Tuesday, September 23, 2014


The best answers come from continual questioning, rather than answers.

That's my conclusion, anyway, after reading some books; as I wrote in the Canberra Times today:


Last week two weighty tomes slammed portentously down on my desk, while the brief pamphlet simply fluttered in by email. In terms of theoretical weight, however, my money’s on those words flickering across the computer screen because they were the ones provoking real thought and genuine ideas. Nevertheless, let’s dispense first with a couple of angry old men still attempting to justify themselves.

The intellectually shallowest work is by far the longest. And yet, despite its 672 pages, Political Order and Political Decay is merely the second volume in Francis Fukuyama’s long attempt to defend his extravagant, bizarre claim that modern liberal democratic capitalism somehow represents “the end of history”. We shouldn’t blame him, of course, for the fact others immediately jumped on his essay with this title, using it to assert (in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Tiananmen Square) that the West had, ineluctably, triumphed. Today it all looks a bit different. But Fukuyama is guilty of basking in their adulation and now, a quarter-of-a-century later, attempting to defend the patently absurd proposition that ‘democracy’ is somehow the end point of social evolution. So what can we possibly learn from his work?

There is a message – although not the one Fukuyama intended. The moral is no single theory will explain everything. Everybody loves Grand Ideas. The beauty of an all-embracing theory is it means there’s no need to think. Propagate a simple thesis, one purporting to show a path to the future, and you’ll be applauded – until it falls apart. Unfortunately, real life can’t be reduced to simple formulae. The only theory repeatedly proven correct is that theories fail. Perhaps there is no perfect ‘end state’ for human society.

Jared Diamond has demonstrated – far more plausibly than any theories about particular forms of government – that physical geography determines the way society develops. Victor David Hanson, on the other hand, reckons it’s the unique ability of democracies to wage war that guaranteed America’s brief moment of uni-polar triumph at the turn of last century. Others think was the surge of intellectual freedom unleashed by the enlightenment that enabled humanity to develop. Who knows? The point is, however, that we haven’t yet managed to come up with a complete theory of why society is the way it is. In fact, the best answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything still seems to be the number 42 (as calculated by the supercomputer in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

Our second book of self-justification comes from Henry Kissinger. Back in the 1970’s, as the noose of Watergate closed in around Nixon, this was the man to whom the guilty President turned to for comfort (“Where is that kike, Kissinger” Nixon demanded. “I want you to get down on your knees, Henry, and pray for me.”). Today the nonagenarian former US Secretary of State has become a staunch upholder of the Treaty of Westphalia, the model of international relations which finally brought an end to the decades of religious war convulsing Europe in terror before 1648. This document established the sovereign state as the basic building block of world order and Kissinger – despite his own culpability in bombing Cambodia and his failure to find a way of combating insurgencies in Indochina – has had a revelation. In World Order he asserts we need a concert of nation states if we’re going to bring true harmony to the world. Only this can provide a stable basis for world peace.

Perhaps annoyingly, Kissinger’s correct – although this doesn’t mean the world’s current international borders are right; nor excuse his actions in ignoring (or permitting) massacres in places like Bangladesh and East Timor by governments attempting to keep minorities under control. Borders are, after all, just lines on the map. If Kissinger’s thesis is correct, it actually means we need to give a central role to self-determination; not just for Scotland but, far more importantly, in Iraq.

This is critical when it comes to dealing with ISIL. Bombing the terrorists won’t, by itself, install a functioning government. It will simply create a vacuum. This is a key question for the politicians: what will peace look like? Military operations alone can’t create a functioning government.

Which leads to our third document, the unpromisingly titled; Land Warfare Doctrine 1 – The Fundamentals of Land Power. A pamphlet with this name is regularly revised and reissued by the Army. What, I wondered, could possibly have changed since the last version appeared in 2008?

The new edition’s unlikely to win any awards for creative writing, but it’s not meant to do that. Textbooks are, by their very nature, boring attempts to discern enduring lessons by codifying the chaos of life. That’s why I flicked straight to page 20, explaining the ten “principles of war”. Successive generations of officers have learnt to repeat these by rote since their supposed discovery in 1928, which is exactly the problem. Instead of stimulating thought, they deaden reflection. Exciting ideas are channelled into old, tried and trusted ways. So you can imagine my shock to see a new principle added to the ancient list. Not something bleeding obvious, like “concentration of force”, or tired, like “maintenance of morale” but a new, and wonderful idea: “understanding war and warfare”.

It’s taken a long time for reforms to the structure of the services – separating the organisation from actual operations – to work, but this is clear evidence they’re succeeding. Army commander General David Morrison is transforming the rigid ranks into an vibrant organisation powered by ideas. The military has always rewarded people for correct answers – today it’s encouraging them to ask questions as well. Thick books don’t make for genuine understanding. Thinking does.

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