airframes. At the high-end of computing, 1979 was already the end of New Aesthetic. Through consumer products like Atari, NES and VGA, the computational and engineering practice of New Aesthetic would persist into the early 1990s, but much beyond that New Aesthetic becomes “shock of the old”.

Taraxacum officinale: A 30 million year old network cluster diagram

A 30 million year old network cluster diagram.

My second cause for skepticism can also be construed as an extension of Mr. Jurgenson’s question, “why reduce ontological, epistemological & phenomenological points to aesthetics?” To identify the aesthetic as the interesting feature of these phenomena is to really diminish the significance of what it is that is happening in the most unusual of these situations. What is more interesting than the surface appearance of the end products is the fact that the limits of our computational capability, the limits of information, the limits that exist in the ideal realm are pushing out to become the limits of the material world as well. What is interesting about things like the F-117 stealth fighter or buildings designed with AutoDesk is not that they look computer-y, but that they are interfaces, sights of interaction between the ideal and the material — and more important, places where the ideal has assumed the superior position, determining the contours of the material.

Secretary Clinton: Let Me Show You the World in My Eyes

Or perhaps the correct reference for that last post was Depeche Mode rather than Andy Warhol.

Let me take you on a trip
Around the world and back
And you won’t have to move
You just sit still

Now let your mind do the walking
And let my body do the talking
Let me show you the world in my eyes

Strategic Depth and Obama’s Rejuvenation of Global Arms Control

Steve Clemons in his summation of President Obama’s winning streak on nuclear issues invokes the notion of “strategic depth” (“Obama’s Nuclear Wizardry and the Iran Factor“, Politico, 13 April 2010). It’s not an uncommon term, but one rarely given much by way of explication. Fortunately Mr. Clemons isn’t just breaking it out to conceptually pad his article, in that he calls out an element of this week’s accomplishments that serves as an excellent illustration of the idea:

In a quick succession of deals focused on pre-empting a 21st-century nuclear nightmare, Obama has mended the foundation and infrastructure of a global nonproliferation regime that United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Vice President Dick Cheney and others of the pugnacious nationalist wing of the last administration worked hard to tear down.

And, by bringing together 47 key leaders, Obama is signaling to all stakeholders that a nuclear crisis with Iran and other potential breakout states would undermine the global commons.

Yet he is not vilifying Iran or its leaders. He is not making the same “axis of evil” mistake President George W. Bush did.

Instead, Obama is showing the benign and constructive side of U.S. power to other great states like India, China, Brazil and Russia. He is also inviting Iran to get in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and get back into a club that matters — where Iran could be respected for adopting a sensible course.

The Obama administration is restoring the non-proliferation norm to “a club that matters.” For the previous administration, either a state wanted to adopt a certain policy, or they didn’t; there was no context in which they may have preferred to do one thing over another, so there was no need to apply the nation’s diplomatic energies to construction any particular sort of international régime.

That was a strategically thin diplomacy. If it appears that the future of the international system is the gradual breakdown of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, if the system is lowly regarded, treated with apathy and abandonment on the part of the great powers, if declining compliance and the emergence of a number of new nuclear powers seems the likely future, then there is little to recommend compliance or membership. What incentive is there to join a system one anticipates failing in the near future?

But if the NPT seems the way of the future, if great energies are devoted to shoring up and extending the non-proliferation framework, compliance is the norm among the respectable states, if the nuclear powers are making headway toward their Article VI obligations, if the possibility of new nuclear powers seems increasingly remote, then that’s a strategic context in which an entirely different set of decisions will seem the best means to a country’s objectives of security, prestige, diplomatic latitude and so on.

Further, broadening the circle of compliance and advocacy takes some of the lime light off of the United States. This makes it much more palatable to recalcitrant elements. In the case of Iran, if faced with knuckling under to the hated United States, the answer will certainly be no. If asked to cow to a group of flunkeys subordinate to the United States, the prospects won’t be much improved. But joining the global consensus among nations is something they might do. It allows them to save face among their citizens and their international constituents should they chose to back away from their nuclear program.

By imbuing the present architecture with a sense of a bright future, increasing compliance and broad support, the Obama administration is bringing the weight of a whole international system to bare on Iran. This seems like a program with more potential than just the usual carrots and sticks.