July 11, 2017

Focus on individual leaders means collective war will be lost

Conflict between states is a collective affair, and the psychology behind a successful war is Us vs. Them. We may be aware of who some of our specific leaders happen to be, but ultimately "there is no 'I' in 'team'". Nor are we too aware of who the other side's specific leaders happen to be -- they're just Them, a collective blob.

An earlier post looked back at America's long history of imposing its will on its adversaries, from our founding up through WWII. The whole time, we had -- and still have -- almost no awareness of who the other side's leaders were at an individual level. There were "the Indians," "the Spanish," "the Japanese," and so on. Even when we did know one of their names, like Geronimo, we didn't believe that he was a single-handed dictator of his tribe -- "the Apache" -- but was just one of their leaders.

In the early 20th century, we invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, and a host of other places in Central America and the Caribbean -- did we know who their leaders were, and focus on them? No. They were just "the Cubans" or "Cuba" as a whole country. Only after WWII when our imperial power began to decline, did we start obsessing over individual leaders on the other side -- Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Papa Doc Duvalier, Noriega, etc.

We did use collective names like "the Sandinistas" and "the Contras" in our failed intervention in Nicaragua, but those do not refer to state-level actors or whole ethnicities or nationalities. Those were just two political factions.

When we were fighting "the Japanese" in the Pacific theater of WWII, where most of our concern was directed, there was no all-consuming focus on "stopping Hirohito" or "sending a message to Tojo". Most Americans today wouldn't even recognize those names. (The fixation on Hitler in the European theater is a ret-con.) Only after WWII when we could no longer carve out our sphere of influence in East Asia did we fixate on individuals -- Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and now Kim Jong Un in Korea, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Pol Pot in Cambodia, and Chairman Mao in China. All those names still ring a bell.

We have never imposed our will in the Middle East, as our interventions there all came after WWII. So there's no comparison case of how we referred to a place that we took over as a client state by force. Our failed interventions in Iraq, Libya, and now Syria have all been accompanied by obsessions with the individual leaders -- Saddam, Qaddafi, Assad. When we were more heavily involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict, we focused not just on the PLO but on its leader Yasser Arafat.

And in Iran after the Revolution, there was a fixation on Ayatollah Khomeini and now Khamenei ("the Supreme Leader"), along with Ahmadinejad. Only Trump is unconcerned with who their particular leader happens to be, and refers to them collectively ("Very tough negotiators, the Persians"). And that's not because he sees it as Us vs. Them, but as Us getting along with Them. Cooperation is just as collective as conflict is.

Indeed, our allies and clients in the region are referred to as entire nations -- Israel / the Israelis, Egypt, Jordan, the Saudis, etc. We are sometimes aware of who is leading these nations, but generally not, and we do not think that our cooperation is linked to a specific individual leading their country -- or our country. It's a relationship between two nations, regardless of who the leaders happen to be.

Our allies "the Kurds" are referred to collectively, with no awareness of who any of their leaders are. They may not be a nation-state, but they are big enough to act as a quasi-nation or at least a confederation of small states.

On our side, who remembers who the President was when we successfully incorporated the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba into our sphere of influence in the early 20th century? Do most Americans know that it was Truman rather than FDR who was President when we dropped the atomic bomb on Japan? Or which President was responsible for subduing which Indian tribe? Those were all accomplished by "America" or "the Americans," not particular Presidents.

Our failed interventions are tied very closely with the individual leader at the time -- Kennedy and Castro, Johnson and Ho Chi Minh, Carter and the Ayatollah Khomeini, Reagan and the Sandinistas, Bush and Noriega and Saddam, Clinton and Milosevic, Bush Jr. and Saddam and the Taliban, Hillary Clinton and Qaddafi, Obama and Assad.

The only danger I see for Trump is becoming too focused on "this guy" "the maniac" in North Korea. Most people on either side do seem to believe that Kim Jong Un is the be-all end-all of the North Korean state, but that view has always been factually wrong and a predictor of a failed intervention. Our fixation on that one individual means we should just get out of that conflict altogether, and let "the Koreans" deal with each other, perhaps letting "the Japanese" do their own thing too.

