19 October 2016

Some Thoughts on Historical What-Ifs

"Eat your hamburgers, Apollo."
For part 3 of books I read in 2016, I want to start off by making a confession. I quite dislike historical what-ifs. It's not because I think these mind-exercises are of no value. In fact, I think they are valuable exercises. Rather, it's that a lot of historical what-ifs I see in internet discussions (not exactly a high bar of discourse, this blog included) are extremely sloppy exercises in logic that promote the idea of a singular cause for historical outcomes. Moreover, I find it very hard to believe that the so-called "pivotal moments" are really as "pivotal" as they're cracked up to be. Sure, the immediate aftermath will be different, but how different would things be a few centuries since the crossroads? Take Oda Nobunaga for example, since he's in a few anime series this season. "What if he died at the Battle of Okehazama? What if the Honnouji Incident never occurred?" The popular answer to the former is that Japan wouldn't have emerged as a unified nation while for the latter is that Japan would have been an innovative, outward-looking, modern nation much, much earlier. It's shit like this that triggers my historical autism. Why? Because it assumes that the process of unification can stem only from Oda's god-like figure, that a zeal for modernization can be ingrained by a single person on an entire nation regardless of external pressures, or that state policies can never change. I can get into a more detailed discussion on the process of unification/disintegration using Europe, China, Middle East as case studies to show why I don't think Oda is as critical as he's often claimed to be, but I don't want to get too off-topic now.

In any case, as much as I dislike historical what-ifs, I couldn't help but think of even crazier what-if scenarios of my own as I read some of these books. So I apologize beforehand for any simple assumptions or lapses in critical thinking in my opinions below. Like always, I try to write these posts half-jokingly, half-seriously.

The Sword of Persia: Nader Shah, from Tribal Warrior to Conquering Tyrant
Woe are the men who rise above their times only to be relegated to the dustbins of history! Or alternatively, "I came, I saw, I conquered, and I couldn't even get my fucking name mentioned in a world history book." That was my immediate reaction when I recently happened to skim through 3 world history textbooks used by world history college classes and none of them mentioned Nader's name in their chapters on 18th century Iran and India. The closest they came was an indirect reference that Mughal decline was helped, among other causes, by war with Persia. It's times like these you really gotta appreciate Wikipedia for attracting nationalists and ethnic chauvinists from every corner of the world to hype up their heroes. So don't feel too bad, Nader. Your fan, Parsa1993, even drew battle maps of his own for all your major battles! Most historians can't even be bothered to do that for their own books, so give him some love!
>your battles when EU4 gives you a 2-5-5-1 general
But for the rest of you normal people who have no idea who Nader Shah is, he was the founder of the short-lived Afsharid dynasty of Iran in the mid-18th century. The previous Safavid dynasty was at a nadir when Nader came to power (it's alright, I'll hit my self for that pun) and his sheer military genius allowed Iran to once again build a powerful army to regain territories lost to the Ottomans, Russians, and Central Asian nomads before he felt secure enough to depose the Safavid shah and start his own dynasty. His most famous victory was against the Mughals at the Battle of Karnal (pic above), letting the Iranians plunder some ridiculous sum like 8.2 billion GBP today. For all his achievements though, his obscurity is explained by the fact that his dynasty did not outlive his assassination and Iran then returned to continue the trend towards debilitating decentralization. The tale of this obscure, but larger-than-life figure is done justice in historian Michael Axworthy's book, The Sword of Persia, but this post isn't really meant to be a review so I won't talk much more about it. Just go read it if you're interested in great-man biographies or Iranian history.

