The cat is out of the bag: the U.S is in decline. If, perhaps, not yet in absolute terms—economic and demographic growth still continue—then at any rate relative to the rest of the world. Why this is so, and when the decline got under way, is moot. Perhaps the turning point was 1945 when 140 million Americans, forming less than six percent of the world’s population, producing fifty percent of the world’s GDP, and monopolizing nuclear weapons as well as their delivery vehicles, reached what in retrospect appears to have been the peak of their power. Perhaps 1949, when the Soviet Union tested its first nuke and started working towards parity in this respect, a situation it finally attained during the 1960s. Perhaps 1965, when the effects of de-industrialization first began to make themselves felt. Perhaps 1971, when vast balance of payment and budget deficits (which have only got worse since) forced Nixon to take the dollar off gold. Perhaps 1975, when the various wars in Indochina (Vietnam and Cambodia) ended in defeat, demonstrating the limitations of U.S military power. Perhaps 2000, when Vladimir Putin started turning his near moribund country around and when China, growing rapidly, first began to emerge as a serious competitor. Perhaps, perhaps.
Looking back, American reactions to the process have varied. Kennedy, building on Eisenhower’s Domino Theory, worried that America might be losing the Cold War. In response he initiated an enormous arms buildup and started the war in Vietnam which Johnson continued. Nixon, with Kissinger’s help, sought détente as well as a closer relationship with China. Carter seemed to resign himself to becoming number two; whereas Reagan, by way of a reaction to him, engaged in an even larger (or, at any rate, more expensive) arms buildup. To show that the US had overcome the “Vietnam Syndrome,” he even invaded Grenada. Bush Sr. invaded Panama and defeated Iraq, and Bush Jr. invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq. All, basically, to no avail.
Next, Barak Obama. The last word on his presidency has certainly not yet been written. Looking back, though, he appears to have been one of the sanest men to inhabit the White House during the last few decades. Aware of his immediate predecessor’s military failures, and even more so of the American people’s reluctance to continue shedding their blood and treasure in hopeless wars, basically he went back to the Nixon-Kissinger approach. As, for example, by trying to engage China in a vast economic web (the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership) so designed as to leave many of the cards in America’s hands. As by signing an agreement with Iran so as to avoid the need for what might very well have turned into another disastrous war. And as by cutting the defense budget so as to reduce the deficit, albeit only by a little. His reward? To be accused of short-sightedness, weakness, cowardice, and what not.
Next, Donald Trump. Kennedy, older readers will recall, rode to power on Eisenhower’s supposed weakness. Substituting Obama’s name for Eisenhower’s, Trump did the same. Personally I was ready to give him the benefit of doubt; see Jakobsen’s article, “To Trump or Not to Trump,” on this blog, 23 March 2017. Now that Trump’s own Secretary of State has been calling him a “moron,” though, all argument seems to be at the end. In less than a year Trump has failed to improve relations with Russia as he promised to do. He has also alienated his European allies, Germany above all, while at the same time pushing relations with North Korea and Iran to the point where a nuclear war no longer looks utterly impossible. All against the background of a budget deficit that is growing day by day; causing every American man, woman and child to owe him- or herself $ 60,000 or so.
Any society needs heroes. There used to be a time when America had them. Davy Crockett, who could swallow a Nigger whole if you buttered his head and pinned his ears back. Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and Co. John Wayne, who fought first bad Indians and then even worse Communists. Rambo, who fought and killed anyone who showed himself for miles around. Rocky, who at one point in his career engaged and defeated his Soviet opposite number in a sort of global boxing match.
Meanwhile the U.S went on losing one war after another—see on this my book, Pussycats. The outcome was to make these and other male heroes lose any credibility they had ever had. So what to do? Enter the women. Wonderwoman I (Lynda Carter) who, back in the 1970s, beat the stuffing out of her wicked male enemies. Xena the Warrior Princess (Lucy Lawless) who, armed with a sort of wonder ring she alone possessed, did the same during the 1990s.Wonderwoman II (Gal Gadot) who took over the role in 2016 and killed countless ferocious enemies of civilization with her bare hands. And these are just four out of dozens who made their appearance in the movies and on TV; to say nothing of any number of video- and computer games.
All these ladies have this in common that they are poor actresses (none could have played a Shakespearian heroine, not even for a zillion bucks; to be fair, though, the same applies to their male opposite numbers). Perhaps to compensate for this fact, all “fight” while dressed in some sort of outlandish swimsuit. One which, had it been real, would have directed their enemies’ weapons straight between their oh-so desirable breasts. As to the movies and TV series, what they have in common is that they are simply attempts to save America’s lost honor.
And the fact that they fit the IQ of a nine year old, of course.

Guest Article: The View from Olympus: The North Korean Threat to China

By William S. Lind

America’s fixation on the threat from North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons evinces the usual American dive into the weeds.  If we instead stand back a bit and look at the strategic picture, we quickly see that the North Korean threat to China is far greater than its threat to us.

North Korea is unlikely to launch a nuclear attack on the United States.  However, if North Korea retains its nuclear weapons, it is likely to lead South Korea, Japan, and possibly Taiwan, Australia and Vietnam to go nuclear themselves.  From the Chinese perspective, that would be a strategic catastrophe. 

China has never sought world domination, nor is it likely to do so.  Its distaste for barbarians, who include everyone not Chinese, is such that it wants to maintain its distance from them.  However, maintaining that distance requires a buffer zone around China, which historically China has sought and is seeking again now.

At present, the main obstacle to creating that buffer zone of semi-independent client states is the United States.  That is a strategic blunder on our part.  Such a buffer zone is no threat to the U.S. or to its vital interests.

However, China knows American power is waning and the American people are tired of meaningless wars on the other side of the world.  Despite America, China’s influence on the states in her proximity is rising.  She can afford to be patient.

In contrast, if the states on China’s periphery get nuclear weapons, her quest to dominate them is permanently blocked.  An American presence is no longer required to balk her ambitions.  Even weak states such as Vietnam can stop her cold if they have nukes.  Her border states, instead of serving as a buffer, become dangerous threats sitting right on her frontiers.  Even if she should defeat one of them, the damage she would suffer in a nuclear exchange would knock her out of the ranks of the great powers and might cause her to come apart internally, which is the Chinese leadership’s greatest fear because it has so often happened throughout her history. 

President Trump will soon be visiting China.  If he and those around him ask the all-important question, “What would Bismarck do?”, they should be able to motivate China to finally do what is necessary with North Korea, namely give it an offer it cannot refuse.

