Coast of Dreams

Coast of Dreams, a survey of California history since 1990, is full of nuggets that explain the origins of Californian artifacts.
Where did the massive demonstrations in LA against the immigration bill come from? The tactics, from flagwaving, to the student walkouts, to the massive gatherings and the slogans, are repeats of the tactics used to protest proposition 187 in 1994.
Where did Trader Joe’s come from? The founder’s origininal target market was Pasadena PhD students who had sophisticated tastes in food and poverty budgets.
Why does Silicon Valley have a string of surprisingly lively main streets in its string of suburban towns? It’s actually not uncommon in California, where new urbanist ideas have supported walkable town centers all over the state. (this trend has recently been dubbed The New Suburbanism
What happened after the LA riots? High profile redevelopment efforts by Peter Ueberroth and representatives of the oligarchy flopped. Economic revitalization came from an unexpected direction; toy and textile businesses, founded by immigrants who colonized the underutilized downtown buildings.
Why are there green hills in Marin? Because land conservancies have been buying up open space when there would otherwise be expensive housing.
It a good book?
If you’ve been following California news closely for the last 15 years, Coast of Dreams might come across as a non-book. It is a collection of stories that one might assemble from reading the paper and watching how the stories develop over the years.
The book has a loose theme; the economic hard times prompted by the end of the cold war, and subsequent revival led by immigrant business, entertainment and tech. But the freeway-speed survey has nothing near the the depth of, say, Common Ground, the brilliant social history of the then-recent busing crisis by J. Anthony Lukas.
Many topics require the reader to turn to other sources for depth and analysis. Starr writes about the disasters of fire and landslides that affect neighborhoods in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains near Los Angeles; John McPhee explains how patterns of fire suppression and building make the pattern inevitable, in a superb section of The Control of Nature.
The Coast of Dreams documents the brutal costs of the drug war in central Los Angeles and the rural central valley; but doesn’t pause to consider any alternatives to the policies that create the drug war. Start talks about increasing income stratification, with wealthy entertertainment and tech professionals served by service workers; and agribusiness executives making profits from the labor of migrant farmers; but nothing about cause says little about the macroeconomic and policy causes of the widening gap and decreasing mobility between powerty and wealth.
For a newcomer to California, though, Coast of Dreams is a fine drive through the landscape of recent California history, covering territory from gangs to beach volleyball. The best part of the tour is the author’s meanders through California visual art and literature, with thumbnail portraits of various artists, architects, landscape designers, novelists and poets. There’s a little gem of a section that wonders why LA’s novelists are so noir, while its poets and architects are cheerful. Sometimes the cultural history is overinterpreted; for example, the growth of Mexican-American art festivals is seen as a sign of racial detente in Los Angeles; surely a good thing; but not the same as reducing violence between black, latino, and korean city residents.
It would be really fun if the book were hypertext, with links to the people, places and pictures, and maybe a tour guide.