While I enjoyed the book on its surface level (Nader's rise and fall), I think what left more of an impression on me is the process of historical memory. I've always been interested in how peoples and states all over the world have exploited history for their own agenda, so this process by which we selectively remember/distort history leapt out at me as a meta-theme, even though Axworthy didn't emphasize it. Nader was an exceptional individual of his time, but perhaps not in the greater lens of history. By this, I mean he was one of many great conqueror-kings and exemplifying the archetype in which a man of modest social background climbs up to the highest rung of society.
"Make France Great Again"
But even within these archetypes, it's interesting how some figures get the cold shoulder while others get books published about them year after year. Alexander the Great, if we're honest, was absolutely disastrous for the Argead dynasty, and perhaps even so for Macedonia as well. He left Macedonia with a severe succession crisis that led to the end of his dynasty, as well as wasting vast amounts of Macedonia's manpower only to create powerful neighbouring competitors like Ptolemaic Egypt or the Seleucid Empire, though it managed to somewhat retain hegemony over Greece. There's a reason why pop history books make little mention of Macedonia after Alexander. Still, you'd never see a world history book that left out Alexander's name due to the Hellenization that followed his conquests. Napoleon is another conqueror-king who, if we're honest, wouldn't rank very high in a game like Crusader Kings 2. For all his brilliance, he was eventually brought down along with his puppet states. His lasting prestige helped to get his nephew to lead the Second French Empire, but that too, was short-lived. What was long-lived was the ideas fostered by the French revolution and the Napoleonic code.
Hence, it seems to me that conqueror-kings are divided in historical memory not by their ultimate success and failure, but whether they pushed a lasting idea. Guys like Napoleon, Charlemagne, Qin Shi Huang, or Julius Caesar all had, or contributed, to a powerful idea that later generations could pick up and carry. What was Nader's? If he did have one, such as the importance of central power backed up by a disciplined standing army, it was quickly forgotten by immediate successors. Do you see the problem with this? How long-lasting any idea is something that we, the later generations, decide with values reflecting our own societies. But what if later generations simply don't care for those ideas? What if those ideas never develop to their historical heights? Does a man's greatness exist if no one is there to recognize it after his death? Is it possible that people may be products of society, but great people are products of later generations?
Literally who?
If you don't quite understand what I'm getting at, here are some humorous what-ifs to consider. Imagine that Greek art and philosophy were utter tripe. As a result, the Greeks never became the founders of Western thought and civilization. Would history books still bother to mention Alexander's name? Or would they, in a chapter about the Persian empire, simply say that their decline was helped, among other causes, by war with Greece? Would Hannibal make it to anyone's top 10 generals-of-all-time list if Rome collapsed completely during its late Republican years and consequently became as relevant as the Hittite empire for the modern-day? If any Hannibal-fans find this hard to swallow, ask yourself, can you name any Hittite or Assyrian generals? Maybe that's an unfair question due to the lack of documentation. Then how about using East Asian history as a case? Surely you've heard of Minamoto Yoritomo, but have you heard of Ch’oe Ch’ungh˘on, a contemporary who also started his own military regime almost exactly at the same time as the Kamakura shogunate on the other side of the Sea of Japan?

Woe are the great men and women whose legacies are ruined by later generations! Woe are the great people born to countries we don't give a flying fuck about, indeed.
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War
While the Taiping rebellion has traditionally been obscure in the West, I get the sense that with the onset of the internet and Wikipedia age, a fair number of history fans have at least heard of the Taiping rebellion. They may not know the specifics, but they'll probably know that it was a revolutionary Christian rebellion and one of the most destructive wars in history, even more than WWI. That was the case for me as well, and I remember back in middle or high school, I'd confuse my Taipings with the Boxers. So I've been meaning to read an actual book on the topic when I stumbled upon Stephen Platt's Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, which advertised a tale of the Taiping rebellion in the face of Western involvement. As I'd always imagined the Taiping rebellion to have been an entirely domestic affair, my interest was piqued and I quickly consumed the book. If you want my actual review on the book, it's largely the same as that of Amazon user James R. Mclean. Don't get the wrong idea if that review comes across as overly critical to you. This book, while not strictly focused on the Taiping rebellion, is highly readable and fun, so I still do very much recommend it. More importantly, the very fact that Platt's pushing an idea of interpreting the Taiping rebellion through a global lens is what makes the book memorable for me, regardless of how well-argued this point actually is. Why?
Remember when the Germans were the rapists and not rape victims?
I think it's safe to say that before the modern age, foreign intervention in wars were limited due to the nature of communications, transport, and logistics. It's one thing for Rome and Parthia to get involved in an Armenian civil war right between their borders, but it's pretty much unthinkable that the Kushan empire would. But in our globalized world, the nature of war, especially civil wars, has changed for good. Nowadays, it's almost a given that there will be some level of foreign intervention. International agencies like the UN make it their business to mediate wars while countries can either pledge troops, specialists/advisers, or weapons and funds, whether openly or secretly. If you recall my earlier post about the Iran-Iraq war, even kawaii Belgium-tan was doing their best to cash in on the war. But a more interesting example would be something like the Nigerian Civil War (Oh you Brits... I guess it's true when they say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree...). And because foreign intervention is now an inescapable aspect of modern war, public sentiments and controlling the all-important narrative is crucial. This ain't something unique to the cold war and post-cold war eras. Remember the Bryce report and the hysteria over the rape of Belgium in WWI? A modern-day guide on "winning-civil-wars-for-dummies" probably wouldn't be complete without a chapter by some savvy public relations or social media consultant on how to increase the market appeal of your side through social media. Hate on ISIS all you want, but you gotta respect their slick youtube/twitter skillz.  And whereas 2500 years ago, Sun Tzu advocated "Know your enemies," if he were alive today, he'd probably reprint a 2nd edition with the added change "Know your enemies and 3rd party countries."
Please God, not another no-fly zone
So going back to the idea of interpreting the Taiping rebellion as a modern conflict where foreign intervention is possible... What if the Taiping rebels were better at marketing their cause at 3rd parties like Great Britain? What if the British saw their long-term interests better aligned with a new Christian China rather than the Qing?  Could a communist China have been avoided? Just imagine if modern-day aircraft were a thing in the 19th century. I can't stop smiling at the absurd idea of the British parliament debating whether or not they should put up a no-fly zone, put boots on the ground, or not intervene at all, all the while as newspapers in London debate whether the Taipings are "moderate rebels" deserving support, or whether the Qing is the legitimate regime of China that should be respectfully negotiated with or a bloodthirsty, medievalist regime that must be toppled at any cost.