The script runs roughly like this.  President Trump makes the case about the need to restrain North Korea’s nuclear program.  Instead of threatening trade or other measures if China refuses, he simply says, “If North Korea retains its nukes and delivery systems, we can no longer advise our allies in Asia not to go nuclear.  We will of course regret such nuclear proliferation, but we will also understand why they have to develop their own nuclear weapons.  In some cases, we may find it necessary to assist them with delivery systems such as missile-equipped submarines.  Of course, nuclear weapons in the hands of our allies are not a threat to the United States.”  He need not add that they will be a threat to China.

Nation’s foreign policies are not motivated by other nation’s needs.  Beijing does not care about the threat North Korean nukes pose to the U.S.  But nations are motivated by their own interests, and if we put North Korea’s nukes in this context, the context of the strategic threat reactions to them pose to China, that is a different kettle of fish.

In turn, we need to remember Bismarck’s dictum that politics is the art of the possible.  North Korea is unlikely to give up all its nuclear weapons.  However, at the demand of Beijing, Pyongyang can probably be brought to limiting their number and the range of their delivery systems.  Beijing could also offer to put an anti-missile system such as the Russians’ S-400 on North Korea’s border to shoot down any South Korean first strike.  North Korea could still use its few nukes to deter an American first strike, even if they could not reach beyond South Korea.

Are the Pentagon, State Department, and White House capable of Bismarckian Realpolitik? President Trump’s own instincts lead him that way.  Whether his administration can follow is open to doubt.

Back to the Burqa?

As I noted last week, we keep reading and hearing of rape. Almost always it is men who do it to women, rarely the opposite. There are three reasons for this, all of them important. First, as the French sage Denis Diderot (1713-84) once wrote and the absence of male brothels indicates, perhaps the most important difference between men and women is the formers’ greater ability to enjoy the embraces of strangers. Second, there is the overall difference in physical strength. In lower body it is as five to three; in upper body, as two to one. Third, there is the obvious anatomical difference between the genitalia of people of both sexes. For a woman to rape a man is almost impossible; even if she can overcome him in a hand to hand struggle, or else by threatening him weapon in hand, when the critical moment arrives his apparatus may very well not function.

The three factors are linked. Women’s physiology puts them at risk of becoming pregnant and also makes them more vulnerable to STD. As a result, throughout history they have had more to lose from casual intercourse than men did. True, the introduction of modern contraceptives has gone a considerable way to alleviate these problems. But this does not change the fact that women, having weaker bodies overall, still have more to fear in one-on-one encounters where most sex takes place.

The difference in strength means that, other things equal and except under rather unusual circumstances, the only ones who can save women from being raped by men are other men. Occasional suggestions, put forward by feminists and others, that women should take self-defense classes or carry some kind of weapons from pepper spray upwards tend to be not only useless but counterproductive. Men, after all, can learn judo and the use weapons at least as well as women can. That is why chances are that, if women take up these suggestions, they will only add physical injury to the unpleasantness, humiliation, and psychological trauma that being raped entails.

Rebus sic stantibus—and I do not see that they are going to change any time soon—the only remaining question is: Which men should do the protecting, and what forms should the latter assume? Note that, during the first ninety-something percent of their existence on earth and in many places until very recently, humans have lived in tribes. One outstanding characteristic of tribal life is the absence of a strong, centrally-run, police force able and willing to deal with crimes of every kind. All the more so, of course, in case the tribe in question is nomadic as most were for a long, long time. Rather, should any kind of crime be committed, it is the victim and his or her relatives who are expected to deal with it by demanding revenge and inflicting retaliation.

Focusing on rape, an excellent example of the way these things worked is provided by the book of Genesis (34.1-31). “And Dinah, the daughter of Leah, which she bare unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. And when Schechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her… And it came to pass… that two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brethren, took each men his sword and came upon the city boldly and slew all the males,” Schechem and Hamor included. Taken to task by Jacob their father, who feared the possible consequences, the two retorted: “Should he deal with our sister as with a harlot?”

With the shift to more settled societies, things gradually changed. The more hierarchical, strongly governed and policed a community, the greater the pressure on women’s male relatives not to resort to self-justice but leave the task of apprehending, judging and punishing the perpetrator to the authorities. However, progress in this direction tended to be slow. As late as the nineteenth century European women, for fear of being harassed and attacked, were strongly advised not to travel on their own. By one story, those of them who did so by rail were told to put needles in their mouths to prevent strangers from kissing them while the train was passing through dark tunnels. The higher women’s own social rank and that of their relatives, the more true this was. In less developed countries women who travelled often disguised themselves as men, as the British explorer Gertrude Bell did.

Nor is the change by any means complete even today. In her 1998 book, Desert Flower, former supermodel and U.N special ambassador Waris Dirie recounts how, during her youth in her native Somalia, she was threatened with sexual assault. In response, her father—the same, incidentally, who insisted that she should be circumcised—went about armed with a knife. As, on pain of his honor and following a centuries- if not millennia-old tradition, he was supposed to do. Two decades later there still is no shortage of countries where powerful but thoroughly disciplined (disciplined, also in the sense that their members will not themselves turn into rapists) police forces do not exist. By default, it is women’s male relatives who are entrusted with the task of protecting them.

The protection women demand, however, will come at a price. To obtain it a woman must, as far as possible, be sequestered and kept within the home. Even if that means she cannot work or go to school. If she goes out nevertheless she must not only be chaperoned but dressed in such a way as to conceal her, as far as possible, from prying male eyes. Her freedom to communicate with the opposite sex must also be limited—because, unless it is, her male relatives, trying to save her from being raped, are going to get a knife between their ribs or a bullet into their backs. These facts go a long way to explain, and to some extent justify, the way Islamic societies, many of which remain tribal in spite of the recent move towards urbanization, treat their womenfolk. Including, among other things, the recently lifted Saudi ban on driving.

And the future? Starting in the late eighteenth century when the first modern police forces were set up in countries such as France, there has been a strong trend to abolish the right to self-defense. To the point that, if one catches a burglar and injures him during the subsequent struggle, one may well end up by being prosecuted.

There is, however, no guarantee that the trend will continue. Take Europe. Owing to a combination of modernity and a dense population, it has long been perhaps the most strongly-policed continent of all. Now, however, the presence of large numbers of immigrants has created enclaves where the police is afraid to go. The enclaves are inhabited by populations whose ideas concerning what is and is not allowable, is and is not desirable, in relations between men and women differ sharply from those of the native majority.

Even in Germany, the country which a century ago gave rise to the so-called FKP (Freie Korper Kultur, aka nudism), that movement is now on the retreat. As I myself, having visited the lakes of Potsdam every year over the last eighteen years, can testify. There was a time when many people went swimming naked; now it is mostly old people who do. And they seem to be dying out. Meanwhile more and more parents are warning their daughters to avoid going out at night, visit dark and lonely places, and the like. With good reason, let me add. Separate swimming classes, separate taxis, and separate hotel floors are gaining in popularity. Social change is driving fear of rape, and fear of rape is driving social change.

How far these changes will go, and where they will lead, no one knows. Back to the burqa, perhaps? If so, don’t be surprised.


As my readers know, I do not normally use this blog to quote other people at any length. If I do so this time, that is because I am shocked. Right from the beginning of human history—possibly even before human history, properly speaking, got under way—one of men’s most important tasks has always been to protect their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, and women in general from being raped by other men. Even at the cost of their lives, if necessary.

No longer. So weak, so utterly despicable, have European men in particular become, that they have abrogated this responsibility, perhaps the most basic any human community owes the fifty percent of its members who are female and on whom its future depends. More basic than equality, more basic than any other number of nice things I could think about. I quote from a recent book on this and related topics.*

“Throughout the 2000s, the question of sex attacks on local women by gangs of immigrants had been an open secret [in Britain]. It was something nobody wanted to speak or hear about. There was something so base, and so rank somehow, in even mentioning it. Even to imply that dark-skinned men had a penchant for abusing white women seemed to so clearly originate from some odious, racist text that it appeared impossible, firstly even to even imagine that it might be happening, and secondly that it should be discussed. British officials were so terrified about even mentioning such crimes that every single arm of the state failed to respond over the course of years. When the same phenomena occurred on the continent precisely the same problems were encountered.

Even to mention the fact in 2015 that most of the recent arrivals into Europe seemed to be young [and single, MvC] men was to court opprobrium. To question whether all these individuals might have brought modern views about women with them was unmentionable (precisely, as in Britain, because it seemed to speak to some base, racist smear). The fear of falling into a racial cliché or suffering accusations of racism prevented authorities and the European public from admitting to a problem that had spread across the continent. And the more refugees a country took in, the greater that problem became.

Even in 2014 in Germany the number of sexual assaults against women and boys was growing. These included the rape of a 20-year old German woman in Munich by a 30-year old Somali asylum seeker, the rape of a 55-year old woman in Dresden by a 30-year old Moroccan, the attempted rape of a 21-year old German woman in Munich by a 25-year old Senegalese asylum seeker, the rape of a 17-year old girl in Straubing by a 21-year old Iraqi asylum seekers, the rape of a 21-year old German woman near Stuttgart by two Afghan asylum seekers, and the rape of a 25-year old German woman in Stralsund by a 28-year old Eritrean asylum seeker. While these and many other cases made it to court, many others did not.

Alongside the growth in cases of rapes of Germans came the increase in the number of rapes and sexual assaults in refugee shelters. During 2015 the German government was so short of to house the migrants that it was initially unable to provide segregated shelters for women. A [The outcome was rapes] across Bavaria. And as in Britain a decade before, the authorities were so worried about the implications of the fact that in a number of cases they were found to have deliberately covered them up. In Demold, where an asylum seeker raped a 13-year old Muslim girl, the local police remained silent about the assault. An investigation by Westfalen-Blatt claimed that local police were routinely covering up sex assaults involving migrants in case it gave ammunition to criticisms of the government’s open door policies. Nevertheless, rapes of children were reported in numerous cases, including at a facility in Bremen.

As the number of cases increased throughout 2015, the German authorities eventually could not hold back the growing number of reports of rapes against German women by recent refugees. These included the rape of a 16-year old girl in Mering, an 18-year old girl in Hamm, a 14-year old boy in Heilbronn and a 20-year old woman in Karlsruhe. In a number of cases.—including the case in Karlsruhe—the police remained silent about the story until a local paper broke it. Countless other assaults and rapes were reported in Dresden, Reinbach, Bad Kreuznach, Ansbach, Hanau, Dortmund, Kassel, Hanover, Siegen, Rinteln, Moenchengladbach, Chemnitz, Stuttgart, and other cities across the country

Eventually, this unmentionable subject became so bad that in September 2015 officials in Bavaria began to warn local parents to ensure their daughters did not wear any revealing clothing in public. ‘Revealing tops or blouses, short shorts or miniskirts could lead to misunderstandings,’ one letter to locals warned. In some Bavarian towns, including Mering, police warned parents not to allow their children to go outside alone. Local women were advised not to walk to the railway station unaccompanied. On a daily basis from 2015 onwards there were reports of rapes on German streets, in communal buildings, public swimming baths, and many other locations. Similar events were reported in Austria, Sweden and elsewhere. But everywhere the subject of rape remained underground, covered up by the authorities and deemed by most of the European media not to be a respectable news story…

Throughout 2016 the spate of rape and sexual assaults spread to every single one of Germany’s sixteen federal states. There were attacks literally every day, with most of the perpetrators never found. According to the [Social Democratic, MvC] Minister of Justice, Heiko Maas, just a tenth of rapes in Germany are reported and of those that reach trial only 8 percent result in a conviction. Moreover, several additional problems emerged from these cases, not least that there appeared to be a concerted official effort to suppress data about crimes where the suspects might be migrants… Just as in Britain a decade earlier, it transpired that German ‘anti-racism’ groups had been involved. In this case they had pressured the German police to remove racial identifiers from al suspect appeals for risk of ‘stigmatizing’ whole groups of people.”

The outcome? In Bavaria alone the number of rapes, many of them committed by refugees, during the first half of 2017 increased 48 percent over the corresponding period in the previous year. The equivalent figure for Britain is 19 percent. In London’s borough Tower Hamlets, said to have “one of the smallest White British populations of any local authority in Britain,” one poor girl was said to have been sexually assaulted three times in a single hour.

Cowards, cowards, cowards.


*D. Murray, The Strange Death of Europe, Kindle ed., 2016, locs. 3464-525

The Fourth Reich is Rising

The Fourth Reich is rising. Not in Germany where, in spite of the recent elections, most people seem to have has learnt their lesson. But in Israel. The country which claims to be the only one in the Middle East which is democratic and in which free speech is allowed (nice of the authorities to allow free speech, isn’t it?). The country where my parents, having narrowly escaped the Holocaust, (see on this my post, “How My Family Survived the Holocaust,” 17.12.2015) immigrated. The country in whose military four of my five children have served. The country for which several of my relatives, acquaintances and students have died. The one in which I have spent practically all my life and which I have always loved.

No longer. For almost two years now a 33-year old Arab-Israeli (and self-proclaimed Palestinian) poet, Ms. Dareen Tatour, has been under house arrest. Far from home and relatives, with electronic cuffs on her leg, and without access to either a computer or a cellphone. Her trial got under way in April 2016, and has still not come to an end.

Did she kill an Israeli? No. Did she try to kill an Israeli? No. Did she assist terrorists or fail to betray them to the Israeli authorities, as those authorities, in their infinite wisdom and compassion, demand? No. Did she engage in any other out of God knows how many activities Israel has prohibited? No. So what why did the police knock on her door at 0400 in the morning, and what are the charges which could cost her eight years in jail?

Saying what she thinks. As by putting the following poem, originally written in Arabic, on Facebook.

Resist, My People, Resist Them

Resist, my people, resist them.

In Jerusalem, I dressed my wounds and breathed my sorrows

And carried the soul in my palm

For an Arab Palestine.

I will not succumb to the “peaceful solution,”

Never lower my flags

Until I evict them from my land.

I cast them aside for a coming time.

Resist, my people, resist them.

Resist the settler’s robbery

And follow the caravan of martyrs.

Shred the disgraceful constitution

Which imposed degradation and humiliation

And deterred us from restoring justice.

They burned blameless children;

As for Hadil,* they sniped her in public,

Killed her in broad daylight.

Resist, my people, resist them.

Resist the colonialist’s onslaught.

Pay no mind to his agents among us

Who chain us with the peaceful illusion.

Do not fear doubtful tongues;

The truth in your heart is stronger,

As long as you resist in a land

That has lived through raids and victory.

So Ali** called from his grave:

Resist, my rebellious people.

Write me as prose on the agarwood;

My remains have you as a response.

Resist, my people, resist them.

Resist, my people, resist them.


* Hadil al Haslamon, a 18-year old Palestinian girl who attacked—so the Israelis claim—a group of bullet-proof wearing, heavily armed, heroic Israeli soldiers with a kitchen knife and, like so many others, somehow managed to die after being shot “in the legs.”

** Ali Kosba, a Palestinian teenager who threw rocks at an Israeli military jeep, shattering its windshield. Trying to run away, he was shot in the back and killed by a heroic Israeli colonel who, according to the military spokesman, “felt in mortal danger” of his life.

On Counterfactual History

I’ll let you into a secret: Last week’s post, the one in which I tried to explain what might have happened if the 1973 Israeli crossing of the Suez Canal had failed, was inspired by a French magazine, Guerre et Histoire, that asked me to write it for them. For that I am grateful, for it forced me to think about the nature of counterfactual history. What it is good for (assuming, that is, it is good for anything) and what its problems are. Today I’d like to put some of my thoughts on paper.

As a rule, historians dislike counterfactual history. E. H. Carr (1892-1982), an Oxford historian perhaps best remembered for his little book, What Is History? (1961), went so far as to call it a mere “parlor game.” Not, mind you, that there is anything wrong with parlor games, incidentally. I find them very useful in keeping my grandchildren amused. And some of them, notably chess, go and others, are excellent intellectual exercise indeed—at least as good as writing history.

That, aside, though, Carr was wrong. Counterfactual history has its uses: it can counteract determinism and remind us that what happened was not necessarily what had to happen. It is, in other words, a method for keeping historians, and indeed anyone else interested in the way human affairs work, away from the ever-present danger of hubris.

But that is not the end of the matter. History, certainly history as practiced by modern academics over the last two centuries or so, is to a large extent an attempt to answer the question: why did X, or Y, or Z, happen? Rerum cognoscere causas, “to know the causes of things,” is the motto of the London School of Economics where I myself did my PhD almost half a century ago. This is good and well. However, without counterfactual history the search for causes, showing that everything that happened did so because it had to and could not have happened otherwise, will end up by degenerating into sheer idiocy. If, as Hegel (“the real is the rational and the rational is the real”) claimed, everything that happened was bound to happen, then what is the point of looking for what caused it?

That is all the more the case because the “laws” on which historians rely when they speak of causation are not nearly as strict as those we know from the natural sciences. There is no equivalent in social science (if it is a science) to Galileo’s laws of mechanics, Newton’s law of gravitation, Bernoulli’s law of pressure, and countless others. With very few exceptions, indeed, they are not laws at all; just generalizations that seem to make intuitive sense to those of us who have been educated within a given civilization, at a given place, at a given time.

In one sense all of us are constantly engaging in counterfactual history even if we do not mean to. When I say that A caused B, the implication is that, but for A, B would never have happened. When I say that World War I was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (see the above image) the implication is that, but for the assassination, the war would not have broken out. When I say that President Reagan, by increasing America’s defense budget to an extent that the Soviet Union could not match, caused the latter to break up, or at any rate helped it break up, the implication is that, without him and his arms buildup, it would not have happened. And so on. Paradoxically, then, counterfactual history is built even into the work of the very historians who claim to despise it so much.

All this means that counterfactual history is both useful and inevitable. However, that is not to say that all counterfactual narratives are born equal any more than all historical narratives are. Some are clearly much better than others. This leads me to the question, what is good counterfactual history? Follow some preliminary thoughts:

  1. Counterfactual history must be plausible, i.e it must not introduce all kinds of things that are a priori impossible. For example, the question what would have happened if Hitler and not the US had built the first nuclear weapons is a plausible one, given that, as late as the summer of 1939, German nuclear research led the world. An attempt to answer it can result in some interesting answers that will shed light both on the Fuehrer and on the role the weapons in question have played and are playing in international relations. However, asking what would have happened if Napoleon, or Genghis Khan, had had them does not make sense and should be discouraged.
  2. Counterfactual history should only go so far and no further. That is because, in human affairs, few if any events have one cause only. Trying to trace the immediate chain of events that might have resulted from one counterfactual event is hard enough. Pushing this more than a very few steps forward will, in the words of Winston Churchill (at a time when, as Lord of the Admiralty, he was responsible for guessing what future naval warfare would be like), cause thought “to diverge too fast.” The outcome is likely to be pure fiction with no link to reality at all. Let me provide another example of this. Many years ago I had a student, an American, who wanted to do a paper on the consequences following from the invention of print. This being Israel, he said that, without print, there would never have been a kibbutz. He was right, of course; yet writing a paper on the topic did not make sense. The reason why it made no sense was because, between Guttenberg and the kibbutzim, there were too many intermediate steps far more relevant to the topic than print was. I told him to limit his inquiry to the years before 1550. What came of it, if anything, I cannot recall.
  3. This warning also has an obverse side. The more plausible a counterfactual narrative, the less it will deviate from what actually happened. As it does so, it may very well turn into an exercise in futility. What is the point of writing counterfactual history that is only marginally different from that which actually took place? On second thought, perhaps this is what I did in the piece I posted last week, perhaps not. Let the reader be the judge of that.

Thus writing good counterfactual history is a question of navigating between the Scylla of unforeseeability and the Charybdis of banality. In other words, it requires judgement. But isn’t that also true of most other things in life as well?

