Saturday, December 18, 2010

A very Fleming Christmas; 2010

There is still plenty of time to get the right present for Christmas ... books!

We're going to finish up with our first guest from
last Sunday's Midrats after our second guest, Naval War College Professor Robert C. "Barney" Ruble, CAPT USN (Ret), gave us his list of Christmas book recommendations last week.

As he did for us
last year - this season United States Naval Academy Professor Bruce Fleming offers up an exceptional reading list.

Professor Fleming; over to you!

Kim by Rudyard Kipling. This one is fun, but it’s also got substance. It’s the story of a wily teen-aged boy who, though actually the son of a British soldier in Raj India, has been brought up to speak all Indian languages, wear all disguises, and pass as anything he chooses. He plays the game better than those he lives with and loves, and has fabulous adventures that keep the reader rooting for him to pull it off one more time. The substance? It’s about being true to yourself, finding what matters—in Kim’s case, it’s absolute loyalty to a spacey (and hence borderline ridiculous, i.e. non-studly) Buddhist holy man whose disciple he agrees to become. Kim is the perfect combination of actor in the world and fully developed inner being. For me, that’s the definition of a successful person, especially a great warrior.

The Bhagavad-Gita. Part of the authorless Sanscrit epic called the Mahabarata that exists in countless versions and dates from thousands of years before Christ in one form or another, this central and usually excerpted section is central to the issue of what a warrior is, and why. The hero Arjuna finds himself in battle against members of his extended family. Understandably, he doesn’t want to fight. His charioteer, conveniently for the story, is none other than the god Krishna, an avatar of the even more fundamental god Vishnu. Krishna tells Arjuna it’s his duty to fight because that’s what he does and who he is, being a member of the Kshyatria caste. We don’t have birth castes in democratic America; rather each person has to figure out who he or she is—in a sense, what caste we belong to. If you figure out you’re a warrior, then fighting is who you are and what you do. That’s why you fight.

Confessions by Saint Augustine. Augustine is one of the great Fathers of the Church, a towering intellect who provided an answer to the question, How can a good God allow evil? (His answer is sort of a sleight-of-hand: evil, according to Augustine, isn’t a real thing, it’s just the absence of good.) But it’s the record of his misspent youth, lying, stealing, and fornicating before turning it around, that has endeared him to centuries of readers. The story of his theft of pears is a classic; my personal favorite is his explanation of why men have nipples. It’s the classic reminder that the way a person is at the time we meet them isn’t necessarily the way they will be. We humans are limited in our knowledge of what’s lurking within others. For leaders, the moral seems to be this: cut others some slack; guide where you can but then at some point, you have to back off. I see it as a warning to leaders that our ability to change the world right here and now is limited: model the behavior you want, but be aware that the largest patterns of human development may be beyond your control. Lead, in short, with love and humility.

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. A melancholy classic about change and the necessity to adapt—something that all old people, and some young—and specifically old warriors who have risen in rank in a specific world—need to hear. The title character is a Sicilian aristocrat in the time of Garibaldi who has the breadth of vision to see that his apparently timeless feudal world is in fact changing. He also realizes that in order to keep the values that underlay that world alive, he has to go along with changing the warp and woof of life—welcoming a non-aristocratic bride for his protégé and nephew, who has decided to fight for the cause that will bring an end to the Leopard’s lifestyle. It’s a parable for the necessity to accept change and the fact that the privileged of the Earth are the ones who have to lead the way, rather than becoming defensive and crusty. The inability to lose sight of the spirit in blind adherence to the letter is a huge problem for another authority-driven clan of alphas, not just the feudal aristocracy of Sicily: the military.

Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide: What Each Side Must Know About the Other - And About Itself, by Bruce Fleming. I was told to include this, but of course I like it because it’s my most recent book and we’re living the situation it describes and analyzes. In brief, the military is tiny these days in the US, and all-volunteer, and involved in such dicey undertakings. The result is that most civilians have turned away from it or just don’t care. This, understandably, annoys the military that puts its collective behind on the line. What are we doing this for? they say. The result is mutual ignorance and distrust in our society as a whole. I propose changes for both sides, because we can’t have a world where the warriors feel aggrieved and the civilians ignore them. The civilian world first: briefly, liberals have to acknowledge the military more and consider it as a career (= more ROTC at Ivies). Conservatives have to stop kowtowing to anything the Pentagon asks for. The military: because the military serves the civilian world and not the reverse, the biggest changes will be here. In brief, the military has to stop defining itself by contrast with the civilian world and accept another sort of definition (what I call “military metaphysics”). Now, the military gets its sense of itself by saying it’s superior to the civilian world: more virtuous (“held to a higher standard”), harder (look how fat they are), more loyal and self-sacrificing (we put out behinds on the line). But if you have to denigrate the people you defend to get a sense of who you are, why defend them? This line of thought leads to banana republics, juntas of colonels. Instead the military has to understand that it’s a specific niche profession that attracts people who are drawn to it. Civilians pay for them to be who they are, do what they were born to do (see the Bhagavad-Gita). That has to be good enough in terms of acknowledgment. Stop asking for hugs on the street: the profession has to be its own reward. If it isn’t, you’re in the wrong line of business.
Also, make sure and follow the Midrats link above to hear an extended discussion of his latest book. You can also see an interview Professor Fleming did on C-SPAN.


Outlaw Mike said...

'The inability to lose sight of the spirit in blind adherence to the letter is a huge problem for another authority-driven clan of alphas, not just the feudal aristocracy of Sicily: the military.'

Is that an endorsement of repealing DADT?

Southern Air Pirate said...

Anything that Kiplng has written is good stuff and something from him should be in everyone's library. The only issue modern education is that Kipling believed in the British Military (espically the enlisted guys), and that UK was benveolant rulers of their lands, oh and that Kipling was a Religious fellow.

Southern Air Pirate said...

No. Just he believed in Christian Fellowship. More then a few of his books had some christian themes in them, completely unintentional.  

Anonymous said...

Uh, my reply was a tongue in cheek one, Southern Air Pirate.