Alexander Hamilton and Cod

Not long ago, I read two good history books from alternate schools of history.
Willard Sterne Randall’s biography of Alexander Hamilton tells the life story of a “great man” — how Alexander Hamilton overcame poverty and social prejudice against his out-of-wedlock birth, through ambition, hard work, and what we’d call networking — to become a leading figure in the founding of the United States.
The catchy but shallow metaphorical “frames” of George Lakoff make one nostalgic for the good, old-fashioned Enlightenment. The 18th century world had slavery shadowing the rhetoric of freedom, and plenty of smaller vicious customs like tarring and feathering and duels. The politics of the time were often vicious, personal, and corrupt. Hamilton was vain, insecure, and contentious; biographies of other founding fathers reveal plenty of flaws.
But the bold and ultimately successful ambition of the founding fathers leave the student of history in awe. Alexander Hamilton made a comprehensive study of European economic and financial theory and practice, and drew up a blueprint for a nation’s financial institutions.
Following an election campaign in which George Bush’s indifference to ideas and facts was portrayed as a strength, and Kerry’s nuanced equivocation made intellect seem weak, it’s inspiring to read about founding fathers who were both smart and brave, and whose intellectual achievements were integral to their bravery.
The book is relatively weak on Hamilton’s contributions to the structure and philosophy of US government (he wrote most of the Federalist papers), and his role in creating the US financial system. Chernow’s more recent biography is probably the place to go for more substance on those topics.
The Hamilton bio is surprisingly strong on the twists and turns of the Revolutionary war. Battles and feints that come off as “one thing after another” in textbook accounts make sense as strategic moves and historical turning points. The sheer stress and uncertainty are brought to life.
In contrast to the old-fashioned individual and dramatic focus of “Alexander Hamilton”, Cod takes a broader, impersonal look at world history through the theme of the prosaic codfish, which supported economic life and cooking from Iberia to Scandinavia, Canada to the Carribean for hundreds of years.
The cod was part of the North America/Carribean/European trade that gave Alexander Hamilton his initial opportunity — as a teenager, he started as a clerk in a trading house on the Carribean island of Nevis. His bosses, New York traders, eventually paid his way to college and introduced him to New York business, political and social circles.
Cod was a core part of the trade economy that the American Colonists went to war to protect; taxes on molasses, and later on sugar and tea penalized the Carribean leg of the trade route. The New England cod trade was part of the painful irony of the American revolution — New Englanders defended their rights to be represented in tariff decisions, and voiced opposition to slavery on principle, but were silent about the role of slaves in the far side of their trade routes.
The story, in the end, is an environmental fable. North American fisheries have proven unable to refrain from destroying the cod population with factory fishing methods. By contrast, Iceland has managed to understand the danger, and reduce fishing to sustainable levels.
The decline of fish, soil and water are part of a current danger to civilization — Jared Diamond’s latest, on the role of environmental mismanagement in the fall of civilizations throughout history, is at the top of the pile to read next.
For Peterme who always asks for recommendations, the lively recounting of the revolutionary war is the strongest reason to read the Hamilton biography. Cod is a strong addition to the shelf of commodity-oriented social history, with an appealing system picture connecting food, politics, and the environment.
Neither book is brilliant, both are good and well worth reading.

What Went Wrong with What Went Wrong

Based on a recommendation from a blog reader, I picked up “What Went
Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response
” by Bernard Lewis.
Given the mixed Amazon reviews, I borrowed the book from the library.
The obvious criticisms of the book’s style are correct — What Went
Wrong is a collection of transcribed lectures, hastily taken to print
after September 11th. The essays are not edited together to support a
thesis, and they do not provide a satisfying answer the question in the
book’s title.
Even so, one might expect that lectures given by one of the world’s
leading experts in Middle Eastern history might contain substantive
information based on primary source research, combined with insightful
interpretations and a powerful, implicit argument driven by the
scholar’s point of view, developed through decades of thought on the
topic. Such a book would be worth reading, though it would require more
work by the reader to assemble the thesis by means of marginal notes.
The book has interesting facts and stories. But Lewis’ interpretations
are badly inadequate, even from the perspective of someone with a
sketchy understanding of Muslim history.
The subject of the book is the response of the “Middle East” to
increasingly evident Western economic and military superiority in modern
times. Lewis is an expert on the Ottoman empire, and the book focuses
primarily on the Ottoman Turks, secondarily on Iran, and very little on
Arab regions (not at all on other Muslim countries which are out of the
book’s scope).
After several painful defeats in the late 17th century to European
armies, Ottoman rulers initiated a series of campaigns to study and
integrate Western military, economic, and technological advances.
The trouble is that Lewis seems to take for granted the flaws in Ottoman
culture that he purports to explain. Lewis reports that initiative to
learn from Europeans was a traumatic change. “For Muslims, first in
Turkey and later elsewhere, this brought a shocking new idea that one
might learn from the previously despised infidel.” The Ottoman rulers
turned to the Ulema, the masters of Islamic law, and requested an
exemption from the traditional prohibition against accepting infidel
Yet the intellectual insularity shown by the Ottoman empire was not
typical of earlier Islamic regimes, which embraced and integrated
external cultural influences and non-Muslim expertise. Baghdad, the
capital city of the Abbasid dynasty, was laid out by a Jewish
mathematician and a Persian astronomer. Al-Khwarizmi, the Muslim
mathematician, explained the Indian number system in Arabic, and made
innovative contributions to algebra. Abd al-Rachman III, the ruler of
Muslim Spain at the height of its power and cultural influence, had a
Jewish vizier, Hasdai ibn Shaprut.
Lewis explains the Ottoman ignorance of Western ways as an outcome of
Muslim prohibitions against traveling and settling in foreign lands.
This geographical insularity also was not typical of earlier Muslim
regimes. In the medieval era, the Muslim world was a key link in a world
system of trade that linked Europe and Asia. Muslim merchants spent
their lives in caravans and ships; there were longstanding Muslim
settlements in Southeast Asia and China.
The interesting question is not why the belated efforts of the Ottoman
empire to adopt infidel knowledge failed. With its underlying attitudes
toward “foreign influence” it does not seem so surprising that these
efforts were too little, too late. The question is why the Ottoman
empire was so much more insular and narrow-minded than the Muslim
regimes that came before it.
Lewis does mention the decline in Muslim science since medieval times.
In the medieval era, Muslim scientists sought out Greek, Indian, and
Persian knowledge, and made innovative contributions to mathematics,
astronomy, and medicine. By the Ottoman period, Muslim scientists were
no longer seeking new sources and adding to the world’s store of
knowledge, “they had their own science, handed down by great scientists
of the past.” What happened to the Muslim intellectual tradition in the
mean time that destroyed its ability to learn and innovate?
Lewis writes that Ottoman efforts to jumpstart the economy by importing
factories failed to take root. But he includes no evidence or analysis
of underlying economic structures that might have inhibited or fostered
economic progress. Two points of comparison. Throughout the medieval
era, the Muslim world played a major role in international trade. In the
16th century and later, European ships discovered alternate sea routes
to the Far East, and established permanent colonies, cutting out the
Muslim segment of the trade route. In 1568, the Ottomans drew up a plan
to dig a canal through Suez, to render the Red Sea route competitive
again. The following year, they started to dig a canal between the Don
and the Volga rivers, to improve the northern trade route. But these
plans were abandoned, in favor of head-on war with Russia and Vienna.
Why did the Ottoman military initiatives supersede economic ones; did
they miss the connection between money and power, or did they believe
that territorial conquest would serve them better?
In contemporary era, the Arab regions were graced with oil wealth. They
imported unskilled Chinese laborers to build oil platforms and
refineries. The Chinese workers learned the technology, saved their
money, and within a generation had developed world-leading businesses in
construction and transportation logistics. Why didn’t Arabs take
advantage of their privilege and money to move up the value chain and
dominate the worldwide oil, chemical, and shipping industries?
One might attribute Middle Eastern economic stagnation to flaws in the
Muslim legal and financial systems. Lewis doesn’t make this argument,
but he does make much of the fact that concept idea of secular law comes
from the Christian world, where a separation between church and state
was needed to keep chronic religious wars from wrecking society. Lewis
explains that European colonial and post-colonial regimes imposed
systems of secular, Western law, which were sometimes adopted and often
resisted by Middle Easterners. Anti-Western Muslim governments throw
off the imported systems, and return to the Sharia, the traditional
Muslim law code.
Contemporary Sharia systems in places like Iran and Afghanistan are
often mocked for being medieval and backward, legislating repression of
women and brutal corporal punshment (no, I’m not in favor of the Texas
death penalty, either). But there is no empirical reason that a system
of Muslim jurisprudence needs to be backward. After all, European laws
once featured trial by ordeal, and prevented women from owning property.
A living tradition of Muslim law might be able to adapt to current
economic and social conditions. How did the Sharia change from a system
that had once reflected the standards of justice of its time to one that
insisted on avoiding change?
Lewis writes that Western ideas of equal rights and democracy, which
underlie Western legal systems, likewise caught on slowly in the Middle
East, and were often imposed by outsiders. Colonial and
Western-dominated post-colonial regimes insisted on full rights for
non-Muslims, and the ending of slavery (though they ignored restrictions
on women). Ideas of liberty were sometimes used by internal reformers,
but were often resisted as foreign grafts.
But there is no logical reason that Islam itself could not make these
changes — even without a secular system. Islam is based on ideals of
equality and justice — why could these ideas not be extended to
enfranchise women, free slaves, and institutionalize the rights of
non-Muslims, as they were practiced in the most tolerant Islamic
societies. Likewise, there is a Muslim tradition of consultative
government. Why has this not been developed into a system of government
that takes into account the voices and needs of different sectors of
Lewis’ analysis of the failure of the Middle East to adopt Western
technology is weak and superficial. Lewis provides some interesting
primary-source documentation about the slow adoption of modern clocks
and calendars into Ottoman administration. The resistance to modern
timekeeping is illustrated with anecdotes of the leisurely pace of life,
even today, in Middle Eastern countries. But Lewis doesn’t ask the
interesting questions about why the technology of time was ignored. In
Western society, technologies of time were adopted in government and
business administration, industrial production, and transportation. The
Ottoman empire had a fairly advanced administrative system. What was
missing in Ottoman government and economic institutions that they did
not see the benefit of these technologies, or were unable to implement them?
Norvell De Atkine, the US military trainer, argues that contemporary
Middle Eastern armies failed to successfully assimilate modern weapons,
not because of lack of technology, but because of flaws in
organizational culture. Middle Eastern governments brought in Western
trainers and technology, but the troops were unable to use and maintain
the systems because of their aversion to sharing information. An officer
trained in the use of a weapons system would not share that knowledge
with rest of his men, because sharing knowledge would reduce his power.
Did Ottoman armies and administrations have these problems sharing
information — is this what made it diffiicult to embrace new technology
and methods? In the early days of Muslim conquest, were armies this bad
at communicating, and successful nevertheless? Lewis doesn’t say.
Some of Lewis’ explanations about the Middle East’s failure to
Westernize are simply laughable. Lewis makes much out of the reluctance
of Middle Easterners to appreciate European classical music. Lewis
attributes Middle Eastern indifference to European classical music to a
general aversion to foreign influence, and in particular to a dislike of
polyphonic technique, which uses the same organizational genius as
Western team sports, parliamentary government, and corporate structures.
Lewis doesn’t notice the many and substantial foreign influences on
Middle Eastern music, which come from the East instead of the West.
Muslim classical musical styles were heavily influenced by Indian and
pre-Muslim Persian styles. Popular Middle Eastern music is full of
influences from Central and Eastern Europe. Today, music from India is
extremely popular in the Middle East. Muslims do like foreign music,
they just happen to find eastern styles more congenial than western styles!
By contrast, Lewis talks approvingly of the adoption of European
architectural styles. He does not mention that medieval Muslim empires
created their distinctive architectural styles from the elements of
existing buildings. In Eastern regions of Muslim dominance, mosques were
converted from Byzantine churches. In medieval Spain, Muslim took the
columns, literally and figuratively, from the ruins of Roman buildings.
Muslim architecture always incorporated foreign influences; this was the
rule, not the exception.
Throughout the book Lewis describes the tensions between modernizers,
who wished to replace the traditions of Muslim society with European
imports, and traditionalists, who wished to recover a lost world of
cultural purity. Lewis himself seems to agree with the assumptions
underlying this debate, and he takes the side of the modernizers. Lewis
seems to embrace the assumption that a strong civilization builds its
own culture out of native materials; but a weak civilization needs to
adapt to cultural norms of the stronger power. Lewis doesn’t consider
that a strong civilization is one which is able to embrace, absorb and
transform diverse influences. In other words, Lewis makes the same
mistake as the subjects of his historical inquiry.
Here’s what I take away from the book, based on Lewis’ evidence and
other reading. The decline in Muslim civilization occured long before it
the evident decline of the Ottoman empire. The Ottoman empire was
militarily powerful in its day, and wealthy at its prime, but it lacked
the cultural flexibility required to innovate and adjust to change.
But why was the Ottoman empire so insular and inflexible? Lewis
describes the phenomenon, but doesn’t explain it.
By the way, I haven’t read Said’s Orientalism (yet), which criticizes
Bernard Lewis in particular, and Western scholarship in general, for
colonalist and racist stereotypes of the inferiority of Muslim cultures.
The problem with What Went Wrong isn’t that Lewis’ criticisms are
biased, it is that they are shallow; they don’t explain very real flaws
of Middle Eastern societies in modern times, which are flaws even with
respect to the greatest historical achievements of Muslim civilization.