What if the Crossing had Failed?

My name is Ben Levy. Lieutenant Colonel Shimon Ben Levy, of the historical branch of the Israeli General Staff. My boss, acting in the name of chief of staff General Rafael Eitan (”Raful,” as he is popularly known), has ordered me to do an interesting study: namely to inquire, as best I can, what might have happened if the 1973 Israeli crossing of the Suez Canal—arguably the most important move in the entire war—had failed. Why he wants the study I have no idea. To use it as a weapon in his squabbles with his former commander, Ariel Sharon, whom Prime Minister Menahem Begin has recently made minister of defense, perhaps? Anyhow. He gave me six months to do the study. Today, 31 December 1981, I am supposed to hand in my work. What follows is a brief outline, prepared for my own use, of a considerably larger volume.


First, a word about the background. In May 1967, following a long series of incidents in northern Israel where the Syrians were actively assisting terrorists and also trying to divert the water of the Jordan away from the Sea of Galilee, Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser decided to come to his beleaguered fellow Arabs’ aid. Thereupon he sent five divisions into the Sinai Peninsula—an area that had been demilitarized since 1957—chucked out the hapless United Nations peace keeping force there, and closed the Straits of Tiran (Sharm al Sheik, in Arabic) to Israeli shipping. He also concluded mutual defense treaties with Syria and Jordan. All over the Arab world crowds danced in the streets, brandishing knives and shouting, “itbach al Yahud” (slaughter the Jews).

Whether Nasser really planned to go to war will never be known. Israel, though, was terrified. It felt it could not live with a situation in which it was encircled on all sides and its armed forces, consisting mainly of reservists, kept on a full alert. On 5 June 1967, after coordinating with the Johnson administration, it struck, launching a brilliant blitzkrieg offensive. When a ceasefire was concluded six days later the IDF, or Israel Defense Forces, had occupied not just the Sinai but the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Golan Heights as well.

The years 1969-70 witnessed the so-called War of Attrition along the Suez Canal. By using his superior artillery as well as commando raids on the fortifications Israel had built, Nasser hoped to force the Israelis to withdraw. Outnumbered on the ground, The Israelis brought in their formidable air force. Hostilities peaked in April-May 1970, when the Israelis shot down four Soviet-piloted Egyptian aircraft. Thereupon the superpowers intervened, imposing a ceasefire which could best be described as a draw.

In 1973, at 1400 hours on 6 October, the guns sounded once again. Israel came under a massive combined attack by greatly superior Egyptian and Syrian forces. Fighting back desperately, the Israelis took just five days to clear the Golan Heights, advance part of the distance towards Damascus, and defeat an Iraqi division which had come to Syria’s aid. In the south, however, things did not go well. Two Egyptian Armies, the 2nd and the 3rd, crossed the Suez Canal, captured the nearest Israeli fortifications, and established a bridgehead 5-10 kilometers wide on the eastern bank. Early Israeli counterattacks on 8 and 9 October, launched without adequate preparation, were defeated with loss. Thereupon the front was stabilized.

On 14 October President Anwar Sadat, overriding his chief of staff General Sa’ad Shazli, ordered his forces to resume their eastward move with a force of some 900-1000 tanks. This time, though, they were decisively defeated by well-positioned Israeli armor fighting on the defensive. As one Israeli former chief of staff, General Haim Bar Lev, said at the time, both sides reverted to their customary roles. The Israelis to winning, the Egyptians to losing.

Thereupon Israeli preparations for a crossing got into high gear. The moving spirit behind the crossing was General Ariel Sharon, one of the heroes of the 1967 War and a former commander in chief, southern front. Now he commanded an armored division. Engaging on “deep” reconnaissance to the west, on the night of 9-10 October some of his troops had actually located the critical gap between the Egyptian 2nd Army to the north and the 3rd Army to the south. Now the General Staff planned to use the gap in order to reach the Canal and cross it.

The first crossing was to be carried out by an elite paratrooper brigade. They would be followed, first by the rest of Sharon’s division and then by two additional divisions. The necessary motorized rafts and bridging equipment had been built and were ready. Now they were brought to the front, though not without some delays occasioned by monumental traffic jams on the way. Once across the forces were to take up defensive positions to the north while at the same time pushing south in the direction of the city of Ismailia, thus surrounding the Egyptian 3rd Army.


The first stage in the crossing, code-named “Gazelle,” was mounted on the night of 15-6 October and went very well. Using their rubber boats, the paratroopers did not meet any resistance and were able to build up a small bridgehead. Some of Sharon’s armor also made it to the other side. It was during the afternoon of the 16th, however, that things started going badly wrong for us. One reason why the initial crossing had been entrusted to General Sharon was because his division was equipped with Soviet-built T-54 and T-55 tanks. Captured in 1967 and modified to carry the heavier Israeli guns, their use was meant to mislead the Egyptian High Command and confuse it, thus giving the Israelis more time to move the rest of their forces. In the event, this did not happen. Thanks in no small part to their Soviet allies, who had satellites covering the front, the Egyptians were not misled. By the 17th they had managed to concentrate all the forces they had available west of the Canal to contain Sharon.

Meanwhile, east of the Canal, the 3rd Egyptian Army, now fully alert to what was happening, launched a counterattack against the Israeli corridor to its south. Barely able to hold their own, the two rearmost Israeli divisions, commanded by Generals Adan and Magen respectively, defended themselves as best they could. So ferocious was the fighting around the so-called “Chinese Farm” that, at times, the two sides’ tanks were only fifty meters apart. Fifty meters! Suffering heavy casualties, the Israelis only barely held on and failed to gain the operational freedom needed to reinforce the crossing. The fact that General Magen was killed by Egyptian artillery fire did not help either, sowing some confusion which took time to clear up.

Forced to slow down so as not to get too far away from his bridges, Sharon was unable to attack the Egyptian anti-aircraft missiles. Right from the beginning of the war, the latter had prevented the Israeli Air Force from intervening as effectively as it had in 1967. Less air support meant heavier fighting and more casualties on the ground, and so on in a vicious cycle. Nevertheless Sharon, an old warhorse if ever one there was, wanted to carry on. As he always used to say, nothing terrifies soldiers more than seeing the enemy come at them from behind.

It was touch and go. Back in In Tel Aviv General David Elazar, Israel’s handsome, 47-year old, chief of staff, hesitated. Early in the war the members of the cabinet put the blame on legendary Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan, more or less neutralizing him. This left Elazar to bear the responsibility almost on his own. Elazar well knew how impetuous, how headstrong, Sharon could be. On the 21st, acting under immense pressure, he reluctantly asked Prime Minister Golda Meir for permission to withdraw Sharon’s division. Meir, a chain-smoking elderly lady who by her own admission did not even know what a division was, had little choice but to agree.


