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Subtle intrusions of comfort

Posted in American, Asian, Culture, Reading by Alex L. on February 20, 2011

Mountains in AfghanistanI have recently been reading Pete Blaber’s memoir, The Mission, The Men, and Me: Lessons from a Former Delta Force Commander, about his experiences during training and in combat around the world (including action in Iraq and Afghanistan). As may be gleamed from some of my previous posts, I have a high degree of admiration for battle-tested warriors such as this Chicago-born operative in the military’s perhaps most unconventional unit.

During late 2001 and early 2002, when Americans special forces were making their first incursions into Afghanistan, Pete Blaber was commanding a detachment of advanced force operations (AFO) soldiers. He describes this early phase of the war in Afghanistan as an uncharacteristic one.

The U.S. government, according to Blaber, knew very little about the country they were invading, and special forces were sent in to acquire contextual information and carry out the initial attacks on the enemy. Since the character of the war to come was still unknown, these various units were allowed to organize and operate in a way that did not necessarily reflect their usual departmental divisions. Combat teams were frequently formed and reformed around a mix of AFO, the Green Berets, and CIA agents as need dictated without a regard for traditional military structure. In true special forces fashion, the only thing that mattered was completing the mission no matter how unconventional the means.

Much like I am in awe of master craftsmen who restore old aircraft, I am stunned by the audacity of the challenges that such special forces troops undertake. My confusion about the morality of war aside, when viewed simply as a problem-solving endeavor, the task of entering a hostile country in small teams of a few dozen men to chase out the entire ruling class baffles the mind. Sure the U.S. soldiers were equipped with the latest supplies and technology to help them accomplish this mission (not to mention scores of Northern Alliance soldiers as allies), but as Blaber describes and the U.S. military had to learn the hard way, technology is never a substitute for one of the basic assets of warfare: contextual knowledge of the people, locations, customs, and ways of thinking of others, especially the enemy. (more…)

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Tribal mind

Posted in Culture, Just for Fun, Prehistory, Stories by Alex L. on February 13, 2011

Close-up of "Hunters in the Snow" by Pieter BruegelWhen dinosaurs roamed the earth, chewing the leafy treetops with the aid of their towering necks and soaring above the rivers teeming with life on their reptilian wings, was when the plankton and algae that now power my car swam in the oceans. Dying by the generations, the tiny bodies of these organisms floated down to the ocean floor and collected and compressed over time. Given enough time (millions of years) this biomass under pressure turned into what we now call crude oil.

I sometimes get grief from my friends for driving an old car. My propulsive method of choice is an automobile manufactured by the venerable Ford Motor Company, the make being Escort Sports Wagon, the vintage 1995. The sands of public opinion have shifted and my auto is not in 2011 the strapping beast that it used to be in its heyday, but I still find something odd about this criticism lodged by some at my noble steed. For in the grand scheme of things, the automobile itself is such a curious contraption that my particular specimen of it is not nearly as interesting as the species as a whole.

The Chicago Auto Show came to the vaunted convention halls of our city this weekend and displayed its lovely stock of new machines. Sparkling under electric lamps like a river does under the sun, the parade of autos flaunted the latest fashion in sculpted forms and boasted too of new feats of agility, power, navigation, and cabin architecture. Machinery so alive with centuries of cumulative human inventiveness that it would make even the most proud and accomplished cavalryman blush in shame and hide his mare behind the nearest tree.

Why is it that we find the newest cars so attractive? Perhaps it is a kind of survival instinct: we are used to our tribe striving to acquire the fastest and healthiest herd of horses in the valley. When horses were first domesticated thousands of years ago, the armies of  humans that rode them must have become mighty in their lands, killing from their chariots and saddles the bands of other humans who couldn’t figure out the mount. The genes of those not inclined to the equine arts would have found their eternal end in the blood spilled upon the sands and the steppe. (more…)

Things, categories, patterns

Posted in Greek, Reading, Stories by Alex L. on February 6, 2011

A close-up of "doors", a painting by my friend on doodlemoose.com (click to see more)I don’t remember the topic of the discussion. I don’t recall who attended class that day. I cannot see in my mind’s eye now where I was sitting in that cavernous room in the basement of the bare-concrete humanities building. I just remember the voice of my history professor saying, in passing, to everyone in the senior thesis seminar that at some point in his twenties he had been “scrutinizing his categories”.

These strange words have stuck with me ever since, and I do remember pausing in class that day and mulling over them in my mind. What he meant, I think, was that at some point during his young adulthood he had thought about how he had come to know what he knows. For some foolish reason, these words of his began to emit in my mind the heady aroma of prophecy, and soon enough my memory of them had come to mean, “I too will scrutinize my categories one day in the near future, will rethink how it is that I have come to ‘know’ what I ‘know'”.

Truth is, though, I like talking about epistemology (the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge) about as much as I like seeing zoomed-in photographs of my face. Beliefs, like human skin, begin to reveal bizarre characteristics when seen up close. The problem is not so much with the beliefs or thoughts themselves as with our ability to scrutinize them. Most people, myself included, are just bad at coming up with insights about the way we think. Here is how a typical conversation about epistemology sometimes goes:

Svetlana: How do we know what we know?

Larry: Well, the world exists as an external entity. The individual person exists as a separate entity that sees, hears, smells, feels and tastes things in the world with his senses and understands the world through his mind.

So we understand an external world through our senses and with our mind?

Yes.

And our understanding of our world is always accurate? (more…)