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain

The Ornament of the World, by Maria Menocal, is a fascinating but
flawed book about Muslim culture in medieval Spain. The exciting parts of
the book are the stories of cultural influence among Muslims, Jews, and
Christians. These cultural influences shed light on some fundamental
chapters in history that are told often but explained poorly.
* You may have learned in European history class that medieval Arab
culture preserved Greco-Roman classical knowledge during the Europe’s
dark ages. Menocal’s book tells the story how classical works of science
and philosophy, preserved in Arabic, were transmitted to Christian
Europe. In the 8th-10th centuries, most of the Iberian peninsula was
ruled by the Umayyad dynasty, with Cordoba as its capital. The Umayyad
rulers, in competition with the Abbassid Caliphate based in Baghdad,
established Cordoba as a center of higher learning, building an
extensive library and funding leading scholars.
In the 11th century, the Umayyad government fell, the Iberian peninsula
became divided into dozens of warring city-states, and Christian rulers
from the North of Spain gradually increased their domains. The
Christian-controlled areas continued to be heavily influence by Muslim
culture. Alfonso IV of Castile, ruler of the Taifa of Toledo, wanted to
publicize this learning within Christian Europe, and funded the
translation process. Jewish and Arab scholars read texts in Arabic, and
recited them out loud in Castilian. Christian scholars listened to the
spoken Castilian and wrote in Latin.
* If you studied European literature, you probably have some
recollection of the troubadours of Provence, who pioneered the poetry of
courtly romance. In the 11th to13 centuries, a seemingly remote region
in the south of today’s France, heretofore known for bloody turf wars
between rival Frankish feudal lords, suddenly produced a flowering
musical and literary culture. Where did this surge of civilization come
The region of Provence is located on the Northeast side of the
Pyrenees. The constant warfare among the citystates of the Iberian
peninsula offered attractive opportunities for free-lance Frankish
knights, who crossed the mountains to seek their fortune, and helped to
conquer Muslim cities. These knights were captivated by the music and
poetry of Andalusian culture, and returned to Provence, bringing with
them groups of professional singers of Arabic songs, traditions of
stylized lyric poetry, and romantic conceptions of love.
* If you have a basic background in Jewish history and philosophy, you
may recall the Kuzari, medieval work by Judah Halevi. The frame-story
of the Kuzari is the correspondence between a Jewish scholar and the
King of a central Asian tribe called the Khazars, who requested an
explanation of various beliefs and philosophies; in order to introduce
the best tradition to his people. The Kuzari includes logical “proofs”
of the existence of God, and arguments for the superiority of revealed
religions truth to philosophies based on reason.
Menocal tells more of the story. The correspondence with the Khazars
was conducted several generations earlier, in the 10th century, by
Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the foreign minister to the Umayyad caliph Abd
al-Rachman III. That correspondence compared Judaism with Christianity
and Islam. Halevi lived and worked two hundred years later, and was a
student of Moses Ibn Eza, philologist, poet, and fan of the Andalusian
culture, in a time when all three monotheistic faiths struggled with the
implications of Greek philosophy. Halevi spent most of his career as a
peripatic scholar and poet in Jewish intellectual circle. Later in his
life, he had a change of heart, and advocated a return to Judaism cleansed of the corruptions of
secular life and philosophical influences. He wrote the Kuzari arguing
that philosophy is incompatible with faith, wrote beautiful poems about Israel in exile, yearning for God, and he died on a pilgrimage to crusader-controled Jerusalem.
Menocal writes in a romantic and nostalgic style that derives in part
from her subjects own elegaic esthetic, and from her own nostalgia for
the world of Andalusia. Sometimes the style works, especially when
describing works of architecture built as monuments and memorials. She
describes the initial design of the Alhambra palace gardens: “The first
gardens built on the red hill by those exiles from Cordoba were, like
Abd al-Rahman’s palm tree, the echoes and reconstructed memories of a
mourned homeland.”
Sometimes the romantic language is overwrought and awkward, as in these
description of the writing of Shmuel Hanagid, the vizier of Grenada,
military general, Jewish communal leader and Hebrew poet. “The third
poem, to praise the third victory, had flowed most easily of all, and he
could now more effortly flex those new muscles that sang of arms and men
and God… In that loving and revolutionary embrace by a powerful and
supremely self-assured man, Heberew was redefined, and cultivated as a
language that could transcend the devotional and theological uses to
which it had lately been limited.”
Particularly irritating is the use of purple prose to cover the lack of
information. For example, the author describes the libraries of Cordoba
as follows: “The rich web of attitudes about culture, and the
intellectual opulence that it signified, is perhaps only suggested by
the caliphal library of, by one count, some four hundred thousand
volumes, and this at a time when the largest library in Christian Europe
probably held no more than 400 manuscripts.”
An impressive collection of books, to be sure. But who read those books?
What classes of society were literate? What role did higher education
play in society? What was a typical curriculum? Were the books mostly
copies of classical manuscripts, or did they include new scholarship?
No answers, just vague sentences such as: “Just as essential to the
social and cultural project embedded in those libraries was a series of
attitudes about learning of every sort, about the duty to transmit
knowledge from one generation to another, about the interplay between
the very modes of learning that were known to exist…”
The book provides context for a better understanding of the history of
Christian, Muslim, and Jewish cultures, sheds light on a fascinating
historical period, and whets ones appetite for more information. It is
definitely worth reading.

The Mapmakers

While on the road, I read The Mapmakers, by John Noble Wilford, Pulitzer prize-winning science writer for the New York Times.
The book tells the stories of the scientists and explorers who pioneered the techniques and practice of mapmaking. The book explains early ingenious efforts to measure the size and shape of the earth, and the invention of techniques for surveying territory and projecting the sphere of the earth onto paper. Wilford is particularly good at telling tales of pre-20th century adventurers:
* the Frenchmen who travelled to Lapland and Peru to figure out how the sphere of the earth is out of true
* John Harrison, the watchmaker with working class origins, who built the first clock precise and reliable enough to measure longitude, and fought the aristocratic science establishment that refused to give him credit for the discovery
* James Cook and George Vancouver, who added the coasts of the South Pacific and Western North America on European maps, and subtracted the Northwest Passage and the lush, legendary Terra Australis.
* The members of the India Survey who infiltrated and mapped Chinese-controlled Tibet in the 1860s while posing as lamas, including Nain Singh, who used a prayer wheel to store slips of paper with compass and distance measurements instead of prayers, paced off distances with rosaries containing 100 beads instead of the traditional 108, and carried a sextant, compass, thermometer and mercury container in a false-bottomed box.
The book slows down somewhat with the advent of 20th century team science, but still tells interesting stories about the use of new technology to map previously inaccessible territory; side-looking radar under clouds in Amazon rain forest, radio echo sounding under the Antarctic ice sheet, seismic mapping under the earth, sonar under the ocean floor, satellites and spacecraft on the moon and Mars.
The Mapmakers purports to be world history, but it has a strong European focus. Wilford does include few pages about sophisticated early mapmaking practices in China. But he almost completely ignores Muslim and Indian geography. The book contains just one brief reference to ibn Khaldun, the medieval Muslim traveler and geographer, and nothing on Al Idrisi, who was commissioned by Roger II, the Christian king of Sicily, to update navigational records, and created the famous early atlas called “The Book of Roger.” The Mapmakers briefly mentions that one Francis Wilford, a member of India Survey, was a student of ancient Hindu geography. Given early Indian sophistication in astronomy, math, and government administration, one wonders what earlier sources of geographic knowledge he drew on. According to an Indian friend of mine, many early maps were destroyed to keep them out of the hands of British colonial rulers.
Wilford writes about the dire level of geographic ignorance of Medieval Europeans, whose maps routinely placed Paradise at the Eastern border of China, without noting that during the same period, there was a longstanding, ongoing system of travel and trade from Arabia through India and Southeast Asia to China (see books by Abu Lughod and KN Chaudhuri, among others), conducted by Arabs, Jews, Indians, and sometimes Chinese. I don’t know what sorts of maps were used by these travelling merchants, but they must have used something, because they got from place to place regularly and routinely.
Wilford tells the story of mapmaking as a process of technological development and scientific discovery. Readers are left on their own to infer the social contexts of mapmaking from the details of the tales of “exploration”: in the 16th-19th centuries, European colonial expansion; in the 20th century, the hunt for oil and gas resources, and the advances of military missiles, and submarines, and spy satellites. The sociopolitical history of mapmaking is a different book than the one Wilford wrote; that would also be and interesting story to read.

Why Do Arabs Lose Wars These Days?

