On War by Carl von Clausewitz. Picked this up after a podcast which compared it to "The Art of War" by somebody-a-century-later-pretending-to-be-Sun-Tzu which I was never impressed by. "The Art of War" presents war as a kind of chess game which the smartest guy can always win. Clausewitz constantly stresses that war is the domain of chance and uncertainty. You never have all the information you really need to make the decision and need a kind of instinct and determination to make your best guess unswayed by rumour or obstinacy. Things can always go wrong for one side or the other, so you need to be always ready to adapt to unforseen setbacks or pursue sudden opportunities.
It has parts that are absolutely fascinating. However it's written in the same mid-Nineteenth century style for factual books as Marx's "Capital", Henry Mayhew's "London Labour and the London Poor" or Richard Dana's "Two Years Before the Mast". That is, there are passages that are quite lyrical and fascinating, but also a lot of pedantic detail at extraordinary length. I listened to part of it as an audiobook but abandoned that as some of it is excruciating dull: especially when after an especially dull section on the difference between strategy and tactics, he goes off on an equally long rant on why it's important to know the difference and the reader is totally wrong to resent it.
Generally it's the earlier part of the book that's the most interesting where he talks in generalities about war and with examples. The later sections on "Defence of Mountains", "Defence of Swamps", "Defence of Forests" etc are less interesting if you're not planning to do any military commanding, though probably most useful if you are.
Overall, interesting and worthwhile, but I think it's justified to skimm over the duller bits if you want.
Some extracts from my notes.
- War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.
- War is the province of danger, and therefore courage above all things is the first quality of a warrior.
- War is the province of physical exertion and suffering.
- War is the province of uncertainty: three-fourths of those things upon which action in War must be calculated, are hidden more or less in the clouds of great uncertainty.
- War is the province of chance.
- We therefore do not hesitate to regard as an established truth, that in Strategy more depends on the number and the magnitude of the victorious combats, than on the form of the great lines by which they are connected.
He who has not been present at the loss of a great battle will have difficulty in forming for himself a living or quite true idea of it, and the abstract notions of this or that small untoward affair will never come up to the perfect conception of a lost battle. Let us stop a moment at the picture.
The first thing which overpowers the imagination—and we may indeed say, also the understanding—is the diminution of the masses; then the loss of ground, which takes place always, more or less, and, therefore, on the side of the assailant also, if he is not fortunate; then the rupture of the original formation, the jumbling together of troops, the risks of retreat, which, with few exceptions may always be seen sometimes in a less sometimes in a greater degree; next the retreat, the most part of which commences at night, or, at least, goes on throughout the night. On this first march we must at once leave behind, a number of men completely worn out and scattered about, often just the bravest, who have been foremost in the fight who held out the longest: the feeling of being conquered, which only seized the superior officers on the battlefield, now spreads through all ranks, even down to the common soldiers, aggravated by the horrible idea of being obliged to leave in the enemy’s hands so many brave comrades, who but a moment since were of such value to us in the battle, and aggravated by a rising distrust of the chief, to whom, more or less, every subordinate attributes as a fault the fruitless efforts he has made; and this feeling of being conquered is no ideal picture over which one might become master; it is an evident truth that the enemy is superior to us; a truth of which the causes might have been so latent before that they were not to be discovered, but which, in the issue, comes out clear and palpable, or which was also, perhaps, before suspected, but which in the want of any certainty, we had to oppose by the hope of chance, reliance on good fortune, Providence or a bold attitude. Now, all this has proved insufficient, and the bitter truth meets us harsh and imperious.
- The smaller a body of troops the more easily it can be moved
Only think for a moment, when the organism of a human being is in a disordered and fainting state, what a difference it must make to him whether he falls sick in a house or is seized in the middle of a high road, up to his knees in mud, under torrents of rain, and loaded with a knapsack on his back; even if he is in a camp he can soon be sent to the next village, and will not be entirely without medical assistance, whilst on a march he must be for hours without any assistance, and then be made to drag himself along for miles as a straggler. How many trifling illnesses by that means become serious, how many serious ones become mortal. Let us consider how an ordinary march in the dust, and under the burning rays of a summer sun may produce the most excessive heat, in which state, suffering from intolerable thirst, the soldier then rushes to the fresh spring of water, to bring back for himself sickness and death.
It is not our object by these reflections to recommend less activity in war; the instrument is there for use, and if the use wears away the instrument that is only in the natural order of things; we only wish to see every thing put in its right place, and to oppose that theoretical bombast according to which the most astonishing surprises the most rapid movements, the most incessant activity cost nothing, and are painted as rich mines which the indolence of the general leaves unworked.
- ...in the generality of cases it is always very much easier to feed troops in a well populated than in a thinly inhabited country... The consequence is, that war with its manifold suckers fixes itself by preference along high roads, near populous towns, in the fertile valleys of large rivers, or along such sea-coasts as are well frequented.
