10 April, 2018

Losing Games We Don't Know Are Being Played

The Sydney Herald Morning Post has this on their front page today:

China eyes Vanuatu military base in plan with global ramifications
China has approached Vanuatu about building a permanent military presence in the South Pacific in a globally significant move that could see the rising superpower sail warships on Australia’s doorstep. 
Fairfax Media can reveal there have been preliminary discussions between the Chinese and Vanuatu governments about a military build-up in the island nation. 
While no formal proposals have been put to Vanuatu's government, senior security officials believe Beijing’s plans could culminate in a full military base. The prospect of a Chinese military outpost so close to Australia has been discussed at the highest levels in Canberra and Washington. [1]
This news is causing alarm in geopolitical circles. You do not need to be an expert in naval combat to understand why Chinese naval bases in the South Pacific are proper cause for alarm. But here is the thing: the alarm has been sounding for a long while now. From atoll to archipelago it has wrung; its tones have echoed from one side of Oceania to the other. We have ignored it at every sounding. One must be careful with such statements: not everything done on this Earth is the consequence of American action (or lack thereof). But in the South Pacific we have acted amiss. We toot our way across its waters with a ludicrous level of complacency. My hope is that this news will shake some of us out that. But it may well be too late. The Chinese have delivered the lesson we deserve.

A few caveats. The language employed by the Sydney Morning Herald is interesting. China "eyes" a Vanuatu naval base, we are told. "Eyes" is not "announces." The deal has not been made. We have no independent verification that it is even on the table. If it is, the Herald's source certainly isn't Chinese and probably isn't Vanuatuan. The most plausible source is an Australian agency opposed to the Party's expansion into the South Pacific.  The leak is intended to shame and pressure the Party out of making a deal with Vanuatu. Nothing has been decided. Possibly nothing ever will be decided.

Those of you who follow my twitter feed—or a bit rarer, those of you who I have had the privilege of discussing Chinese foreign policy with in person—know how frustrated this issue makes me. I have been writing about it since 2015.  Pay attention, I have pleaded, to what is happening in these islands. Look at what is happening inside Vanuatu, Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands (and to a lesser extent, FSM, Samoa, and America's own territories in the Western Pacific). No one has cared. Now we see why they should have.

Today's headlines are the inevitable end of the changes sweeping through Oceania. The writing has long been on the wall. Aspects of my biography have given me a strong incentive to peer at this writing—a stronger incentive, at least, than most China-hands have. But this is not about me. I bring up my past moments playing Cassandra only because it is an example of how difficult it is to get Americans to care about what is happening to their pathway to Asia. I write up tweet storms on the Chinese student experience in America, or Chinese influence operations in Australia, and what I write goes viral. I do the same in response to events in Tonga or Kiribati.... and get maybe a retweet. Our priorities are screwy. We view the region with unconscionable complacency.  We act as if the South Pacific has fallen out of history. We pretend we do not need to know what the people there do and think, who they owe money and favors to, or how they feel about America writ large. Too late we start to see the costs of our smugness and stupidity.

This is not the post to detail all that China has been doing in the region. Rehearsing the flood of Chinese migrants and tourists, the new deep-water ports and roads, the Chinese built government offices and bureau buildings, the towering debt, the scholarships and language programs, the pleasure trips to China gifted to bureaucrats, businessmen, and politicians is a task for another day. Rehearsing all of the things America has not done in the region, or has stopped doing, is also another something that must be left for a longer article where the topic can be given full treatment. But to end this post with something substantial to ponder over, I ask you to consider this image:

Image Source: "实拍中国驻世界各国使领馆(组图)" Sohu Travel (January 2010)
This is the PRC embassy in Nuku'alofa—the capital of Tonga. Here is another one:

Source: Bob Markin, "China Opens New Embassy in Port Vila," Vanuatu Digest (27 July 2017). 

This one is less fancy. This is the PRC embassy in Vanuatu. It was constructed (along with the Prime Minister's office, a new wharf, the foreign affairs building, and a college) by Chinese contractors over the last two years. It opened for business last summer. 

Now let me show you a picture of the American embassies in Vanuatu and Tonga:


That is right. There are no pictures of the American embassy in Tonga or Vanuatu. It turns out, the United States of America does not have an embassy in Tonga or Vanuatu. 

We are losing a game that we do not realize is being played. 


[1] David Wroe, "China eyes Vanuatu military base in plan with global ramifications," Sydney Morning Herald (9 April 2018).

23 March, 2018

My Grand Theory of Jordan Peterson

I have a short essay out in the Weekly Standard this week arguing that most of the commentariat have a deeply flawed understanding of pop psychologist Jordan Peterson. To quote:
The spectacular rise of Jordan Peterson has caught much of the world flat-footed. caught much of the world flat-footed. Discussions of the psychology professor from the University of Toronto tend to focus on the enormous popular movement his lectures have spawned, rather than the actual ideas presented in the lectures themselves. As a result, no one seems to know who the “real” Jordan Peterson is. 
In a way, this is understandable. Peterson is a man of several personae. One Peterson is the inventor of an innovative and compelling neuropsychological model of human behavior. This is the Peterson presented in a dozen research articles reviewed and published by his academic peers.

Another Peterson dispenses pieces of practical advice and dispels progressive dogmas with a quiet, fatherly charisma. This is the Peterson made famous in podcasts, television interviews, and his best selling self-help book
But there is a third Peterson, the Peterson of his debut book, Maps of Meaning and the annual 40-hour long lecture series that shares this book’s name. This Peterson is the bridge between the other two, the key to understanding both his agitations as a culture warrior and his work as an academic psychologist. This is also the Peterson that inspires a religious sense of devotion among his followers. They are devoted not just to the man, but to his project.

And this project is grand. It is nothing less than the revitalization of Western civilization itself. 
Read the rest of the essay for my summary of the basic ideas behind Peterson's project and a few thoughts in response to some of those who have tried to condemn it.

In between the time I submitted that essay for review and its publication yesterday, two new large profile attacks on Peterson were published, one by Pankaj Mishra for the New York Review of Books, the other by Nathan Robinson for Current Affairs Mishra's piece is the more popular of the two, and the easier to dismiss. Attempts to tie Peterson back to the Nazis with proclamations like "the modern fascination with myth has never been free from an illiberal and anti-democratic agenda" just don't deserve to be taken seriously.  I earnestly await the follow up essay explaining why Percy Jackson is the real cause for Trump's election and the connection between the works of Neil Gaiman and Heinrich Himmler. 

Mishra does have a good sense for the real weak spot in Peterson's project, however. As I note in Weekly Standard essay,  Peterson’s “careful comparative analysis” of world mythology and religious imagery is built almost entirely on the writings of Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade. There are a few other writers thrown in, but those two get the lion's share of his citations.  This is entirely inadequate. If you are hoping to build a universal moral system through analysis of the great faith traditions and surviving myths of ancient civilization, you need to delve deeper than two idiosyncratic mid-20th century scholars. Peterson's direct engagement with mythological and religious primary source material is limited to the Near East: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, and the Abrahamic offshoots. His discussion of Greek, Norse, Indian and Far Eastern religion (with quotations from an outdated Dao De Jing  translation excepted) are all mediated through Eliade. His take on Christianity relies too much on Nietzche, and even his discussion of the Mesopotamia mostly derives from scholarship and translations from the 1960s. I have seen no evidence that Peterson has patched up these blind spots in the days since he first published Maps of Meaning in the 1990s. 

Here is why that matters: inevitably we will be graced with a devastating invective of some left-leaning historian of religion or folklore who will not only be eager to demolish Peterson, but will know more about comparative religion than he does. When that day comes, the thinness of Peterson’s bibliography will come to haunt him. I can only hope that this reckoning does not destroy the Peterson project entirely. 