A retired senior US military trainer writes a scathing critique of Arab military culture in American Diplomacy. Based on personal experience training Arab officers and soldiers, and research into Arab military history, Norvelle de Atkine observes that:
“* Arab officers are not concerned about the welfare and safety of their men.
* The Arab military mind does not encourage initiative on the part of junior officers, or any officers for that matter.
* Responsibility is avoided and deflected, not sought and assumed.
* Political paranoia and operational hermeticism, rather than openness and team effort, are the rules of advancement (and survival) in the Arab military establishments.”
If De Atkine is right, then why are Arabs so much worse at war these days?
In the initial ages of Muslim expansion and world leadership (7th-11th centuries), Arabs had formidable military might. In later centuries (13th-17th), Muslim powers built empires through military prowess, often with armies of Turkish or Central Asian origin.
What’s happened since? Have there been changes in Arab culture in general, or Arab military culture in particular that render their armies less effective? Has the culture remained the same, while war has changed in modern times? Is there any cultural connection between the old Arab military powers and today’s squabbling, hierarchy-bound, poorly-trained troops. Is there a persuasive argument that European colonialism caused the decline?
I’m fairly new to the study of Muslim history; would love plausible explanations and good references from folks who are knowledgable about the subject.
De Atkine, by the way, seems to be an equal opportunity critic — here’s his analysis of the US military’s persistent inability to train people and develop skills to fight “small wars.”

Can the US Win Small Wars? Do We Want To?

Recently read “The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power“, by Max Boot, whose editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal.
In a nutshell — the history is lively and informative; the ideology is insane.
The book makes a persuasive case against the Powell Doctrine, and a scary, unpersuasive argument in favor of imposing a Pax Americana around the world.
Boot tells the stories of many small wars fought by the US throughout its history: suppression of North African pirates; invasions and occupations in the Carribean and Central America, counterinsurgency in the Phillipines, protection of Americans in crumbling Imperial China. These wars were fought to protect American trade, to avenge attacks on American soil, defend the lives of Americans abroad, and to ensure friendly governments in areas the US wanted to control. Some small wars were quite short, others involved military occupations that lasted years or decades. These “small wars” are much less well known than the major conflicts, and, Boot argues, the historical lessons of these wars have been forgotten.
These stories show how the US developed highly effective tactics for fighting guerillas and irregular armies:
* use small, flexible forces
* use bluff, daring, and fighting skill to intimidate and kill opponents
* reduce the guerilla’s support among the local population by befriending and defending local people, improving sanitation and healthcare, building roads and bridges, and helping to establish local self-government
* use local knowledge to identify the enemy and avoid indiscriminate killing
Boot uses his historical analysis to soundly discredit the Powell Doctrine, which has shaped US military policy in recent decades. In reaction to the US failure in Vietnam, the Powell doctrine states that wars should be fought only when the US can stage an overwhelming attack and achieve rapid victory, incurring few casualties; and leave quickly, following a defined “exit strategy”, without becoming embroiled in “nation-building.”
Boot draws very different conclusions from Vietnam. The US military failed in Vietnam, not because they didn’t fight a conventional war aggressively enough, but because they used conventional tactics against a guerrilla army. The book includes a compelling step-by-step analysis of the flaws in the execution of the Vietnam war, based on the historical lessons of past wars against guerrilla forces. The book considers recent U.S. military engagements, in Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, and Kosovo, and explains how the Powell doctrine gets in the way of effective use of US military policy.
The book’s history is well-researched, its argument is well-constructed, the writing is vivid and clear. Its philosophy is also highly troubling. Boot is an aggressive apologist for US imperial policies. He argues rather unpersuasively that trade was a minor factor in U.S. “small wars.” He is correct that trade with the countries in question accounted for a small proportion of US business; but that is irrelevant, a small number of influential businesspeople with a grievance can have a disproportionate impact on policy, as can be seen in recent resurgence of steel tariffs and mohair subsidies. Instead, Boot makes the case that the US went to war largely for moral reasons. He argues repeatedly that US military interventions and occupations were humane on the whole, and whenever US rule was less than perfect, it was less cruel than European colonial masters, and more fair and competent than rule by brutal and greedy locals.
At times, the apologies for imperialism verge on the laughable. Boot describes US missionaries in China as “predecessors to today’s human rights workers”, with no awareness that locals might resent foreigners’ attempts to change their beliefs and culture. Boot states with no irony that “the 19th century free trade system was protected and expanded by the British Royal Navy.” No qualifications about the relative levels of “freedom” in, say, British-Indian commerce.
In fact, Boot is an unabashed imperialist. He argues that the US has a responsibility to use military might to impose a Pax Americana, establishing order and imposing government in chaotic regions all over the world. He has no qualms about playing the role of “world police”. The goal of a civic police force is not to end crime but to identify and catch criminals; likewise, the goal of “world police force” is not to win wars but to stop malefactors and keep order. Boot sees that US vacillation encourages our enemies, and believes that a more aggressive US policy would help to deter violence.
Boot likes war altogether too much. He enthusiastically recounts tales of heroism: valiant hill charges, crafty ambushes, and noble endurance against pain, weather, and odds. The book is spiced with tales of gruesome violence — beheadings, impalings, disembowlings, and numerous other forms of injury and torture. The vivid style reads like it was written by someone who grew up reading too many Western novels.
Boot was born in 1971; his family immigrated from Russia in 76. He was raised in Los Angeles, went to Berkeley for an undergrad degree, got a masters degree in European history from the sages of realpolitik at Yale. Boot has followed a typical pundit’s career track, with a stint at the Christian Science Monitor, followed by a post as the editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal, where he supervises the production of bellicose propaganda from the (relative) safety of his office in downtown Manhattan. He lives with his family in Westchester County.
Boot’s academic and journalistic credentials are good, and his research and writing live up to the resume. But he has no apparent military experience. Unlike fellow journalists at top-tier papers, like columnist Tom Friedman or, say, correspondent Daniel Pearl, Boot doesn’t even seem to have notable international experience as journalist. This makes his avid enthusiasm for overseas wars rather suspect.
To be fair, I don’t have a strong counter argument to explain when the US should go to war. I’m not a pacifist — I think war is sometimes necessary, and justification for war is sometimes obvious. But I don’t have a coherent opinion about when and how often to fight. Boot has made a very persuasive case that “small wars” can be effective. But he hasn’t argued convincingly that the US should aggressively police the world. And despite the exciting narrative, there is plenty of other evidence that war isn’t quite as much fun as good war stories.