- War actually takes place more for the defensive than for the conqueror, for invasion only calls forth resistance, and it is not until there is resistance that there is war. A conqueror is always a lover of peace (as Buonaparte always asserted of himself); he would like to make his entry into our state unopposed; in order to prevent this, we must choose war,
- We are convinced that there are no rules of any kind for strategic manœuvring; that no method, no general principle can determine the mode of action; but that superior energy, precision, order, obedience, intrepidity in the most special and trifling circumstances may find means to obtain for themselves signal advantages, and that, therefore, chiefly on those qualities will depend the victory in this sort of contest.
The Second Sleep by Robert Harris. Mild spoilers for about the first third of the book follow.
Science fictions set in a future centuries after an apocalypse where England seems to have a roughly 17th century level of technology and a powerful Church police prevents attempts to rediscover the science of the ancients. A young priest is sent out to bury and old priest and finds himself caught up with illicit activity.
I normally like Robert Harris's books, and there are some good moments, especially when the protagonist encounters mysterious elements of the path. The problem is that this is a very clichéd area in science fiction: Harris isn't really at home in the genre or writing for SF readers, and it never really gets beyond the basic tropes of the genre.
After seeing a few of these concepts it's also easy to start nitpicking. Given that this world consists of secular nation-states in permanent war, it's hard to see why at least one of these states doesn't start trying to resurrect advanced technology for an advantage.
I also thought the ending was a bit of a letdown. ((spoiler Would have been nice to see either a satisfying result for the characters, or a revelation about the catastrophe, or signs that the world is going to change, but nothing much happens.
Overall: An OK read but mildly disappointing for this author.
What I'm Reading 3
Nestor Makhno and Rural Anarchism in Ukraine by Colin Darch. Short book exploring the short period of anarchism in Ukraine from 1917 to 1921, with a focus on Nestor Makhno's military campaigns. Pretty informative on the military side of things and seems pretty even handed when it comes to evaluating the claims from the different sides.
Makhno's anarchists first had an uneasy on-off alliance with the Bolsheviks against the White Russians seeking to roll back the revolution, and the Germans attempting to extract resources. After those forces were defeated the Bolsheviks turned on the anarchists and slowly and brutally took over the Ukraine. They issued a lot of dubious propaganda which was taken for granted in the Soviet Union.
The propaganda wars get regularly re-run between Communists and Anarchists in left wing forums. Was hoping to find out some kind of objective truth, but in the chaos of the multi-sided, guerrilla civil war, there weren't really any objective neutrals hanging around to report on things. The primary sources are all propaganda to some degree.
Mahkno was willing to execute enemies and had a limited control of some of his forces. However he did make firm efforts to oppose anti-Semitism and keep the under control. After he fled to Poland he was put on trial after a number of charges were made by the Bolsheviks, but was found innocent.
Soviet historiography represented the maknovtsy as 'engaged exclusively in looting captured cities and passenger trains' while the evidence shows that all the armies -- whether German or Austro-Hungarian, Ukranian nationalists, Bolsheviks and Whites, or peasant insurgencies -- needed to survive, and so all robbed and plundered. There are other stories of the maknovtsy engaging in wanton acts of destruction, burning libraries and archives, and deliberately shelling a city's buildings with cannon. However Makhno was aware that such conduct was incompatible with maintaining popular suppot and consistently punished it.The book doesn't give very much information on how the anarchist communes functioned in practice. The author seems to think they didn't exactly set up a perfect society which was then crushed: the war came too soon.
But a significant proportion of the writing on maknovschina has been produced, unfortunately, precisely to prove a political point -- that the maknovtsy were a gang of counter-revolutionary cut-throats led by a drunken anti-Semitic thug, or that they were actually true Ukrainian patriots fighting to throw off the Russian yoke, or that the Bolsheviks were all cynical opportunists willing to betray their allies at the drop of a hat. Virtue, in these admittedly exaggerated characterisations, is to be found entirely on one side, and not at all on the others.
Such reductive and simplified narratives are, however, ultimately unconvincing. It was certainly the case that some maknovtsy were guilty of atrocities, such as the massacre of the Mennonites at Eichenfeld -- and that Makhno was a ruthless military commander who also got drunk, watched erotic movies, and fell off his horse. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of Ukrainian peasants and workers supported his attempts to realise anarchist ideas, and fought in his army.
The book is written in a pretty dry style and you don't get much sense of what Makhno was like as a man, or what it was like to be there.
Overall, a good book if you're interested in the period, but I think a lack of primary sources means there's never going to be a really objective account.
Really need lockdown to end. Home learning's getting harder and harder as the kid gets more resistant. With nothing else to do all the parks seem to be churned up mud. Fed up with a life of mud and tantrums and endless labour without even a night at the pub or the cinema to give me a break.
Socioeconomics. Has the population of Britain fallen by 1.3m and London by 700k in the pandemic?.
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