Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife

Rules of a different type of war

Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam

John A. Nagl

Mr F B K Drake (right), Civilian Liaison Officer-in-Charge of Dyak trackers in Malaya, talks with some of his selected jungle fighters. Photo: Central Office of Information
Mr F B K Drake (right), Civilian Liaison Officer-in-Charge
of Dyak trackers in Malaya, talks with some of his
selected jungle fighters. Photo: Central Office of Information


There are two powerful ideas which I am constantly trying to place before my students. The first is “adapt.” In class, you are constantly receiving signals about an assignment and how you can more fully understand it. In life, there is a premium on perpetual learning, on noticing and incorporating important changes in the environment; those students at my school who succeed are those who can adapt. The second idea is this: “Look beneath the surface.” Whether it is a person, a battle, or a poem, the dynamics we discover beneath the appearance are often much more telling than what you first see on the surface.

These same two ideas are present and compelling in John Nagl’s excellent book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. In his close analysis of one obscure modern military campaign and one famous modern campaign, he shows us that an army is an organization which must always be prepared to learn with honesty. War, the reader quickly finds out, is not what you think it is.

Lieutenant Colonel Nagl is a warrior-scholar, having led a tank platoon in the First Cavalry Division in Operation Desert Storm, and again in Khalidiyah, Iraq. A great value he brings to the subject is his own experience with counterinsurgency.

In the following interview (which our Associate Editor Jason Ridler conducted), you can see the wide range of influences the author drew upon, as well as his reflections on America’s current counterinsurgency efforts .In the accompanying book review, I have tried to block out the main ideas for lay readers who, like me, want to understand asymmetrical warfare.

Commonwealth troops serving in the Malayan Emergency of 1948-51 were able to adapt to warfare wholly unlike that of WWII.
Commonwealth troops serving in the Malayan Emergency of 1948-51 were able to adapt to warfare wholly unlike that of WWII.

Interview with John Nagl, D.Phil

By Jason S. Ridler, Ph.D. 18 March 2013

Your doctoral thesis was a comparative look at the British army’s experience during the Malayan Emergency and the US army’s experience in Vietnam. Each conflict had very distinct differences in terms of geography, culture, and national tradition toward war and insurgency. What value was there in taking a comparative approach?

I was heavily influenced by the work of Dr. Alexander George [a behavioral scientist, author of Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences]. George emphasized focused and structured comparisons in case studies. Despite legions of differences between the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War, there were still lots of common variables under the umbrella of conventional armies learning to conduct unconventional warfare. I considered a number of other conflicts of the last century, including the Philippine/American War, perhaps the best example of American success at counterinsurgency. But I found in both Malaya and Vietnam more compelling data in comparing armies being asked to “change their spots” to fight the war they faced, instead of the war they’d prepared for. The learning bar for each was very high.

What assumptions about that war did you have before you began your research, and where they challenged, or confirmed when you finished your thesis?

I tried not to have too many assumptions at the start, and instead just wanted to investigate the questions I raise in the book about why Britain succeeded in defeating the Malayan insurgents and the US failed in Vietnam. In my analysis, the British are able to learn better, quicker, before the people at home tired of the war. To understand why the British excelled and the US faltered, I came to the core argument that organizational culture explained the different outcomes more than anything.

Gentleman, we are out of money. It’s time to start thinking.

The deep sinews of any successful organization are its capacity to learn. It took a lot of research and consideration to come to this conclusion, but the more I analyzed the two case studies, the more I began to appreciate organizational learning culture as the key to appreciating both outcomes.

While the study of organizational culture is complex, can you provide a critical insight into the difference between these two cultures to illustrate your point?

The core difference between the two, again, relates to their organizational culture. The British Army was more flexible, less hierarchical, and more open to good and different ideas. The US army at the time was less so. I should note that it’s also difficult to separate people from their cultures. The British Army had a tradition of being resources strapped, constrained financially as well as in firepower. I believe this generated a need for innovation and creativity. There’s an apocryphal quip attributed to Churchill during the dark days of the Second World War. “Gentleman, we are out of money. It’s time to start thinking.” The British never had the firepower resources that dominated American operational and tactical thinking in Vietnam. The US relied on its resources perhaps more than innovation. This complicated its ability to learn from mistakes.

Do you think the British Army’s tradition in fighting on the fringe of empires, and conducting imperial policing, contributed to this flexibility of thought?

Yes. The British Army view “small wars” as part of their core responsibility.  Fighting in foreign parts of the Empire, with different cultures and geography, would require appreciating the unique differences in fighting an insurgency as opposed to conventional warfare. The US Army, despite experiences in “small wars” and insurgencies in North America and elsewhere, did not appreciate them the same way. The army was designed to fight the “big war.” Tom Ricks had a good line about this issue: for the US Army, the Civil War was the Old Testament, the Second World War, the New Testament. Unconventional warfare has never been a top priority for the US Army despite long experience with it, and that is extremely unfortunate.

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife has a definite “lessons learned” approach to both the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War. Considering your own experiences and views on counter insurgency and warfare, what are the greatest lessons to be learned from each conflict for today’s thinkers on war and insurgency?

The best lessons were actually synthesized in FM 3-24 [the US Army Field Manual on Counterinsurgency, the document that provided the doctrinal framework for the “surge” in Iraq]. In my own view, some elements remain perennial. The people are always the goal, you have to win their support against the insurgent, and you have to be able to learn and adapt to local circumstances.

Revolutionary wars are fought with ideas as much as they are contested with weapons.

In learning the lessons of Malaya, I joke that if you have to fight an insurgency, do it in a peninsula where you have logistical superiority and the insurgents don’t border a friendly supporter nation, and do it before CNN is invented. All kidding aside, the British had a series of advantages but the principles I outlined, of winning the support of the people and separating them from the insurgent, were followed. Vietnam, as a tragedy and failure, is rife with lessons. One would be the importance of selecting the right commander for the job. Perhaps the biggest lesson is that Great Powers inevitably lose small wars when they lose the national will at home to support them.

You served in Iraq in 2003 as the Operations Officer of the First Battalion of the 34th Armored Regiment (the “Centurions”) after you’d finished your dissertation. So your experience in Iraq began when the US army found they were no longer fighting a strictly conventional. One of your core themes in LEARNING TO EAT SOUP WITH A KNIFE is the difficulty of changing an institution’s mode of operation. Can you discuss how, if at all, your study of Malaya and Vietnam helped you and your unit adapt to the challenges in Iraq?

(Laughs). I have a few thousand stories, but I’ll limit it to one. One critical element was the necessity of working with local police forces. When I arrived in Iraq, I made this a priority. We got local Iraqi police to come out on patrol with us, but we had to do it by force. Remember, at this time, the insurgents controlled the night. And working with us voluntarily was dangerous.  Our rifles in their backs had to be their “life insurance” or else they’d have been killed that night by insurgents.

I always knew COIN was difficult. But I had no idea just how difficult it was until I tried to apply the principles myself. We know the principles work; people like Carter Malkasian, a courageous and intrepid State Department official, made them work in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The question isn’t does it work, but is it is worth the cost? It’s a fundamental question to consider, but it’s a political question that soldiers aren’t well placed to answer.

A common thread in your analysis is the role of political and military leadership having the same goal, of a realistic dialog between civil and military operators being a key to victory. What’s intriguing is that neither General Templer nor General Westmoreland were schooled in the experience of counter insurgency, and, by their record, had more or less conventional backgrounds. Why do you think Templer was able to not only inherit the troubles of Malaya in 1952, but reconfigure the operations to actually succeed in achieving Britain’s goals of a defeated insurgency and a domestic government en route to sufficiency, while Westmorland could not or would not do something similar in Vietnam?

Again, I think it’s healthy to consider context as well as individuals. Templer was a very thoughtful, perceptive, and keen minded man. While most of his wartime experience was, indeed, conventional, he’d also served in Palestine with its unique political, ethnic, and religious milieu. I think he had a broader range of thinking than Westmoreland. Westy was as conventional as it got, with next to no formal military education and certainly no serious study of COIN. He was a creature of his time, too, and was probably best suited to fighting in the Second World War.

The Parliamentary British system of government has created a more adaptable army than has the presidential American system.

There is of course a lot of scholarly debate about Westy’s role in Vietnam, and what might have unfolded if Creighton Abrahams had been selected first (see the work of Lewis Sorely and Mark Moyar). Abrams was also exceptionally experienced in conventional warfare, but had a more innovative intellect as demonstrated in his command of MACV.

Your title is taken from T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which was one of General Giap’s “bibles” for warfare in Vietnam, especially regarding leadership. What value do you think Lawrence has for understanding Vietnam and, perhaps, other insurgencies?


Training camp of the Malayan insurgents. Photo: IWM
Training camp of the Malayan insurgents. Photo: IWM

Lawrence has many values, even if his own account of events is often historically suspect.

First and foremost, he wrote from the insurgent POV. Not many insurgents write memoirs. Many die in defeat, and even in victory those who succeed don’t have time for spreading their views and ideas, and some come from impoverished backgrounds and have no interest or ability to write about the experiences. Lawrence gave us an astonishing account of what it was like to fight an insurgency against a dominant power, and win. Another value is in how this romantic notion of the insurgent, his ideas and approaches, can captivate others. The appeal of insurgency can take root in popular opinion, and in today’s global media space, this cultivation of support for the underdog, romantic insurgent fighting against the dominant power is worth serious consideration.  Countering the insurgent narrative is enormously difficult—like eating soup with a knife, you might say—and we haven’t been very effective at that battle of ideas at which Lawrence excelled.

Book review

In a little-known – “little-known” to lay readers like me, at least – military campaign, British forces were successful over a three-year period between1948 and1951 in turning back a Communist insurgency in the Federation of Malaya (still under the protection of Britain, Malaya would be become independent in 1957). In his outstanding book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, John Nagl revisits that campaign and shows us how young British officers were able to release the conventions of World War II and embrace a wholly different type of warfare. The British forces adapted, changed strategy, and were able “to defeat the guerillas at their own game by gaining the support of the local people.” In Vietnam, American forces were not able to so the same. This book tries to explain why, and the resulting lessons carry a powerful message for those of us who are not scholars of military history.

He concludes that the decisive factor was not logistics, not battlefield bravery, not any of the Nine Rules of War (MOOSEMUSS), but learning: “The U.S. Army was not as effective at learning as it should have been.” He finds that, while a handful of young British offices were alert enough to change that force’s approach, the U.S. Army “to a disturbing extent attempted to continue business as usual even when the old techniques no longer applied to the kind of enemy it faced.” The author interviewed both British veterans of the Malaya Emergency and American veterans from Vietnam, and clearly had open access to the archives.

Chapter One is entitled “How Armies Learn” and establishes the premise that success in war has as much to do with organizational theory as it does military science.

The essence of the American army … is ground combat by organized regular divisional units. Although the American army tolerates the existence of subcultures that do not directly to the essence of the organization, these peripheral organizations do not receive the support accorded to the core constituencies of armor, infantry, and artillery.

Part II of the book delves into the details of how this occurred. We read correspondence among the British as well as that of their enemy, the Chinese-influenced Malaya Communist Party (MCP). Part III, the author does the same with America’s much longer campaign in Vietnam (1950-72). In Part IV, he draws the comparisons between the two and emerges with a handful of hard-won lessons. Here is the first:

The Parliamentary British system of government has created a
more adaptable army than has the presidential American system.

A decade later, in that same subcontinent, America’s army was unable to adapt. Here is how he puts it (from Chapter Nine):

The organizational culture of the British Army allowed it to learn how to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign during the Malayan Emergency, whereas the organizational culture of the U.S. Army prevented a similar organizational learning process during and after the Vietnam War.

An army, Nagle argues, must be an adaptable organization: the army that is able to learn quickly is the army that wins the conflict.

He sets the stage for these two modern campaigns, going back to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Here is one of my favorite passages:

The American Civil War demonstrated the vast latent military potential of the United States. Falling as it did in the midst of the industrial revolution, the war was marked by the first use in combat of the railroad, the telegraph, and rifled repeating firearms. More importantly, it created and solidified the image of war as conventional battles between opposing mass armies …

One of his richest chapters is Chapter Two, “The Hard Lesson of Insurgency.” Here is how he begins the chapter:

Low-intensity conflict has been more common throughout the history of warfare than has conflict between nations represented by armies on a ‘conventional’ field of battle.

While conventional battles make for better stories, it may be that the more shapeless series of insurgencies are actually more telling. Here Nagl quotes the British military theorist Robert Thompson’s Five Principles of Counterinsurgency:

  1. The government must have a clear politic aim; to establish and maintain a free, independent and united country.
  2. The government must function in accordance with the law.
  3. The government must have an overall plan.
  4. The government must give priority to defeating the political subversion, not the guerillas.
  5. In the guerilla phase of an insurgency, a government must secure its base areas first.

In the course of his semi-epic narrative, Nagl hopes to demonstrate to his readers that war is not what it appears to be. While on the surface it is about combat force and strategic targets, underneath it is about culture and people. The surface explosions and the underlying struggle are linked, and the latter is by far more important. Here he quotes the British diplomat Oliver Lyttelton in his assessment of Britain’s chances in Malaya, 1951:

I summed up by saying that we could not win the war without the help of the population, and of the Chinese population in particular; we would not get the help of the population without at least beginning to win the war.

This simple advice can apply equally to America in Vietnam, Soviet Russia in Afghanistan, America in Iraq, and a half-dozen other asymmetrical engagements. Nagl also brings examples like T.E. Lawrence, his Seven Pillars, and his success in North Africa into the discussion.

This is not a book written for college students, but I recommend it to all college students, because you are going to be fighting in and paying for the next counterinsurgency (wherever it is). We all need to understand how this works. Difficult as this scholarly book may be for the general reader, this is necessary reading for all of us, especially the current generation of students. Western engagement in counterinsurgency looks to be a part of our future: the better we all understand it, the more successfully we can deal with as a nation. We do not want to continue applying the wrong resources and methods to the problem – trying to eat soup with a knife.

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The Generals


American Military Command from World War II to Today



Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf
Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf

Much is written these days about teaching leadership. I’m not sure we know how to actually teach leadership in classrooms. If we can, this is the book to do it: The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today is the closest thing we have to a textbook on the subject drawn from real people in the real-life enterprise of war. Ricks gets his hands dirty. We see specific incidents and the vivid details of leadership, both good and bad, in action.

Thomas Ricks’ remarkable book The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today is as excellent as it is ambitious, and that is saying something. Over 500 pages (including notes), The Generals takes on a most sprawling and complex story: the story of American military leadership from World War II to today.

In a work with such a giant and comprehensive exposition, it is easy for an author to get lost in the research, cluttering up the storyline with many learned digressions. Not Ricks. The Generals is so successful, I think, because it is all second nature to the writer. He seems to know all this automatically, and does not call attention to all his own detective work (I certainly would). Ricks’ delivery of anecdotes and observation is effortless. The reader does not feel like he or she is working hard to follow the story, and to see its themes emerge.

Thomas Ricks is well versed in all the fundamentals of writing. His prose in The Generals is an excellent example for my English 102 Research and Analysis students as they learn how to conduct research, construct an essay, and weave multiple perspectives into an effective long essay. His thesis is powerful and provocative, and he is careful that his fact-filled exposition is always in support of it. The reader is never far from the author’s narrative line – a remarkable quality for a book on such a vast topic.

Eisenhower and Patton, close friends with very different styles of leadership
Eisenhower and Patton, close friends with very different styles of leadership

Interview With The Author

Interview with Tom Ricks, fellow at the Center for New American Security and Pulitzer Prize winning author of Fiasco, The Gamble, and, most recently, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, which includes an extensive section on the decline of generalship and its impact on the Vietnam War.

Interview conducted by Jason S. Ridler, Ph.D.  – 20 March 2013

In The Generals, you argue that since the Second World War, US Generalship has been in decline. Strategic thinking and accountability for failure (in the form of relief of command) have faltered and been replaced by more tactically oriented generalship and lack of accountability. What led to this decline as the America became more actively involved in the Vietnam War in the early 1960s? What was the immediate result?

I don’t know what led to the decline in accountability in the Army in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I suspect three factors were in play:

–First, in small, messy, unpopular wars, it is more difficult to know what success looks like. (Though there are some clear instances, such as the performance of Ridgway in Korea and Petraeus in Iraq.) Also, the Army is warier of relief in these wars, because removing people can provoke questions from members of Congress.

–Second, the Army generals of the 1960s tended to be the most successful battalion and regimental commanders of World War II, and because they had risen so quickly, they often didn’t get much military education. They tended to think, Hey, we beat the Nazis, how could an Asian peasant army give us a hard time? But in Vietnam, simply delivering firepower turned out not to be that effective. Westmoreland, mainly an artilleryman by training, boasted that he had attended only two Army schools—parachute school and cooks and bakers school.

–Third, there were major changes in the American military establishment in the 1950s. With the emergence of the Cold War, you got a big bureaucracy—and as Robert Komer observed in his terrific analysis of the Vietnam War, bureaucracies do not what they need to do, but what they know how to do. The Army specifically was a an institution adrift in the 1950s, not knowing what its role was in the new era of nuclear weapons, or whether there was a place for ground forces at all. At one point, its budget was half that of the Air Force, which was getting new planes and missiles and opening bases overseas. In response, Maxwell Taylor, when he was chief of staff in the late 1950s, steered the Army toward what he called “brushfire wars.” And Vietnam looked to some like a fine test case.

Altogether, this resulted in a real wariness of relieving failing officers, which had been the American military tradition. In World War II, some 15 division commanders in the Army were removed for combat ineffectiveness. To my knowledge, only one Army division commander was relieved in Vietnam. And I don’t think the generals of Vietnam were 15 times better than the generals of World War II.

One argument that emerges in Vietnam is that senior leadership, civilian and military, gave lip service and little more to the fact that they were facing a mix of conventional and insurgent warfare. Many point to Westmorland as the primary villain in this regard: refusing to embrace or appreciate the unconventional nature of the war. Would you concur?

Pretty much yes, though I think Taylor is more to blame for getting us into Vietnam than Westmoreland is. That said, both failed in what Clausewitz says is the first task of the senior commander—to understand the nature of the conflict in which one is engaged.

You also establish the failure of leadership in the wake of the My Lai Massacre. I recall reading your blog (BEST DEFENSE) while you were research this subject and how upsetting it was for you to read. How and why does My Lai support your contention of the failure of strategic leadership and vision in the US Army in Vietnam?

To me, the killing of more than 400 Vietnamese civilians, and the rape of dozens of women and girls, by American troops, with officers present, represented a moral collapse of the Army. We tend to misremember My Lai as resulting from the actions of one rogue platoon. It was not. It was a two-company operation, with the battalion commander and the brigade commander present at times. The Army’s official investigation concluded that the division commander, Samuel Koster, was part of the cover-up, almost certainly aware of the felonious destruction of documents. Ray Peers, the general who led the investigation, concluded that Koster lied to him. Yet Koster, having brought more disrepute on the Army than perhaps any general since Benedict Arnold, was not kicked out of the Army. He was not even court-martialed. He was demoted one rank, to major general, transferred to Aberdeen, and allowed to remain in the Army for some time.

To me, that represents a huge, screaming failure of accountability. The only redeeming factor was that Peers conducted a thorough and honest investigation, under great pressure, both in terms of time and politics.

Gen. Petraeus talks with U.S. soldiers at Combat Outpost Monti in eastern Afghanistan on August 5, 2010
Gen. Petraeus talks with U.S. soldiers at Combat Outpost Monti in eastern Afghanistan
August 5, 2010

Book review

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today

If I told my faculty colleagues that I intended to write a history of American generals over the last 75 years, along with the wars they fought, they would take me aside and talk me out of it. It took Thomas Ricks five years to write this, but the effort was well worth it. The Generals is a rare and brave book, delivering a clear-eyed history of the modern era of American military leadership.

The Generals needs to be read by all our high school and college students. They will be fighting in and paying for our next war, one way or another. For all the theoretical writings on leadership, here is one that shows the consequences of leadership style and decision-making in real time, often measured in real lives.

Ricks casts a clear light on a full roster of military leaders, dwelling on well over forty subjects. Among them:

World War II

George C. Marshall. Ricks casts Marshall as a pivotal figure, “primarily a soldier” yet a superior leader in many ways. As captain, Marshall risked his career in speaking up to Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing. Marshall’s “greatest attribute was his ability to reduce complex problems to their fundamentals.” His ideas about what makes a good leader proved to be a powerful influence on 20th century generalship.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, of whom Ricks writes, “The genius in selecting Dwight Eisenhower was to recognize the potential match between Ike’s qualities and the unique challenges of being the supreme commander of a multinational force in a globe-spinning war.” Particularly in relation to MacArthur, Eisenhower is portrayed as a general who embodies many of the virtues of good leadership.

This is a story about a remarkable group of men.

George Patton. The “specialist” in military pursuit is portrayed as “strange, brilliant, moody,” an outlier to the Marshall leadership model, a natural warrior too tempestuous to be a good manager. Patton and Eisenhower were close friends, and Ricks clearly admires Patton for his dynamism and color.

Mark Clark. An Eisenhower general whose “approach in a crisis tended to be to blame everyone but himself,” Clark “should have been removed from his position.” His German foe, Kesserling, took advantage of Clark’s aversion to risk. Ricks points to Clark’s survival in a leadership position as a sign that our military was going wrong: “There is much more of Clark than there is of Patton in today’s generals,” he concludes (ominously).


Ridgway (rear) and MacArthur. Photo: The National Interest
Ridgway (rear) and MacArthur. Photo: The National Interest

Matthew Ridgway. Ricks reserves some of his highest praise for Ridgeway. He admires Ridgway’s “strong democratic streak,” refusing as he did to use a platform to address his men. “Looking into their eyes tells you something,” said Ridgway, “and it tells them something, too.” Ridgway knew what he wanted in his leaders and did not hesitate to relieve of their command those who did not measure up. Ricks credits this general with turning around the Korean War.

Douglas MacArthur, “general as presidential aspirant” and “useful idiot,” marks the end of the old order to Ricks. “He does not fit the Marshall template of the low-key, steady-going team player,” and that is putting it mildly. MacArthur is seen as a general with an “abrupt, emotional and highly personal” style of leadership who was capable of taking credit for others’ accomplishments.

American generals were managed very differently in World War II than they were in subsequent wars.


Maxwell Taylor, who led the Vietnam generation of generals, is cast as an intensely political man who advised Kennedy to enter Vietnam without understanding the implications. Taylor, writes the author, played on mistrust among generals and “made a habit of saying not what he knew to be true but what he thought should be said” in order to extend his own influence.

William Westmoreland is portrayed as the wrong pick to command in Vietnam. “He is spit and polish, two up and one back,” warned on one his peers. “This is a counterinsurgency warm, and he would have no idea how to deal with it.” Ricks recounts that Westmoreland’s command of military efforts in Vietnam suffered from a lack of strategic direction.

William DePuy catches blame in Rick’s narrative, for his “insistence on a tactical focus and the parallel repudiation of Gen. Cushman’s call for a broader-minded, deeper-thinking sort of senior officer.” Ricks cites another general regarding DePuy’s basic error: “He misunderstood the nature of the war, downrating pacification and emphasizing massive search and destroy operation.” DePuy inadvertently contributed to what Ricks refers to as “the collapse of generalship in the 1960’s.” Lyndon Johnson was another contributor, increasing the divide between military leaders and civilian decision-makers.


Colin Powell was, in Ricks’ view, “adroit in working in the political world of Washington” and thereby avoided the clashes that his colleague Schwarzkopf encountered. Ricks spends three chapter on their involvement in “the empty triumph of the 1991 Gulf War” and its haunting aftermath. Powell was determined not to repeat the mistakes of Vietnam, yet in Ricks’ view he made a few of his own. For one, Powell was among the leaders who “missed the message of the Battle of Khafji, resulting in a war plan that instead of destroying the Iraqi military pushed its most important units back into Iraq.”

Tommy Franks comes under sharp criticism from the author. “If Norman Schwarzkopf embodied both the qualities and limitations of the post-Vietnam military, Tommy Franks was the apotheosis of the hubristic post-Gulf War force. Like Schwarzkopf, Ricks refused to think seriously about what would happen after his forces attacked.” The hubris Ricks refers to cropped in warning signs that his superiors ignored, permitting the inattentive Franks to remain far too long, according to Ricks.

David Petraeus is compared favorably to Matthew Ridgway as a general “arriving and soberly reassessing the situation and then, through clear thinking and impressive willpower, as well as taking advantage of changes on the ground, putting a new face on it.” Ricks also credits Washington overseers for their involvement after the Iraq setbacks of 2006. “Not a single general has been removed for ineffectiveness during the course of this war,” advisor Eliot Cohen advised President George Bush.