It's ironic that in all these examples, we accuse the other side of practicing a cult of personality, yet we do the same thing -- only attributing bad god-like traits and powers to the leader, who in our eyes is a devil rather than a god.

One of the main things we accuse the other side's leader of, to prove what a devil he is, is that he treats "his own people" horrifically. Right there we've taken the side of the majority of the nation that we're supposed to be at war with. We're not fighting "the Iraqis," we're liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam. We're liberating the Cubans from Castro. We're helping the Iranian people from the control of the Supreme Leader.

That is the opposite mindset of Us vs. Them, and shows how surely we are going to lose that war. We were not liberating the Japanese people from Hirohito or Tojo -- we were fighting them from top to bottom, military leaders to lowly citizens.

We have no quarrel with Syrian society writ large, so why the hell are we trying to destroy it? If we're going to take it over to enrich ourselves, we need to take the whole thing over -- and not even the Pentagon is pursuing that ambitious of a goal.

As imperial decline sets in, we get lazy and think that we can enrich ourselves by acquiring another state by regime change, leaving all else in place for us to enjoy. "Make any nation your client by taking out this one weird guy". Right, I'm sure the rest of the society is just going to sit there and let itself be taken over by a force that is not even targeting the entire society. Rather, they see regime change and all the factions decide to strike while the iron is hot, and fill the power vacuum. Then it will be that internal faction or their own foreign allies who will control the flow of resources, still leaving us out of the game.

Individual-focused regime change only ends up handing over the ultimate prize to some faction who is not beholden to us. No better example than targeting Saddam for decades, only to hand Iraq over to the Shia majority and the sympatico Iranians. Focus on entire societies, or do not concern yourself with them at all.


  1. Pacifist phases, each lasting about 150 years, place more of an emphasis on individualism in general.

    At the old Spearhead website, the blog author used to talk about R Bagget Glubb, a military officer who, like Turchin, believed that the military power of empires goes in cycles. He wrote about his in his book, "The Fate of Empires and the Search for Survival"

    You can read it for free here - its only 26 pages:

    Unlike Turchin, Glubb went more in detail and tied different other cultural changes with pacifism - in particular, 1) women's rights; and 2) the rise of a huge entertainment complex.

    Glubb noted that cultural heros tended to change throughout the cycle - during military expansion, soldiers, businessmen, and political leaders are heroes, whereas during a pacifist phase, artists, athletes, and actors become high-status.

    This in line with your contention that our military decline happened in the 50s. That was when you really saw the creation of an entertainment industry - when actors and athletes became household names. This started happening in the 20s, yet it wasn't until the postwar period that celebrity culture was really born(how many actors or athletes can you name from the 20s, 30s, or 40s, vs. how many from the 50s?). It should be noted that interest in athletics increases during a period of military decline, contrary to popular belief; during military expansion, athletics is seen only as a way to socialize adolescents.

    Anyway, the bigger point is that military decline is linked to being lifestyle-oriented rather than career-oriented. During military expansion, there's just so much massive work to be done that there are jobs to go around, whereas during passivism, the percentage of people career-oriented becomes scarcer and scarcer.

    The Baby Boomers are the last generation to have a high percentage of career-oriented people, as those who are lifestyle-oriented has gotten more common with each successive generation. This may be tied to military decline rather than inequality.

  2. Military expansion vs. contraction has nothing to do with mass entertainment or women's rights -- has been cycling since the beginning of mankind, all over the world.

  3. If you ask me, one of the problems with contemporary political "thought" is Charles Beard's "Devil Theory" being used to explain absolutely every social imperfection imaginable. The underlying mentality behind the brain-dead interventionism that particularly been the case since the end of the Cold War is that if you purge the "devils" from foreign lands (usually taking the form of post-colonial strongmen), they will instantly become successful democracy. Never mind the fact that democracy almost always quickly falls apart unless there are a series of pre-conditions (civil society, lack of sectarianism, a reasonably educated/enlightened population, a sense of solidarity, etc).

    To be fair it is not just interventionists who adopt this mentality. The "anti-war" movements that pop up every time the military-industrial complex flexes its muscles always claim that it was purely the intrusion of the evily, evil, evilness of the foreign imperialist invaders that made the foreign society unstable and fragmented. In other words, if the foreign despot was removed without imperialist intrusion, it would quickly become Singapore!