Robinson's attack on Peterson is much more damaging, precisely because it attacks Peterson's ideas directly instead of diverting itself with Peterson's character or the excesses of his devotees. His critique takes advantage of another one of Peterson's weaknesses: a tendency to write in convoluted and baroque academic prose. This weakness is hardly unique to Peterson, but it makes it easy for Robinson to pick out page-long paragraphs full of the sort of fluff that other writers would dispatch in half a sentence or so. To claim that this sort of academic fluff is all there is to Peterson's work is not fair. There is substance behind Peterson's writing; Peterson simply has no experience laying it out concisely. When concision is compelled out of Peterson, the strength of his underlying ideas is far more apparent. The best presentation I have seen of these ideas is a 13 page precis Peterson wrote for The Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict. The encyclopedia's editor deserves great praise: he was able to squeeze unusual lucidity from Peterson in a very small number of pages. I do not think an honest observer can read them and then conclude he is pedaling mere fluff.

Peterson can withstand the scrutiny his ideas are now being given, if he is careful about how he responds to critique. However, even if his attempt at building a new moral universe falls in on itself, I am glad to see the attempt made. He is asking the right question. Conservatives and classical liberals would do well to consider the question he poses: if the we have lost faith in religion, in liberalism, and in our national myths, then what will we find faith in? I fear that many conservatives are now so focused on protecting their communities from the tides of modernity that they have lost all interest in influencing the course those tides will take. 

03 March, 2018

You Do Not Have the People

The essence of the army and the state: investigate the minds of the people.
The Three Strategies of Huang Shigong (2nd century BC)
 If the people and the nobility are not devoted, then even a Sage King could not guarantee victory. The man who is skilled at obtaining the support of the people is the man who is skilled in using military force. Skillfully gaining the support of the people is essence of military undertaking-that is all.
Xunzi 15.10-20 (3rd century BC).
This post is a clarion call. I address it to the national security professionals of my nation. I am alarmed. I think you should be alarmed. There is a growing gap between the way members of the broader defense community—be they think tankers, military officers, bureaucrats, academics, or journalists—talk and think about America's foreign policy challenges, and the way the median voter is perceiving them. The American people are not with the program. Not your program, at least. If you cannot convince them to get on board, your endeavors will fail.  You are responsible for the defense of the free world. Your failure has consequences. A failure to defend the outposts of democracy is the best case scenario before us. The worst case is that you fail in that, and irreparably rupture America's social fabric in the failing.

Back when the old strategy blogosphere was at its height, an obscure but brilliant blogger wrote up a post that greatly shaped how I think about the process of strategy and policy making. On its face the post was an assessment of the successes and failures of containment, a concept coined by George Kennan only to be later disavowed by him when he saw how his grand idea was put into practice. Upon deeper reflection, it was also a commentary on the many COINish suggestions then being advanced to salvage the America's flagging war effort in the Near East. The essay begins with this caustic opening:
Pity the American nerd. He suffers from a contradiction: he can see the narrow slices of reality that he specializes in exquisite and even excruciating detail. Unfortunately, he sees the world outside as a mixture of his tiny area of expertise writ large and a land populated by large bright shiny ideals that he can see in all of its fine shades. Based on this perception, he can formulate responses perfectly calibrated to exploit his unique domain knowledge to remake the world in the image of his vision. However, the nerd’s intentions suffer from a major defect: they are usually fatally out of sync with the means available to achieve that vision. 
The American nerd is forced to turn to his natural enemy to achieve his vision: the average American. However the average American is usually not susceptible to the aesthetic beauty of the nerd’s grand vision. His interests are more basic and centered in this world, not the ideal world of the nerd. The average American is a creature of inertia: give him normalcy and he will be happy. The nerd disapproves; he feels the call to higher things than plasma screen TVs and cheeseburgers. [1]
If you have never read this essay before, I encourage you to read the rest of it (it's short). Both blog and blogger have disappeared from the internet in the years since it was published, but the message of this short essay is still relevant today—perhaps even more relevant than when it was written. Threats to the liberty and safety of America and her allies loom now in a way they did not a decade ago. There is a general agreement in the NatSec space that the machinery of the the federal government must be mobilized to face these threats. But there is the snag! The machinery of the American government is tied up to the opinions, fears, and desires of the American people. Their perceptions matter.  As the essay concludes: "operating in a free state means, inevitably, that you can only execute strategy with the citizenry you have, not the citizenry you want." [2]

It is easy to forget this. Apt as we are to focus on weapon platforms and island chains, it is fabulously easy to forget where the real source of American power lies. A country is only as dangerous as its denizens. Deterrence rests on the limits of public suffering; diplomacy, on the limits of public opinion. This is true for all nations to one extent or another, but in democratic regimes it is a driving truth—the sort of truth forgotten only at great personal risk. After all, a nation of democrats retains the power to throw the rascals out. Few people employed in the broader NatSec sphere conceive of themselves as rascals, of course. But self conception only matters so much here. It is what the great mass outside the Beltway is thinking that matters, and it is to these opinions I call your attention to today. While the wonk is wont to focus on policy, and in the name of proper civil-military relations our officers must satisfy themselves with the creation of strategy, neither is the real game.  Behind policy lies politics. In America these politics are popular. To craft policy—especially policy that treads the narrow space between war and peace—without reference to the people and their politics is perilous. We are close to forcing things down their throats that we have not steeled them for. This is perilous. Before we deploy, strike, negotiate, budget, or appropriate, we must first ask: "do we have the people with us on this one?"

Well, let's find out.

Image source: November 2017 NBC/GenForward poll, Q10A.

These numbers are taken from a November NBC News/Gen Forward poll, a survey that questions 18-35 year olds across the nation on the political issues of the day. Respondents are asked to list what they believe are the three most important issues facing America. [3]  There are a lot of interesting things one can say about this data, but for our purposes here I would focus your attention on the two rows labeled "foreign policy" and "military strength." There is one big thing you will notice about these two figures: they are miniscule. Respondents are largely satisfied with America's place in the world. In their minds, police brutality, education, crime, taxes, racism, the economy, immigration, climate change, health care, gun control and the national budget are all more critical problems than anything involving foreign affairs.

Millennials do not stand in for all of America. Older generations care more for foreign policy than the Millennial and Generation Z cohorts do, though other polls suggest that their priorities also lie in the domestic sphere. But I focus in on this group for a reason: the opinions of this generation will have an outsized influence on our defense policies. In the case of war, these are the people who will actually be called to sacrifice their time and lives for the sake of American interests. Their willingness to suffer for the sake of the public interest sets the upper bounds for what is militarily possible in a time of conflict. Their attitude in peace will be even more important. Armament programs are decade long affairs. Proper sized navies are generation-length projects. Great power rivalries take decades to unfold. Who will be responsible for maintaining this effort? These guys. The millennial generation is already the largest cohort in this republic's history (given current fertility rates there will likely be none larger). Were they not so politically desensitized, they would also already possess the power to decide most elections in the country. When the last of the boomers die out, by sheer power of numbers alone, these men and women will rule the roost. Their perception of America's role in the world, and the threats she faces, will determine America's future.

The take-away: more important than developing new weapon systems, devising new treaties, or crafting new strategies will be convincing the American people that they can and should bear the costs of doing any of that. Nothing is more important than winning the public opinion war. If we lose there, nothing else really matters.

At this point it is worth asking ourselves just how important we think this NatSec stuff really is. Few of us hesitate to trot out the right words when it comes time to testify on the Hill or write up an introduction to a new policy report:

The world is more dangerous now than it is has been since the days of the Cold War, we say.

