Learning From Our Defeat: the Madrassas and the Modern

In all of my reading on Afghanistan, two books stand out. Both were highlighted in my list of the best 10 books I read in 2021: Carter Malkasian’s The American War in Afghanistan: A History and David Edwards’ Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan. Both authors are fluent in Pashto. Both draw plentifully from Taliban primary sources. Both have had hundreds of conversations with Afghans of all classes. Together they provide a powerful picture of the way the war has changed Afghan—especially Pashtun—society. The war in Afghanistan was first and foremost a war within that society. America chose to back one side of this civil war. These books lay out exactly what each side of this war was fighting for.

Or so I write in an essay published this weekend in Palladium. To understand the Taliban’s victory, I argue, you must understand what made the Taliban different from the wider Pashtun society from which they sprang.

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Thoughts on “Post Liberalism” (I)

The political project of the “post liberals” is not my own. Many of their critiques of contemporary American life and politics mirror what I have written; many of their suggestions for the future of the American right I easily endorse. θBut the grander their essays, the broader their harangues, the less convincing they become. I suspect our most important divide concerns our understanding of history.

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The Rise and Fall of Civilizations: A Reader Course

A Scholar’s Stage forum member reports that he and a friend recently finished reading John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Enraptured by Darwin’s account of flourish and fall, they ask what else they might read to understand the rise and decline of peoples and powers over the course of human history.

              In my mind there are four central parts to this tale:

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Sino-American Competition and the Search For Historical Analogies

In the most recent issue of American Affairs, Walter Hudson argues against “the pull of the Cold War analogy.”θ Cold War analogies for 21st century Sino-American relations are natural yet insufficient. A friend of mine recently complained to me about the thoughtlessness of these analogies. “It is not difficult to rail against lazy Cold War thinking,” I responded. “What is difficult is fleshing out a more illuminating analogy to fill the gap.” Hudson faces this challenge squarely. He argues that the mirror we seek will be found in the eclipse of the British Empire by the United States.

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Yale and the Education of Governing Elites

The resignation of Beverly Gage, professor of history at Yale and director of the Brady-Johnson Grand Strategy Program, is the great brouhaha of the last weekend.

I am not a graduate of the grand strategy course, but have followed its development over the last decade and a half.

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Learning From Our Defeat: The Assumptions of Donald Rumsfeld

One hopes for statesmen chastened by defeat. In this world of our hopes, the authors of catastrophe would discuss their mistakes with the humility, introspection, and sense of disgrace these mistakes deserve. Decisions that led to death—death in its thousands and hundreds of thousands—would be examined with probing honesty. The decision makers behind them would be seized with a fierce guilt and urgency. They would quest to understand the nature of their errors. They would incessantly press upon us the lessons of experience, gripped with fear that the next generation might repeat their calamities.

One can imagine such a statesman, chastened by defeat. Douglas Feith is not he.

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As the Generations Churn: The Strategic Consequences of Cultural Change in Communist Russia… and China?

Vladislav M. Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev is a surprising counterpart to my essay, “Culture Wars are Long Wars.” That essay proposed a general theory of cultural change. Key to its thesis was the observation that most cultural change does not occur because people change their ideas, but because people with new ideas replace people with old ones. As most people form their essential political worldview by the time they are 30 and only adapt it on the edges to new circumstances, only the most earth shaking events have the power to fundamentally shift the frameworks and values that the majority filter their politics through. Large scale cultural shift is largely a story of generational churn.

While the focus of that piece was on American domestic politics, this is a general phenomena that applies across cultures and time periods. Vladislav Zubok understands this. The generational nature of political change is a recurring theme of Failed Empire, which chronicles the ups and downs of Soviet diplomacy from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While we often describe Soviet history in terms of the leader reigning at the top of the system, Zubok argues that shifts in Soviet strategic behavior reflected not only the differing leadership styles of the various CPSU General Secretaries, but broader transitions from one generation of leaders to another.

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Historians, Slaves of Fashion?

Daniel Gullotta’s Age of Jackson podcast is one of the few I listen to regularly. In 2021 I don’t have a lot of spare bandwidth to keep track of developments in my favorite field of American history, but I do listen to his interviews with new authors in the field to stay somewhat up to date. Listening to a book talk is not the same thing as reading a book, of course, but it is better than slowly having years of labor slip away from memory with disuse.

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