Luckily for the Israelis the Egyptian counterattacks, which still continued, never succeeded in quite closing the corridor their enemies had created on the way to the Canal. Their discipline held, with the result that most of them, albeit harassed by the pursuing Egyptians and slowed down by the confusion in the corridor itself, got out. Still the Israelis suffered heavy casualties in dead, injured, missing, and prisoners. Some of the prisoners were marched through the streets of Cairo where an enraged population could barely be prevented from killing them all. All in all about one half of Sharon’s division was lost, complete with most of its equipment.

At this stage there took place, at UN headquarters in New York, some attempts to achieve a cease fire; but the Egyptians, buoyed by victory, refused. After some hasty consultation it was decided to withdraw the Israeli forces, about three rather battered (or, as we Israelis say, “attrited” divisions, some thirty kilometers to the east unto the Giddi and Mitlah Passes. For foreign readers who may one day be allowed to see this report, let me add that the passes command the only practical west-to-east roads crossing the Sinai. They provided ideal defensive positions which a relative handful of troops should be able to hold forever.

Here it is worth noting that Dayan, who felt so heavily isolated among his cabinet colleagues that he spent almost all his time visiting the fronts, had advocated this course right from the beginning. Indeed he had proposed it as far back as the autumn of 1970, only to have Ms. Meir, in her usual blunt way, call him “nuts.” Now, however, she had little choice. By the end of the month the Israeli retreat had been completed.

On their part the Egyptians, having learnt their lesson on the 14th, were reluctant to follow. The two sides took up positions and continued to fire at each other. The Egyptians tried to move some anti-aircraft batteries to the east bank of the Canal; however, the Israeli Air Force, now starting to receive new stand-off weapons from the US, was able to prevent them from being properly deployed and used. The outcome was a war of attrition not too different from the one of 1969-70. Except that the Israeli position was, topographically speaking, much superior to the one they had previously held.

And so the struggle went on. On the ground, the Egyptians made no gains. On the other hand, the Israelis no longer had what it took to attack. As had been the case in 1970, the more time passed the worse Israel’s situation. With just three and a half million people, it could not keep its forces mobilized indefinitely. Adding to the strain was the fact that it also had to be on guard against a possible resumption of hostilities on the Syrian front.

With their backs to the wall, the authorities in Jerusalem started dropping hints concerning their nuclear weapons, the ultimate ratio of the modern world. On one occasion they invited foreign military attachés to watch a couple of F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers engaged on simulated toss-bombing, the technique used to drop nuclear weapons. On another they took their missiles out of the silos in which they were housed, thus allowing Soviet satellites to photograph them and pass the resulting images to their Arab friends. As someone wrote at the time, it was like Samson threatening to destroy the temple; but it did not seem to impress Sadat very much.

It did, however, worry the Superpowers. On 24 October 1973, just before the Israeli withdrawal was completed, they had come close to a direct clash. As a result, both got scared lest their respective clients would drag them to war against their will. The outcome was a ceasefire followed by several years of intermittent negotiations. The Americans in particular were very active. Unlike the Soviets, who had no diplomatic ties with Israel, they were in a position to talk to both sides. This meant that, whereas all the Soviets could offer the Egyptians was war without territory, the Americans could promise them territory without war.

In the end, after several interim agreements, this was what happened. In 1980 Israel, now under the right-wing government of Menahem Begin, and Egypt signed a peace treaty at Camp David. Notwithstanding that, even as I was working on this study, Sadat was assassinated by one of his own soldiers, so far it holds.


Looking back, the most important lesson of the war is that it could have been prevented. Had Meir not rejected Dayan’s proposals out of hand, then there is a good chance that it would never have taken place. For this the Old Lady, as Sadat later called her, should take the full blame.

As is well known, the outbreak of war caught Israel totally by surprise. Nevertheless its armed forces, though heavily outnumbered, only took a few days to clear the Syrians out of the Golan Heights. True, the offensives it launched on the Sinai Front on 6-9 October were abortive. However, as subsequent events were to show, these failures were too small to seriously alter the course of the war. The real turning point came on 14 October, which witnessed the destruction of much of Egypt’s armored forces; without such forces, fighting in the desert was impossible.

The Israeli crossing of the Canal, which started on the night of 14-15 October, was meant to destroy as many Egyptian forces as possible, thereby hopefully bringing the war to an end. However, its success was limited. On both sides of the Canal the Egyptians fought back ferociously, almost succeeding in cutting the corridor through which the Israelis passed.

Arguably Israel was lucky in that its attack was discovered early on and that Sharon’s division did not drive deeper into Egypt than they did. Had they done so, then there is good reason to believe that, finally forced to withdraw, their losses would have been even heavier. In that case they might well have been compelled to bring their nuclear weapons—Doomsday weapons, as they called them—into play even more provocatively than they actually did. For example, by allowing journalists into the Dimona reactor complex or holding a test. Thus triggering off a nuclear arms race whose ultimate consequences both for the Middle East and for the world as a whole can hardly even be imagined.

As Machiavelli once wrote, there are situations in which the best one can do is to do that what the enemy wants one to do out of one’s own free will. By retreating to the passes, a wise move that could and probably should have been undertaken some years earlier, the Israelis largely drew their enemies’ sting. Both they and the Egyptians knew it. The ultimate outcome was peace. Looking back, one can only mourn the losses this highly preventable war inflicted on both sides. In the words of the Old Testament (2 Samuel 1.27): “How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war lost!”

Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity

Weinstein and A. Zakai, Jewish Exiles and European Thought in the Shadow of the Third Reich: Baron, Popper, Strauss, Auerbach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

What did Hans Baron, Karl Popper, Leo Straus, and Erich Auerbach have in common? All four were born between 1892 and 1902. Culturally speaking, all were Jewish Germans, or German Jews (take your pick). All were brilliant intellectuals, and all were forced to flee after Hitler’s ascent to power. Baron to the U.S, Popper to New Zealand and later to England, Straus and Auerbach to the U.S (the latter, after a spell in Turkey.) And all did some of their most important work by way of a reaction to the fate that had overtaken them and their fellow religionists—which, of course, is not surprising.

Baron was primarily a historian who specialized in the Italian Renaissance. The way he understood it, early on that Renaissance was optimistic and forward looking. Did not the Humanists cast off the chains of the “dark” (a much later expression, of course) and superstitious Middle Ages? Didn’t they seek, with some success, to restore the lost glories of ancient Greece and Rome? But wait. From 1494 onward Italy, with Florence as its cultural epicenter, found itself overrun by barbarians—Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Germans—who treated it as little better than part of the stamping ground on which they fought for hegemony in Europe. To Machiavelli and others, the resulting enormous bloodshed and destruction required a reassessment of history. One that would take it away from a forward march and emphasize its more realistic, political and military, side; storia effetuale, as he called it. For Baron, the parallel with Hitler was obvious. So was the need to reassess, in the light of National Socialism, not just Renaissance history but the direction which the whole of Western history was taking.