    In both mindsets, it is only that presence of the "devil", be it a post-colonial strongman or the imperialist armies that remove him, that makes the society afterwards chaotic.

    The contemporary US left seems particularly fond of the Devil Theory at the movement. So many economic "progressives" insist that economic populism can only co-exist with contemporary social liberalism and any social attitude deemed "backward" is only attributable to the "devils" of banks and big business. The problems of this world view is that when it becomes habitual it overlooks how contemporary social liberalism has certainly benefited the "devils" of their mindset. Take immigration for example. Up until the 1990s, "open borders" was the province of the libertarian right given how cheap it would make labour through free movement. Now it is the province of the cosmopolitan left, who without a profound amount of paralogic, insist that immigration restrictions are the moral equivalent of Jim Crow in the segregated south. Any opposition to this idea can only come from special interests in their minds because, again, economic populism can only co-exist with social liberalism because "reactionary" social attitudes can only come from the "devils".

  4. The Left is pretty clueless about the history of instability in the Middle East, blaming present troubles on "colonial" or "imperial" legacies.

    Somewhat true, but who was the imperial power there most recently? Not Britain, not France, not Russia, not Germany -- it was the Ottomans! The only pieces they didn't have were Persia and the proto-Saudi state in the Arabian Desert.

    The standard story is that the European colonial powers put all these different ethnic groups under a single polity, then left them to their own governance, and the volatile mix exploded with no foreign hegemon to keep order.

    True -- but it was the Ottomans who put all those people under a single polity, and then checked out.

    The British and French protectorates lasted 20-30 years, compared to 200-300 years of direct Ottoman rule.

    Still, blaming a collective like "the West" or "Britain" is not an individualist devil theory. It is the rallying cry for successful decolonization or anti-imperial movements. If would-be nations of the Middle East want to drive out foreign influence, they cannot just target a specific leader as the source of bad things. They paint with a collective brush -- the West, Europe, America, etc.

  5. Thanks for the clarification, then. I did want your opinion on it, afterall. Keep in mind, I don't think mass entertainment and women's rights are bad things, was just restating Bagot's theory.

  6. "Putin" is another example of fixating on a leader rather than the whole state and society.

    Not that we ever imposed our will on Russia before or during WWII, but even as we were opposed to them, we did not obsess over Lenin, Trotsky, etc. They were "the Russians" or "the Soviets" or "the USSR" or "the Communists".

    Since WWII, we've been obsessed with who the leader of Russia is -- Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin. All those names ring a bell, probably the most for a single country over such a long period of time.

    Anyone who harps on Putin's name can be dismissed as a failure. Like this neo-con nancyboy who got bitch-slapped by Tucker for 15 minutes straight last night:


    As in the case of Iran, Trump is the only one uninterested in the other side's individual leader -- his slogan was "getting along with Russia," not "getting along with Putin".

    Whether they are led by Putin or someone else, and whether we are led by Trump or someone else, we have to get along with the other nuclear superpower.

  7. During the two world wars, pejorative nicknames were used to assign collective blame - "the Huns" for the Germans, "the Japs" in WWII. Wartime posters fixated on enemy soldiers instead of enemy leaders.


    Conversely, during periods of military decline, the media focuses only on political leaders and elite military units. For instance, during the Iraq War, there was an obsession with the "Republican Guard". It was believed that only the Republican Guard would put up a fight, whereas the broader Iraqi army were innocents who had been drafted by Saddam(may have been truth to that, but its an example of individual blame rather than collective blame).

    Or another example - during the Afghanistan invasion, parachuting in food before the bombings.

  8. Good point. The last pejorative for East Asians was "gook" for the Koreans, just after WWII. No new bad names caught on for the Vietnamese, who we were supposed to be liberating from the evil Communist leaders.

    Wetback, spic, steezer -- all old terms from before WWII, when we ran Central America / Caribbean as our backyard.

    The pejoratives have shifted to the individual leaders themselves -- So Damn Insane, Pooty-Poot, Ayatollah Assaholla (Simpsons spoof, but accurate of the mood).

