Day: July 26, 2012

“Invisible” Wars?

World Politics Review has a feature section in this issue on the “invisibility” of contemporary US wars, fought through covert ops, drone strikes and cyber attack rather than on conventional battlespaces. The issue is a thought-provoking read: Thomas Barnett aims a verbal fusillade at Obama’s “one-night-stand” foreign policy; scalding expositions on the illegality and perverse side effects of drone strikes come from Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko, respectively; and Steven Metz confirms the new “invisibility” of US military strategy.


Naturally, my contribution unpacks the whole notion of “invisible” war, putting it into its socio-political context:

Much digital ink has been spilled over how cyber and unmanned technologies are changing the nature of war, allowing it to be fought more secretly, more subversively and with greater discretion. But the single biggest shift in the sociology of war in the past quarter-century has been not in the way it is fought, but in the relationship between its grim realities and the perceptions of those on the home front. Indeed, it is precisely the increasing visibility of ordinary warfare due to communications technology that is driving U.S. efforts to redefine the rules of engagement. And ironically, this is resulting in an unraveling of old normative understandings about how to achieve human security.

Check out the whole set of essays here.

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Summer Reading Recommendation, Mithras Edition

The running through of the bulls

Someone asked me the other day whether I had read any books for fun recently. Caught up as I was in compiling the lit review for one project and writing lectures for an introductory class, I couldn’t think of anything–the words “fun” and “reading” at the moment were almost precise antitheses. (Having read large numbers of scholarly treatises is enjoyable. Plowing through large numbers of monographs is tedium.)

And then it struck me that I had in fact read completely unrequired books recently. And that one of them was fantastic–so good, in fact, that it was worth a recommendation to our readership.

Like many people who enjoy history and were raised on Greek and Roman mythology, I have always known that Mithras exists. Yet I knew little about Mithras or Mithraism besides some likely inaccurate assertions of the similarities between the religion and early Christianity. Thus, when the Oxford University Press catalog came by mail a few months ago, I was right in the target demographic for their The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World by David Ulansey, a professor of religion.


The details of Mithras’s origins and Ulansey’s thesis are available elsewhere, for  instance on the Wikipedia page about the mythology, but I won’t link to them here because I think that it gives away the fun. One of the reasons that a lot of us, including myself, were attracted to academia was the notion of learning new things, and after a while we arrive at a place where we are treated to seemingly endless reinterpretations of old facts (Fashoda, the July Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and so on). The delight in the Mithras book was both that it was a coherent account of something that I knew absolutely nothing about, even though I knew the setting and many of the characters fairly well, and also that Ulansey has structured the book as something like a murder mystery on a cosmic scale.

Again, without spoilers, the book is in part a reconstruction of how a discovery about the universe–not a mystical one, but one that would have seemed almost so to ancient Greeks–transformed itself into a religion. It is, at the same time, an investigation of how to use that knowledge, and offers insight into how sincere intentions might instantiate themselves as a mystery religion. The book also, inter alia, reminds us that the people of the ancient world were complex and rather well  educated–something that I had known intellectually but is a little hard to recall on an emotional scale.

And, best of all, it’s short–really only about 150 pages.

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