Revisionist powers want to up-end the global rules-based order, we say.

America has a solemn responsibility to uphold rules and freedoms, we say.

 But do we, when all is said and done, truly think these things? Are these the real stakes in play? Do we sincerely believe that the failure to get the Navy its ships or our allies their arms will mean the difference between millions dead and millions breathing, millions free or millions bound?  Or are they all mere shibboleths, stock phrases passed around as the calling cards of Serious Defense Professionals?  If they are not shibboleths, if we do believe them, it is incumbent on us to convince the rest of the country to believe as we do. We should be desperate to persuade the people, to help them see what we see. The NatSec world should be seized with terrible urgency. Humanity deserves nothing less.

Yet urgency is not a word one associates with the NatSec scene. If anything, the defense professional get-together tends towards baffling complacency. Eliot Cohen's depiction of a recent gathering is devastating:
At events like the Munich Conference, it is no coincidence that the word “networking” has largely replaced the word “debate” among global elites. Most of the faces in attendance you could see at other, similar gatherings, like the World Economic Forum in Davos. You could sense the same frenetic socializing among those more eager to be seen than to make a point, more likely to ponderously recite conventional wisdom than to doggedly defend a point of view. When the Polish prime minister declared that Jews were also perpetrators of the Holocaust, there were mere tut-tuts in response. It is a far cry from the Wehrkunde founded by Kleist. His successor is a bland former German diplomat who greets everyone—free citizen or dictator’s henchman—as a long-time friend of the conference, to be cherished for that reason alone, rather than for what he or she says or believes. 
What has happened here is the same phenomenon that explains so many of the ills of the last couple of decades: the algae-like bloom of elites and their simultaneous loss of substance. A younger John McCain would not have been unique for his qualities of wisdom and character at the earlier iterations of this conference. He would have been met by acute thinkers like Thérèse Delpech of France, staunch public servants like Manfred Wörner, a German defense minister and secretary general of NATO in the 1980s, or politicians like Dennis Healey of Britain. Their successors are cautious functionaries, pallid experts, and colorless politicians who think carefully about domestic audiences before speaking up abroad. [4]
Cohen's portrait of the 2018 Munich conference captures the infuriating frivolity of so much NatSec. It simply isn't serious. If the participants of these conferences realize that the future of human freedom rests on their shoulders, that there is a world of smoke and shells and sweat outside their conference halls, they do not show it. Why?

My answer to this question differs from Cohen's. His portrait of pallid expertise is painted well, but he errs when explaining where this pallidness comes from. The problem is not that conference goers are too aware of domestic audiences. The problem is that they do not take these audiences seriously enough.  In his column Cohen contrasts the staid meetings of 2018 unfavorably with the 2002 Munich Conference, when German foreign minister Joscka Fischer confronted Donald Rumsfeld in front of the entire conference. But the most important thing about that confrontation between Rumsfeld and Fischer was not that it was a debate, but that it was a public debate. No man changes his mind because of a public attack on his position. Fischer was not stupid enough to believe his pleas might change Rumsfeld's mind. Rumsfeld was not his audience. His audience lay outside the conference hall. In fact, the pressing need for defense professionals to justify their positions and their policies to the voting public was at the center of his rebuke:
You have to make the case. To make the case in a democracy you have to be convinced yourself, and excuse me I am not convinced. This is my problem and I cannot go to the public and say, 'well let's go to war because there are reasons and so on,' and I don't believe in that." [5]
You have to make the case. It is advice we would do well to heed now. Public engagement must take precedence over network building. Foreign policy has always been something of an elite game, of course. To an extent it always will be. But the level of insularity that grips this community is not excusable. In an earlier age, when public trust in national institutions waxed stronger than it does now, this exclusivity was sustainable. It is no longer. The people do not trust their leaders. There is no popular consensus on national aims. We are three failed wars into the 21st century. We are near the limits of what the American people will accept on auto-pilot. The swamp does not wants to pause its plod to consider these things. It desires nothing more than to continue on with its wonkery. But policy follows politics. The longer popular politics is ignored, the more fierce the eventual reckoning with it will be.

But I will take this argument one step further. The wonks' attempt to postpone this reckoning doesn't just damage some future NatSec community. It is inhibiting out ability to create coherent policy and strategy now.

The modern defense professional (and even more surprising, the defense commentariat who observes him or her) is allergic to controversy. The fear that our reputations and programs might become matters of public controversy lead us to shield policy dilemmas from the public. America faces a series of hard choices in the years ahead. Trade-offs must be made. The refusal to acknowledge these trade offs and make them the center of public debate should be understood for what it really is: a decision to value cordiality within the NatSec community over accountability to the people at large.

Let me go through a few examples so you can a sense for what I mean. There is currently something of a demand in Navalist circles for a 355 ship Navy. Now fleets are not cheap. Hulls are not quick constructions. This places real limitations on America's capacity to make real the Navalist dream. While you can find plenty of op-eds arguing we ought to hit 355 ships, or think tank reports outlining how they might be built, nowhere in these clamors for Naval growth is an honest confrontation with the real obstacles standing in the Navy's way. To choose a 355 ship Navy means not choosing something else. Until we can articulate what we must sacrifice to get those ships, they will not be built.

Part of the problem here might just be that many in the NatSec world grew up in a different age and have not quite synced in with the realities of our era. A reminder on where we stand in 2018:  One of the central pillars of our President's election campaign was the need to reduce America's international commitments. Congress just added a trillion dollars to the deficit. Americans' obsession with the culture wars leaves little room for pondering foreign wars. The generation that will be responsible for bringing armament programs to completion believes that the military is an ineffective instrument for preserving prosperity and peace. These realities cannot be ignored. At this point in our history, America simply does not have the financial or political wherewithal to be everything to everyone. She must choose. To choose a proper Navy is to not choose something else. So what will we choose to lose?

Perhaps the money will come from reducing social services. But there is another, more obvious source of funds, and it is shocking how little it is mentioned. The Department of Defense has the money for a 355 ships. Currently that money is being distributed to the Army, Air Force, and Marines. Despite this fact, you will search in vain for a single op-ed penned by retired Navy personnel (or even those anonymous wink-wink quotes dispensed to journalists when officers want to make their point on the sly) arguing that the budget needs to be tilted towards the Navy at the expense of the other services. We demand a Navy but do not justify or acknowledge the public sacrifices it would take to create it.

This is profoundly unserious.

Just as jolly inter-service relations are secured at the expense of long term planning and public accountability, a strange mix of elite complacency and cordiality has stopped us from putting other hard choices before the public. We talk about how America faces dangers from China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Salafi-Jihadist terrorism as if we have the capacity to respond to all of them at once. We don't. We simply do not have the political will or financial means to do this. We have to make some hard trade-offs.  Consider these numbers:

Image Source:  Andrew Krepinevich, Preserving the Balance: A U.S. Eurasian Defense Strategy (Washington DC: CSBA, 2017), 39.

 China already has greater industrial and economic capacity vis a vis the United States than the Soviet Union did at any point in the Cold War. Just in terms of military spending, responding to the rise of the People's Republic will be a challenge of a scale America has never faced before. We cannot do that, deter Pyongyang, Tehran, and Moscow, and wage war against a thousand little terrorists at the same time. [6] We simply do not have the means. This is true in 2018. It will be really true in about fifteen years time. This decision cannot be put off any longer. We must decide which contests demand our attention, forces, and funds, which can be handed off to allies, and which need to be conceded. Deciding between them all will be difficult. It will create storms of animosity among the commentariat. But it must be done. To do anything else is not serious.

 If we do choose rivalry with the Communist Party of China, we must recognize that military spending will be just one part of the trial. To secure its hold on power, the Party does not fear leveraging any point it can grasp. What we might call a "whole of government" approach to strategic rivalry is not their style. Theirs is a "whole of society" approach. Keeping Asia free from Party domination will require nothing less than a whole of society response on our part. The difference between us and them is that we cannot use coercion to do so. Mobilizing civil society, government, and business to take on this challenge is fundamentally about changing public opinion. The great responsibility facing those who advocate rivalry with China is taking this case to the public and convincing them that the sacrifices we must make to preserve outposts of freedom like Taiwan will be worth the cost. As things stand now, few Americans, even at relatively elite levels, understand the nature of the Chinese regime or the scale of the challenge it poses. Even fewer are willing to sacrifice anything to oppose it. As Fischer would say: you need to make the case. 

The most disturbing failure to take the public seriously involves North Korea. We are well on the path towards a military strike against that loathsome regime. The warnings are sounding. Those who pay close attention to these things—presumably the type of people who are reading this post—understand just how close we are to war. The vast majority of Americans, however, do not pay attention to these things. Even the political types spend more time tweeting about the President's marital problems than they do thinking about his war plans. They have no inkling how far we list towards the tipping point.

Inasmuch as this increases the President's bargaining space with the North Koreans, the public's ignorance of their own country's bellicosity may be useful. But the costs of failure will be dire. I don't mean that in the "millions of people will die in Korea" sense, or even in the "we will end up being sucked into another decade long counter-insurgency project among a radicalized populace that lives in a mountainous region next to a hostile power" sense, though both are likely true.  My focus here is on America itself and what will happen to this country if the public believes Washington started the fight.

Let me be frank. The President is not popular. He is hated. He is feared. A significant portion of the American people believes that he is one crisis away from fascist dictatorship. Whether you believe that yourself does not really matter that much. What matters is what these people will do if they fault him for starting a war whose casualties will dwarf anything seen since the last time U.S. forces waged a hot war in Korea. It took a relatively small number of casualties to turn the American people against the war in Vietnam; it took a truly tiny number to turn the public against the war in Iraq. Those wars were launched by popular Presidents at times of relative social cohesion. This does not describe the America we live in. American society is fraying at its edges. Its leaders are hated and distrusted. Its people are tired of war. They are tired of anything that smells of foreign problems. They are not psychologically prepared for the kind of war we threaten to bring to the peninsula. Let us not fool ourselves: if we start this war, there will be no rallying around the flag. There will be no unity government. There will only be radicalism and discontent on a scale that will make the unrest of the Vietnam era seem like a pleasant dream. If we fight this war, it will tear America apart.

It is perhaps not fair to lay the blame for this one on the "NatSec community" as whole, as the greater part of it seems to be against any escalation on the peninsula. What worries me, however, is that the faction who does cry that we "must do something" violent to keep the North Koreans down has done so little to bring the public onto their side. The Bush administration, for all its faults, was quite savvy here. They coupled their threats abroad with a sophisticated campaign to build support for military action at home. President Bush, his deputies, and their proxies in the media argued again and again for the necessity of military action. When military operations began, the American people were ready for it. Compare this with our current situation. The President and his subordinates have delivered dire threats to the North Koreans. They have taken military preparations to back up these threats with steel. But they have done almost nothing to ready the American people to fight the war they threaten. This is feckless.

If we lived in an age when public trust in elites and the institutions they manned was stronger, many of the worries I voice could be dispensed with. That is simply not where we are at. Unfortunately, the Trump administration's disregard for public opinion on the Korea issue is but an extreme expression of a tendency that blights the entire field. We are uncomfortable with democratic accountability, unwilling to subject ourselves to public debate, and uninterested in the constraints public opinion and popular politics place on the policies we craft. This complacency is not excusable. It is not sustainable. We cannot defend the cause of freedom without the support of the people. To try and do this is to risk terrible disaster.


[1] "Joseph Fouche," "The Tragedy of the Geopolitical Nerd," Committee of Public Safety, published 6 June 2009.

[2] Ibid.

[3] NBC News/GenForward, "November 2017 Toplines," accessed 20 February 2018. A more recent poll that asks slightly different questions can be found here

[4] Eliot Cohen, "Witnessing the Collapse of the Global Elite," The Atlantic (19 February 2018).

[5] AP Archive, "German FM Makes Impassioned Plea For Peace," Youtube video, 1:31 (remarks at 1:02),  uploaded 21 July 2015.

[6] This point is made lucidly in Andrew Krepinevich, Preserving the Balance: A U.S. Eurasian Defense Strategy (Washington DC: CSBA, 2017). Krepinevich makes the controversial case that the United States should sacrifice our military posture in Europe in order to maintain parity with China and in the Near East. The fact that this publication has sparked no debate in the defense community is an excellent example of just how unserious we are.

18 February, 2018

A Short Defense of the Musical Hamilton

Image Source
I am a fan of the musical Hamilton. My willingness to acclaim its merits is quite shameless, actually. This may strike some readers as odd, and perhaps strangely arbitrary. One of Hamilton’s main selling points is its casting of Hispanic and black leads to play historical figures who were in reality lily-white. As with the casting, so with the rest of the production. The entire play is an attempt to translate the events of the American revolution into the idiom of 21st century “inner city” America. But isn’t this just political correctness doing its thing? How can I celebrate this musical on the one hand while turning my nose down on most all attempts to “modernize” Shakespeare with 21st century settings, clothing, gender-swaps, and so forth, on the other?

My answer has to do with a distinction I see between history and heritage.

As a teenager I was a member of a small Mormon congregation in southern Minnesota. Every year, around the last week of November, this congregation would create a special display that would draw hundreds of people to our church house. We hosted what we described as “the largest nativity collection in Minnesota.” A living, breathing nativity scene would meet guests in the foyer (we would all take part—I once role-played a shepherd for several hours), but that was just an introduction to the real treat: hundreds and hundreds of little nativity scenes gathered from all over the world were displayed in the various rooms and halls of the church. Some were carved of wood, others of jade, and others from more ordinary stones. Some were welded from metal. Some were cast in plastic moulds. Each was unique. They all had a baby Jesus, of course, and a mother Mary, father Joseph, and so forth. But no two Marys looked alike. A close look at the scenes would show that each reflected the place that created it: the Peruvian nativity included a llama to witness the Christ-child’s birth, the scene from Kerala was ringed with palm trees, and the beautiful set from Japan showcased a Mary who was quite clearly Japanese. My favorite of the bunch was a small set from somewhere in Polynesia. It was long enough ago that I don’t quite remember the exact island it came from (in those days I lacked the knowledge to appreciate the distinction between objects made in Christchurch and in Apia anyway), but I remember the warmth that radiated out from this carefully carved Pacific rendition of the Christmas story.

I suppose it would be quite easy to pull the plug on all of this nonsense and fault each of those nativities as historical heresies. Christ was not born on a Pacific isle. No llamas were present to hear his first cries. His mother was not Japanese. But this objection rather misses the point. The story of Jesus Christ’s birth heralds glad tidings for all mankind. It claims to be the opening saga of the salvation and exaltation of every man, woman, and child who ever has or ever will live on the Earth. The Christmas story is not just a historical account—it is part of the Christian heritage, and this heritage is freely given, meant to be claimed by any living being with hope in Christ. Where they come from or what they look like does not matter. The story belongs to them. Each of those beautiful little nativity scenes was an affirmation of this truth. Christ may not have been Mexican, or Swedish, or Tahitian, but his message is no less meaningful to the people living in those countries than it was the Jews of the first millennium. These scenes testify a simple faith: this story is also our story!

The Christian story is not the only shared one.

The men who fought and died in the American revolution did so not only for themselves, but also for their posterity—indeed for the broader human race, whom they believed would be blessed by their vanguard fight for liberty. They justified their attempt at independence in radically universal language:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
These are powerful things to claim—claims worth dying for. Yet the hope of those who signed that Declaration was not just that men would die for the vision it contains, but that men would live for it. Live we have. And with us lives this vision. The revolution waged to secure the future of these ideals has become a part of the common heritage of the American people. All Americans—no matter their sex, age, or race—have claim to this heritage. It exists to benefit us all.

Like those nativity scenes, Hamilton is an affirmation. “This story is also our story. We too claim these values.” It is true, the leading lights of the American revolution were not black or Hispanic. But if you have even the teeniest belief that the principles they fought for are as valuable to black and Hispanic Americans as they are to the rest of the country, then you must support this musical's aims. For the play is correct: the story is their story. This is America. The story belongs to all of us.

26 January, 2018

Vengeance As Justice: Passages I Highlighted in My Copy of "Eye for an Eye"

William Ian Miller's Eye for an Eye did not make it into my "top ten books I read this year" list for 2017, but it was one of the more thought-provoking things I read last year. Miller is an unusual creature: part law professor, part medievalist, Miller is equally comfortable discussing ancient Hittite legal decrees, the etymology of old Norse runes, the tropes of Elizabethan Drama, and modern tort law. I suppose if you were to take J.R.R. Tolkien, Thomas Schelling, a good dose of dead-pan humor, and a pinch of the morbid, and then shook them up together in a bottle, Mr. Miller is the man who would emerge.

Miller's earliest books were on medieval Iceland's law and literature. If you are at all familiar with the sagas, it is easy to detect their influence on in the titles of his later works. His obsessions are by and large theirs: Disgust, Courage, Humiliation, Faking Itand so forth. The thread that weaves through each of these (and indeed the sagas as a whole) is the politics of social life. When one man (or one women) meets another calculations begin: how should I treat this person? Are we equals, or is he my social inferior? Or perhaps he is my social superior? How do I let him know what my social status is, and how should I respond if he does not take the hint? Is this person worth an insult? A fight? What are the consequences of letting things slide? What are the consequences of refusing to do so?

These type of questions naturally lead to the topic of this book: lex talionis, the law of the talion, the principle of an eye for an eye, of justice through vengeance, retaliation sanctioned by culture and law. This understanding of justice is what propels the Icelandic sagas. But it wasn't just a Viking tick. "Eye for an eye" was standard practice just about everywhere a few thousand years ago, from the shores of Germainia and the fields of the Greek polis to the warring tribes of Canaan and the even more distant lands of the Kurus and the Zhou.  We view this understanding of justice as backward and crude. We say things like "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." Miller aims to convince us otherwise. We have a lot to learn from these talionic cultures, he argues, and our world could be made a more just place if we could humble ourselves enough to learn from them.

I am not going to provide a precis of Miller's argument here. Like past editions of "Passages I Highlighted" (see here) I will reserve myself to quoting the passages of this book I found most interesting. But to really give you a sense for Miller's argument, I think the best thing I can do is quote first from another one of his books, one that focuses specifically on Icelandic society. He begins that book by quoting a passage from an obscure saga. In only a paragraph, the saga lays out what lex talionis looked like in real life:
Some Norwegian merchants chopped off Skæring’s hand. Gudmund was given self-judgment in the injury case. Haf Brandsson [Gudmund’s second cousin] and Gudmund together adjudged compensation in the amount of thirty hundreds, which was to be paid over immediately. Gudmund then rode away from the ship. But the Norwegians confronted Haf, who had remained behind; they thought the judgment had been too steep and they asked him to do one of two things: either reduce the award or swear an oath. Haf refused to do either. 
Some people rode after Gudmund and told him what had happened. He turned back immediately and asked Haf what was going on. Haf told him where matters stood. Gudmund said, “Swear the oath, Haf, or else I will do it, but then they will have to pay sixty hundreds. The oath of either one of us will have the same price as Skæring’s hand.”  
The Norwegians refused the offer. “Then I shall make you another proposal,” said Gudmund. “I will pay Skæring the thirty hundreds that you were judged to pay, but I shall choose one man from amongst you who seems to me of equivalent standing with Skæring and chop off his hand. You may then compensate that man’s hand as cheaply as you wish." 
This did not appeal to the Norwegians and they decided to pay the original award immediately. Gudmund took Skæring with him when they left the ship. (G.dýri 26:212) [1]
Iceland was a country without a state. They had laws but no government to enforce them. If you were wronged, the responsibility to right the wrong rested with you and your kin. To prevent retaliatory feuds the Icelanders would often give the wronged party a chance to stand in judgement and mete out a punishment to pay for their mistakes and restore balance  between the two groups. The saga passage you've just read is an excellent example of how the system worked. Miller's comments on it are worth pondering:
By the time the saga writer focuses attention on this incident it is not the hand that is the subject of the dispute but the legitimacy and justice of Gudmund’s judgment. The Norwegians think the award excessive, and not without reason. More than a few men’s lives at this time were compensated for with thirty hundreds or less. Gudmund, however, is able to justify astutely his over-reaching by giving these men of the market a lesson on the contingency of value and values. To the Norwegians the award should reflect the price of a middling Icelandic hand. Gudmund forces them to conceive of the award in a different way: it is not the price of buying Skæring’s hand, but the price of preserving a Norwegian hand. By introducing the prospect of one of their hands to balance against Skæring’s, he is able to remind the Norwegians that the thirty hundreds they must pay purchases more than Skæring’s hand; it also buys off vengeance in kind. He is also able to force them to take into account the costs of personalizing the injury. Most people, he bets, are willing to pay more to save their own hands than they would be willing to pay to take someone else’s. The justice of Gudmund’s award thus depends on a redefinition of its significance. Rather than buying Skæring’s hand, the Norwegians are preserving their own, and the price, they now feel, is well worth paying. Fellow feeling thus comes not in the form of imagining Skæring’s anguish and pain as Skæring’s, but in imagining the pain as their own. [2]
This is the logic of lex talionis. This is why "an eye for an eye" did not in fact make the whole world go blind. The principle of an eye for an eye, as Miller sees it, is "the more ancient and deeper notion that justice is a matter of restoring balance, achieving equity, determining equivalence, making reparations... getting back to zero, to even." [3] Trading eyes for eyes is not so much about indiscriminate, unthinking violence as it is carefully calculated attempts to match punishment to crime. Talionic justice is a system built on deterrence--not only deterring criminals from committing crimes, but deterring vengeance seekers from exacting too heavy a price in retaliation for crimes committed against them. This is empathy enforced by blood. You think carefully about the pain you inflict on others knowing, that measure for measure, the pain you give others will be given back to you.