Karl Popper, who of the four is the one with whose work I personally am most familiar, is perhaps best remembered for his 1934 volume, The Logic of Scientific Discovery. In some ways following in the footsteps of David Hume, he argued that science, resting as it does on experiment, extrapolation and induction, can never attain absolute certainty; hence, that the only way forward is by showing that existing theories are not true. In Popper’s favor it must be said that his seems to be the only theory of science ever to have raised the interest of practicing research scientists. Here and there a few of the latter have even claimed that he greatly influenced their work.

Weinstein and Zakai, however, are primarily interested in another of Popper’s books, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). As the title indicates, the author’s purpose was to trace the roots of Hitler’s totalitarian state as far back as possible, in this case to Plato’s Republic. Personally I find Popper’s attack on Plato unfair and unwarranted. But that does not change the fact that his work, like that of the other three, was decisively shaped by Popper’s own experiences—precisely the aspect that most interests Weinstein and Zakai.

Strauss, I am proud to say, was as critical of Popper as I (and my revered teacher, Prof. Alexander Fuks), am. “Popper,” Strauss wrote, “is philosophically so uncultured, so fully a primitive ideological brawler, that he is not able even approximately to reproduce correctly the contents of one page of Plato.” Strauss himself was primarily interested in the age-old interaction between the rational and the irrational. The rational was represented by Socrates with his relentless, and often very annoying, questioning of everything. Gaining the upper hand through Hobbes, Spinoza and the philosophers of the Enlightenment, it reached the point where it admitted no one and nothing above itself. On the way, morality and religion were reduced to a means for keeping people in their place and leading them by the nose. As a result, when Hitler and his storm troopers, whom Strauss understood as the culmination of irrationalism, appeared on the scene, it had no intellectual tools left to oppose them with.

Finally, it was during his years of exile in Istanbul (1935-47), that Auerbach produced his widely acknowledged masterpiece, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Here he put forward the idea that Western literature, starting with Greece and Rome and leading all the way to Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf, could be divided into two main groups: that which started with the works of Homer, especially the Odyssey, and that which went back to the Bible. The former relied mainly on rhetoric, which meant that it could only treat certain topics in carefully prescribed ways. The latter was less flowery but also more realistic, more diverse, and more concerned with the fate of common people. What the Nazis—always, it seems a fertile source of ideas, in the sense that they literally compelled others to think and think again—did was to do away with the Bible, especially, but by no means only, the Old Testament. You can guess where Hitler fitted into this scheme.

As anyone who has read some of Weinstein and Zakai’s earlier work knows, they are fine historians. Their presentation of the above four scholars, complete with their often complex background, their reactions to their fate and that of others, and their interactions among themselves is far more nuanced than this short review can relate and makes for fascinating reading. As the authors fully recognize, though, it also raises, or rather re-raises in particularly sharp form, the age-old question. Is “objective” thought possible at all? Or is thought, all thought, no more than a thin veneer for our own experiences and prejudices? Suppose, as our authors clearly imply, that we answer the first question with yes and the second, with a no: in that case, what is the point of it all?

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. It is almost certainly no accident that Weinstein, Zakai and Yours Truly are all old and retired. For those of you who are younger, though, the book is highly recommended.

Male and Female*

As many readers know, I have spent part of my career as a historian doing my modest best to understand the relationship between men and women. The outcome, so far, has been two scholarly books—Men, Women and War and The Privileged Sex. Between them they were published in five languages. As well as numerous articles in scholarly and not so scholarly journals and magazines; some of which I have put on this blog.

That explains why I keep receiving quite a few emails on the topic. Some correspondents call me names, among which a reactionary patriarchal-male-chauvinist-racist-pig-who-does-not-deserve-to-live is one of the more sympathetic. Others, apparently in the belief that anyone who does not accept the feminists’ claims in their entirety must be out of his mind, try to psychoanalyze me. And some simply dispute my views.

The first and second categories I routinely ignore. The third I rather enjoy; to quote Epicurus, what is better than discussing things with friends? If possible, while sitting in a garden (mine is small, but it will do for the purpose) and enjoying a glass of wine. Over the Net, if it is not. As long as it is done in the spirit of inquiry and without rancor.

Sticking to the enjoyable kind, most of them point out how much things have changed. As, for example, with women now forming the majority among students and getting better notes both at school and at the universities. And as with women abandoning marriage, children and household to take up all kinds of careers.

Here, to the contrary, I want to point to a few things that have not changed. Needless to say, all references to men and women apply to averages. Meaning that they say very little about individual people of either sex.

* For reasons unknown, proportionally twice as many women as men visit psychologists, faith healers, etc. What that means about their state of mental health, past, present and future, I leave it to readers to decide.

* Women suffer from penis envy (see my post, PE? PE!, 16.6.2016) whereas men, whatever other problems they may have, do not. As a result, women believe that whatever men are and do is better than what they themselves are and do. Proceeding chronologically, more or less, if men have the vote women must have it too. If men get a higher education, women must do so too. If men drive, women must drive too. If men smoke, women must smoke too. If men are wage slaves, women must aspire to become the same. The more the better! If men go to war, then women must do so too. To use an example from my own people, if Jewish men wear tales, Jewish women must do so too. Or else, they feel, there is something missing from their Jewishness.

* Always imitating men—as Marx wrote, whenever revolution comes women, the ugly ones included, are swept along—rarely do women initiate any important discovery or invention. Even the term feminism itself was coined by a man! That is why, though a minority of dissatisfied and aggressive women were able to inflict the vote on the rest and make them work outside the home, they have contributed nothing new to the solution of the world’s problems.

* It is also why, the more modern and innovative an industry the fewer the women who work in it, especially at the higher levels. Also why, as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has just said, men continue to rule the world. Conversely, the presence, beyond a certain point, of women at the higher ranks of any kind of human institute or organization is itself a sign that the institute or organization in question has started to decline and may soon become moribund.

* Women—real women, not emaciated nervous wrecks, desperate not to develop precisely the physical characteristics that distinguish them from men—give birth, whereas men do not. To speak with Nietzsche, the latter are “the infertile sex.” The resulting existential problems do much to account for men’s stronger drive to achieve, as manifested throughout history.

* Partly because they are stronger, physically, and partly because they do not have to take time off for pregnancy, delivery, and lactation, men’s income is considerably greater than that of women. Retirement apart—so many successful men, dying before their wives, leave them their property and their pension—the older people of both sexes are, the larger the gap. Not just in terms of money, but in those of power and fame as well.

* Today as ever, the higher on the greasy pole one climbs. the fewer women one meets. Proportionally more of those one does meet are where they are because they stand on the shoulders of their male relatives, as Sirimavo Bandaranaike (the first female prime minister in history), Indira Gandhi, Corazon Aquino, and Hillary Clinton e.g. did. Or else because they are active in fields, such as modelling, singing, and acting, where men, as men, are excluded.

* Is it necessary to point out that men, apart from being stronger, are also more resistant to infectious diseases that result from dirt entering the body’s orifices? This explains why, at all times and places the hardest, dirtiest, and most dangerous work has always been done almost exclusively by men. As figures concerning industrial accidents show, this continues to be the case today.

* Since women can have far, far fewer children than men, biologically speaking their lives are more precious. Much as feminists cry out for their sisters’ right to become soldiers and fight, no society, on pain of extinction, can afford to lose large numbers of women. That is one reason why men—and, in some nonhuman species, males—keep sacrificing their lives for women; whereas the opposite only happens very rarely. Also why very, very few women have ever fought in war. True, the number of those who did so in uprisings, rebellions, insurgencies, etc. was somewhat larger. However, in all countries without exception it still remains far smaller than that of men.

* Women who have sex with men, being considerably weaker than their partners, put themselves at the latter’s mercy. That, rather than a weak libido, is why they require greater security, both physical and emotional. The difference in strength also explains why, outside the bedroom they are more likely than men to rely on cunning and flattery. If those two don’t work they are also more likely to complain, open the tear-faucet, and show a bit of cleavage.

* Men, producing almost inconceivably large number of spermatozoids each of which is capable of fertilizing an egg, are naturally polygamous; women, producing far fewer eggs but requiring assistance in raising their children, are naturally monogamous. That is why polyandrous societies are rare indeed. Also why attempts, and there have been a few, to set up brothels for women have invariably failed.

Conclusion: Some things have undoubtedly changed. But others, including many of the most important ones, have not. Nor do I see any signs that they will.


* Thanks to Mr. Larry Kummer, whose post on this topic made me think. Really think.

Book of the Month

B. Bueno de Mesquita and A. Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics, New York, NY, Public Affairs, 2011

From time to time, as if by some miracle, one has the pleasure of coming across a good book on political science. A book, say, like Kautilya’s Arthashastra (The Science of Politics) which goes back to the third century BCE. Or Machiavelli’s Prince, which was ritten in 1512. Or, to mention a modern example, Edward Luttwak’s 1969 volume, Coup d’Etat. A book whose author does not content himself with trying to answer abstract questions such as what the origins of government are, what it is, why it is needed, what its purpose is, what its elements are, how it has developed through history, how it is constructed, what kinds of government there are, etc. etc. But one that offers practical advice on what is almost the only thing that matters: namely, how to gain as much power as possible and keep it for as long as possible.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith have written such a book. Right from the beginning, they make it clear that their work is about power, not the glory of God, or morality, or how to improve the lot of the governed. For them (as for George Orwell in 1984, incidentally), the objective of power is power; something which rulers have known and understood since time immemorial, but which philosophers, academics, and assorted do-gooders tend to overlook. Forget about religion, philanthropy, justice, equality, liberty, fraternity (fraternity!), ideology, community, and similar soft-headed fancies. They exist, if they do, in order to serve power, not the other way around. At best they may adorn it; but only fools believe they form its essence.

As the authors, following Thomas Hobbes, say, the key point is that no one is so strong that two or three others, joining together, cannot overcome him. In other words, no man can govern alone; he, much less often she, needs supporters. Simplifying a little, this means that there only exist two forms of government. In one, which throughout history has been the most common by far, the man at the top must make a relatively small number of key supporters happy in order to keep the majority of people in check. In the other, which historically has been far less common, the benefits of government are distributed among a far larger number of people. The former is known as autocracy, the latter, as democracy. As Machiavelli, speaking of aristocrats versus commoners, says, government consists of a balancing-act between the two groups. Anyone who forgets that is lost.

Having erected this framework the authors use it, in my view very effectively, in order to answer a whole range of questions. If dictatorships are often poor that is because, by extracting the resources in question, they discourage people from working and producing. If dictatorships have an abysmal human rights record that is not, at any rate not necessarily, because dictators are bad people. It is because, in order to survive, they have to extract as many resources as possible from the majority of the people so as to pay off their supporters. If natural resources-rich dictatorships often have the worst human rights record of all, that is because, controlling the resources in question, the number of supporters they must bribe is even smaller than in other regimes of the same kind.

If dictatorships are bad at coping with natural disasters—as, for example, the military government of Burma was when it allowed over a hundred thousand people to die in the aftermath of a cyclone—then that is because they tend to divert any outside aid they may get to their own supporters. If revolutions devour their children, as the saying goes, then that is because the dictators whom they bring to power fear, often not without reason, that those “children” could use the same tactics as they themselves did.

If democracies rarely fight one another, that is because the people at the bottom—who, under this kind of regime, do have a voice—seldom have much to gain from war. The same consideration also makes democracies wary of casualties; if their rulers do not care for the dead and the injured, at any rate they are forced to put on a pretense, attend funerals, stand to attention, shed crocodile tears, etc.

Yet do not deceive yourself. Democracies are not necessarily peaceful. Precisely by virtue of being democratic, they simply cannot stand the idea that someone does not like them or share their alleged values. As Franklin Lane, who was President Wilson’s secretary of the interior, once put it: “If the torch of liberty fades or fails, ours be the blame.” Off with the Kaiser’s head! From ancient Athens through the French Revolution to the USA, there are few things democracies like doing better than beating down on small, weak dictatorships. Just ask Kim Jong un.

Briefly, it is all a question of who supports whom and what resources he or she is allocated in return. Morally speaking, democratic rulers are no better, no less inclined to doing whatever they can to cling to power, than their autocratic colleagues. The one difference is that the former rely on the many to keep the few in check; the latter do the opposite. In return, democrats provide some public goods: such as roads, education, healthcare, and, most important of all, the kind of stable legal framework people need in order to work and to prosper. This basic fact, and not ideology or people’s personal qualities, shapes the nature of the governments they form and lead.

Though oversimplified at times, the volume is a real eye-opener. All the more so because it deals, implicitly if not explicitly, not merely with states but with every kind of hierarchical organization: including churches, corporations, trade unions, and what have you. And all the more so because, in the end, all it deals with are things as they have always been, and are, and will always remain.