Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Geopolitics of Zombies

The last several years have seen a remarkable resurgence in popularity of the zombie genre. No longer a feature exclusive to horror films zombies now infest a range of pop culture media. They are a staple of video games (the Resident Evil games being perhaps the best example), revisionist classic literature (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, e.g.), comic book spinoffs (Marvel Zombies), survival manuals for possible zombie outbreaks (Max Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide), TV (AMC's The Walking Dead, based on the Robert Kirkman graphic novels which I devoured in Afghanistan), and more. And in recognition of this surge in zombie interest May has been designated Zombie Awareness month by the Zombie Research Society. I thus feel compelled to post something on the topic before the month is out. Hence, this zombie infested post.

Now generally within the zombie corpus the focus tends to be centered around a group (or groups) of people and their singular attempts at survival and the impact this has on their humanity (the classic example being George Romero's Night of the Living Dead). Rarely, is there an attempt to exhibit how modern nation states would initially react to a zombie outbreak and the subsequent policies they might initiate to counter such a threat (a delightfully notable exception to this is Max Brooks' World War Z which displays a surprisingly good grasp of current world politics). And so it was a pleasant surprise when I stumbled upon Dr. Daniel Drezner's website (he also has a great blog) where I learned that he had written a monograph on just such a topic entitled, quite appropriately, Theories of International Politics and Zombies.

The book is of course written tongue in cheek, but Drezner approaches the subject from an academic standpoint even doing such scholarly things as first engaging with the relevant zombie literature and devoting a chapter to defining the boundaries of what constitutes a true zombie (in other words bringing clarity to the topic, something which every scholar must do before proceeding with the subject that they are treating). The principal thrust of the work is to examine how traditional International Relations concepts would treat a zombie apocalypse. For example, during a discussion about realpolitik Drezner theorizes that states that operate from this IR framework would essentially view a zombie outbreak as no different than plagues of the past. Therefore, they wouldn't perceive any real change in the international order and would continue to act as they typically do, i.e., based on their perceived national security interests. They would thus be disinclined towards doing such things as forming grand alliances with other states to tackle a zombie infestation especially if they believed it would be against their own self-interests to do so.

In fact, Drezner further speculates that it is quite likely some nations would manipulate a zombie outbreak to their advantage by using it as a means of achieving long sought after geopolitical objectives (e.g., China might accuse Taiwan of failing to control their zombie infestation using this as an excuse to then occupy the island thus cementing their historic desire of uniting Taiwan with the mainland). In contrast, a country that operates within a liberalist IR worldview would more likely perceive a zombie outbreak as a uniquely global threat to the international world order and so would seek to create a United Nations like organization to combat the world menace. However, a likely consequence of the liberal position would be the development of distracting debates about zombie rights which could then undermine any unified alliance against a zombie outbreak. In addition to realism and liberalism, Drezner also engages with other lesser known IR theories but I don't want to spoil the rest of the book so if your interest has been piqued by this post then buy his book now!

In short, it is a very enjoyable work being both a source of entertainment as well as an ingenious means of teaching basic IR theories to the uninitiated. It is a fun and pleasant addition to our ever increasing fascination with all things zombies. Alright, that's my meager contribution for Zombie Awareness Month. I'll close by leaving you with a scene from one of my favorite zombie spoof movies, Sean of the Dead. Enjoy.

Friday, May 20, 2011

My Meeting at Vanderbilt

Some of you know that I've been looking to go back to graduate school (but for history this time) and last week I took my first crucial step in this process by meeting up with Dr. Thomas Schwartz at Vanderbilt University. Vanderbilt is one of my top choices but being one of the southern "Ivy League" schools it is very difficult to get into (of 300 applicants last year only 8 were accepted into the Phd program), particularly for me since my undergraduate work was not in history. I've known that this is the biggest barrier that I'm going to face even though the programs I'm looking into don't require an applicant to have a BA in history in order to be considered for acceptance. But as Dr. Schwartz pointed out when it comes to getting into Phd programs having a solid background in history in your undergraduate work is usually a must because of how competitive these programs are.

Moreover, because there is a strong possibility that I could be deployed again within the next few years, Dr. Schwartz noted that even though by law they would have to hold my place in the program they are not required to pause my funding. In other words, I would lose a year of funding. And so because of these factors Dr. Schwartz suggested that the best approach might be to restrict my applications to terminal masters degree programs because requirements for admission aren't as strict, and I can of course gain significant experience in history with a MA which will then help me considerably when I later apply for Phd programs.

But besides advising me tactically about graduate school we discussed some of his work, especially concerning his work on Lyndon Johnson's foreign policy towards Europe (he published a book on the topic entitled Lyndon B. Johnson and Europe: In the Shadow of Vietnam) and his upcoming intellectual biography of Henry Kissinger, a topic of which I am very interested. I was delighted to learn that we share very similar views about Kissinger's role during the Vietnam War. In fact at the end of our meeting he gave me a copy of an essay about Kissinger that he had published in the British diplomatic history journal Diplomacy and Statecraft.

As much as I wanted to learn about Dr. Schwartz' past, present, and future scholarly activities he was just as eager to hear about my experiences in Afghanistan; specifically he wanted to gauge my views, i.e. a soldier's views, about the war there and my feelings about US policy in the region. And it was during my rant about how I had qualms about calling the conflict in Afghanistan a war since by traditional definitions the war came to a conclusion with the toppling of the Taliban (because that was the official, stated objective of the war) that Dr. Schwartz made a good point about the celebrations surrounding the death of Bin Laden (I had complained that some characteristics of the celebrations were silly and excessive) which was that since WWII and the signing of the official surrender of the Japanese empire on the U.S.S. Missouri Americans haven't had that kind of clear symbol of victory to produce such elation. The killing of Bin Laden has been the nearest thing to this which is why the reaction has been so strong, even farcical in some areas (the singing of 'nah, nah, nah, nah....hey, hey...goodbye' comes to mind).

Anyways, the meeting went well and was very beneficial. I will continue to update on here from time to time my progress in attempting to get back into graduate school.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Some Older Thoughts about V-E Day

Two days ago marked the anniversary of V-E Day. Usually I try to write something at least peripherally about WWII on that day. However, I've just been caught up in too many things lately so I'm going to be a bit lazy and post something I wrote in my journal a couple of years ago about V-E Day. Bear in mind this is from my journal and thus is not as analytical as what you may have become accustomed to on this blog. I have made some minor revisions (such as updating the year, smoothing out some of the grammar, correction of spelling errors, and dropping the sordid details from the orgy of the previous night) and inserted a few editorial comments for clarification of some ideas and words (noted by the black lettering).

Today marks sixty-six years since the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and the official end of the European theater of conflict in WWII (it is the "official" end because the actual act of surrender from the German COs [Hitler committed suicide on April 25th] was proffered on the 7th of May but for geopolitical reasons Stalin insisted that the declaration be made on the following day). And so the official day that the German high command surrendered has become known as V-E Day or Victory in Europe Day. There is a particularly iconic image that represents much of the elation felt that day in which a sailor (spontaneously?) passionately embraces and kisses a nurse upon hearing the news.

Unfortunately, these ebullient feelings would be of short duration as the full extent of Axis' atrocities became revealed, particularly the horrors perpetrated by Hitler's Nazi Germany. This calls to mind one of my favorite episodes of Band of Brothers entitled "Why We Fight" which occurs during the events shortly after V-E Day. As the title of the episode indicates the soldiers start questioning why they have been involved in a war that seemed to be all about the affairs of countries other than their own; it is difficult for them to understand why they should be concerned with European geopolitics and its consequences/effects on the national security of the United States. And though they never quite resolve these political issues they are finally able to embrace a moral justification for the war when they stumble upon their first Jewish concentration camp and are given an answer to why they fight. Now though most nations knew fully well by at least 1942 about Hitler's attempts to exterminate the Jews (and other undesirables) with the purpose of making Europe Judenrein (free of Jews) most of the soldiers were unaware of these malevolent crimes against humanity until they began to liberate the concentration camps.

But as tragic as WWII was it is remarkable in that, to my mind at least, it is the one conflict of recent times that is difficult, perhaps impossible, to assert should never have happened. Of course there is a sense in which one could argue that no war should ever happen and I concede such. But after the appeasement at Munich in 1938 (and I would argue long before) the world was justified to stop Hitler by force. (Though there are fringe revisionist scholars who try to make the specious argument that WWII was not justified in any sense they remain so marginal that their effects on people's judgment about WWII is, thankfully, negligible. But that hasn't keep some from continuing to try and argue such. For example, see my series of posts about Pat Buchanan's view of the war starting here.) All other conflicts of recent time (Iraq I and II, Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, etc) that the US has been directly involved in do not fare as well under the same kind of moral scrutiny.