I always wondered about Marco Polo…

Remember the story of Marco Polo from elementary school? Marco was a part of a family of Venetian traders who travelled to China in the 2nd half of the 13th century. He wrote a book about his experiences, became a major celebrity in his lifetime, and is probably the most famous westerner to travel the Silk Road.
I read the glowing biogragraphic stories of the intrepid adventurer as a kid, and they always puzzled me. Found answers to some of the questions in a book by Janet Abu-Lughod on world trade in the 13th c. CE.
Q. Why was Marco Polo’s visit to China such a big deal? Why did Europeans know so little about Chinese civilization, which, after all, had been there for quite a long time.
A. Europeans had been conducting trade with China mostly through intermediaries. Europeans traded with Muslims — or traded with Jews, who traded with Muslims. The Muslims took goods to India and China; or took goods to India, where other traders came from China.
Q. What was new that enabled the Polo family to travel to China?
A. The recent Mongol conquests put the Silk Road (briefly) under one rule, opening access from Europe through Central Asia to China. The other main routes to the Far East went through Muslim territory, and European Christians weren’t allowed through.
Q. Marco Polo wrote the book from jail in Genoa. He was imprisoned after participating in a sea attack on Genoese shipping. Why was Venice fighting Genoa, other than the fact that Italian cities were typically feuding with other Italian cities?
A. Venice and Genoa were the two major European trading cities. Genoa, on the west side of Italy, did a lot of business with northern europe (overland routes, and then through the North Sea), and with North Africa. Venice, on the east side of Italy, did more business to south and east, with Constantinople and Egypt. Venice and Genoa were arch-rivals in the trading business and attacked each other’s shipping on a regular basis.
And a bonus question which I had always wondered about, unrelated to Marco Polo:
Q. Why were the Portuguese so eager to find a new route to Asia in the 15th Century? And why go all the way around Africa?
A. Because in the century after the black plague, the number of open routes from Europe to Asia had dwindled to one route, which wasn’t open to Portuguese. The Silk Road was in disarray after the fragmentation of the Mongol empire. The Eastern Muslim route through Baghdad and Basra had collapsed after the Mongols destroyed Baghdad. The Western Muslim route through Egypt was monopolized by the Venetians and the Mameluk rulers of Egypt.