the #Hannibal #scourge and #globalization – #Foreign #Affairs #Iraq #Afghanistan #Boot #Brennan


First and foremost: thank for the around 100 people who read the second to last article (the most recent one was read by over 50), counting both Frype and Linkedin dwellers who had a look at the link (I do not know how many went through either Twitter or Facebook).

As I wrote on Saturday on FB
“books & foreign affairs reading week-end see you on Monday!“

Yes, unless I have agreed to meet with a friend online to talk (but I prefer Skype or something else that is as close as possible to face-to-face contact, than an exchange of text messages or chat: I know, I am obsolete :D) I usually visit social networks mainly as part of my “networking” or publishing activities, i.e. to share links and articles, and, while I am there, see the notifications, updates etc- but otherwise, I am mostly offline, or online to read newspapers or business-update-related material.

As it happens quite often, by chance, along with my routine search for articles and books on China and the Chinese culture, I had decided to get back through a couple of books from my personal library, joined a book that I found in French in a library in Turin- all three of them focused on varios elements of “cultural anthropology” (ok, my two books are my twisted “study closed groups” approach to cultural anthropology that helped me through my activities on cultural/organizational/technological change in companies for more than 25 years).

Dining With Terrorists, Meetings With The World’s Most Wanted Militants

Tristes tropiques

Ghost wars : the secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001

Nowadays, I still like to have books on paper, but as I spend more time waiting in line or for transportation means that I did while I was flying few times a week, I read on paper only books that are easier to carry along- and, with those those books from my library, that isn’t the case: so, I had first to convert them into pictures; otherwise, I use my smartphone to… use software to train my speech understanding abilities in Chinese, read Acrobat books and articles, or jot quick notes.

Ok, I keep it offline most of the time, as none of those activities require a connection: so, I appear on Whatsapp and FourSquare only once in a while.

The current issue of Foreign Affairs (that I receive as an Acrobat file as a subscriber, roughly ten days before the official issue date) has a significant chunk devoted to reviewing what happened over the last decade of wars (yes, since 9/11 it is already more than a decade of “War on Terror”- and it is looking to head into something like the “War on Drugs”).

Incidentally, it might be useful to re-read a 2011 e-book from Foreign Affairs, on “The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next”

Today I will post my Monday article on that includes something from an article on China’s new leadership, but I would like to focus this post just on a summary of the “Lessons From a Decade of War” section.

Well, the way I write… I had a quick run through my week-end readings, and then started quickly writing a first draft of this article, to be then completed while reading.

I know that in my latest article in Italian on political and advocacy marketing I saw that I can write “impromptu” about 1,200 words an hour (ok, it would take some time fixing- you can have a look at the draft on, under the section “strumenti”), so it took three hours to write it and… one hour to ensure that more or less it was formatted as I wanted when posted online 😀

Nonetheless, while reading I am used to first have a look cover-to-cover (did as soon as I downloaded the Foreign Affairs issue), then study the table of contents to associate it with the contents, then jump around, and finally read it, as I did mostly on Sunday.

Beside documentaries and biopics on Hannibal and Foreign Affairs, I went also through “The Alchemist“ by Coelho (in Spanish), and a book on “Globalization and History. The evolution of a nineteenth-century Atlantic economy“, as I find it useful for my current re-run and rummaging through micro and macro-economics (more about this at the bottom of this post, as it will explain also the picture that announces the article).

Let’s start with a quote from one of my readings this week-end:

-Existen tres tipos de alquimistas -dijo mi Maestro-. Aquellos que
son imprecisos porque no saben de lo que están hablando; aquellos
que lo son porque saben de lo que están hablando, pero también saben
que el lenguaje de la Alquimia es un lenguaje dirigido al corazón y no
a la razón.
-¿Y cuál es el tercer tipo? pregunté.
-Aquellos que jamás oyeron hablar de Alquimia pero que consiguieron, a través de sus vidas, descubrir la Piedra Filosofal.

Well, I partially disagree with the third, as once you realize that you obtained some knowledge, there are two further sub-types: those who are self-assured that they know (and risk becoming like the first type), and those who see that as both a starting point and a something to trace back to its sources.

Knowledge and learning are not just a destination, but a journey: and while every road leads to Rome, some are more convoluted than others.

Yes, I am paraphrasing an advertisement 😀 the “low brow culture” / “high brow culture” dichotomy is an ex-post self-aggrandizing figment of imagination (e.g. I often repeat that about Shakespeare’s theatre): culture is built by both, and you cannot really understand, centuries later, one without the other…

Through experience, you can build a true Gordian knot, and while few Alexanders might cut through it before starting their journey, and many would simply assume that their path was straightforward (as just a few had a linear path laid down for them), for most it would be only sensible that they have a look at alternative paths, to discover patterns that could help them make the next steps in their journey easier (and, incidentally, help maybe others in their own journey).

