Western Capers and COIN

I’ve been to Cape Town for the first time since I was a wee lad. Mostly back when I was an anklebiter we went to the beach and I was terrorised by my “Cape Town Granny”. My earliest memory of her being the popping of my balloon, literally, because I brought it with me to the dinner table. It haunts me to this day! Now, however, Cape Town and the surrounds were experienced more from the lens of what kind of naval bases exist there and what wine is best to drink.

Cape Town is far more stratified into racial groupings than any other part of SA that I’ve been too. A bit like Minas Tirith in the sense that there are loose concentric areas of socio-economic classes. Close in and around the universities, hospitals and city centre exist the rich white folks, further out are the coloured areas which can best be described as petit-Bourgeoisie, lower-middle class and so on, and then on the outsides, waaaaay the hell out where nobody can see them, you have the black townships, just as the government of old liked it. Only it’s been 15 years and the city is now controlled by what is meant to be a progressive liberal party represent the opposition to the ANC. But enough of this stuff! My brother has a far better reflection on this than I can be arsed to repeat. More importantly, I feel it’s important to mention that riding the train in Cape Town is fucking weird. The first time up to Simonstown saw my brother and I slap bang in the middle of some manner of Christian praise sesson. I was quite hungover and the shrill screeching of preacher man and his congregation hurt me in more than the obvious ways! On the way back, this teenager – a bit simple – literally went through the entire train, every single carriage, hugging everybody who would let him. It was endearing even though smelly, but the endearment faded swiftly after he started nagging me for cigarettes I didn’t have. Still, there are some nice views from the train, if you can ignore the crazies.train

More importantly Cape Town was a refreshing trip into wine country. Given that our wine is on par with the best French vigneron on the market (and substantially cheaper!), it was a pleasure to run around tasting and trying. One particularly great experience was hairing down a dusty dirt road for a goodly distance, whereupon we stumbled onto this tiny vineyard with some particularly awesome wines, for stupidly cheap prices to boot. I suspect running around the wine routes in the Western Cape is very similar to treasure hunts for children; only they’re alcoholic, and you never find money, and there’s no real map. But otherwise they’re precisely the same!

Back in Johannesburg, I just attended (today in fact!) a seminar at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. Ignoring the 3 hours plus I spent navigating the highway to and from (thank you rolling construction projects -.-), the seminar itself was fantastic; providing a fresh and well-voiced policy foundation for Counter-insurgency strategy (“COIN” for short) aimed at middling states. It’s always great to hear experts from military, academia and so on talking with authority on such rad war-things. Any forum where one can say “Indigenous Forces” and not be laughed at or shunned is OK in my books. As a plus, the lunch the ISS offered afterwards was quite nice as well. It made the rage-filled journey back slightly more tolerable. After all, hooting, screaming and fist-shaking at fellow motorists is always done best on a full stomach.

Literature wise John has been reading some Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), which I have to say was extremely fascinating to read. I certainly intend to read more of his stuff. Likewise I’ve started chipping away at Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This time round I’m finding it far easier to read. Perhaps because the last time I tried I was still but a teenager. With some political training in me, combined with a considerably better historical understanding of the context, it’s now far richer reading. I think I need more Hemingway though. The Russians are so awfully depressing sometimes!

In sum then, the past month or so has been flooded with wine, war, whimsy, writing and general activity which can be summed up as “smacktastic”. Excepting the week I spent marking undergrad essays. That part I would gladly forget…

Song of the day (courtesy of my brother and I’s illustrious host, Claire, whose illustriousness is exceeded only by her lack of a blog of her own. Thus no link. Sorry):

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An Interesting Thought

Reading today about the US reporters released from North Korea made me wonder just how I’d react in the same situation. Likewise, last week I spoke to an interesting fellow at a seminar on Somalia who was talking about a New York Times writer who’d been captured by the Taliban outside Kabul and held for 7 months before escaping. These kind of incidents make me wonder just what I’d do.

Naturally I can make all the bluster and play-by-play strategies I’d devise to break away, negotiate or, if it gets dire enough, figure out how to kill myself before they do. Grim stuff, but I sincerely hope that such things never happen. Nonetheless, from the safe halls of university seminars and discourse, I often find myself getting impatient at the aloof, disconnected rationalisations we throw around like popcorn in a movie theatre. It’s so easy to look at these place in the world where hunger, deprivation, conflict and general sufferings occur and then place harsh criticism upon those who would attempt to change it, those who would perpetuate it, and most egregiously, those who remain indifferent to it. All the theoretical and philosophical masturbation helps not at all when one is confronted, on the ground, with the realities one only reads about in reports and journals.

I suspect many academics in International Relations and Politics would say that it’s necessary to remain aloof, lest passion cloud one’s judgement, that it’s not conducive to good thinking if you take a side or say something you might get attacked for. But really, is this not the entire point of it all? To provide some sort of contribution via academics towards our chosen field? For many, we do this because it’s something we can put on a CV and use for job-hunting. For others, it’s pure intellectual indulgence. But isn’t that missing the point? Focusing on Strategic Studies; a field which is inherently clear in its objectives and utility, doesn’t lend well to other aspects of International Affairs. I find in my seminars and tuts increasingly hostile and impatient to woolly, opaque notions of what’s important, what should be done, and how we should remain always prudent etc etc ad nauseum. It’s irksome, and I don’t think I’ll ever find it agreeable.

Perhaps it’s arrogant to think that I would act in similar fashion to those fortunate few who escape from tyrants, terrorists and generally evil people, but damnitall, if the alternative is akin to what I witness within the halls of academia, there’s really no choice in the matter at all.

What a load of nonsense John! Shut the hell up and give us music.

Fine! Broken Social Scene – Fire Eye’d Boy

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I Miss Philosophical Enquiry

When I was a young undergraduate, and my head was filled with heady intellectual juices of Marxism and John Rawls, I use to relish getting involved in philosophical discussions, both in class and with colleagues. I had studied Political Science and Philosophy, amongst other things (ie Psychology, German and so on) and was thus exposed to all manner of philosophical writings, ranging from the existentialism of Descartes – who still has a special place in my head – to the brutally-frank realism of Hobbes. One of the last courses I did in my final year was the notion of philosophical agnosticism, triumphed by one Richard Rorty; a philosopher of no major renown outside of the United States I believe. The point was not the vanilla agnosticism the religious confuse it with, but rather with this persistent mindset to essentially dismiss nothing, but doubt everything. To always be challenging your views and beliefs and continuously trying to hone one’s knowledge on everything ad infinitum.

However, I stopped philosophy and political science and veered towards Strategic Studies, opting to leave the philosophy at the door and involve myself in what is essentially analysing very current phenomena in very practical, nonsensical terms. There’s no room in the study of war for existentialism, or even Hobbes. Although they both factor into the field of International Relations, they’ve normally paid a face value ‘nod’, if that, and left at the door whilst we stick our noses of inquiry into the relationships between country A and country B, or in my case, Pirates and Modernity.

The point is, I miss philosophy. It was great to come out of a lecture or seminar with my head reeling with new ideas and reconceptualisations of what I had previously thought to be the status quo. Having one’s worldview challenged on a daily basis was insanely frustrating and yet immensely satisfying at the same time.

Reading Jon’s blog often makes me wish I could still continue with pure philosophy. The spirit of inquiry which is almost indistinguishable from the discipline as a whole is something which is very easy to lose track of outside of departmental corridors. Sure, my own realm of strategic studies requires all manner of questions be asked, but there exist very well-defined precedents essentially written in stone. Warfare is, if nothing else, a patterned exercise in human politics. It’s about as well-defined a field as one can find, if one can stomach the obvious distastefulness of the subject matter. But in philosophy nothing is sacred, and everything is up for question. It’s something very valuable that I gained from studying philosophy for 3 years. I might not have ever been very good at a lot of the authors, and I often came out severely dissatisfied at the fuzzy obscurity of some of the shit we had to read, but at the end of it philosophy equipped me with a toolset designing basically around the question “Why?” which has served me well ever since. I resented it’s lack of permanence in any one discourse, as everything, even the big guys like Kant and Foucault, was up for critique, but I always relished the manner in which philosophical enquiry was able to break down norms in thinking and analysis and basically stick the intellectual finger to establishment.

I miss that, because in International Relations there are very well-established SOP’s for approaching one’s theoretical frameworks, and they’re especially unhelpful in the field of strat studies. Philosophy is like the intellectual pit bull of universities; they’re abused, beaten and treated like dirt, but eeeevery once in a while, they’ll be let out to publish something, and it generally ruins the academic pant-legs of departments around the world. That’s awesome, and I miss it.

Music for the post: My good friend Jo (who also loves philosophy I might add) showed me the awesomeness of The Gaslight Anthem, and they rock… metaphysically and awesomely.

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