Monday, December 30, 2013

Great Captains - Alexander

I have an enormous amount of respect for anyone who attempts to identify, let alone describe, the greatest commanders in history. The man in consideration today did so 124 years past in the grand old year of 1889 (not to be confused with 1898, Remember the Maine). He is our present day prototypical military history "buff" with a great attention to commanders of the west and none whatsoever considering the east. He also has a short lived military career, as one might expect; a veritable American Clausewitz with not so impressive an impact (though certainly deserving of no disparagement on the line of Clause either). He gave 6 hour long lectures considering Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus, Frederick, and Napoleon and eventually went on to write books about each of them, dying before completing the last sections on Frederick the Great. The term "Great Captain"* appears to be Napoleonic in origin or at least frequency, now we haven't such exalted terms to deal with commanders. I shall write a critique of each of Dodge's six lectures in order, beginning with Alexander; both as a better means to digest the information therein and as an exercise in potential future endeavours (though I do consider the east in my own deliberations).

* Napoleon himself identified Turenne (and possibly Prince Eugene) also as a Great Captain, whether this be French bias or an actual veritable selection is worth consideration.

Firstly, I fully admit to not knowing a great deal about Alexander and this continues to be a bit of a gap in my scope of knowledge (though knowing a great deal about Toyotomi Hideyoshi, King Wen, Wu Qi, and Cao Ah Man should suffice). But there does seem to be this pervasive element that persists even today citing Alexander as the "greatest," while he may have been the first of his kind in the West he was also facing largely inferior tactically incompetent commanders. Now this is where the argument begins, does his being the first ingenious tactician make it implicit that all other such tacticians stem from his accomplishments. Can all tactical innovation stem from one man? In a word, no, but the great leaps forward no doubt come from individuals of extreme competence placed in fortunate positions. The slow methodical evolution of warfare is undeniable, but so is its stagnation in the absence of true greatness.

Dodge's descriptions of Alexander focus on one key battle at the Hydapses; perhaps against Alexander's most skilled foe, Porus of India. Here he executed an exceptional strategic maneuver in crossing an ostensibly unfordable river unopposed and further executed a masterful tactical maneuver in outflanking the opponent's nigh invincible front (composed of 200 Elephants and 30,000 infantry); however it does seem that the opponent failed miserably on both the strategic and tactical fronts. This does not disparage Alexander's extraordinary performance nor the importance of the battle itself in a historical context, it simply brings forth the question: What if Alexander had faced a truly competent opponent? One can never say.

Following the descriptions of the battle Dodge quickly goes into a slew of praises and mild criticism, the lack of permanence of the Greek Empire evidently falls solely on Alexander's shoulders here; as does a certain over-lust for war in place of cultural innovation. This is a common theme no doubt, but I think the main issue is that Alexander died young, not that he would be incapable of creating a massive cultural restructuring of the known world. He also highlights that Alexander was prone to anger which is kind of crippling on the military front against a truly skilled adversary; however Dodge also says that "we can discover in him no military weakness." Thus, Dodge is too prone to praising Alexander on the military front and too prone to criticizing him on the domestic front, this is a very common historical outlook on Alexander and no doubt at least partially stems from Dodge's source materials; but I think it is somewhat short-sighted. A man of Alexander's competence could perhaps achieve almost anything if he set his mind to it and received no great ill-fortune along the way; but he was extremely fortunate in war and battle in terms of the capabilities of the opposition and extremely unfortunate in terms of the circumstances of his death (though perhaps his own excesses caused this premature downfall).

Monday, December 16, 2013

Begging the Question

I've been reading Aristotle's Metaphysics, which is in some sense the basis of Western philosophy. In the present translation by one Hippocrates G. Apostle (yes that's the name of a dude who lived in the 20th century) there's an inclusion of the concept of begging the question. When I took philosophy courses this was one of two constant paradigms that we would come across. The first is that Determinism is both universal and indefatigable. You can deny determinism but you can't disprove determinism so that the end result suggest something akin to determinism is extant. The other is that one can't make a philosophical argument that doesn't conclude with the same precise reasoning that initiated the argument (if p therefore q, q being a derivation of p).

This was always interesting to me, that every core philosophical argument like John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism or Bentham's irrefutable nonsense has this same issue. You can sort of disguise this or create an elaborate web in which other reasonings are included, but the core principal lies the same; the human brain seems unable to create a boundless argument in such a way that the beginning formulation is not in some way reflected almost exactly as a core component of the ending formulation. What I mean by boundless is that the argument in and of itself doesn't occur in a physical reality; it doesn't utilize or base itself on things that happened or will happen, it bases itself on the general descriptions of things as a whole.

Note I don't think either Determinism or Begging the Question negate the need for Philosophy; all men seek some sort of greater purpose in their actions, no matter how fleeting or frivolous. I simply think that we are incapable of doing so without using the basis of our own knowledge; in some sense "Thinking outside the box" is an impossibility; of course your core thought processes will be based on your own experiences. It is quite an interesting conundrum. Philosophy is something I value quite highly though I doubt my capacity to improve upon this all-encompassing flaw.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

If there's one thing you can rely on with extremely stupid titles it's that they'll state the title verbatim in the movie somewhere, and this middling middle chapter is no exception. This movie has the same problems that the first film did but I think there's a little less action on the whole so it winds up being slightly worse. I suppose you could also say that nothing actually happens over the course of the movie other than they walked for a while; the LoTR paradigm, but it's probably the worst in this rendition.

However apart from the obvious issues I still enjoyed my time watching the film. The action scenes are entertaining, the movies is reasonably humorous, and the Jesus imagery is now split between two characters instead of emblazoned on the Oakenshield solely (note: every human male hero in Peter Jackson's Tolkien adapatations is basically an image of Jesus). I don't necessarily mind this it just gets a little overbearing a la the Matrix Revolutions. A film like Gladiator does Jesus imagery pretty damn well (if unintentionally), and Braveheart does it pretty good too; nothing wrong with pseudo Jesus archetypes, but if you drag it out for too long it just gets sort of cheesy and irritating.

The Elves are probably the coolest cats in the movie because they're not boring ass elves like they were in every other movie; Thran is a mean, greedy, old isolationist (which is semi-accurate) and speaks authoritatively, Lego is pissed off the whole time and the poor goblins/orcs don't stand a chance, invented Elvish chick is sort of swashbuckling. They don't have an overbearing tragic arc like the Dwarves do and they're just fun to watch. Want to watch Legolas casually murder 30 dudes? This is the movie for you!

I suppose that leads into another problem the film has, the villains just have no credibility up until Smaug, Smaug is great but he's only in like 30-45 minutes of the movie; for the rest of the time any obstruction or sideplot is just like a measly tapestry flailing in the wind; swiftly passed and swiftly forgotten. I thought they did the Nazgul really fucking well in Fellowship, enough so that they had credibility when they were in CGI land later in the series; Saruman was intimidating, the Eye was kind of cool. I guess ultimately I know that Dol Guldur doesn't really amount to anything in the course of the Hobbit so that whole bit falls flat since they're just alluding to shit that doesn't happen for 50 years the whole time.

Overall I like this movie, but it could be an hour shorter and they could have done the Hobbit in either 1 3 hour bigass movie or 2 1 hour 40 minute tightly paced movies; you don't need 3. They sure made it to Erebor though! It is worth noting that the visuals and cinematography are excellent, and the music is different enough to be interesting, but you kind of need something momentous to happen over the course of the plot. The Two Towers was way better.