We hear a lot of talk about “new generations” of warfare. Everything is supposed to be new, different, and immutably changed from previous eras of conflict. Some people have even taken to numbering what they see as historical phases of warfare. First generation, second generation, third generation, etc. While there is some merit to this classification system, I think its disadvantages outweigh its advantages. Such neat categorizations tempt us into believing that things are somehow different now than they have been in the past.
The central thesis of Dr. Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? is relatively straightforward to state. When a rising power (China) is confronted by a relatively declining power (the United States), the declining one often resorts to making war on its enemy. Allison’s term for this phenomenon is “Thucydides’s Trap,” a phrase taken from the following observation by the great Greek historian: Continue reading
The name Muhammad al-Salami (محمد السلامي) (A.D. 948–1003) is nearly unknown in the West, but occupies a prominent position in medieval Arabic poetry. The genius of his metaphors, the richness of his turns of phrase, and the elegance of his diction can be felt even through the fog of translation; and we will do our best to pay him homage here. The anthologist Abu Mansur al-Tha’alibi called him:
The writer and scholar Ibn Zafar al-Siqilli lived from 1104 to about 1170. The cognomen al-Siqilli (“the Sicilian”) was given to him because he was born on the island of Sicily. There are a number of important works credited to his name, the most famous of which is a book of ethical and political philosophy called Consolation for the Master Who Suffers From the Hatred of His Servants (the brilliant Arabic title, written in the rhyming prose typical of Arabic literature, is سلوان المطاع في عدوان الأتباع). In English, this work is often referred to simply as the Sulwan al-Mutaa’. The book was composed in 1159, during the time of the second Norman king of Sicily, William the Bad. Sicily (Sakalliya) had been an Arab emirate from A.D. 831 to 1091.
There are times when one’s communications must be protected from the unwelcome attentions of third parties. The richness of a language’s vocabulary, and its embedded metaphors and cultural allusions, are powerful assistants to this end. I was recently reminded of this when reading an anecdote related by that most colorful of biographers, Ibn Khallikan. We have related many of his stories and wise sayings here in past articles. The story I am about to relate here is linguistically oriented; it can tell us much about the power of speech in the hands of those who can deliver it with nuanced subtlety. It will be of interest to any enthusiast of language, philology, and culture.
We have observed that one of the themes of ancient literature is the concept of Fate or Fortune. We find it first expressed in the plays and heroic poems of the Greeks; the idea then seeped into the writing of history and biography. Closely associated with this concept is the idea of divine retribution for offending the gods. Those who showed contempt for divine or human law would be humbled by the harsh blows of Fate: no man could expect to thumb his nose at the laws of the universe and get away with it.
I very much enjoy reading war memoirs. I think it’s because I recognize that the authors have tapped into special knowledge that the rest of us cannot access. They have seen beyond, somehow. Their experiences have stamped on them an indelible impression that neither time nor distance can erase. I will be honest: I am envious of the special knowledge they have, and which I do not have. Having been in the military is one thing, but having been in real combat is something very different. Deep down, I regret that I never was given the opportunity to experience what they experienced.