But why stop the what-ifs with the Taiping Civil War? Just imagine what the world would look like if all the past civil wars had a major foreign intervention-dimension to it. And don't just think of scenarios where losers come out on top, like maybe Husayn drawing more support to win the Battle of Karbala. If it's true that foreign intervention increases the duration of civil wars, think of all the possible what-ifs, if civil wars could be simply left to fester for decades without a neat resolution being reached, maybe even leading to a permanent division. Like what if the Russian Civil War was still unresolved by the time of the Nazis? Or if the War of the Castilian Succession led to fractured kingdoms, in which Isabella and Ferdinand had neither the funds nor interest in supporting some wacked-up plan to reach India by sailing West. Or for you Americans, imagine if the British intervened on the pretext of "humanitarian interests" and made it impossible for either side to deliver a knockout blow to the other, and eventually a ceasefire is reached without resolving any of the issues that led the war in the first place. Imagine an America permanently broken up into Northern and Southern halves along a contentious demilitarized zone, with each half backed by their own network of great-power allies. What would today's world look like then?
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa
Two regions that I really wish my public education years gave me some historical context on are Latin America and Africa. I remember back in high-school, plenty of kids were willing to join the 24-hour Oxfam fasting event to raise awareness for ongoing famine in South Sudan. For most kids, it was basically a slumber-party at the school, only with no food, but that didn't matter since you'd just go to an IHOP or McDonalds afterwards for a big meal. Looking back on it now, I can only think of it as an utterly stupid exercise. Yeah, yeah, I know that's not a very nice thing to say. "Think of the starving Africans," the student organizers would say, as they put up their "Hungry for Change" posters. But how the hell does some students getting hungry for a day and donating a few bucks translate to real "change?" Now I know that charities do make a difference and I have enormous respect for organizations like MSF, but when I read a book like Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, the pessimist in me tells me how little long-term changes even the best of non-profit organizations can actually foster.
This book's an account of the Second Congo War, popularly known as the Great War of Africa. It's weird that so many people seem to have at least heard of the Rwandan genocide while being completely unaware of the Second Congo War. The number of hits I get from a quick google search for "Rwandan genocide" vs "Second Congo War" seems to support this impression. It's probably because we in the West are so sensitive to the word, "genocide." After all, it has become a buzzword to be deployed in bizarre arguments about whether some mass killing is an atrocious genocide or a plain ol' massacre, as if that really makes the crime so much better or worse. But to return to the topic, the Second Congo War is actually super fucking interesting as a war and the basic narrative is not too complicated. Basically, during the Rwandan civil war, the brutal genocide of Rwandan Tutsis force the Tutsis to strike back, and they succeed in winning the civil war, with most of the Rwandan Hutus fleeing to the neighbouring country of Congo and setting up massive refugee camps. The Tutsi-regime in Rwanda, understandably seeking retribution for genocide, thus decided to form a coalition with other neighbouring nations with a grudge against Mobutu (President of Congo) and send an invading force to install a new ruler who'd be more friendly to their interests, which would allow Rwanda to safely "take care" of the Hutu refugees hiding in Congo. Taking advantage of the crumbling Mobutu-regime, the Rwandan-led coalition forces succeed in installing Kabila as the new Congo president. But like in many other histories, the new puppet-ruler has an ego of his own and refuses to bow down to his patrons, and thus Rwanda was then forced again to fight Congo, which had allies of its own who preferred a Kabila-led Congo over a Tutsi-led Congo. As the war festers on, just about all sides engage in war crimes and loot the valuable natural resources of Congo. This is the bare minimum of details that I'll provide to entice you into reading more about this war, whether through Stearns' book or another. It does become very hard to keep track of all the splinter rebel groups and foreign-backed paramilitary organizations, but like I said, the broad outlines are relatively easy to keep track so don't get scared off by all the acronyms.