When the military does not relieve senior generals, civilian officials will.

Thomas Ricks is able to set these men and their leadership styles into context, comparing and contrasting them with one another and with generals like Terry Allen and Montgomery. Through Ricks’ narrative, we can see their actions from the vantage point of their soldiers, their peers, and their civilian overseers. I never felt the author had an axe to grind.

Components of what emerges from the book as a portrait of the good general can be found in Chapter One, where Ricks describes George Marshall and the type of leader he was looking for: “optimistic and resourceful, with relentless determination … generals who would fight, but not men who would command recklessly. “Above all, Marshall looked for “steady, level-headed team players. He wanted both competence and cooperativeness,” and valued effectiveness over appearance.

Again, in Chapter Two, Ricks directly addresses his topic: “In other words, successful generalship involves first figuring out what to do, then getting people to do it. It has one foot in the intellectual realm of critical thinking and the other in the human world of management and leadership. It is thinking and doing.” Another trait that Ricks spotlights is “the almost mysterious” ability to sense battlefield developments (Chapter 4). Knowing and exploring the terrain (as opposed to ‘roadbound’ officers) is another component of good generalship in Ricks’ view, (Chapter 12), as is empathy: “Knowing how to read the mood of soldiers is also part of being a general.”

A private who lost his rifle was now punished more than a general who lost his part of a war.

A second level of information in this book on leadership is, of course, a generous helping of military history. For a layman like me, Ricks brings to light the inner workings of the total war effort a nation puts forth (not just the combat, which it turns out is only a small part of the whole). I have gained a clearer insight into the differences between Korea and Vietnam, Vietnam and Afghanistan, and especially World War II and all that followed.

A third level of exposition is how America shapes its institutions, and how the nation has changed over this span of recent history. “When we understand the Army, and especially the changes in its generals,” writes Ricks, “we will better understand where we are as a nation and why we have fought the wars we have in the era of the American superpower, from Sicily and Normandy to Saigon, Baghdad and Kabul.”

Here he quotes historian Faris Kirkland, Army veteran of Korea, who found little difference between the performance of Marine and Army troops in Koreas:

But in their more senior officers – majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels and generals – he detected crucial distinctions. “Marine commanders at Chosin demonstrated knowledge of tasks, obstacles and the means to overcome them” wrote Kirkland. “Army commanders showed dash, bravery and hope: but little understanding of such matters as communications, reconnaissance, fire support and logistics.”

Part IV covers the interwar period between Vietnam and Iraq. Here is Ricks’ oveall or establishing view of the state of our military at this point on the timeline:

Coming out of Vietnam, the Army was shattered … As in the 1950’s, it faced a basic question. This time the issue was whether it could exist without a draft. Over the following twenty years, it would remake itself. It recruited a force of volunteers. It revolutionized how it trained soldiers, with far more realistic field exercises. It overhauled its doctrine of how to fight. It developed an array of new weapons. Almost everything about it changed but its concept of generalship.

As he notes in the Prologue, Ricks looks more at leaders in the Army over the other services (I wonder what he would make of Admiral Hyman Rickover, General Hap Arnold or General Curtis LeMay) and prefers the European theatre of World War II over the Pacific.

George C. Marshall in France
George C. Marshall in France

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What Could Lee See at Gettysburg? 


A Sense of Where You Are

by Anne Knowles


Early in his career one of our finest writers, John McPhee, wrote a memorable book about Bill Bradley called A Sense of Where You Are. In it, the writer developed an idea that Bradley, the best college basketball player in the country, succeeded because of his “extraordinary range of vision.” This constant and accurate sense of where he was in relation to the shifting patterns of his teammates, the opposing players, and the basket gave him an edge as important as any physical talent.

Lee on his horse Traveller.
Lee on his horse Traveller.

It is this same idea that Professor Anne Knowles now takes into a fascinating new approach to history. Robert E. Lee, she argues, did not have a clear sense of where he was, and paid the price for it. That is, his limited understanding of the battlefield topography was a significant influence on the decisions he made during those three days at Gettysburg. Had he known more accurately where the Union positions were, for example, he might have endorsed Longstreet’s recommendation to swing south and attack the Union from behind. If we don’t stand where he stood and see what he saw, Prof. Knowles argues, then we really don’t get it.

In the essay “What Could Lee See at Gettysburg?” Prof. Knowles looks at Gouvernour Kemble Warren’s experience mapping the Sioux Territory as well as Lee’s background on the Mississippi River and in the Mexican-American War. She sets the battle in context and finds that Lee took his men into Pennsylvania “without [reliable] geographical information,” and paid a price for it.

There is a deep well of wisdom in Prof. Knowles’ approach. A growing number of scholars are discovering that we are all like Robert E. Lee: each of us is influenced by our geography. Richard Florida, Jared Diamond, Robert D. Kaplan and Benjamin Schwarz are just a few of the people measuring how the powers of place can affect our cities, our careers, our health, our food, and much more.

Perhaps equally important is Prof. Knowles’ conviction that only a collective approach to history – where many disciplines work together – can begin to approach recreating an accurate representation of any event.

I strive to write spatial narratives, which may hover over a given time or place to give a broader view that explains the geographical context of events.

When I taught for a week at the Navy War College, there was a vote for the most valuable lesson; the SEALs and SWICs unanimously chose the “Geography is Destiny” lesson plan. You can see why – in any battle, thorough knowledge of the terrain is going to provide one side or the other an advantage.

My cadets instantly see the usefulness of geography. We apply it to John Steinbeck and Barbara Kingsolver as well as the cadets’ home towns, Omaha Beach, the Kingdoms of Benin, and the success of Google. There is almost always something of value to gain when you add a consideration of place into the mix..

GIS, or Geographical Information Systems, is an approach to history that uses new technologies in an effort to take history beyond the book, into new representations and new forms of analysis. This is technology impacting the traditional study of history. The idea is to use computers to change how we view people and events, to experiment with different ways of organizing historical data. GIS and “spatial histories” have been developing over roughly a decade and a half. A densely written 2008 collection of essays entitled Placing History (which Prof. Knowles edited) is the first book I can find to set forth this viewpoint. One of the essays, by Peter K. Bol, describes GIS as “a platform for organizing data with temporal and spatial attributes – population, tax quotas, military garrisons, religious networks, religious networks, regional economic systems, family history, and so on – representing them graphically and analyzing their relationships.” Extremely ambitious. You can begin to see how these historians think when you read some of Richard White’ Foreword to Placing History:

The map is good at representing some kinds of space but not very good at tracing relationships through time. The historical form – the narrative – is not very good at expressing spatial relationships. Relationships that jump out when presented in a spatial format such as a map tend to clog a narrative …

GIS is a much larger methodology than just using geography – it incorporates new mapping software and datasets, adding quantitative history to narrative history in ways I don’t really understand. This much I do know: once you see the pervasive power of place, you begin to see it everywhere. I have listed in the lesson plans a number of topics with links to the use of geography in a wide array of circumstances.

In this interview and in the following excerpt, Prof. Knowles uses the methods of GIS to cast new light on this most familiar battle and the way decisions were made. She discusses the general tenets of GIS as well as the specific lessons for us waiting in a new look at the three fateful days of Gettysburg.


Interview with Prof. AnnE Knowles

1. What is “quantitative history”? How does it complement or contrast with narrative history?

I wouldn’t make this distinction. History is the study of the past. There are many ways to do historical research, including quantitative and qualitative methods, which one can also think of as being to varying degrees textual, visual, or numerical. Geographical approaches to history tend to draw on more than one method to answer both historical and spatial questions. As for narrative, that word refers to how one writes, not one’s method of investigation. I strive to write spatial narratives, which sometimes describe and explain events (this is what most people think of as narrative history) but may also hover over a given time or place to give a broader view that describes and explains the geographical context of events.

2. How can you explain Geographical Information Systems (GIS) as a subset of quantitative history? What is a GIS database? What new techniques have allowed us to understand the “historical construction of space”?

Historical GIS studies are so varied that they really shouldn’t be categorized as a subset of quantitative history. I would call historical GIS a trans-disciplinary method that can be quantitative or qualitative or both. As a digital framework for locating people, places, historical conditions, and events, a GIS is fundamentally quantitative because it assigns location according to geographical coordinates that are linked to a mathematical projection that transforms the three-dimensional sphere of the Earth into a two-dimensional plane. A GIS database may also contain quantitative information, such as census data, land values, and numerical codes for other kinds of information.

But a GIS database can also contain many kinds of qualitative information, such as the languages people speak, the emotions associated with particular places, the materials from which buildings were made, and so forth.

The GIS databases typically used in historical research consist of a spreadsheet, or a relational database, that contains “attributes” or characteristics that are linked to the locations of the places, people, or regions you are studying.

This project has made me a great believer in the value of interdisciplinary research.

A GIS project may also include what are called “raster” layers, which may be satellite images or scans of historical maps or layer of terrain elevations – any information contained in a grid. One of the great things about GIS is that you can layer different kinds of information that apply to the same geographical space and display, or analyze them, together. “The historical construction of space” is a huge subject! But a few basic techniques have proven really useful in visualizing past landscapes and analyzing their structure. One is using digital scans of historical maps that you then “georeference” so that they align with actual locations on the ground. If you georeference a series of maps that show the same region at several points in time, you can then use transparency to make each period appear in turn, so that you can see change over time. You can also digitally trace, or extract, particular features from georeferenced historical maps to combine in a GIS database. For example, if you had maps of the highway system in Los Angeles in, say, 1950, 1970, and 1990, you could trace the lines and combine them in a single map in GIS to show highways’ tremendous growth and how it is related to the explosion of LA suburbs.

3. One of the premises of your article is that Robert E. Lee might have made an entirely different set of decisions had he seen the battlefield topography clearly, from every angle. Because his view was limited, so was his decision-making. What might he – or McLaws, Warren, or Longstreet, or any of the commanders – have done differently?

I am currently working with a number of researchers to create a more detailed digital rendering of the battlefield, with troop positions and (we hope) 3D views from a number of viewpoints to assess the limits on commanders’ views at a number of decisive moments. It is easier to estimate what they could not have seen, and to assess the wisdom or daring of the decisions we know they made, than to answer the counterfactual question of what they would have done differently had they had perfect information about the battlefield and the disposition of the enemy. If Robert E. Lee had been able to see the entire battlefield from every angle, he would not have been a Civil War general – he would be a 21st-century general operating drones from a fully equipped digital war room with live-feed, high-resolution, fixed satellite imagery and radar and so on.

If Lee had looked longer and harder, from more vantage points, at the Union position … he might have been more willing to swing south below the Round Tops to attack the Union from behind.

In the spirit of your question, I think, is the question of what Lee or other commanders might have done differently had they known somewhat more than they did. I’m inclined to believe that if Lee had looked longer and harder, from more vantage points, at the Union position at Gettysburg on Day 2 or even Day 3, with better scouting information about the strength of the Union forces, he might have been more willing to follow Longstreet and Hood’s recommendation to swing south below the Round Tops to attack the Union from behind, rather than making frontal assaults from problematic positions.

A more typical and limited view at Gettysburg, obscured by hills and trees. Photo: Hundredfold Farms
A more typical and limited view at Gettysburg, obscured by hills and trees.
Photo: Hundredfold Farms

4. For young scholars, what is the most accessible way to understand and apply the “added value” of GIS to conventional narrative histories?

The greatest single value GIS adds to history is that it situates history in the places where it happened. Working with GIS makes you very aware of physical circumstances, of distance and proximity, of obstacles and avenues. Combined with fieldwork, it brings a heightened sense of the physical reality of historical places that improves one’s ability to imagine, and so to write, vividly.

5. Iwo Jima is often cited — at least it is in my classes – as a clear example of battlefield geography being battlefield destiny. What are other historical battles where an outcome might have been different had topography been fully understood?

Custer’s last stand jumps to mind, and the Battle of Saratoga in the Revolutionary War.

I see the addition of sound, and analyzing what people may or may not have been able to hear, as an approaching frontier in historical research.

6. Now that modern militaries have satellites and drones, is military science entering a new age of near-perfect geographical awareness?  Will there be fewer and fewer tactical errors due to limited knowledge of the battlefield/ Will there even be conventional battlefields in future wars?

Great questions. I have a sense from people I have met from West Point that geographical training is more important than ever in educating officers for the field.

While digital systems, including GIS, provide enormous amounts of tactical information, the speed of warfare is also changing, with decisions made in a click that can have enormous consequences. Warriors have much better knowledge of terrain, but since Viet Nam it has become increasingly difficult to know who the enemy is and how to stop them decisively. Machines still cannot provide all the intelligence commanders need to avoid errors.

7. How much does “aurality” have to add to our understanding of these great battles?

So much! I see the addition of sound, and analyzing what people may or may not have been able to hear, as an approaching frontier in historical research, which a few pioneers are already working on today. I also think scholars will soon be adding voice to their digital interpretations of the past, including military history.

Since Viet Nam it has become increasingly difficult to know who the enemy is and how to stop them decisively.

The eye – the human mind – still struggles to read text and visual images. Our brains jump from one more to the other, with momentary disconnects between each kind of thinking. Movies grab and hold us partly because simultaneous sound and sight simulate our experience of the real world. Historical interpretation should strive for that simultaneity.

8. What three things would you like the new generation of college students to take away from your work?

Learn digital technologies, but don’t let yourself be entirely beguiled by how “cool” they are. Think critically about what they genuinely add to your understanding and what they conceal or cannot show. Don’t mistake “cool” for “real.”

Read, read, read. Understanding the past is a never-ending quest, because we can never, ever recapture it entirely. The more you read about the historical subjects that interest you, the better you will be able to think about them from your own perspective.
Keep an eye out for historical maps. Maps contain kinds of information that no other historical sources contain. And try making your own maps, to keep track of complex events, as a graphic form of note-taking, and as a way to present your findings. Maps enrich every step of historical research and story telling.

9. Since you wrote this, has the field of study changed?

GIS generally has passed through at least two technical generations since I wrote “What Could Lee See at Gettysburg.” There are now excellent freeware GIS programs; 3D and virtual reality programs are more available to ordinary computer users; GoogleEarth and GoogleMaps have made maps and mapping much more common; and historical GIS continues to grow.

“The historical construction of space” is a huge subject!

There are now many historical websites with all kinds of fascinating information and images. But it’s still not easy to do really innovative, revelatory HGIS, because doing that requires having a question no one has asked before and finding a compelling way to answer it.

10. What new directions do you hope GIS will take you (and other scholars)?

Most ground-breaking GIS projects require collaboration, because they are labor intensive and call on a range of skills. I hope the new generation of historical scholars will retain the strong focus of independent scholarship while being more open to collaboration with other historians, geographers, computer scientists, and graphic artists to develop deeply researched, visually powerful new explanations of important historical events. Since “What Could Lee See,” I have been working with a team of historians and geographers studying the geographies of the Holocaust. This project has made me a great believer in the value of interdisciplinary research, if everyone involved can let the members of the team play to their strengths and all contributions can be valued. We have so much to learn from one another.

Pickett’s Charge, disastrous for the South, as re-enacted at the Battle of Gettysburg’s 145th anniversary.
Pickett’s Charge, disastrous for the South, as re-enacted at the Battle of Gettysburg’s 145th anniversary.

Review “What could lee see at Gettysburg?”

Lord Wellington famously asked that no one ever attempt to write a history of the Battle of Waterloo. If you were not there, he argued, you cannot possibly understand all that happened; it is better to leave it alone than to disrespect the lives lost by portraying it incompletely.

Ann Knowles’ 9,000-word essay, “What Could Lee See at Gettysburg?” (the full text of which appears in the anthology Placing History) is a pioneering look at a new method with which we can make our histories more accurate. The new perspective she brings is a broad and deep view of the many ways geography influences us. Scholars have debated several key points about the three-day battle that changed the war, in particular why Lee chose to attack the Union in a frontal assault (the fateful Pickett’s Charge on Day Three).

By closing reading the topography and lines of sight as they existed that day, Prof. Knowles and her team of collaborators reveal valuable new insights. Yet Prof. Knowles mini-study of Gettysburg is also the harbinger of a new brand of historical method, Geographical Information Systems (GIS), which brings databases about everything from psychology to weather to sound to population, tax quotas, religious networks, economic systems and family histories — into our consideration of historical events and decisions. As Richard White puts it in his introduction to “Placing History:”
The major geographical form – the map – is good at representing some kind of space but not good at tracing relationships through time. The historical form – the narrative – is not very good at expressing spatial relationships. Relationships that jump out when presented in a spatial form … tend to clog a narrative.

Prof. Knowles’ use of GIS is about much more than geography – it about bringing the entire range of new tools in information science to bear on history. New databases can change and amplify the traditional linear narratives of most historical scholarship. As White states, “GIS offers the ability to experiment with different ways of organizing historical data.” This widened lens can give us new ways to interpret the decisions made by people so long ago.

“Of all the ways geography served as the ‘handmaiden of power’ in the nineteenth century,” Knowles begins one of the early sections in her essay, “none as more important than the role of topographical mapping in military campaigns.” She goes on to consider Lee’s own extensive background in the Sioux campaign and the Mexican-American War. She cites Ulysses S. Grant as a leader with “an intuitively brilliant grasp of the lay of the land and an ability to swiftly exploit advantageous conditions.”

The lay of the land would play a key role at Gettysburg. “What McLaws, Longstreet, Warren and Lee actually saw … has received little attention. Scholars have basically accepted the participants’ written statements about what they saw at key moments as recorded in official reports and personal statement.”

Mapping history …showed me how history resides in the landscape.

Knowles finds that there were, in fact, huge gaps in the leaders’ sense of where they were, a “fundamental lack of appreciation by both North and South of terrain intelligence … which lead to strategic blunders and consequently unnecessary deaths” (Gulley and de Vorsey as quoted by Knowles). The oral reports from scouts gave commanders an understanding of terrain which lacked scope. Lee, she concludes, took “approximately seventy-five thousand men into Pennsylvania without [reliable] geological information.” Jeb Stuart did not help, since he failed to send a single dispatch regarding the disposition of Union troops.

Robert E. Lee after the war. (The Civil War Playlist)
Robert E. Lee after the war. (The Civil War Playlist)

What then, Prof. Knowles asks, were Lee’s lines of sight? What was his field of vision? “Can the evidence of sight be used to test the credibility of the generals’ post-hoc justifications, such as Longstreet’s explanation of his long countermarch on July 2?” Her conclusion is that Lee’s decision to press a frontal assault at Gettysburg was flawed:

How could such an exceptional commander, expert in reading terrain, fail to recognize the attack would be a disaster? The traditional explanation, favored in particular by Lee admirers, is that his underling, Gen. James Longstreet, failed to properly execute Lee’s orders and marched his men sideways while Union forces massed to repel a major Confederate assault. “Lee’s wondering, ‘Where is Longstreet and why is he dithering?’” Knowles says.

Her careful translation of contours into a digital representation of the battlefield gives new context to both men’s behavior. The sight lines show Lee couldn’t see what Longstreet was doing. Nor did he have a clear view of Union maneuvers. Longstreet, meanwhile, saw what Lee couldn’t: Union troops massed in clear sight of open terrain he’d been ordered to march across.

Rather than expose his men, Long-street led them on a much longer but more shielded march before launching the planned assault. By the time he did, late on July 2, Union officers—who, as Knowles’ mapping shows, had a much better view of the field from elevated ground—had positioned their troops to fend off the Confederate advance.

From Tony Horwitz, “Looking at the Battle of Gettysburg Through Robert E. Lee’s Eyes,” Smithsonian magazine December 20012

This research helps vindicate Longstreet and demonstrates the difficulties Lee faced in overseeing the battle.

“Good ground” means defensible terrain with a field of vision that minimizes the chances of being surprised by the enemy.

She is careful to call it “an exploratory methodology,” but the potential in a new, data-enriched approach is easy to see. She herself has applied the method to two new subject areas since her essay on Gettysburg. Her newest book, Mastering Iron, uses new methods to take a closer look at the American iron industry. For this project, according to a recent profile of her in Smithsonian magazine, Prof. Knowles first created a detailed database of every ironworks she could find. She then “mapped factors such as distances from canals, rail lines, and deposits of coal and iron ore.” The results? “Patterns and individual stories that emerged ran counter to earlier, much sketchier work on the subject. Most previous interpretations of the iron industry cast it as relatively uniform and primitive, important mainly as a precursor to steel. Knowles found instead that ironworks were tremendously complex and varied, depending on local geology and geography.” Her current project is mapping the Holocaust, in collaboration with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and a team of international scholars. There will be more innovative historical works like hers, and I think we might all benefit from learning how to read the land as she does.

# # #

View the online Smithsonian.com Gettysburg website, which has Bachelder’s changing troop positions and 3D renderings of what Union and Confederate commanders could (and could not) see at six key moments in the battle.

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They Took The Words From Our Mouth!


Native Language, National Literature and Cultural Revitalization in Colonialism: Ireland As A Case Study

Joe Reilly, Ph. D

Brian Boru, A King of Ancient Ireland
Brian Boru, A King of Ancient Ireland
Dr. Douglas Hyde
Dr. Douglas Hyde


The Irish language has been a focal point in the long bitter relationship between Ireland and England.  In his provocative article, my colleague Joe Reilly looks at how a dedicated man named Douglas Hyde helped the Irish regain their language and with it their cultural inheritance.  It is a pathway charted by two scholars, Fritz Fanon and Albert Memmi. Professor Reilly uses their theories to explain the mechanics of language assimilation.

As he points out, a handful of “big languages” – English being most prominent among them – now dominate world commerce and world culture.  But that, he argues, is not an innocent or neutral phenomenon – dozens of “minority” languages are discouraged and even snuffed out to make room.

Celtic cross, a symbol of ancient Ireland
Celtic cross, a symbol of ancient Ireland
It quickly follows that cultural heritage of that population can die with its language. It is not an isolated process – Professor Reilly compares the Irish example to African and Israeli cultural revitalizations, as well as others we can see and hear around us today.

Professor Reilly writes the ways he lectures – extremely knowledgeable, often partisan, always provocative. He pulls in a wide-ranging and colorful host of causes and effects to his linguistic model of empire, from Mississippi barbecues to Navajo Code to Geechee . I hope you will look at the full text of his article, where he gives a more detailed account of “Marginal Men” as well as added theories of Fanon and Memmi.



1. Was the Irish attempt to construct a national identity ultimately successful?

Why or why not?

The cultural work of The Gaelic League / Connradh na Gaelge and other organizations constructed the modern Irish identity based on historical reverence. Hyde pointed out repeatedly Ireland’s culture was the only major European culture left uncontaminated by Roman Imperialism. Ireland’s culture is an anthropological and linguistic gem for understanding its culture and determining a blueprint for understanding pristine cultures.


The recent economic boom and bust, which mirrors the recent past for all nations, proved success of this cultural construction. Since Ireland is in the European Economic Union (EEU) they had an influx of guest workers from central Europe. Ireland accepted refugees from various nations in the world. Because of this modern linguistic mix the Irish language is spoken in public as a nationalist badge.


Today, everyone in Ireland’s schools must learn the Irish language. Now it is being put to use daily. It is a cultural success.



2. What forces ran counter to Ireland’s independence of language?

All traditional “West Briton” / pro – British / Unionist opinion saw Irish language revival movement and its literature movement as anti-Imperial by its very nature. Brendan Behan told a story of being in a bar in England where he and others were speaking Irish. They were thrown out of the bar for speaking Irish!


Douglas Hyde was aware as a trained lawyer of the Penal Laws of 1695 to 1829 which made it illegal to write one’s name in Irish on their store sign or write documents in Irish. He also was aware of legal precedents giving freedom to British subjects to go about their business without interference. He played up all laws and precedents giving British subjects the freedom to pursue their interests without interference.


3. Historians like Niall Ferguson might reply to your argument that Ireland suffered at England’s hands by stating that domination of one nation by another is a natural process in history, and that Ireland received benefits from its relationship with England. Is there any merit to that view? Does the “colonizer wins / colonized loses” model always hold true?

Ferguson (whose name means “Strong Man” in Irish) can be seen as an apologist for the British Empire. He gives a generalized view of “might makes right” in magazine columns, books and television interviews. He looks at the same facts I am look at for my research. He draws a different opinion from the same situations. He sees how a handful of “Big Languages” — English, French, German and a few others — now unite the world.


Yet many languages are used widely in today’s world. Thousands of languages disappeared in the last few centuries due to colonialism and linguistic oppression. Manx Gaelic is extinct due to British Imperialism. At least two dialects of Irish (Decies from Southwest Ireland and Roscommon from the West Coast, which was Douglas Hyde’s initial dialect of Irish) have gone extinct.


Ferguson and Dinesh D’Souza both see more advantage to English-speaking upper classes in all nations of the world than tragedy of lost heritage. The British built roads and buildings and bridges in Ireland. Some suspect they “managed” the Great Famine, which killed or displaced 4 million people in a handful of years, to their advantage. The advantages are clear. The losses are vast. Colonizers withdrew labor and food and kept strategic ports for years. All advantages to the colonized such as enforcing use of the English language was incidental: Imperialists never wanted to help anyone but themselves.


4. Are there other examples to which we can compare or contrast the Irish cultural revitalization? The Jewish cultures in the Diaspora? Native Americans? The rise of India, a former colony? African language and culture in America?

Cultural revitalization or preservation movements make fitting “compare and contrast” items. Robert Briscoe, the Orthodox Jew of Irish birth and culture, visited Israel in its early years. He said Ireland and Israel were similar. Both were ancient peoples with an ancient language but without a nation state for centuries. Israel’s diaspora was vast but there were always some Hebrew-speaking Jews in Israel. Ireland always had some Irish speakers in Ireland as well in all nations of the Irish diaspora.


Native Americans of the Cherokee Nation, Comanche Nation and Delaware Nation are actively preserving and teaching ancestral languages to their young people. Seventy-five per cent of all Navajo only speak Navajo due to the large number of their nation and isolation of their homeland. Cultural revitalization or preservation has continued for these various Nations. There were never laws against keeping their culture. The Federal policy was to encourage homogenization through schooling. The irony is the US Marines in the Pacific War of World War II had Navajo speakers use their language in voice communication.

The US Army in Europe had Comanche speakers use their language in voice communication. Neither the Japanese nor Germans could determine the language or its codes. Native American languages were important in national security in this last century.


India has so many languages that English is used as their common language. British colonialism could not eradicate native culture in India due to its complexity. Gandhi usually spoke English for that reason. Indian cultures retained their languages and pride yet find it useful to adapt to The Stranger’s language for efficiency.


African language and culture in the Americas is a mixed bag. Some isolated African slave descendants in parts of South America retained their language and were mutually intelligible to contemporary Africans from West Africa. American slaves were required to learn and use English. Adopting Swahili or any other African language is an attempt to establish a tradition but it is a tradition lost long ago. Cultural practices amongst Black Americans have roots in African cuisine and family relationships but there are only traces of linguistics left such as the Geechee of the American South.


5. What would Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi think, looking back at the Irish experience in the 20th and 21st centuries? Do you see traces of Irish culture which have “won out” in England or America?

Fanon and Memmi described North African colonial experiences and French Imperialism. Parallels in their descriptions to Ireland show the commonality of Nationalism reducing Imperialism. Although the Irish Revolution occurred before North Africa’s anti-colonial movements these collective actions were very similar. I expect Fanon and Memmi would see Erin’s Celtic experiences against British culture and political power in reclaiming sovereignty as universal and applicable to Arab cultures against French culture and political power.



6. Do you see traces of The Stranger in today’s stories?

Ireland’s economic relationship with London was defined by Giovanni Costigan as Puerto Rico’s relationship with New York. Irish guest workers or immigrants abound throughout Britain. The Irish television network RTE/Radio Telefis Eireann produced original programming about Ireland. The television series Ballykissangel was about a small town in southeast Ireland. Everyone spoke English to each other. Two marginal characters spoke Irish at one point.


The primacy of the English language is ubiquitous. Although the characters would have been educated in speaking Irish the use of English is so mundane that The Stranger’s cultural presence is constant. Another series was Ros Na Run (which means Rose of The Secret ), which was almost entirely in Irish in a town in the West Coast. All of the Irish speakers shunned Bearla / English and no English was spoken in its dialog. This cultural uniformity ironically shows the modern Nationalist vow of Connradh na Gaeilge: “Speak English only when Irish is not understood.”


7. Do you see similar processes today? Do nations still ‘compete’ in language? 

Do these same processes apply to Asians in America, or Moroccans in Germany? 

Several decades ago it was pointed out by my Modern Europe professor that American English is now the lingua franca of international business. People who speak various languages usually all speak American English. Contracts are written in American English for that reason. Yet small groups of linguistic minorities remain. Some guest workers or immigrants will abandon their ancestral culture and others teach it formally or informally. I happened to see a Food Network program recently about barbecue restaurants in Mississippi.  One Chinese family has operated a popular barbecue restaurant in Mississippi for three generations. This extended family was shown having a reunion.


All of them spoke with charming Southern accents. All of them could “code switch” into Chinese in a moment. Douglas Hyde said in 1905 he would encourage any Irishman or Irishwoman to learn English for commercial reasons. He would encourage them to speak Irish to retain their soul. This process goes on today in every nation where there is any linguistic minority.

Language scholar Albert Memmi
Language scholar
Albert Memmi



They Took The Words From Our Mouth!

Native Language, National Literature and Cultural Revitalization in Colonialism:

Ireland As A Case Study


“The past is prologue” is a concept that holds for all individuals and all cultures.

The concept was first stated in ancient Greece. The idea remains practical wisdom. The past has identifiable patterns of thought and action. Any ideas from and about a nation’s past provide its members with expectations in the present as well as plans for the future.

Our understanding of our cultural past builds pride for personal and collective self-concepts. Role models of ancient heroes or contemporary notables are role models for anyone’s aspirations. Native role models have always been particularly important for nations that have been colonized. Yet these same self-concepts can become a threat to the colonizer.

Tacitus, the Roman Senator, said twenty centuries ago “Empires are not maintained by timidity.” A colonizer must degrade the culture of the colonized to establish and maintain control over the native population. Positive native role models improve the self-respect of the subject people. Even a prisoner in his homeland wants inspiration.

Colonial empires existed since ancient times. In 1900, more nations were colonies than were sovereign states. During the first half of the 20th Century most colonies became sovereign nations. A few colonies exist today. Six counties in Ireland are held by Britain.

Colonialists sought to control colonized people and to encourage them to believe they were inferior to the colonizer. The Irish language has the term An Gall, The Stranger, to define the foreigner who came, stayed and settled. Colonized people could not defend their homes nor protect their homeland from well-armed Strangers with bad intent.

Despite The Stranger’s occupation positive thoughts a colonial subject had about his homeland provided legitimacy for ancestral traditions. These traditions – that which is expected, repeated or attempted – depend on our understanding of the past. A colonial subject knew he was a loser, whether the defeat was in his lifetime or his grandfather’s lifetime. Every colonial subject knew every day he was politically subject to The Stranger (and local collaborators).

Colonial collaborators were “Marginal Men.” (the ‘margin’ is on the border). The colonial Marginal Man was on the border, or edges, of both cultures. This collaborator was on the edge of his culture and The Stranger’s culture. This Marginal Man was a small percentage of his homeland’s population.

Ireland’s revolution was the first modern loss to the British Empire.

Ireland’s Revolution began a year before the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Irish Revolution has been given scant attention by theorists of revolution. This lack of interest may be due to Ireland’s low profile in international power politics. Possibly it is due to persistent anti-Catholicism amongst proudly unchurched academics. Ireland’s revolution is a textbook case of a nationalist revolution.

Ireland’s revolution follows a pattern of national revolution noted independently by two scholars major Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi. These theorists predicted nationalist revolution will originate from peaceful cultural revitalization. The next phase, they predicted, will be a peaceful political appeal for reform. The Imperial Mother Country will reject these cautious requests as too radical for its commercial and political interests.

Fanon and Memmi were socialized in French-speaking colonies. Each theorist defined language as the central dimension of colonialism. Language, they both felt, would become the central dimension of anti-colonialism. To them, language was equal to national culture. Fluency in two languages was participation in two cultures. Fanon said accepting The Stranger’s language and educational system negated self and community and was a personal form of moral prostitution. The upwardly mobile native intellectual became fluent and even eloquent in The Stranger’s language. The Marginal Man felt he was part of and belonged to The Stranger’s culture.

Fanon and Memmi believed that if the native language was rejected, this rejection would result in disillusionment within the colonized population. Some colonial subjects would resort to violent revolution to redress their grievance. Individuals leading the violent revolution would be Marginal Men.

The predictions made by Fanon and Memmi held true in the case of Ireland, its cultural revitalization, its peaceful politics, and finally the Irish armed revolution (although Fanon and Memmi described personal and group processes seen in Ireland’s Nationalist Revolution, neither writer mentions Ireland).

English monarchs wanted to eliminate Celtic culture. Ireland’s culture was much different from England’s culture and much older than England’s culture. The Romans did not invade Ireland. Ireland had the only major pristine culture and language in Europe. It is the oldest vernacular in Europe. Cultural homogeneity meant political and military success in colonization. Ireland’s language and native institutions were outlawed by British Penal Laws in Ireland from 1695 until 1829.

Fritz Fanon
Fritz Fanon

Under British rule, Ireland’s stepsons and stepdaughters sought firm identity as “Irish,” not as British subjects. Cultural revitalization promoted all attempts for political equity for the Irish people. England’s Parliament was threatened by any political reform and opposed peaceful political requests for reforms in the 1800s. Queen Victoria rejected all reforms within her Empire.  Victoria was unprepared to change anything to do with English colonial power. She was more comfortable speaking and writing in German than in English.

When the Potato Famine of the 1840s wreaked havoc on Ireland’s population, the British Empire’s relief efforts were inadequate, year after year. A legend still told in Ireland is Queen Victoria donated five pounds sterling to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She then donated five pounds sterling to Irish famine relief. Her attitudes and actions earned her a unique name in Irish history: the “Famine Queen.”

In the decades after the Famine the Irish found a newfound cultural vigor.

Marginal Irish were especially disillusioned by the failure of peaceful politics in activating the Home Rule Bill of 1912. This legislation would have secured more just treatment for Ireland. Some culturally conscious Marginal Men were motivated to join the firestorm of national revolution aimed at a new goal. They did not want to make Ireland a Dominion within Britain’s empire. The new aim was to establish the Republic of Ireland.

A new dimension of Irish nationalism developed and became the cultural standard. Revolts were funded by American emigrants and their children who had left during the famine years. This population gave arms and money for the War of Independence in the 1920s.

Language itself became a battleground. The Irish people developed a form of English that reflected ancestral sound patterns, rhythms, word choices, idioms and sentence structure. One distinction of Irish is it is unique in not having words for “yes” or “no.”

If an Irish speaker is asked if they like something the answer will either be “Is maith” which translate as “It is always good” which is roughly “yes.” The answer of “Ni maith” translates as “It is never good” and is roughly “no.”

Ireland’s situation also improved because of England’s larger problems. The Irish language was the engine of Ireland’s new cultural and intellectual movement. The founder of the movement was Dr. Douglas Hyde who was the son and grandson of Anglican ministers. Dr. Hyde founded The Gaelic League (or An Connradh na Gaeilge). An Connradh worked to encourage the Irish people to speak the Irish language again. The League’s work was always to restore Irish as the nation’s primary language. Dr. Hyde and his  contemporaries understood the importance of language and devoted their efforts to popularizing Irish culture.

In 1892, Dr. Hyde delivered an address that began the revitalization movement (he published it as a pamphlet later that year). His argument was entitled “The Necessity for De-Anglicizing Ireland.” It was a revitalization embraced by the citizens. I was once told by a native Irish speaker: “They took the words from our mouth.”

No longer. Being Irish and speaking Irish became a mark of achievement and pride.

It was no longer a mark of national and cultural inferiority. Ireland’s national shortwave radio station, 2RN or “To Erin” was a powerful cultural effort that helped bring back Irish culture. 2RN was established to counteract British Broadcasting Company radio programming in English.

Literature is the creative use of a language. Literature has proved another powerful vehicle for Irish cultural revival.  Proverbs, poems and tales excited the Irish imagination. “Marginal” poets like William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory and John Millington Synge were Anglo-Irish. They wrote poems and plays in English. Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory had never learned to speak Irish (since they were Anglo-Irish, descendants of colonial garrison members.)

New writers like James Joyce celebrated traditional Irish culture in their modern works. These plays and poems extended the Nationalist Movement as entertainment for anyone who could understand English. The logical development of a national culture as the basis of a sovereign nation was suggested to everyone in their audiences. Poems and legends of Ireland’s past were collected, transcribed then printed. From the 1890s until the 1920s two thousand Gaelic League chapters met weekly. Fifty thousand well-educated prosperous opinion leaders spoke Irish and talked about literature and about Ireland’s place in the world. All seven signatories of the Irish Proclamation of Independence in 1916 were connected to the language movement. Each of them — Padraig Pearse, Seosamh Plunkitt, Thomas MacDonagh, James Connolly, Sean MacDiarmada, Eamon Ceannt and Thomas Clarke — was a published poet.

Standish O’Grady was an Irish author who brought back the culture of Ireland’s past. He was a proud Anglican native of Dublin who authored novels and histories on Ireland’s past glories.  O’Grady was known to speak his mind despite any consequences.

He proclaimed in 1899:

“We now have a literary movement, it is not important.

It will be followed by a political movement.

That will not be important.

Then must come a military movement.
That will be important indeed.”
(Quoted in Thompson, 1969: 61 – 2, 113; Dangerfield, 1976: 137).

These words turned out to be prophetic. And the Irish Revolution turned out to be the beginning of the end of the world’s largest empire.

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Machines as the Measure of Men


Science, Technologies and Ideologies of Western Dominance
Michael Adas

Editor’s Introduction

Original commissioned illustration by U'i Naho'olewa
Original commissioned illustration by U’i Naho’olewa

Professor Michael Adas’ interview and the review below, in which I have tried to capture his main themes and give a flavor of the way he thinks and writes, can serve as an introduction to the study of technology and the many ways it has changed us. The current generation of students needs an entry point into this most valuable field of study, never more vital than today. One of Adas’ primary ideas is this: equal to or more than weaponry, it was the terrific wave of knowledge which provided the fulcrum for Western domination over the “Oriental’ or non-western world in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. And while that paradigm is changing today – as seen in Stephen Hawkins’ recent plea that “Science needs Africa” — it is invaluable for us to look at the roots of modernity.

I often think that the current generation – like the ones before it – does not step back from the machine world enough the really “see” it. The scientific system of knowledge is a primary influence on our lives, not because of the convenience but also our language, our sense of time, the value we place on ourselves and others, and on and on. Using an array of first-hand accounts, the author retraces with us how Westerners changed their own culture and then used machines to change and encounter other cultures. The ideas of the Enlightenment provided the weapons that defeated superstition, disease, paganism, and irrationality – until World War I, which caused a reassessment of science-driven values.  This ambitious and remarkable book delivers a jump-start to our appreciation of machines’ long-term influence over man.

If we imagine how ridiculous Richard Trevithick’s proposal for the first railroad must have sounded (“Let’s go outside and build a perfectly even track of gravel, timber, and steel rails from here to the next city. Then we can mount a gigantic rolling machine on it, and go back and forth.”), we can begin to appreciate how radical the machine age has been. Trains, cameras, airplanes, refrigerators, telegraphs, telephones, the computer — dozens of generations of extraordinary technologies are layered into our modern lives. But it has arrived with consequences that we need to understand.

Prof. Adas’ interest is not in recapitulating the Industrial Revolution but in the shadows it has thrown on the wall – that is, the deep and wide effect machines have had on our cultures, values and literature since Europeans and Americans began to first exercise a “working control” over the natural environment. This process of domination (as Adas demonstrates) has not been particularly sinister, nor was it ever any kind of conspiracy. Rather, it is a powerful marketplace function: advanced weaponry displaces crude weaponry. Modern food production displaces traditional agriculture. Scientific theory trumps superstition.

A recent New Yorker article calls into question our latest Industrial Revolution: if the technology boom is so great, it asks, why aren’t things better? Productivity is not that much changed, the middle class is disappearing, our happiness levels are lower than during the 1950’s. The answer (if there is one) may not be as important as asking the question.

Adas provides a framework in which students and general readers like me can place theorists like Jared Diamond and the economist Thomas Sowell (whom one of my faculty colleagues assigns), among many others. To understand the particular stories of specific technologies, we need to understand the master narrative. A similar new transition to higher levels of machine-driven modernity is taking place today, with those same non-Western cultures embracing American laptops and Swedish cell phones. Western science is a tremendous boon to civilization, but it is not “free.”

Contemporary woodcut of Perry’s steamship entering Japanese waters.  Western technology would soon transform Japan.
Contemporary woodcut of Perry’s steamship entering Japanese waters.
Western technology would soon transform Japan.

Interview With
Michael Adas

June, 2013


1. Edward Said suggests that almost every work of literature is, in its own way, political. Every poem, every play, every story sets forth a certain philosophy of the world in which there is a hierarchy; it can be used to further one nation or one culture over another.

Are technologies political? Are machines political, or are they neutral? Is the IPod or a Chevy Volt an instrument of colonization, or are they just “ingenious novelties” that anyone can buy?


2. You begin your remarkable book Machines as a Measure of Man with a story in which a  European explorer,  William Smith, encounters a tribe of natives along the Gambia river. The encounter is unsettling for both because the very design of the ship he is sailing was “a marvel of design and workmanship” which represented technology in which the Westerners reigned supreme. Is this type of encounter still taking place today? Is the divide still as sharp? Is the gap between America and the Third World due to machines?


3. You cite the relationship between Japan and China as one in which Japan is perceived to have a special status among Asian cultures – in part because they accept and assimilate Western technology so quickly. Is that changing, with India’s new generation of engineers and China’s manufacturing for Apple?


4. A new book, “Engineers of Victory” by Paul Kennedy, sets into sharp focus the critical role played in World War II by engineers. Is combat technology the most significant “measure” among cultures?  Is that becoming truer as war moves from battlefields to satellites, drones, and cyber-warfare?


5. What are the three most important ideas you would hope a general reader takes away from your book?


Photo: National Park Service The author cites railroads as a technology with profound impacts on many cultures.
Photo: National Park Service The author cites railroads as a technology with profound impacts on many cultures.

6. You point out that, in the 18th and 19th centuries, canals and paved road and railways imposed a new pattern on our civilizations. What will the new patterns be in the 21st century?


7. Your chapter on the Great War holds that this is where the promise that machines would usher in a new age of “human liberation and improvement” died. Is that promise alive today? Is it a false promise?


8. Since you wrote Machines as the Measure of Man in 1989, the landscape has changed so much. What would you say in an Epilogue, or a new edition of the book that extends to include the internet age, as well as drones and sustainable technologies?


9. Are Third World cultures embracing new technologies? Is the new age of technology equalizing the world, or polarizing it? What are the three most important machines of the 21st Century, and what do they tell us about today’s “measure of man”?


10. What is your hope for the new generation of students, and the new machines they bring into existence?

Michael ADas’ Answers

Questions 1, 2, 3 & 5:  The Pre-Industrial and Colonial Centuries

 Maritime Heritage. Depiction of an early colonial encounter (Camaroon, West Africa)
Maritime Heritage. Depiction of an early colonial encounter (Camaroon, West Africa)

Both Machines as the Measure of Men (1989) and my more recent book on Dominance by Design: Technological Imperatives and America’s Civilizing Mission (2006) were written in large part to challenge the underlying assumptions of modernization theory that informed US approaches to the “developing” world in the cold war era and persists in various mutations to the present day. Both works sought to explore the technological hubris and (often racialized) notions of Western or Euro-American superiority in innovation and scientific investigation that justified colonial conquests and domination of much of the world beyond western Europe and North America. Confidence in their technological, and especially military advantages, has also been a driving force behind misguided wars that have had much to do with the decline of first western European and more recently American power and influence in a globalizing world.  When I researched and wrote Machines in the late 1980s, these assumptions and attitudes had been either ignored or peripheralized by most of the authors of a rapidly expanding corpus of works, perhaps most famously the writings of Edward Said, that were harshly and often justifiably critical of imperialism and Western misrepresentations of the peoples and cultures of the emerging nations of the post-colonial world. The very real advances the West had made in scientific knowledge and technological mastery by the nineteenth century and the advantages it enjoyed in interactions with most of the rest of the world led to a devaluation of past achievements of non-European peoples and the importance of their contributions – in mathematics, ship design, maps and instruments for navigation, to name just a few – to the processes of economic growth and global expansion that left the Europeans masters of much of the known world.

Western society was a huge engine that was out of gear …

As they moved out across the oceans to “discover” and ultimately dominate most of the rest of the world, the gap European explorers, traders and missionaries increasingly perceived in terms of scientific understandings and material culture between themselves and the peoples and societies they encountered significantly influenced the ways in which Europeans interacted with cultures as diverse as the stateless societies of coastal Africa and the vast and sophisticated Chinese empire. European observers often tended to overstate the “awe” and at times misconstrue what they believed to be admiration that “primitive” peoples, and even what they considered sophisticated societies such as those in China or Java, exhibited in even early contact situations. After all, European ships, instruments, and firearms, were not so different (on the surface at least) than those peoples over all but the most isolated portions of the Afro-Euroasian ecumene.  The Chinese had invented guns and pioneered the production of gunpowder; the three great Muslim empires of the early modern era had all been built on artillery, the Turks continued to excel in siege guns until the end of the seventeenth century: and the Japanese had improved on the muskets the Portuguese traded in the late 1600s.


But by the end of the eighteenth century – and again on the basis of comparisons of perceived material accomplishments – all but the most advanced non-Western peoples had come to be impressed, even daunted, by and eager to imitate the manufacturing techniques, military prowess and organizational acumen, and even the lifestyles of the aggressive and expansive European intruders.


Before the industrial revolution Western nation-empires relied mainly on sea power to advance their economic and political objectives in the Indian Ocean and along the coasts of Africa. But once ashore, they relied more often on their increasingly refined navigational and scientific instruments, disciplined modes of (especially military) organization and training, and innovative modes of fortification to make headway in vast and well peopled empires, such as those in Qing China, Mughal India and Persia.  Thus, technologies beyond, but including, the brute force delivered by guns were most certainly political, but the power they could project was variable depending on the peoples and states encountered. In the Americas, which had been isolated from the Eastern Hemisphere for millennia and was lacking in metal working, firearms and a whole range of key technologies, small numbers of conquistadors were able to topple massive and sophisticated empires and colonize tens of millions of Amerindian peoples. But recent research has demonstrated that Indian allies plus an influx of “old world” animals, plants and especially diseases, were the main forces driving these processes rather than superior Iberian weaponry or related technologies. Across the Pacific, even European sea supremacy and better muskets made little impression on the Japanese military elite or the scholar-gentry of China. In fact, until well into the eighteenth century, it was often the Europeans who were in awe of the great cities, productive agriculture and sheer size of Asian, African and (in the initial decades of contact) Amerindian societies.

The Chinese do not wish to know too much. Knowledge, if it continues to expand, causes endless trouble, and despairs of itself.


Questions 2, 3, 4, 7: The Industrial and Post-Colonial Eras

Photo:Landscapes of Technology Transfer  A Swedish iron mill in India. Western manufacturing methods transformed culture as it expanded.
Photo:Landscapes of Technology Transfer
A Swedish iron mill in India. Western manufacturing methods transformed culture as it expanded.

Even in the industrial era Euro-North American dominance over Africa and most of Asia was the product of diverse factors beyond technological superiority.  Communications technologies, particularly the telegraph and railroads, were perhaps the most decisive technological edge the Europeans possessed both in expanding their colonial possessions and ruling them. These technologies were also critical in crisis situations, whether brought on by revolts from within, most spectacularly the Great Indian Mutiny in north India, or threats from indigenous adversaries not yet brought under colonial control, as in the case of the Mahdist movement in the Sudan. With few exceptions, the Euro-Americans overseas armies were recruited overwhelmingly from colonized peoples, particularly those the Europeans viewed as (racially) martial. Europeans and Americans also staffed all but the upper levels of their imperial bureaucracies with Indians, Africans and Filipinos.

As Western advantages in killing power increased, rebellious or threatened peoples made ever greater use of time-tested guerrilla tactics. From Vietnam and across Africa’s Sudanic belt to Kenya and Mozambique guerrilla resistance proved the most potent counter to European and later American industrial and eventually high tech weapons. Even in the peak decades of Western global dominance before World War 1, the Japanese were able to ward off Euro-American domination due to their willingness and capacity to adopt, and in some instances improve on, Western science and technology, and their skill at playing off the great powers against each other. One of the most striking gauges of just how much success the Japanese achieved was the fact that racist thinkers found it difficult to classify them in the hierarchies Europeans and Americans were so fond of constructing all through the nineteenth century. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, regarded them worthy of the highest standing – musing that they might best be seen as “white” Asians.