We have a sorry habit thinking about revenge as "as going postal and blasting away," but as Miller notes, "revenge cultures did not think of it that way." [4] This is obvious if you read the stories revenge cultures created. Characters in the Icelandic sagas approach murder with the meticulousness of a father inspecting his daughter's suitor. They conducted their feuds not in the heat of rage, but through cold calculation. Heroes from revenge plays like The Oresteia cycle or The Orphan of Zhao plan their vengeance months or even years in advance, and when the moment comes often have to be goaded into taking revenge. One gets the sense that these people believed that feuding was utterly necessary but not entirely natural. As Miller says:
The core belief at the heart of most revenge cultures is that man is more naturally a chicken than a wolf. Thus revenge cultures are invariably shame cultures and have to devote enormous cultural machinery to getting people to remember past wrongs. They develop elaborate means of goading, shaming, and humiliating to recall people to their dangerous duty they would as soon forget. [5]
And there are, after all, lots of reasons not to feud in the first place:
A person obliged to take revenge must resist all kinds of temptations to forgive and forget. His cowardice, his reasoning mobilize arguments of the sort that forgiveness is a virtue, or that revenge is best left to God or the gods, or that it is an irrational obsession with sunk costs. Excuses. Excuses. As I have argued elsewhere, conventional wisdom conceives of vengeance cultures as barely cultured at all, as all id and no superego: big dumb hot-tempered brutes looking for excuses to kill. But we are no less naturally homo pullus than homo lupus, as much man the chicken as man the wolf. [6]
Ties of kinship and friendship were the easiest way to make the chicken a wolf. Deterrence only works if you can be sure that there is someone who will strike back for you if you are struck down. The pressure to retaliate for wrongs done by your kin were thus immense. But so too was the pressure your kin might put on you to keep you from acting stupid enough to get killed in the first place. They are both responsible for avenging you and stopping you from doing anything vengeance-worthy. In the world of lex talionis, to be a brother is to be his keeper.

An interesting side effect of all this is the impact these obligations had on one's sense of identity. No man was truly alone. To state your name was to state all of the ties to other human beings one has, and with that, all of the obligations that follow from them. [7]  Therefore, one common way vengeance seekers ginned themselves up for revenge by was declaring who they were. Miller calls an act of public "remembering:"
Yet remembering, even still, is a richly obligational notion, which is perhaps why we opt for forgetfulness; remembering is intimately involved with paying, paying back, with reward and punishment. We thus remember people in our wills, or remember someone with a tip, though tellingly "remember" in such settings now sounds a little old-fashioned fashioned if not quite obsolete. But for Hamlet there was no doubt that to remember meant to he mindful of duty, to he mindful of one's proper role; remembering involved reminding oneself or recalling oneself to one's proper place. 
To remember, in the sense of to he recalled to one's proper role, means above all not to forget oneself: "Comfort, my liege; remember who you are. K. Richard. I had forgot myself: am I not king?" (3.z,.8z- 83 ). To fail to remember oneself, to forget oneself, is to fail in one's duty or one's dignity. It is a signature trope of characters in the Jacobean drama to remind themselves of who they are amidst the general collapse of their worlds by invoking their own names to shore up the fragments of their being, claiming still to be the very person they feel is being annihilated by hostile forces: "I am the Duchess of Malfi still," "I am Anthony yet," and thus the chilling force of the failed attempt at the same trope: "Who is it that can tell me who I am? Fool: Lear's shadow. "' [8]
But revenge was more than a simple matter of remembering who one was and acting on it.  Revenge in a talionic regime was actually quite complicated:
Getting the measure right so that both parties can sense the rightness of the measure gives rise to remarkably subtle ways of evaluating ing and compensating for harms. The worry about how hard it is to come up with equivalences is at the core of primitive systems of justice, and it is hardly something we have adequately resolved today. [9]

One of the easiest ways to do this was to attach monetary value directly to the lives involved. We still do this today, of course (that is what tort law is all about), but both the process and purpose of the way we assign monetary value to injury and death has changed. Miller illustrates the difference by comparing modern tort disputes to their Biblical variant:
It is a different world when a biblical tort creditor faces his injuror under the law of the talion. Observe two people bargaining over an eye one knocked out of the other in a talionic society. Let us Call our two actors V for victim and W for wrongdoer." 
V says to W, "I want you to pay me for my eye you gouged out at the party last night." 
W answers, pulling out his worker's compensation schedule, "OK, here's 2.5,000 shekels." 
V: "No way. I would never have agreed to give up my eye, to sell it to you, a perfectly good and useful eye, for a measly 25,000 had you tried to buy it from me before you just up and took it. You are trying to get away with paying me what it is worth after it has been blinded, with a little sop for my pain and suffering and my loss of value as a possible slave or soldier. To hell with that. I do not deem my eye priceless; but no way you would have coaxed me out of it for less than a few million shekels." 
W. "Nope, 2.5,000 is what the insurance company says it is worth." 
V: "But the law in this jurisdiction, I have just been informed, stipulates that I can take your eye as recompense, and this is what I am going to do." 
W: "Oops, well how about 5,000,000 then? I really was only joking when I offered 2.5,000. [10]
Compare this with the modern principle of liability-rule protection:
 Suppose I lose my eye in a car accident for which you were at fault. In our legal order you must pay me for the loss of my eye. But you get it at a bargain. I can get only what the court, or the worker's comp schedules, or the insurance company says is the going rate for an involuntarily transferred eye as long as it still leaves me with one good one. You do not have to pay me what I would have demanded had you bargained with me ahead of time for the right to take it (assuming for the sake of the hypothetical that I could legally agree to have my eye gouged out). But that is the problem with accidents.  One does not usually set about to do them on purpose, and so all the bargaining must he done after the transfer has been effected and the damage is done. My eye in such a regime is cheap for the taking.  
Compare, though, how much improved my bargaining position is in a talionic regime, and thus how much pricier my eye will be. The talion structures the bargaining situation to simulate the hypothetical bargain that would have been struck had I been able to set the price of my eye before you took it. It does this by a neat trick of substitution. Instead of receiving a price for the taking of my eye, I get to demand the price you will be willing to pay to keep yours. It is not so much that I think your eye substitutable for mine. It is that you do. You will in fact play the role of me valuing my eye before it was taken out, and the talion assumes that you will value yours as I would have valued mine. The talion works some quick magic: as soon as you take my eye, in that instant your eye becomes mine; I now possess the entitlement to it. And that entitlement is protected by a property rule. I get to set the price, and you will have to accede to my terms to keep me from extracting. [11]
An interesting comparison here (that Miller does not make) is with compensation packages awarded to families whose children died due to industrial malfeasance. In the early days awards might be as low as $10 per child, representing the amount of money the child would have made for his family had he not died as a child-worker. [12] The Victorians and their predecessors talked about how they were more civilized than their Saxon forbearers, but in many ways the life of a barbarian was valued far higher than a modern man's:
We are wont to sneer at talionic societies and say that life is cheap, nasty, and brutish among such violent souls. But cheap is exactly what life is not among talionic peoples. The reason such societies may often be so poor is not because life is cheap, but because life is so expensive that it is hard for them to free up capital to build roads and factories. Imagine if the costs of replacing horses with automobiles meant that every road fatality gave the victim's kin a right to kill or to extract a ransom measured at the value the person at fault placed on keeping his life! It is that life is cheap among us, despite all our piety about dignity and the pricelessness of human life. We put prices on it all the time, and not very high ones either. I buy life insurance at pretty good rates. I judge that my family thinks me only slightly undervalued at the $2,500 per year that I pay out in premiums to buy them the right to about $1,000,000 when I die. Don't be too harsh in blaming me for attributing to them such a low estimation of my own worth: I want to make sure they miss me too. [13]
But not all lives were valued equally in a talionic society. The real cost being haggled over was not the price of a man's life, but the price of his honor: 
To speak more precisely: it is not life itself that is expensive in talionic honor cultures, but honorable life that is expensive. And honorable life need not mean a short life either. It was not always death before dishonor. It was also live to fight another day so that you could get even with the person who dishonored you. But you had to fight on another day. Honor did not allow for refusing to redeem lost honor. [14]
These notions of honor did not just determine wergelds. They distorted ancient price systems in all sorts of ways:
A perfect example cones from Hainmurabi's laws, which provided that a commoner had to pay less for being cured by a physician than a high-status awilu had to pay, so as to reflect the different social value of curing one rather than the other.' [15]
In Bloodtaking and Pacemaking, which I quoted earlier, Miller describes how competitions for honor made functional markets almost impossible in medieval Iceland:
Some of the social complexity that attended exchanges and the uniqueness of some of the saga evidence can be discerned in the cases that follow. In them the parties were forced to deal with each other outside the regularized convivial channels and outside the boundaries of a place clearly designated as a marketplace. The context, in other words, didn’t normalize the appropriate mode of exchange and it was up to the parties to define the nature of their transaction. At times the pressing need of famine and hay shortage brought them together, at times the desire for a specific prestige good, like fine horses or fine swords, and at times the demands of liability in law and feud. The cases are remarkable in their detail, and they reveal how difficult it might be, in the absence of a market economy and its accompanying mercantile assumptions, to transact without ill- feeling. In the jargon of economists, the transaction costs were high. We find that the completion of a transaction did not depend on the determination of a mutually acceptable price, but rather on the determination of the mode in which the transfer, if there was to be one, would take place. We also see that there was a resistance to transfers by sale between members of the same social rank. [16]
In particular, men would respond angrily and often violently when other men of equal social status (read: honor) attempted to buy or sell something to them directly. Every interaction between Icelanders was a chance for one to put the other into his place. Echoes of this idea can be found in 21st century sagas: when Tony Soprano gifts a golf-club to a doctor in return for better medical service for his uncle, he is not just exchanging one good for another:

 Likewise, one Viking could not buy or sell to another without fear that bigger games were afoot:
Accounts are uniform in showing parties who have been approached to sell goods to be defensive about what they perceive as aggressive acts. And would-be buyers are only too ready to confirm their fears.28 In Sturlu saga (25 :98–99) a request to buy food is made specifically for the purpose of harassing the other party. The refusal is not only anticipated but wished for so as to provide the pretext for even more aggressive action (see also Íslend. 32:261–62). An earlier phase of the same case reveals that a completed purchase need not spell the end of tensions. A bóndi who sold Sturla’s son some wormy meal was given the choice of being summoned or of fostering another of Sturla’s sons (Sturla 25 :98). The bóndi chose the latter. Forced fostering as a means of reprisal evidences a keen sense of the symbolic and ironic possibilities inherent in the transfer of food: calories could be “purchased” just as well by transporting gaping maws to the food as by bringing the food to the maw. These cases illustrate that the ominous significances of attempts to buy were available to disputants to be consciously manipulated in the strategies of the disputing process.... 
The cases give a strong sense that buying and selling was hostile; it was something one did with those from a distance, either spatial distance, as with Norwegians, or social distance, as with peddlers and hawkers of marginal social status. [17]

Because "bargaining was never quite free of duress and intimidation" true markets as we understand them today have difficulty operating in honor cultures. In economic terms, these markets are "subject to the inefficiencies imposed by the pre-market mentalities of the people operating in them." [18]

If buying and selling were dragged down by honor contests, talonic justice itself could be distorted in odd ways by fine graduations in honor:
Such cultures had no qualms about measuring human value in money units. The dishonor was not in being priced, as some among us believe, but in being low-priced. But I imagine there were a slew of anxieties that might plague a zero-shilling man of middling sensibility. Here are just some of the problems. It is one thing to legislate that a man is worth 1500 shillings; it is another to collect that much if your 1500-shilling brother meets his end by having his skull split by a person he quarreled with. Wergeld is likely to be forthcoming only if the kin of the corpse constitute a genuine threat to take revenge. This is yet another reason it is misguided to think that compensation signals a softening of the hard principle of talionic justice. Compensation is a possibility only if revenge is a very likely probability. Who is going to pay you enough to assuage your honor if he does not fear your ability to reclaim your honor by killing him if he does not pay up? [19]

Vengeance and honor are thus linked tightly together. However, vengeance does not necessarily mean constant violence:
In my writings on the Icelandic sagas I have sought to hammer home the point that the wise bloodfeuder did not need to respond aggressively to every wrong done him; in fact, he was stupid and had a very short life if he did so. He just needed to make sure people thought him perfectly capable of avenging in blood the next offense done him. [20]
But what about those who don't have the capacity to pursue vengeance themselves? Miller speculates:
One question to ask, though ultimately not answerable given the evidence, is whether victims on average actually got more compensation then than now. My suspicion is that in high-stakes feudlike situations, the ancients were committed to steep compensation because that was the only way peace had a chance (and the parties were likely to he rich enough to buy peace); but for injuries that cross status lines liberal democracies do a better job of leveling some of the disparity in treatment between the weak and the powerful. If in the Psalms and Prophets God had to be the Redeemer - that is, the avenger of the blood - for the poor, for widows and orphans, that is because they were not getting much help from human avengers. [21]
This also helps explain why (despite what James C. Scott's new book might tell you), society's weakest members sometimes loved their kings:
To be the protector of the poor and weak was a moral demand recognized by the earliest statelike authority, and a king considered it to reflect well on himself that he could offer justice to the weak. This from the prologue to the laws of Ur-Namma, Sumer, c. z i oo B.C.: "I did not deliver the orphan to the rich. I did not deliver the widow to the mighty. I did not deliver the man with but one shekel to the man with one mina. I did not deliver the man with but one sheep to the man with one ox ... I eliminated enmity, violence, and cries for justice. I established justice in the land." Powerful stuff, by anyone's criteria. [22]
But getting kings involved in providing justice creates other, more novel problems. Justice without the state follows a fairly simple principle: justice is the price of keeping the other side from seeking recompense through vengeance. But when the state tries to monopolize the role of vengeance seeker, kings are left with the difficult task of creating uniform standards that can be applied impartially from one case to another. Miller gives a fascinating example from the 7the century law-codes of Athelberht:

Lurking in Athelberht's schedule of payments is a gold mine of information. Consider the  [cost of injuring another's] hand, which unlike the foot in §69 is not dealt with as a whole, but as the sum of the thumb and fingers: 
§ 54. If one strikes off a thumb, 20 shillings.
  1.          If a thumb nail is off, compensate with 3 shillings.
  2.          If a person strikes off the shooting-finger, compensate with 9 shillings. 
  3.      If a person strikes off the middle finger, compensate with 4 shillings.
  4.     If a person strikes off the gold-finger, compensate with 6 shillings.
  5.   If a person strikes off the little finger, compensate with 11 shillings. [23]
A Saxon pinky was worth three times a Saxon middle finger, probably because, Miller guesses, the pinky is an important part of a strong grip, while the middle finger's main uses (even in the Middle Ages) were obscene!

Miller believes that thinking through these cases can help us better understand decisions of justice that we must make today:
Meting and measuring, law and justice, depend - still today, but more starkly then - on balancing what at first sight appear to he apples against oranges, such as you against me, my eye against your hand, my honor against your cow, your daughter against my beached whale, even your faith against mine. [24]
But what of modern honor cultures? If lex talionis is so wonderful, how does Miller feel about its most prominent avatars here in the 21st century? Says he:
I sing the virtues of honor cultures long since dead that left literary remains to die for: the Hebrew Bible, the Iliad, Beowulf, the Icelandic sagas. When closer to home in space or time I see not much to admire in urban ghettos or in the Islamicist Middle East, which are sometimes declared to be honor societies in the same breath as they are declared models of dysfunction, as if it were honor and the talion that made them so. But these are not dysfunctional because of their views of honor and justice, but because they deviate in some important ways from the model of the well-functioning talionic society one sees in the sagas, in other heroic literature, or in the ethnographic accounts, say, of the Bedouin.
He first critiques how the honor and vengeance driven "Code of the Streets" differs from older models:
 The inner city has no old men with property, who have the means therewith to threaten, bribe, and control the aggressive young males who hold their communities captive. These communities are bereft of the class of elders who have the power to keep the violence of the young within responsible, because compensable, limits. In a well-functioning honor society the young men were not allowed to run the show; they did the bidding, within some fairly broad limits, of their elders. And the community was in complete agreement that "unevenmen" were not to he tolerated; either they learned to live by the rule of "even" or else. The pastors and the grandmothers in the inner cities, try heroically as they do, are simply outgunned and lack the resources. [26]
He sees a different problem with the modern Middle East:
The Islamicist Middle East introduces a religious ideology that comes close in some of its more extreme versions to devaluing life on earth to the zero point, thereby undoing much of the compensatory force of the talion, whose thrust, recall, was to make life on earth expensive. The problem is not just young men, who are a problem for the structures of social control in any society. The problem is the old men, the clerics and political leaders, who welcome the resource that the young men provide them. The young are thus used not only as human bombs against the enemy but also to gun down the young men of other factions with whom they are competing to blow up the enemy. This can be seen as a way of controlling their young men, too, for at the end of the day they will have gotten rid of quite a few of them. The problem need not be intrinsic to Islam as a general matter. Contrast the Bedouin, whose commitment to Islam was once such that it blended very nicely with the assumptions of their classic honor culture. Will the culture of jihad disrupt their internal equilibrium too? [27]

Miller does admit, however, that a world of lex talionis comes at a cost:
Honor societies tended to he small and poor, and the cost of the tough virtue I so admire was in part their poverty; they seldom generated enough surplus to support lordship, let alone expensive governmental institutions. And they made sure that no one did too well for too long because that way lay serious inequality. Remember: they clipped the wings of those who were getting too big for their breeches. And prudent people might keep their talents and ambitions within limits that would prevent eliciting murderous envy from their jealous neighbors. This tough policing of the conditions of rough equality comes at enormous social cost - to innovation, to experimentation, to certain forms of productive ambition. [28]
This last point, I think, is the central problem with applying the logic of lex talionis to the modern world. Iceland's stateless commonwealth  disappeared in the 13th century as wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a few families. Once individual families could raise entire armies to support their claims, retaliation for wrongs committed became impossible, and talk of balance impractical. [29] The bigger the scale of the offense, the more difficult it is to find a proper response. What is the measured response to the sack of a city? Your army gets to sack one of mine? And who is at fault for the city wrongly sacked--the soldiers, their general, their king, or their kingdom?

Talionic systems will hold all relatives of a criminal responsible for his crime under the theory that kin-networks are responsible for policing their family members' behavior. But how can that possibly scale? To what extent are citizens culpable for their crime of their leaders--and to what extent are their leaders culpable for the crimes of their voters? If a corporation accidentally laces the food it sells with deadly bacteria and an infant dies, then who does the victim's family turn to for reparation? In the ideal talionic regime they should be able to give the exact same choice that Gudmund provides the Norwegians: you took our child's life, and now you will pay up as much as you can to prevent us from taking yours. But corporations do not have children. They do not have hands, or feet, or eyes. In a world where corporations are people, "eye for an eye" doesn't seem possible.

I'll end on a lighter note, with one of my favorite passages in the book:

Amidst this carnage let me add an uplifting tale of hacking and hewing: one saga tells of a Viking named Onund. His skill in a battle against King Harald unfortunately drew the attention of Harald's men. "They said, `Let's give that man in the prow who is doing so well something to remember us by, to show he has been in battle."' These warriors were on the same page with Nietzsche. Memorialization, memory creation, is intimately linked to severed flesh and spilled blood. Onund loses his leg just below the knee. He is dragged to safety, but thereafter "he walked with a trefdt, a tree-leg. The wooden leg not only gave him support, it gave him a new identity, for he was now known as Onund Treefoot. Onund's missing limb does not deter him from more Viking activity, and he acquires quite a name for himself. Eventually he settles in Iceland, where it was said that "few could stand up to him even though they were whole." And when he died he was considered "the bravest and most agile of all the one-legged men in Iceland. [30]


[1] William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 1-2. 

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] William Ian Miller, Eye for an Eye (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), Kindle Location 143.

[4]  Ibid., 412-415.

[5] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1381-1383.

[6] Ibid., Kindle Locations 1373-1376.

[7] Many readers will be familiar with this idea through their reading of the Iliad, where warriors often greet each other with their lineage, and whose deaths are almost always marked with renditions of their ancestry. The most famous of these is Glaukos's meeting with Diomedes:
Then Glaukos the son of Hippolochos and the son of Tydeus
came together in the space between both armies, straining to fight.​
And when they had advanced almost upon each other,
Diomedes of the war cry first addressed the other:
“Who are you, brave friend, of men consigned to death?
For I have never seen you in battle where men win glory before this time,
 but now striding far in front of all men in your bold courage,
you stand to wait my long-shadowed spear—
and they are sons of brokenhearted men, who face my might.
To which he is answered:
And in turn the glorious son of Hippolochos addressed him:
“Great-hearted son of Tydeus, why do you ask my lineage?
As a generation of leaves, so is the generation of men.
The wind scatters some leaves to the ground,
but the forest grows others that flourish and in the time of spring come to succeed them;
so a generation of men either grows, or it dies.
But if you indeed wish to learn these things, so as to know well​
 my family’s lineage, many men know of it.
There is a city, Ephyre, in a corner of horse-pasturing Argos,
 where Sisyphus ruled, who was born most cunning of men,
 Sisyphus the son of Aeolus; he fathered a son, Glaukos;
 then Glaukos fathered blameless Bellerophon....
The scene ends with Glaukos and Diomedes ceasing their fighting, acknowledging that their ancestors' relations puts them under an obligation of friendship today. 

See Iliad 4.199-160. Caroline Alexander, trans. The Iliad: A New Translation (New York: Harper Collins, 2015), 123-124. 

[8] Miller, Eye for an Eye, Kindle Locations 1397-1402.

[9] Ibid., Kindle Locations 356-358.

[10] Ibid., Kindle Locations 734-742.

[11] Ibid.

[12]  For the situation in America, see Viviana Zelezier, Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 147-148.

[13] Miller, Eye for an Eye, Kindle Locations 832-839.

[14]  Ibid., Kindle Locations 869-871.

[15] Ibid., Kindle Locations 1566-1568.

[16] Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, 84.

[17] Ibid., 88, 105.

[18] Ibid., 126

[19] Miller, Eye for an Eye, Kindle Locations 1488-1494. 

[20] Ibid., Kindle Locations 801-803. This matches something Millar stated well in Bloodtaking and Peacemaking :"It could be said that honor is the ability to make others believe that you will indeed be tough the next time, in spite of present discomfitures" (Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking,303). 

[21] Miller, Eye for an Eye., Kindle Locations 852-856.

[22] Ibid., Kindle Locations 857-862).

Laws did not always work out in favor of the poor, however. Here is what Millar has to say about Numbers 35:31-32:  
For now suffice it to say that the rule does less to bring the rich within the ambit of the law (they always were within its ambit, for they have assets that make it worthwhile to sue them) than to get the poor into it. For what the talion does is to give the poor assets to satisfy claims. The rule does much to help solve the social problem of the insolvent wrongdoer whose poverty makes him judgment-proof (Kindle Locations 389-391). 
[23] Ibid., Kindle Locations 1724-1728.

[24] Ibid., Kindle Locations 2227-2229.

[25]  Ibid., Kindle Locations 2716-2724.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., Kindle Locations 2724-2731

[28] Ibid., Kindle Locations 2740-2744

[29] For more on this, see Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland (New York: Penguin, 2001),  341-355.

[30] Miller, Eye for an Eye, Kindle Locations 1795-1801.