  9. Yet "sand niggers" has caught on for Middle Easterners.

    NGram shows the term originating in the early '80s -- perhaps related to Iran taking hostages (term pre-dates the bombing of Marines barracks and Embassy in Lebanon), or general hatred of OPEC raising gas prices in the '70s, or general hatred of the Muslim world wielding more and more influence. "Rock the Casbah" would be decried as Islamophobic today.

    Now there's a contradiction between the people and the leaders -- a good chunk of conservatives and Republicans think of generic Middle Easterners as "sand niggers," especially if they're fanatic Muslims. And yet the Pentagon and oil companies that control the party of those voters, the GOP, is 100% in bed with the most fanatic jihadists in all of the "sand" (Riyadh, in the Arabian Desert).

    Something is bound to snap when the rank-and-file Republicans figure out that their party is in league with the worst sand niggers on Earth. The Pentagon, Deep State, and GOP Establishment have managed to keep the Saudi responsibility for September 11th under wraps for awhile, but that's not going to last. Especially now that those jihadists have 100s of billions worth of new weapons from the GOP's military-industrial complex.

    That's the weak point that needs to get hammered until the Pentagon breaks off support for Jihadi Arabia. Republican voters absolutely detest the fanatic sand nigger sheikhdom.

  10. I'm not advocating the use of pejorative words, just showing how it correlates with phases of military expansion. "Sand n___" is an ugly term, and I'm glad we don't live in a society where collective blame is focused on other countries.

  11. If Nassim Taleb is OK with calling the Saudis "Saudi Barbaria" and "sandniggers," it's OK for us to do that as well.

    The nomads from the Arabian Desert could get wiped out, and the world wouldn't be worse off.

    The only decent people in the Saudi Arabian nation are those who it annexed as it expanded out of its Desert base -- the Shia along the Persian Gulf coast, and the Hejaz along the Red Sea coast. As far as actual "sand" people go, they're garbage to be flushed down the toilet.

  12. Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito and the like certainly do figure prominently in World War II propaganda, especially the entertainment of the time (and doubly especially in things like comic books, Looney Tunes shorts, etc.). Granted, though, the focus on the figure seemed to be done as a way to give a face and name to an entire group i.e. Tojo might refer to the man himself but just as often meant the Japanese in general which seems to be a bit different than today's focus on the individual as the individual who we must remove to grant a neoconian Democracy and Freedom on the people of his land.

    In WWII we weren't concerned about freeing the Japanese and German citizens from Hirohito and Hitler as much as punishing them as conspirators in, and enablers of, the actions of their leaders. Though in the case of de-Nazification in Germany it seems to have worked a little too well (likely stemming from longstanding distrust the British and other Allied powers had of Germany after 1871) what with allowing ex-Nazis like Franz Fischer to develop and promote the Sonderweg theory of German history that amounts to "Germany is terrible and responsible for all the evils of the world" and likely playing a part in the seeming demonization of national pride in that country.

  13. OT: Ag's observation in March about elected Democrats vis a vis healthcare proven prescient in California:

    "The Democrats are bought off by the drug companies, insurance companies, and healthcare providers, so like hell they would ever advance single-payer on their own. Also, they're such kneejerk partisans that, as Trump keeps saying, they'd vote against their own utopia if Trump were the one who gave it to them".


    From David Sirota and Lydia O'Neal:

    "At the same time, an International Business Times review of campaign finance data found that in the intervening years, health insurers and pharmaceutical companies substantially boosted their donations to California Democratic candidates in gubernatorial election years."

    "In all, donors from the health services sector and major health insurers gave more than $16 million to Democratic candidates and the California Democratic Party in the 2014 election cycle -- almost double what donors from those industries gave in the 2006 election, according to data from the National Institute on Money In State Politics. Donors from those sectors collectively donated more than $3 million to Brown and Rendon since 2010"


    The propagandists are upset with this article, preferring the narrative of California's super majority Democrat failure to pass Single Payer as being undone by technocratic snafus or caustic personalities.
    The MSM playing at being populists is so cringe. They understand, correctly, where the zeitgeist is headed, but their most hated enemy is, right now, the Lefty populists' most powerful "friendly": President Donald Trump.

    I feel sorry once again for the Jill Stein-Bernie guys. They were psychologically abused so much by the press during the primary, and I suspect that it will get going again when Trump starts to show more of his cards. After this article, it may already be starting up.


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