Kitona Operation
The thing that's most striking to me about the whole affair is the Rwandan Tutsis. Usually when I think of sub-Saharan Africa, I think of fractured ethnic groups, endemic corruption/violence, and disorganized regions that are states only in name. But the Tutsis seem remarkable in many ways, and that's not me trying to excuse their war crimes in any way (I think the whole moralistic finger-pointing is a futile exercise in a conflict like the Second Congo War). I don't know what you'd call it. Asabiyyah, discipline, g-factor, 20% infantry combat bonus, etc... Whatever it is, the Rwandan Tutsis have it. Even in corruption index rankings, Rwanda comes out as one of the least corrupt countries in Africa. Quite remarkable since Rwanda's neighbour, Burundi, is similar demographically but is one of the most corrupt countries in Africa. Just reading about the RPF's military exploits like the Kitona operation, even though a failure, is breathtaking if you're into military history.
Here's a cute Congo on the bongos to take your mind off the unspeakable war crimes in the Congo War.
Overall, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, with its inclusion of many eyewitness testimonies, makes you realize just how much shit there needs to be worked out in Africa. Things like tribalism, complete lack of faith/trust in the rule of law, and a propensity for violence as a practical solution aren't stuff that can be solved by just stuffing more donation dollars in their faces. These things have to be worked out by the native inhabitants themselves and not by the UN or any imperialist foreign powers, whose meddling seems to only make things worse. I can imagine people tsk-tsking at me for "othering" Africa, shaming me for thinking that they're not the same flesh-and-blood humans we are. But it's not that I think they're somehow unworthy of our sympathy and empathy (I don't). It's that I think humans have fundamental patterns of thoughts and behaviour, which can change only slowly, meaning that in spite of our best efforts, it'll be long past my life-time when most of Africa can stop being utterly depressing to look at.

If the world was a game of Civilization, I'd really love to give the map a re-roll so that Africa wasn't environmentally unsuitable for state formation. Seems like a waste to have such a huge continent, but make it nigh-impossible for social development. Absolutely terrible map design, YHWH. This is why I don't believe in you.


  1. Two suggestions for people who go pretty in-depth with historical what--ifs:



  2. Hox, some of your recs for manga (here on your blog) and non-fiction history books on Goodreads are pure gold to me. Would you please consider adding other non-history related books to your Goodreads collection with your star ratings? Perhaps on a different account if you don't wish to clutter your existing one?

    I will read any of your 5-star rating books at this point, no matter the subject.

    1. Most of the stuff I read these days are all history-related so I'm not exactly leaving stuff out on my goodreads. Whenever I do read other things, I'll add them in on my current account. The only books I've left out things I read pre-2014, which I'm not going to add because it seems like a hassle in going back and adding every book I ever read and liked. I also didn't read as much as I do now, so it's not too big of a loss.

  3. I really enjoyed the read and already recommended it to some of my friends. Just one small question if it's not to close to your heart: Where are you from or in which countries have you lived in? While your analysis is on point it gives a worthwhile impression from which cultural tradition someone comes.