Although railways, the telegraph and steamships remained important, since the 1920s telephone lines and automobiles and other vehicles – including tanks and APCs – driven by internal combustion engines have become increasingly central to globalizing international economy and the wars that have periodically divided the world into hostile and mutually destructive blocs. Driven in significant ways by the cold war standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, after 1945 a rapid succession of major technological watersheds – from the advent of the nuclear age to the computer revolution – have both accelerated the processes of globalization and paved the way for the spread of industrialization and the proliferation of developing and developed economies from Japan and the “little tigers” of the Pacific Rim and Brazil, India and Mexico. Most impressively, the doctrinaire excesses of the Maoist era in China have given way to a reformist, state capitalist regime that has fostered the resurgence of mainland China as a major force in the global economy and restored its millennial-long status as one of the world’s centers of technological innovation.


Questions 8-10: Epilogue: The End of the American Century? The Age to Come

In many ways Dominance By Design was intended to be both a US-focused critique of hubristic and ethno-centric early industrial notions of the West’s civilizing mission that is central to Machines as the Measure of Men and an extension of the earlier work’s epilogue on modernization agenda that drove American interventions in the cold war era and in some policymaking circles to the present day. Due in large part to the catastrophic world wars of the first half of the 20th Century (which are considered in depth in Machines), the resources and will of the European powers were severely depleted. At the same time, both wars contributed in major ways to the emergence of the United States as the key repository of technological prowess and innovation in the global system. Despite Russian gains and completion, this imbalance was maintained, and in some sectors America’s lead increased, in early decades of cold war.  For both superpowers, technological and scientific supremacy was both central to their rivalry, as dramatically testified by the importance of successive high tech races in weaponry and space exploration, and to their influence as global powers in the developed as well as the developing world.


Ironically, technological hubris and the paranoia that missile gaps and the nuclear standoff generated drove each of the rivals into regional wars that sapped their resources, and ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the relative decline of the United States as an economic powerhouse. In the longer term, economic decline – most readily visible in the deterioration of America’s infrastructure – and a succession of misbegotten wars (most notably in Vietnam and Iraq) – imperil the global military hegemony the United States has enjoyed since the Second World War. Even more ominously for humankind more broadly, the massive resources and human talents that have been devoted to the cold war rivalries and more recently to the misnamed “war on terror” have diverted attention from the environmental challenges that ought to be the main focus of international scientific and technological research and exchanges.  The unprecedented militarization of most of the societies that dominate the global order at present and the security-obsessed state systems it has spawned also pose major threats to the fragile human rights and liberties that have arguably been the greatest contribution of EuroAmerican societies to political and social development in the modern era, perhaps all of history to the present.

Still from The Matrix (1999). As we enter a new technological age, we still use machines as a “measure.”
Still from The Matrix (1999). As we enter a new technological age, we still use machines as a “measure.”

Book review

Machines as the Measure of Men:
Science, Technologies and Ideologies of Western Dominance

This is one of the most ambitious books you will run across. Adas sets out to trace the spread of European science and technology, and how it has been central to the global transformations that Western expansion set into motion. It is an expansive story of “… the unprecedented nature of the power and material wealth that the Europeans’ unique scientific and technological advances had generated.”  It is the story of how machines and colonization have traveled hand in hand. It is also much more than that, since Michael Adas seeks to document the many ways Westerners learned to dominate nature as well as non-Westerners.


In this multi-part epic, the author concentrates on three regions: India, China and sub-Saharan Africa. He is able to anchor most of his generalizations in specific anecdotes and personalities. Prof. Adas opens his book with this episode describing an encounter between explorer William Smith and West African tribesmen:


In the 1740s while the ship on which he was traveling was at anchor off the mouth of the Gambian river, William Smith went ashore to instruct one of the ship’s mates in the use of surveying instruments. On a stretch of beach near a small town, Smith had begun to demonstrate how one could measure distances with his theodolite and hodometer when he noticed a sizable band of armed Africans gathering nearby. Troubled by their hostile gestures, Smith questioned the ship’s slave, who had come along to help him operate the instruments, as to why they were so vexed by activities that Smith regarded as entirely peaceful and nonthreatening.  The slave explained that the “foolish natives” were alarmed by Smith’s strange devices, which they believed he would use to bewitch them.


As it turns out, the natives were not being foolish at all. They could not have been more correct: those little instruments would not only bewitch them, but soon overwhelm their entire civilization. Western science, as represented by compasses and sextants, would place the Gambian tribes squarely in the grip of European


They are landing with rulers, squares, compasses.
White skin, fair eyes, naked word and thin lips.
Thunder on their ships.

Leopold Sedar Sanghar, as quoted by Michael Adas


Adas’ first task in this most ambitious book is to lay down his foundation: the rise of the machines or, as he puts it, “The Ascendancy of Science.”  Here he begins to show how the train made a ripple effect on agrarian society:


More than any other technological innovation, the railway embodied the great material advances associated with the first Industrial Revolution and dramatized the gap which that process had created between the Europeans and all non-Western peoples. Powered by the steam engines that were the core invention of the industrial transformation, locomotives boldly exhibited the latest advances in metallurgy and machine-tooling. Running on tracks that reshaped the landscape across vast swaths of Europe and later the Americas, Africa and Asia; crossing great bridges that were themselves marvels of engineering skill; serviced in railway yards whose sheds and mounds of coals became familiar features of urban centers around the world, railways were at once “the most characteristic and most efficient form of the new technics.”

When railways were introduced in North America in the 1830s and India in the 1850s, many European observers fixed upon them as the key symbol of the superiority, material as well as moral, that Western societies had attained over all others.

From Chapter Four, Attributes of the Dominant

One of my favorite passages is a consideration of how the machine age changed our concept of time. The advent of machines, Adas writes, meant that humans began to change their agrarian sense of time. That is, time among the factories and banks and train stations of the industrialized world grew to diverge from time as it exists in the forest, or time in the ocean or the desert. We came to devise a machine-based concept of time to design new sets of habits and behaviors to take maximum advantage of these new machines that were making our lives so productive:


New attitudes toward time and work were central elements in the new sensibility that emerged among the European and North American middle classes as a consequence of the rise of capitalist economies. The growing importance of contractual agreements and savings and investment rendered self-discipline and foresight essential attributes for economic success and social approbation. A premium was placed on manipulative and problem-solving skills, on forecasting future trends, and on long-term calculations and planning.

This created a divide between time among non-Westerners and European clock time, “oriented to the regular beat of machines and viewed as a commodity.”  As much as Westerners used clocks and bells to spell out time patterns and schedules, non-westerners disdained all “artificial” measures of time:


The Chinese not only were unable to develop their own instruments to measure the passage of time accurately but appeared unwilling or unable to make use of European clocks and watches.

The Chinese had no sense of punctuality, could not be made to understand that time wasted equaled money lost, had only the vaguest notions of the time of day or even their own ages, and “spent” far too many profitless hours at feasts and theatrical performances which, Smith claimed, could go on for days.


Adas provides a concrete example in the Indian attitude towards railway schedules:


When railways were first introduced into India, prospective passengers – having learned that the trains would not wait for them to drift in – had adjusted not by consulting schedules and showing up on time but by arriving at stations two or three hours before their trains were scheduled to depart. Thus … the Indians including those who had received a Western education, did nothing to correct for their lack of punctuality but “simply, in the language of the algebrist, changed the signs.”

Adas derives from a 19th century writer named Goldsworthy Dickinson a consideration of America, Europe and China in the race towards modernization. Each society’s values, he argued, gave them unique responses to the wave of innovation. In the United States, the “modern spirit” and “genius of industrialization” ran rampant, while in Europe industrial society had to compete with “ancient culture.” American obsession with gadgetry threatened to reduce its citizens to machines. Europeans had centuries of culture to balance their values. The Chinese, by contrast, The Chinese do not wish to know too much. Knowledge, if it continues to expand, “causes endless trouble,” and “despairs of itself.”  Traditional Chinese felt they were better off ignorant than stricken with the Europeans’ “disease of invention” and “debauchery of confused ideas.” As China rapidly followed America’s lead into industrialized life, having proven unable to defend their rich agrarian culture from the machine age, the Chinese were in danger of losing their souls to material progress.

Japan was an entirely different case. The Europeans saw much in Japanese culture to be admired, and to be feared as well. “The Japanese were more than curious; they were astoundingly adaptive,” with a pronounced interest in new methods of warfare and weaponry.  “Japan was accorded special status among non-Western societies,” writes Adas, “… because they had done what no other non-Western people had been able to do: remake their society in the image of industrial Europe.”

The author is careful to delineate a wide range of consequences of all this modernization. Not all cultures embraced the ranking of human endeavor on the ladder of rationality.


A vocal and growing minority sought to explore the unconscious or irrational, championed emotion and intuition at the expense of rationality, and experimented with new ways of viewing time and space. But most European thinkers … held to the faith in progress, in the primacy of rationality, and in the unbounded potential of scientific inquiry and technological invention for human improvement.


Until, that is, World War I. In one of his best chapters, Chapter Six, “The Great War  and the Assault on Scientific and Technological Measures of Human Worth,” the author considers World War I and its ripple effects. A basic idea is that World War I was the catalyst for the hours of cards to fall: here the machine age had delivered not a better life but a far worse one. New technologies of war brought about terrible (and arguably meaningless) slaughter on scales unheard of in previous wars. Verdun was hell on earth. This catastrophic campaign which began as a diplomatic trifle and ended in a nightmare of biblical proportions forced Western civilization to let go of the idea that science always leads to good things.

The “genius of discovery,” he concluded, belonged to Europeans alone.

Adas calls trench warfare “the crisis of Western civilization.” One aspect he discusses is that the “machine massacre” of World War I seemed to be such a surprise to everyone. “Curiously … little serious discussion was devoted to the horrific potential of the new weapons that had been spawned by the union of science and technology in the ever-changing industrial order.” The American Civil War and The Russo-Japanese War gave clear indications of what was to come. This “complete failure to foresee the form a modern war would take” had devastating consequences, Adas writes. Here are several of the lethal innovations leading up to the Great War that made it so deadly:

– machine guns capable of firing 400-600 rounds per minute

– dramatic increases in artillery size, range, accuracy and rate of fire

– diabolically toxic gases

– flame throwers

– wireless communication to better coordinate troop movements

– railways, which could deliver millions of soldiers into battle within days

– tanks

– mass-production methods of guns, bullets, helmets, boots, shovels

– improved (and smokeless) explosives

– airplanes, which brought combat into the skies

– barbed wire

As a result of this perfect storm of new weapons, old strategies, and a failure of comprehension among the war’s civilian and military leaders, combatants from both sides were  “engulfed by a technological maelstrom … Tens of thousands of soldiers, having escaped the explosions and fumes, were driven mad by the very sound of the great guns.” Such a rain of horror among the trench soldiers made for an impersonal war that lost all the tint of honor and romance which once clung to it. Western civilization’s future was suddenly threatened by the machines it had created.

Overall, the atrocities of World War I called into question science itself. “The civilization that produced it appeared to have lost its bearings,” writes Adas. “The vaunted rationality of the Europeans had been unable to prevent the trench madness.” All the invention and industry was bringing about slaughter and misery, not happiness. On the world stage, the war “undermined both the material and moral authority of the Europeans.” Their claims to be ushering in a superior age now seemed false.

In his concluding chapter, Adas helps the reader bridge the gap from World War I to the present and points the way toward changes coming with the industrial development of the Third World. It is, I think, an extremely valuable process for us to slow down and deconstruct how we all got here.  The computer that I am typing on and all the technology it represents has changed us all — the way we think about ourselves, one another, and the world. Anyone who has watched a Terminator or Transformer movie knows how deeply these same misgivings we have about the mechanized universe still run.

In Machines as the Measure of Man, Michael Adas delves into a succession of powerful ideas, ideas that we need to understand today, as West and East seek ways to share the globe. Adas’ modernization narrative and theories uncover many of the same inner and external cultural conflicts exist today. Adas’ excavation of the past uncovers the roots of the dramas we see played out in our homes, schools and news headlines. His lucid depiction of how the machines age began casts light on our current dilemmas. I’m not sure we can fully understand today’s wonderfully complex society without first seeing how it all began.

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Still from The Terminator (1984) Our mixed feelings towards machines persists.
Still from The Terminator (1984) Our mixed feelings towards machines persists.
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The Metanarrative of Suspicion


The Metanarrative of Suspicion: How Mistrust Breeds Great Literature
by Sandra Baringer

Editor’s Introduction

Are her memories real? Still from “Blade Runner” (1981), a narrative of deep suspicion.

Mistrust of authority has always existed, I’m sure, but it seems to have blossomed in the twentieth century (and become ubiquitous in the twenty-first century). In this idea-rich interview and in her scholarly book, The Metanarrative of Suspicion: in Late Twentieth Century America, Sandra Baringer discusses the wide range of stories we have invented in which we suspect that the truth is being withheld from us. It is one of the most engaging, resonant and enduring narrative forms of modern era; the detective story, its most prominent subset, is everywhere. Professor Baringer’s book represents an outstanding entry point for the general reader into this field of study.

What connects tales from quaint Sherlock Holmes puzzles to the epically paranoid The Matrix and The X Files to the routine worries of Law and Order is this premise: someone is trying to scam us, and something (usually something important) is not at all what it seems. Narratives of suspicion give us an outlet for our deep doubts about who is really in charge of the hopelessly complex world we live in. They affirm our conviction that if we can just see through the clever masks of the people around us, we’ll see what unfair treatment is being dished out.

The technological potentials of mass surveillance engender vast new vistas of suspicion …

Still from the television series “Dexter” (2011).

Such a detailed look into this model of storytelling is, I think, extremely timely.  Paranoia blooms all around us, and each generation seems to invent its own form. The IPad Age has brought with it new levels of suspicion. Who runs the internet? What government agency is in charge of my email? How do those giant new airplanes fly? Where do chicken nuggets really come from?

A fundamental question is always this: whom do we mistrust? From what quarter here does the narrative of suspicion derive its power?  We can begin to appoint several categories: Detectives Standing Against Big Brother or Mysterious Govt. Agency (Enemy of the State, Person of Interest); Discreet British Murder Mystery Detectives (Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, all Agatha Christie books);  Private Eye Detectives (The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, Lew Archer, most film noir); Police Detectives; Supernatural Detective Stories (Constantine, Rosemary’s Baby, The Thing), Science Fiction Detective Stories (Blade Runner, Minority Report, Alien), Comic Book Detective Stories (Batman, The Watchmen). The list goes on and on. Detective stories spring up like weeds because we don’t understand the modern world surrounding us.

In the following interview and in her book, Sandra Baringer acts as our guide through this landscape. While she is quick to share credit with a number of other scholars, the general reader will see that she has a clear and deep grasp of this most compelling topic.


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The Battle of Stalingrad

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943 by Antony Beevor

Editor’s Introduction

Photograph: RIA Novosti. N. Bode

As a teacher, I have found the Battle of Stalingrad to be instructional treasure.  It is such a vast topic, one so little-known by American students, and one that it is almost endlessly engaging both for me and for my students. So many mini-dramas – from the “white witches” to the sniper duel made famous in the movie Enemy at the Gates to the civilians bravely taking part in the war beneath the city streets — comprise the overall tapestry that it could fill half a semester.

Many of the most valuable teaching elements of Stalingrad have nothing to do with armaments and military strategy and everything to do with critical thinking and cultures.

This battle can lead students into closely related topics of morality, organizational management, logistics, leadership, and mistakes. I write this as an English teacher, not as a military historian.

One valuable idea about Stalingrad is that it — and not the Invasion of Normandy — won the war. A new path to understanding World War II has a wide appeal, since so many students them are familiar with films like Inglorious Basterds and Saving Private Ryan and computer games like Call of Duty. This is a clear example of the power of narrative. Western writers have told hundreds of stories from World War II, from the smallest episode to the grand invasion, Normandy. We have very successfully dramatized – “narrativized,” as a literary scholar might say – our own part the war. Yet we have omitted some of the best stories – particularly, I think, those from the Eastern front – because Russians fought in those battles, and not Americans

A third important aspect to studying this colossal battle is as a lesson in unintended consequences. There is no more vivid example of how war can quickly devolve into slaughter. Stalingrad generates comparisons with other battles, and students need to understand the full range of warfare. Studying the Battle of Stalingrad is not just for military historians. We are all at war. Stalingrad is a re minder that combat like this is not limited to the soldiers who represent our interests on the front line. The Soviet Union and Germany forever lost an entire generation of young men. What would these two million young fighters have accomplished in the 1950’s and 1960’s? What might a robust wave of returning Russian GI’s — and the baby boom they would surely have produced – have meant to the world? It is a question with no answer.

Mamiev Hill statue commemorating the Battle of Stalingrad

The interview below is reprinted with permission from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. A special thanks to Luke Allnut.

The original version of the interview can be viewed here:  http://www.rferl.org.

The ellipsis […] in the text mark passages which the interviewer deleted from the original interview.


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Herman Melville, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and U.S. Empire

Literature in the Context of Politics:Herman Melville, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and U.S. Empire by Jeffrey Hole

Editor’s Introduction

Color study for Portuguese fresco, Ponta Del Negro. The whale hunt in Moby Dick took on aspects of the slave hunt.

While every work of art stands on its own, it is always interesting to tuck it into the particular context in which it was created, both historical and personal. One example I often use with my cadets (during our study unit on heroes) is that Jerry Schuster, who invented Superman, was a child of an immigrant family – far from home, with a new name in a strange new land, without a strong identity, helpless against new forms of evil — and the story he created reflected all this. The Superman character became his wish fulfillment, a handsome young man with a secret identity and plenty of powers to cast away bullies, becoming a beloved citizen of the new land (with admiring females everywhere) in the process. It is not so much that Superman is symbolic, but that the creators’ circumstances gave the work its power. Jerry Schuster was able to somehow channel the powerful forces around them into their characters, and into the story of those characters’ struggles.

A similar “channeling” of social forces took place with Melville. Jeffrey Hole dives into the life and times of Herman Melville and surfaces with a fascinating set of ideas. His premise is that Melville was writing in part to understand what was America was becoming at that moment in history: a nation with global reach. Herman Melville was trying “to provide a literary understanding of the intensification and transnational reach of American power during the nineteenth century.” Melville’s fictional explorations are doctrines of empire, the author concludes, or a “theorization of American power.” This, Prof. Hole argues, makes Melville particularly relevant today, as once again the U.S. rethinks and recasts its own geopolitical influence over the globe. In reference to Melville’s work during this period of American expansion, Prof. Hole writes:

I argue that these imaginative works attempt to expose the catastrophic associations between the U.S.’s domestic “problems”—such as Negro slave revolt and Indian insurrection—and the U.S.’s broader global interventions in politics and commerce.

Moby-Dick is a story about movement and energy, about the capturing, violent transformation, and commidification of an animal into a biomass fuel that keeps the world alight. Yet it is also a story about humans confronted with the technologies of capital and industry, with the liberalization and expansion of commerce, and the conquest of the Pacific. The ancient practice of the hunt gives way to an absolutely modern arrangement of power that privileges movement and speed, the management of laboring bodies, the charting of space, and the enforcement of property. “Possession is the whole of the law,” writes Melville rather sardonically.

Here is the event that did more than anything else, the authorargues, to lend shape to Melville’s story of a great hunt: The Fugitive Slave Act. This was an extremely controversial law declaring that that all runaway slaves were to be captured and returned to their masters.    Abolitionists nicknamed it “the Bloodhound Act,” for the dogs that white slave owners could now legally use to retrieve runaway slaves. Law officials were obliged to aid in the capture. Anyone caught helping slaves run away could be imprisoned for six months and fined $1,000. Prof. Hole’s thesis is that, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, Moby-Dick could no longer be merely a romantic adventure of whaling; the furor over the new law obliged Melville to come to a new and deeper “understanding of ‘the chase’ and obliged the writing of a different kind of book, one ‘wicked’ and ‘banned’”:

President Fillmore, on September 18, 1850, signed legislation that would expand “federal power [for] the interstate rendition of fugitive slaves.” In April 1851, several months before Melville published Moby-Dick, Judge Lemual Shaw, then Melville’s father-in-law, abandoned his “opposition to slavery on grounds of natural right” and enforced this law by deciding that the fugitive Thomas Sims should be returned to bondage.

In light of these events in the early 1850s, critic Michael Rogin has argued that Moby-Dick signals Melville’s rebellion against the “liberal fathers” who, like Lemuel Shaw, had forsaken their commitment to “human freedom” in order to maintain “social order.”

A portrayal of a slave hunt. Museum of African American history.

For a general reader like me, it takes some time to fully grasp what Prof. Hole is saying – but it is more than worth the effort, since these same ideas can carry over to other works of fiction (John Steinbeck, for one). Two immediate examples are Mark Twin’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, two works deeply influenced by the same act of Congress.  For another example, The Transformers and The Terminator series can be seen, at heart, as paranoid colonization stories where American society is conquered by our machines (or alien machines); they are mirror images in many ways of Melville, revisionist tales where Americans are on the receiving end of the projection of power.

The lessons in “Melville Infidel” travel well. If this topic is of interest to you, I hope you will take the time to look at his dissertation. Understanding a single author in great depth pays unexpected dividends.


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Food and the Social Order

White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf by Aaron Bobrow-Strain

Editor’s Introduction


The current generation of food writers has taken this topic and turned it into an entire field of study. Talented writers like Mark Kurlansky, Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas, Tom Standage and especially Michael Pollan of Stanford have discovered a treasure of fascinating people and powerful themes in the products so familiar to each of us – the carrots in our lunch boxes, the meat in the freezer, the fast food hamburger we grab in between appointments, the sandwich that is our midnight snack.

In his excellent book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, Andrew Bobrow-Strain delves into the surprising history and development of a food found in every  kitchen. Bread in America, a reader quickly understands, is far more than food. As he says in the book’s Preface: “This is a book about one commodity – industrial white bread – that has played an incredibly important, and largely unnoticed role in American politics, diet, culture, and food reform movements, but it is not another story about how a food ‘saved the world.’ Rather, it’s a history of the countless social reformers, food experts, industry executives, government officials, diet gurus, and ordinary eaters who have thought that getting Americans to eat the right bread (or avoid the wrong bread) could save the world – or at least restore country’s moral, physical, and social fabric. Sadly, this turned out to be the difficult story of how, time and again, well-meaning efforts to change the country through its bread ended up reinforcing forms of race, class, and gender exclusion – even when they also achieved much-needed improvements in America’s food system.”

It is an epic tale. It is also a readable tale, thanks to the author’s narrative skills. It is also well-suited for a classroom – I find that my students will almost always listen to a lesson plan about food. For the general reader – who, like me, likes to eat but knows little about food production — at least four important ideas come out of the epic narrative of white bread:

1) Food is political. A literary critic like Edward Said maintains that every story is a story but also a political statement, either subtly or overtly. The same might be said of a food: every food represents a series of choices, or series of events in which you, the consumer, are complicit. As Fast Food Nation and SuperSize Me, perhaps the two most dramatic works of the recent wave of the “politics of food” made clear, our food choices have consequences.

2) Food is at the heart of our economy. A colossal cast of workers in an intricate global network of corporations, family farmers, field workers, butchers, bakers and truckers and chefs and waitresses earn their livings bringing you and me our three daily meals. Growing food is what America does, and it is the first job of every nation, every empire.

3) The ingredients of food and methods of its preparation can have enormous range and enormous effects, particularly when multiplied by the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who bite into buttered white bread toast at 7:00 a.m. every day.

4) We all need to understand how our food arrived at the table. If democracy requires educated participants in order to be beneficial, so does eating.

Andrew Bobrow-Strain’s book is an outstanding entry point into this rich world of food politics. In the interview and review that follow, you can begin to see the many resources he brings to his subject.


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Ahab and Portrayals of Evil

Demurring to Doom: A Geopolitics of Prevailing by Lee Quinby

Editor’s Introduction

Antony Hopkins as evil personified (Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs)
How is an American villain different from a Russian villain, or a West African villain? What is “evil” to us?  Why are some villains really powerful characters with deep grips on our imagination, and others just seem annoying? Lee Quinby has considered these questions in depth, and delivers a powerful answer—or certainly the framework of an extended answer—in the attached interview and excerpt.She considers two “entrenched” categories of evil that have dominated American narratives from the beginning: cosmic or apocalyptic evil and human-driven evil that is particular and specific. The Terminator movies feature apocalyptic evil, while a story like Harry Potter features characters whom represent individual, human-driven evil. Both of these contending categories of evil, she argues, are powerfully delineated in Moby Dick.As the title to her full paper implies, Prof. Quinby is hunting big game here. She includes such diverse examples of evil as FDR’s portrayal of poverty (it is human-made and socially alterable) as an evil, terrorism (it is apocalyptic), South Park and Hannibal Lecter.    


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