Otherwise, you risk becoming like that Bourgeois Gentilhomme in Molière, who discovered that he had talked all his life in prose 😀

An example of this “looking back“? Another bit of my week-end “reading“ (I have a multi-media approach to learning): while reading “The Alquemist“ by Coelho in Spanish (as I first read it in Spanish after receiving it as a birthday present by a Colombian friend in Turin, at a time when I did not know that I could read and understand Spanish), I was watching documentaries and movies on Carthage and, of course, Hannibal.

The episode relevant here is the story of how one stranded ship built by Carthage was taken apart by the Romans, who identified the “Fordist“ approach used to build it, and supposedly took that blueprint to produce over 100 ships in less than 2 months, setting the path for their seafaring activities and domination of the Mediterranean.

As for Hannibal… personally, I think that he was a master tactician, but poor on the “larger picture“: the idea of taking war on Roman soil and turn all the other towns in Italy into allies was at best fancical, and at most delusional: he did not have anything to offer, and a lack of long-term credibility, due to the not-so-irrelevant detail of having his own army basically in a cul-de-sac in Italy, as any resupply from Carthage would not be able to get through the shortest route, as both Sicily and the surrounding seas where scouted by Romans; therefore, he could only get “fair weather friends” for a (relatively) quick win, instead of allies no matter what.

Yes, he might surrender and crush an army at Cannae (something that has been reused in many battles since then), but it reminded me the episode at Sigonella: the Delta Force surrounding the Italian air force soldiers surrounding the airplane with the Achille Lauro terrorists, but… being surrounded by Italian Carabinieri (according to the late former Italian President Cossiga), and on Italian land.

Cannae was really a waking up call, pushing back the “Roman springcoil“ toward the wall, only to have it spring back and releasing the force that had accumulated, as it had happened after a much older defeat (the Allia battle, when the first Sack of Rome happened).

In a twisted way, my other reading this week-end, Foreign Affairs, is actually showing plenty of examples where Western-initiated wars generated more wars and gave more fuel to calls for arms.

Carpet-bombing never created friendships, and our shyness in intervening in what, in effect, could be considered a conflict that is a byproduct of the prior interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq is making even less friends.

It is like having an elephant enter a shop selling vases, crashing everything, and then saying: but it is your shop, anyway.

In Italian we have a saying: “chi rompe paga, ed i cocci sono suoi“ (in this context: those who break a State have to rebuild it).

My corollary: “ed i cocci tagliano“, i.e. if you turn a land into a wasteland, you have first to take extreme care in rebuilding relationships, then you can go onto “institutions building“ mode, as otherwise you have always to deal with lingering unease about your motives and the leftover costs of your prior intervention(s).

Let’s be frank: the history of “wars and retreats“ (including in humanitarian interventions) of the second half of the XX century certainly didn’t built that much of goodwill from other countries, and any sign of “disengagement“ is both reinforcing suspicion and making more difficult future interventions.

Do you remember that our arrival in Somalia was with a landing… with cameras and reporters waiting for the soldiers?

Or that, just to stay on that case, the warlord at the centre of the movie “Black Hawk Dawn” wasn’t just a bloodthirsty warlord, but had a past in some completely different arena, including some first-hand knowledge, as a diplomat (if I am not wrong), of part of the forces sent in under the UN banner?

Probably, as was suggested in a relatively old (ten years) book that I read and reviewed recently (“enforcing the peace“) it might make more sense to leverage on experience, and rethink about the “supply chain of interventions“, maybe using public opinion campaigns officially to generate consensus (and “political push“) to have more systemic interventions.

Somebody could say that that would be an inappropriate role for the UN, but propaganda has been part of any military intervention since recorded history, so why shouldn’t it be part of the tools of the trade of an organization focused on keeping the pieces (a.k.a. countries and territories) peacefully together?

Personally, thinking about the Foreign Affairs November-December 2014 issue (focused on what we learned from our XXI century wars so far) I am more inclined to a pragmatic Max Boot+Rick Brennan approach: you (prepare to) fight the enemy that you can expect to have, instead of dreaming of an enemy that is just what you need to do the XXI century equivalent of Napoleonic era battles, and, once you plan, keep adapting to the environment while sticking on your aim (well, it is what I saw in both cultural/organizational/technological change and the use of IT for managerial decision support).

There is only one point I agree with Betts’ position (he suggests instead to mainly focus on more traditional wars): half measures are to be avoided- albeit I do not think that a centuries old concept, proportionate response, that was useful when fighting with ordinary armies and states, at least by states with enough resources to have traditional armies.

And what about the others, or non-state entities? As shown since the first really mass-media war, the Vietnam War, if you have less resources, turning the tide sometimes requires committing to few but highly visible events, to generate doubts within the public opinion of your larger opponent (but it was what actually Rome was used to do, and not just with Carthage).

Anyway, accepting the idea that Napoleonic wars might be less common than another Afghanistan or Somalia probably implies reconsidering completely the meaning of “chain of command“ and associated rules, and increasing the investment on training the people involved (not just soldiers), to provide them with the ability to make judgement calls, instead of just aiming and firing.

From Max Boot’s article:

The success of the “surge” in Iraq
started with the willingness of General
David Petraeus, who was named commander of coalition forces in Iraq in
early 2007, to acknowledge that the
war was in danger of being lost. With
an additional 30,000 troops, he put in
place a new, and ultimately more successful, strategy that focused on protecting
the population. To get an accurate
picture of events on the ground, Petraeus
bypassed the chain of command and
sought information directly from junior
soldiers and civilian experts, including
reporters and think tankers. The military
needs to institutionalize a similar culture
of second-guessing (or “red teaming”)
and regularly seek outside information
in order to escape the tyranny of yes
men in the chain of command.

The United States also needs to cultivate better strategic thinkers in both
the military and the civilian spheres.

Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the
U.S. ambassador to Iraq who led the
civilian side of the surge in 2007–8,
represent two of the very few senior
officials to emerge from the wars with
their reputations improved. That’s
because they exhibited a rare quality in
the U.S. military: strategic acumen.

From a change and talent management perspective, it is even more interesting another element:

It’s no coincidence that Petraeus and
Crocker also had unusual backgrounds

If you have to deal with protean enemies, you have to be protean- which implies that you have to ensure that each component has an “ideological and ethical backbone“ that make their “fluid integration“ possible.

Meaning: whatever they do, is consistent with what others could do, join them to do, or continue to do if called in their place.

I know that many would be disappointed, but isn’t exactly what insurgents often do, and not only in the XXI century, i.e. being unified more by a (temporary) purpose and ethical (from their perspective) rules of engagement than by any “technicality“ (doctrine, technical interoperability, etc)?

At the same time, pushing the “ethical purpose“ as a cohesive element for protean armies too far could bring about the “Crusaders attitude“ shown not just by ISIS and Boko Haram, but others, i.e. assuming that anything they do, as their cause is just, has to be ethically sound.

The ends aren’t unaffected by a tactically sound but ethically/strategically unsound choice of means.

I actually selected the picture that comes along with this article by taking it out from the latest IPCC report, Chapter 20

Now that I am getting close to the end of another step on my own personal journey, I can share why I opened quite a few books on “business number crunching” over the last few months (a few still are outstanding, including the re-reading of my own 1990s books on the same subjects: of course, in Acrobat format, in this case :D).

If you have a look at my Linkedin profile, you will see between the courses a “Data Science Track” from Johns Hopkins, that I actually listed on my CV few months after getting through the first courses.

I added also other courses on “business number crunching”, and, as I wrote recently, that was part of my update: having working on both change and the use of IT for managerial support since the late 1980s, I can say that I saw, beside the annual (or bi-annual) release of new software packages doing more or less the same stuff with more (expensive) bells and whistles, an increase in the “numeracy” of those on the receiving end of reports produced by such systems.

So, those recent books are a complement, and over the last few weeks I downloaded the latest version of various official reports that come along with a huge amount of data (e.g. the “Doing Business 2015”, some IMF reports- more to follow, the IPCC report).

I do not know you, but I have to mix theory and practice, and I am used since forever to think about something, then find some practical cases worth testing it on, and finally completing my thinking into something reusable: it is just a “connecting-the-dots”.

If I have access to resources, either because I can finance it or I am in a business partnership, I prefer to involve people who are highly specialized an “unless hell”, i.e. let them have fun with using their skills to do the validation, taking care only of seeing how it is going, and that they keep the focus, and do not get carried away by their own need to re-assert their wizardry (ok, now “Fantasia” and the apprentice sorcerer would be appropriate :D).

But also in those cases, I build a “small business case” to get myself through the same mental processes that would be followed by those doing it.

In this case, it will be more than a small business case, just for fun & knowledge fixing, not for business (having followed the courses on Coursera has a distinctive advantage: you can download them, and re-run whenever you want).

Think about the forest, if you need, but if you do not remember that a forest is made by individual trees, you risk devising strategies that are simply impossible to implement.

So, either you are able to spot trees, or find somebody else who can do that on your behalf, and is able to communicate with you.

As shown in recent and not-so-recent wars (albeit the former obviously have been scrutinized more than the latter, influencing the public opinion more than thousands of history books about WWI or WWII), it takes two to tango: you always need somebody who is able to act as a “bridge” between mental patterns- either yourself, or others.

Otherwise… you are at cross-purposes, lost in translation, and… the least expensive international mistake over the last couple of decades was a space mission where one side used the metric system, the other did not.

Look again at the picture: do not be mono-dimensional, as reaching your target requires much more than just having the right tools 🙂


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