Of course the truth of the matter is that the US did not get involved in WWII for any strictly moral reason (exemplified by the fact that it took nearly three years for the US to get into the war and when Roosevelt refused to do such morally 'necessary' actions as diverting bomber resources to destroy the various railroad networks that transported Jews and others to the gas chambers) but principally for geopolitical/national security reasons. In fact, this is ultimately why any nation state goes to war: security. And regardless of the new vogue ideas that arise in the field of International Relations, and the continuing utterance of platitudes that occur during meaningless discussions about 'idealism (or liberalism)' versus 'realism' the fact of the matter is that a nation state will be chiefly compelled to war when it perceives a threat to its own security (I am using 'security' here as a blanket designation covering the sum total of a country's national self-interests). Yet as much as I would like to believe that the US entered WWII because it felt morally compelled to do so the reality is that it did not get involved until its own national security was threatened, namely, by the bombing of Pearl Harbor (To be fair the reluctance to enter WWII did not originate from Roosevelt but rather from the very much ingrained isolationist thinking of the American populace). Nevertheless, the world is of course better off because the US did eventually enter the war ultimately turning the tide against Hitler and Nazi Germany bringing about the end of the European conflict of WWII on this day, Victory in Europe Day.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Rambling Thoughts on Bin Laden and Pakistan

Well, after nearly ten years the mastermind of 9/11 Usama Bin Laden was finally killed by a Navy Seals team during a raid on a compound in Pakistan. This is of course a great victory for the US and the war on terrorism. Yet I think that its importance is probably more symbolic than anything else. Yes, Bin Laden was the official head of Al Qaeda but like most terrorist groups Al Qaeda lacks a rigid hierarchial structure being largely a collection of loose affiliations and so unfortunately it will probably be able to function just fine without Bin Laden. Nonetheless, on balance I think the world is much safer and better off without him.

However, what's of more interest to me about the situation is the role of Pakistan in all of this. Now it strains credulity to think that Pakistan had no knowledge that Bin Laden was hiding in their country especially when it turned out to be a city crawling with Pakistani Army regulars and more importantly the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency. Of course when you consider the role Islamabad has played during the war in Afghanistan this isn't too terribly surprising. Since the beginning of the war on terrorism Pakistan has made Bismark proud by playing both sides off one another, namely, on the one hand aiding the US by providing significant overflight of their territory, capturing some insurgents, and providing intel on others but on the other hand covertly aiding some of the insurgents and providing them a safe haven just inside their borders. (The unit that I was with in Afghanistan saw this up close when they were in the east where they would constantly be shot but could never pursue because the insurgents would ease right back into Pakistan. Also Pakistan's Janus face role has been known since the start of the war which is why the wikileaks fiasco didn't really reveal anything that wasn't already known about US-Pakistani relations before.)

On the surface this duplicitous action makes no sense: wouldn't Pakistan benefit from a strong, stable Afghanistan? Well, that's actually precisely what Pakistan does not want. To understand why you have to look at Pakistan's own security interests and concerns. One of these is the fact that Pakistan has a large Islamic fundamentalist demographic in its country that it wishes to keep subdued but the one that determines the direction of just about all of Pakistan's national security interests is centered on Islamabad's obsession with its mortal enemy India. Ever since the violent partition of British India in 1947 resulted in the formation of these states they have fought numerous military conflicts mostly over the region of Kashmir, even coming close to nuclear war a couple of times. One war (1971) even led to the formation of a new state, Bangladesh. (go here for more).

And the way that Afghanistan figures into the equation is because during the period between WWII and the Soviet invasion when they were relatively stable they quarreled with Pakistan over the Durand line (the artificial and somewhat arbitrary border composed by Great Britain during the Great Game against Russia in the 19th century which the Afghans do not recognize but which Pakistan does) and over the Pashtunistan and Balochistan issues (acquiring territory from the latter region would give Afghanistan access to a long sought after warm water port). Moreover, as a means of agitating Pakistan and strengthening their own hand Afghanistan increased its ties to India maintaining a strong and healthy relationship for sometime up until the Afghan Civil War (the Taliban when they gained control of most of the country promptly cut most ties with India and strengthened relations with Pakistan).

In short, Pakistan for several decades felt encircled by hostile powers and as any good student of international relations knows if a country feels it's surrounded by aggressive powers it will take whatever steps it deems necessary to relieve itself of feeling threatened. Thus, Pakistan has a major interest in maintaining the status quo in Afghanistan, i.e., keeping the country weak and wobbly so that it continues to remain focused on domestic issues like the insurgency. But at the same time it obviously doesn't want a failed state on its border and so the double game: supporting the US efforts just enough to keep Afghanistan from completely failing but aiding elements of the insurgency as well to keep Afghanistan weak and principally focused on its internal security situation. One thing Pakistan cannot abide is a strong Afghanistan for fear that it will one day again ally itself closely with India.

The events surrounding the death of Bin Laden continue to bear this out and it is no surprise that Pakistan most likely knew that Bin Laden was hiding out in their country. All of this just emphasizes how crucial resolving the Pakistan problem is to a comprehensive and successful solution to the war in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, the US has gained an important symbolic victory with the death of Usama Bin Laden (and kudos to President Obama by the way; give credit where credit is due). And with that I've rambled on enough. I leave you with a song that paradoxically (because it's European) expresses my patriotic feelings at the moment: