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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Jane Jacobs

The news today was that Jane Jacobs, "noted urbanist", died at age 89 -- a Canadian citizen born in the US who will forever identified with life in and around New York City.

In the early 1970s I was fascinated by the work and writing of Lewis Mumford, a social critic and theorist who had been writing volumes since the early 1920s on every aspect of urban life. Initially I committed to writing my dissertation on the political thought of Mumford, but by the time I had made it through his writings up to World War II (he was prolific!) my enthusiasm for the project had "turned". But while I tired of Mumford, I did not tire of reading the work of those he inspired -- including Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book that put the critique of Mumford to work in New York and viewed the city as an "ecology". (Listen to analysis of the relevance of her views today here).

What made Jacobs special was that she challenge the basic assumptions of urban policymaking at the time -- becoming an advocate for the unmodern, communal and messy in contrast to the neat and sharp lines of the contemporary urban planning world view. For me it was Gemeinschaft over Gesellschaft, and that became the focus on my dissertation -- a way of applying the lessons of both Mumford and Jacobs to the study of third world development planning.

What I did not realize at the time is that Jacobs had already put her views to the ultimate test by successfully taking on the most powerful planner of 20th century America: Robert Moses. Robert Caro spoke of Jacobs and her role in the 1962 battle over the Lower Manhattan Expressway in an interview today with NPR....

In recent years I have used Jacobs' work on ethical syndromes in my administrative ethics courses -- I did not think much of the book (Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics), but the basic contrast between the commerical and guardian syndromes is heuristically useful, and has inspired others to take it to the next (and even more useful) level.

All in all a very important thinker....


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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Military doctrines and moral backbones

Well, things are certainly getting interesting in the US military.

Although I have not been posting lately, two of my more recent ones take note of what is happening with Rumsfeld and company.

As noted in the last post, I am reading Cobra II, and I think it is more than mere coincidence that the current volume of the debate has risen a few notches since that book came out. The book is not explicitly a critique of the decisions behind the Iraqi invasion decisionmaking process, but rather a detailed narrative telling a story that cannot help but raise questions about the competence and wisdom of the folks at the very top. If I had not said it before with emphasis, this is a "must read".

A few posts earlier -- actually comments made March 6 -- I commented on how obvious it was that the entire Iraqi operation was indeed having an impact among the middle level folks I ran into while in South Korea.

"One thing was evident to me this trip, and that is the warnings that the military is facing human resource problems in the near future is probably true. As you might guess, I ask each student to introduce him/herself and talk about past, present and future plans. Typically the response is as you might imagine -- most tend to be long-termers planning on using the degree for promotion in the military with the hope that it will be useful outside whenever they retire.

But there was a decidedly different tone to this group -- much more focus on retirement in the next year or two -- a point made by several folks, from the youngest officers to the command rank professionals. The past few years of tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and other "hot" places is definitely taking its toll. They have had enough, and were ready for civilian life...."

This morning's New York Times has a front page story that reinforces that observation, but in much stonger terms than I had heard before in the media -- and much closer to the feelings of the folks I spoke with in Seoul.

What stands out in that article is the criticism among the field-level officers (captains to colonels) of the way the general officers had let Rumsfeld and others in the current Administration roll over them. In reading this piece I was reminded of still another book that I read four years (or so) ago. It sopke to the impact of the Vietnam War on the thinking of a generation of field officers -- and the influence that experience had on the military through at least one generation of general officers. In Prodigal Soldiers (1995), James Kitfield does a superb job showing how the Vietnam experience led to both a major exodus of competent mid-level officers and a major rethinking of how to conduct military operations. This was all eventually reflected in the Weinberger(/Powell) Doctrine and in the strategic approach to the Persian Gulf War that (we now learn from Cobra II) so annoyed Rumsfeld and others. It was an approach that defined the way Powell and his generation of general officers went about their jobs, and understanding this provides some insight into the former Secretary of State's attitude to the Iraq invasion .

If I remember correctly, Kitfield ended his book with some questions about whether the next generation would sustain that approach, and the answer that emerges from Cobra II seems to be yes and no. It is clear from the Cobra II book that the current problem was not adherence to doctrine but rather lack of moral backbone. Those without the capacity or willingness to stand up for the approach set out by Powell, Schwartzkopf, McCaffrey and others typically got promoted, while others who stood in the way of Rumsfeld (and his transformation plans) went into retirement and are only now expressing their discontent.

All this fact is not lost on those mid-level officers interviewed in the Times piece:

"This is about the moral bankruptcy of general officers who lived through the Vietnam era yet refused to advise our civilian leadership properly," said one Army major in the Special Forces who has served two combat tours. "I can only hope that my generation does better someday."

An Army major who is an intelligence specialist said: "The history I will take away from this is that the current crop of generals failed to stand up and say, 'We cannot do this mission.' They confused the cultural can-do attitude with their responsibilities as leaders to delay the start of the war until we had an adequate force. I think the backlash against the general officers will be seen in the resignation of officers" who might otherwise have stayed in uniform."

More to come....


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Friday, April 21, 2006


The gaps between posts have now reached embarassing proportions. I have just been overwhelmed for close to three months now, but there seems to be some light at the end of this tunnel as I begin to dig out of the overcommitted spring semester I created for myself. I am likely to provide readers (those few of you out there) with more detail than is desired about the "digging out" process over the coming weeks.

But first, some recommendations as I reemerge into the world of blogs and books.

Blog-wise, friend Ciarán is once again back to somewhat regular posting and has provided one brilliant review of Robert Caro's classic The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. His review and analysis does justice (and then some) to that enormous volume (he had been complaining in our Skype chats about hauling it around for oh so many weeks -- even in paperback it is quite a burden). I recommend the book to anyone who wants to understand New York and the important (and overlooked) role of public authorities in the govenrance of the US, and I would recommend Ciarán's review to anyone who want to grasp the nature and core importance of the book.

Book-wise, I am in my usual multi-read mode (my boring work out routine requires some distraction in the form of a book or an interesting podcast), and increasingly I find myself focusing on
Cobra II : The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, the detailed story behind the preparation and conduct of the invasion of Iraw by Gordon and Trainor. Provides great background and insight into the current debate surrounding Donald Rumsfeld's current tenure at Defense, and does an amazing job of trying to explain the odd thinking of Saddam Hussein leading up to the invasion (among other things). I have the feeling that I will devote some blogs to work as I get further into it.

More later....


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