So many books to read, so little time.

Archive for November 2008

Gorshkov’s “The Sea Power of the State”

with 30 comments

seapowerofthestate_gorshkovFirst published in 1976 by Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union (and Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy) Sergei Georgyevich Gorshkov, “The Sea Power of the State” was a dramatic departure from the normally narrow texts from leaders of the Soviet defense establishment.

In this book, Admiral of the Fleet Gorshkov not only offers a vision of the relevance of the “World Ocean” to any nation’s well-being — he also provides a compelling rationale for “joint operations” a full ten years before our own nation’s Goldwater-Nichols Act forced jointness onto a reluctant American defense establishment, and underscores the importance of the littoral in a navy’s ability to influencing events ashore nearly two decades before “… From the Sea”.

The Sea Power of the State is rich in dichotomy: a land-rich nation with few accessible ports preaching the relevance of sea power, an atheist totalitarian regime describing the social and cultural significance of the “World Ocean”, a nation besmirched for its negative impact on the environment bemoaning pollutants and the need for “union with the environment”, and a foundational tome for effective naval force planning from a nation that just this month claimed the lives of nearly two dozen civilians in a submarine accident. Such is Gorshkov’s compelling style — scholarly and impeccably researched, with steadfast devotion to the tenets of Marxism, decrying the “imperialist aggression” of the Capitalist powers who exploit sea power to “hold in check other states.”

Despite the Communist propaganda (which is seamlessly woven into Gorshkov’s prose), The Sea Power of the State is replete with history, statistics and analysis.  Gorshkov calls the World Ocean “the most important environmental element of Marxism”, underscoring the essence of sea power as “linkages amongst elements” of a far-flung enterprise.  Sounding more akin to Sir Julian Corbett than Alfred Thayer Mahan, Gorshkov addresses sea power from a temporal (vice just geospatial) perspective.

Most impressive about Gorshkov is the breadth of his perspective.  Alongside the typical Communist demagoguery (e.g., “Imperialist powers exploit sea power to preserve their monopoly …”) are lucid arguments for balanced force structure planning (inclusive of creating large merchant fleets), diminished pollutants, and even maritime law (with an appeal to demilitarize the World Ocean beyond the 12 mile territorial waters).  Curiously, he never once expresses disdain at the limited blue water access of the Soviet Union — and was convincing enough in his vision that the Kremlin subsidized his development of a fleet that nearly reached parity with the dominant sea powers of the west.

He dedicates nearly 100 pages to Chapter 2: “Pages in the History of the Navies”, covering nearly five hundred years from the time of Columbus to the Brezhnev-era legacy he helped build.  He deftly describes the crushing Russian defeat in the Straits of Tsushima (in 1905) as being ” … decided in advance” due to the technological and doctrinal advantage of the Japanese fleet operating in its home waters, and to the Czar “… completely misunderstanding the importance of sea power for Russia.”  As this defeat preceded the October Revolution, Gorshkov quotes V.I. Lenin’s remark that, at Tsushima, Russia “… faced not only … a military defeat, but also the complete military bankruptcy of the autocracy.”

Admiral of the Fleet Gorshkov is credited with building the Soviet Navy — a Navy that achieved its strategic purpose in freezing the “imperialist” threat, forcing our rigid attention to the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. (GIUK) Gap and the northern Pacific Ocean.  Through his deep grasp of the “universality of sea power”, its “decisive role in influencing events ashore”, its policy role (in “stabilizing allies or subjugating them”), and the “value of balanced force structure”, Gorshkov gave the Soviet Union a dominant role on the world stage — and, had he been born a few decades sooner, may have altered the course of history.

UPDATE: The inestimable Zenpundit has posted a review of the review — and has added invaluable context to the political machinations of what Zen calls “the noontide of Brezhnev’s faction.”  Check it out.


Written by deichmans

November 13, 2008 at 3:35 am

Posted in Nonfiction

Hell For Leather

with 9 comments

In his review of Mike Davis’ Buda’s Wagon in Foreign Affairs, Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman wrote:

With so many grim stories to tell in a brief book, the context of individual episodes is often sketchy, the underlying political analysis shallow, and the prognosis alarmist.

Well, as an example of strategic analysis Freedman is right, but this does not detract from the value and sheer vicarious thrill of reading Davis’ book. Like Planet of Slums before it, Buda’s Wagon is a fast-paced and enthralling one-stop shop on a focused theme of global importance.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the only readily accessible volume on the subject of the VBIED, the vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, or car bomb. Davis kicks off his history with Mario Buda, an anarchist who detonated a wagon full of explosives in New York City in 1920. Forty deaths, 200 injured, and a declaration of national emergency, as the technological accident inserted itself into a post-WWI America – a phenomenon later described by George Orwell thus:

A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon – so long as there is no answer to it – gives claws to the weak.

This is the premise upon which Davis builds his story, that of asymmetry and the empowerment of the non-state actor. He traces the development of the car bomb from a semi-strategic weapon analogous to early air power – the attacks on critical urban nodes, and the creation of ‘terror’ – to its flowering as a fully strategic weapon. He illustrates the latter by the attack on the US Marines in Beirut (1963), the 1993 IRA bombs in London, and the 2001 New Delhi experience, which was as close as mankind has come to a nuclear war since the Bay of Pigs.

Buda’s Wagon is a journalistic account, and Davis often reveals his caustic and empassioned wit, particularly in passages in which he lays bare the role of states like the US and Pakistan in sponsoring terrorism from the 1960s on, a period he describes as “mass technology transfer”. Later, when discussing the global jihad, he writes:

Like his forerunners Hermann Goering and Curtis LeMay, Osama bin Laden seems to exult in the sheer statistics of bomb damage – the competitive race to ever greater explosive yields and killing ranges, regardless of the dead children and scattered body parts.

Davis’ Marxist bent is obvious, but as E.H. Carr noted, history is interpretative. His structural framework is interesting, involving step-changes such as the first multiple car bombings, economic car bombs, suicide car bombings, videotaped and broadcast actions, first against tourists, etc. The story ends in Iraq and Afghanistan 2006, having structured the latter part of the book around the principal theme of “the thousand fissures of ethnic and religious enmity that globalisation has paradoxically revealed.” He describes the car bomb as the “kudzu vine of destruction” and asks if it can be countered. The answer seems to be ‘no’, and his historical account illuminates the failure of counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency to combat VBIEDs thus far.

Conversely, Davis suggests that initiatives like urban ‘rings of steel’ and heavy surveillance environments are the future, and will be as ineffective against the “hot rod of the apocalypse” as previous schemes. “The car bomb probably has a brilliant future”, despite the militarisation of Baghdad and London alike. Vehicles are ubiquitous technologies, and large cities “will never enjoy universal security”. As with much of modern CT thinking, it’s all about risk management, rather than 100% “beating the terrorists”. Davis offers no solutions to this quandary, and is probably right when he states that solutions cannot be achieved, for example, through “that sine qua non, the permanent suspension of civil liberties.”

Buda’s Wagon serves as a reminder of the evolution of a phenomenon rather than a deep analysis of one, as Freedman critiqued, but it is more than a lazy addition to the groaning shelves of bookstores fuelling the terrorism industry. As a provider of occasional great insight it should be read by public, politicians and practitioners alike – especially those who think they know everything about the history and future of that most ubiquitous weapon of technological urbanism, the car bomb.

Written by Tim Stevens

November 12, 2008 at 10:01 am

Posted in Nonfiction

David Hackett Fischer

with 6 comments

I just saw David Hackett Fischer speak at the University Club in Chicago, about his new book about Champlain. I got that one plus Albion’s Seed, Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing signed. I got to ask one question — whether he was going to ever finish American Plantations, and whether it would provoke the same PC outrage that Albion’s Seed had. He answered, in effect “yes” to the first one, and ducked the second one.

When he was signing my books I asked him if he had read Walter Russell Mead’s books, God and Gold and Special Providence. Fischer, remarkably, had never heard of him. I wrote the titles on the back of a business card. I asked him if he knew of the work of Alan Macfarlane, and he said yes but did not get the sense he knew Macfarlane’s work well. I said he really ought to look at the Modern World series, which really provides a lot of the background for Albion’s Seed. My time ran out then. My next two questions would have been about The Anglosphere Challenge and The Cousins’ Wars, but alas, no time.

DHF seems like a very decent chap.

His next book will be a comparative study of the USA and New Zealand. That could be good.

Written by lexingtongreen

November 7, 2008 at 9:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Question About Thomas Mann

with 4 comments

One way I have accumulated a large library is buying opportunistically at thrift stores, yard sales, bargain tables, library sales, etc. Some of this purchasing has been of books I know to be good and which I know I want. Other purchases have been more speculative.

One example is the novels of Thomas Mann. He is well-regarded, and based on things I have read, I think I will like his writing.

I own five of his novels, but I have not yet read any of them. Four of them I got when I saw a copy either for free or nearly so. These are sitting on my shelf: Buddenbrooks, The Holy Sinner, Doktor Faustus and The Magic Mountain. My brother in law gave us a copy of Felix Krull, Confidence Man.

Does anyone have an opinion about (1) the value of Thomas Mann generally, or (2) which of these five is the best one to read?

Written by lexingtongreen

November 1, 2008 at 5:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized