Archive for December, 2012

The Batman and the State

Posted: December 30, 2012 by Daniel Solomon in Uncategorized
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Superpowers and the State

A panel from Powers.

Pity the modern supervillain, Adam tells us. He’s a poor, decrepit figure, beholden to the deceptive whims of irrationality, distanced from the creative politics of his more practical predecessors. The grand image of global–or, better yet, multiversal–domination is a Mesopotamian artifact of superherodom.  The Joker’s low-tech banditry abounds in contemporary supervillainy, while Dalek “extermination” is little more than a charming, if impractical product of British public television. From a critical perspective, this shift is an unfortunate consequence of post-9/11 security cultures. If Judi Dench’s M is any indication–and s/he has been for a half-century–hero fandom should view the modern supervillain as a product of a more discreet Zeitgeist, of a less transparent, more opaque world of “shadows.” Hats off to Christopher Nolan, whose Joker is a mere interlude to Ra’s al-Ghul’s global League of Shadows, a happy marriage of Erik Prince (Bane, the mercenary) and young Emma Goldman (Talia al-Ghul, the vengeant anarchist terrorist spawn).

Superhero culture has a libertarian quality, which often interferes with an authentic understanding of state violence: indeed, the basic conceit of superherodom is the dominance of vigilante justice, which reigns over a bumbling state bureaucracy. State security forces are often incompetent, as in much of the Spiderman literature, or, even worse, hostile, as in the racially-tinged violence against the Marvel Universe’s mutant population. The Marvel Civil War is a partial exception: when the U.S. government passes the Superhuman Registration Act, the Marvel Universe’s superhero community engages in a destructive civil conflict, between the state-supported, military-industrial-complex-laden Iron Man faction and Captain America’s ideologically purist dissidents. Here, Marvel’s U.S. government is an obvious, if well-constructed commentary on the post-9/11 national security state, based on an impressionistic rendering of Bush-era counterterrorism policies.

When its constitutive agencies aren’t busy being goofy, the super-state is little more than a shell, which both superheroes and villains may evade with ease. J. Dana Stuster has artfully outlined the storyline of Batman Incorporated, a global network of batmen and batwomen that both combats global terror and bolsters regional crime-fighting. International legal approaches to transnational crime/crime-fighting control don’t fit easily alongside a KAPOW! onomatopeia, and so Batman Incorporated shirks the complicated question of state sovereignty. Similarly, both Nick Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D., an international intelligence organization, and the Avengers, at points a UN-mandated peacekeeping body, are more reflective of the limits and possibilities of global governance than its domestic contexts. It’s difficult to trace the origins of superhero organizations’ global outlook, but one may assume that the nature of villainy plays a role: if the villain, be s/he Adolf Hitler or Loki, seeks global dominance, superheroes must rise to the challenge.

While contemporary supervillainy may fall short in its political logic, this shift has positive dividends in a more complex concept of the state’s response. Consider Nolan’s Bane: in The Dark Knight Rises, Alfred makes a brief reference to Bane’s mercenary participation in a “coup in West Africa that secured mining operations for our friend John Daggett.” Bane’s personality profile may be a pithy dig at West Africa’s regional instability. For the discerning Africa-watcher, however, it functions as a surprisingly prescient reference to the nature of disaggregated governance in coup-prone West African states. In the aftermath of Mali and Guinea-Bissau’s early 2012 coups, a trickle of research has demonstrated the corrosive influence of organized crime in both countries. As Ken Opalo has demonstrated, opportunistic cartel networks have taken advantage of Guinea-Bissau’s pervasive corruption, using the small, unstable country as a staging ground for Euro-African trafficking operations. In Mali, according to Wolfram Macher, illicit regional flows–in cocaine, cigarettes, and humans–have created a lucrative revenue base for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and steepened informal links between Malian officials and AQIM operatives. So, when Nolan describes Bane’s mercenary activity as a driver of instability in West Africa, he’s not totally off-base.

Bane’s nefarious West Africa affiliations reflect a particular type of governance, one which is not often in evidence in the incompetent bureaucracies of superhero yore: the “disaggregated state.” Anne-Marie Slaughter popularized the concept of disaggregated states in her book A New World Order, which described the international legal problem of governance networks–communities of policy practice that, despite their formal affiliation with state institutions, claim links to professional groups, advocacy organizations, and similar non-state actors. As with most things in international politics, disaggregated states have their underbellies: Dan and Adam have written at length (as if there’s any other kind of Dan-and-Adam writing) about the ways in which illicit networks and cartel organizations challenge the basic ontology of state-building. Jay Ulfelder has also expanded on this concept in his empirical critique of the Weberian state-building literature, which, being Weberian, emphasizes “ideal types” of violence prevention, eschewing an anthropological understanding of actual, human interactions with state institutions, bureaucracies, and networks.

Batman’s politics of the state are steeped in this literature, in a way that should be instructive for students of international politics. Consider Batman: Year One, Frank Miller’s widely-acclaimed 1987 reinterpretation of the Batman origin story. Year One introduces Batman as a literary foil to Jim Gordon, an upstart outsider who struggles to counter corruption in the Gotham City Police Department (GCPD). Gordon quickly confronts internal opposition from the criminal underworld’s GCPD allies, including Police Commissioner Gillian Loeb and his lieutenant Arnold John Flass. Corruption is hardly new to Gotham; the reader is not surprised when Flass draws financial benefits from a cocaine delivery operation, rather than stopping it. What’s notable, however, is the extent of paramilitary violence that follows GCPD’s corruption. Gordon describes Branden, a GCPD SWAT team leader and a recurrent Batman antagonist, as the head of a “lunatic gestapo,” which regularly massacres civilian protesters. Branden’s force indicates the extent of disaggregated state authority, which Gotham’s corrupt police department uses to both enforce and evade legal restrictions on its formal authority.

In further renderings of counter-villain violence, superhero enthusiasts would do well to consider the potential applications of Batman’s disaggregated state model. In the meantime, disaggregated state theory offers an importance lens through which we can understand supervillains’ violence, as well as the state’s all-too-frequent complicity in its occurrence.

Our special Christmas day guest post comes from General Giulio Douhet. Douhet is the father of modern air power, and writes a weekly column for the New York Times. He tweets at @DouhetNYT.

Late this Christmas season I was introduced by the hosts of this fine publication to a short film dubbed “Peace on Earth.” This film depicted an aging rodent and his young rodent family in what appeared to be post-war bliss. The last war, so the story went, had resulted in the complete destruction of the human race, thus leaving the fields, farms, and homes to the surviving animals. Intended no doubt to evoke the horrors of the recent war, the film implied that the likely devastation of future human conflict ought to force the accumulated peoples of the world to make every effort to avoid future war.


Unfortunately, I came away tremendously disappointed.

While the devastating effects of airpower are shown (or at least implied) in the film, the second order effects are not considered. Waves of bombers can destroy cities (dropping as much as a thousand tons of bombs per city, if necessary), an operation which has critical effects on the rest of the war machine. Artillery, machine guns, tanks, and heavily equipped infantrymen fighting to the last after an aerial bombardment? Not likely. The war machine will begin to break down after the first few hundred tons of bombs are dropped, with industry collapsing and intricate mobilization orders coming to naught.

As I wrote in the War of 19–,the next war will be won not by gas mask wearing soldiers, but by proud aviators flying bombers not unlike the Caproni Ca. 5 (capable of flying at 160 kilometers/hour), or even the Gotha G5. In the future, we might be able to conceive of bombers that could carry as much as 3000kg worth of aero-chemical bombs, and strike targets at as far as 1200 kilometers distant. In the first days (perhaps even hours) of the next war, the two sides will commit their full strength to the aerial war, with one side inevitably proving victorious. Formations of bombers, shrugging off insignificant pursuit groups, will deliver bombs and poison gas to the enemy. The Independent Air Force that dominates the sky will methodically destroy the cities, railways, depots, and staging areas of the enemy, reducing its victim to helplessness in less than a week. The defeated will then sue for peace. Trench warfare, as envisioned by the less-than-imaginative military leadership of past conflicts, will be utterly superfluous to the outcome of future battle, thus rendering the depiction of combat in “Peace on Earth” quaint and idiosyncratic.

And this, indeed, is the true peril implied by the film; that our next war shall be fought by unimaginative, unenlightened ground and sea commanders, not to mention civilians with little knowledge of or interest in the most complex aspects of warfare. While humanity itself will not be annihilated in the last war, the society that fails to prepare by creating a strong, Independent Air Force supported by a large scale aviation industry surely will suffer virtually complete destruction. So too those who heed the siren song of “air defence” and “pursuit planes”; such weapons will only marginally slow the destruction wrought by heavy, well protected battle planes. Woe be to the civilization that fails to prepare for Command of the Air, and to the nation that lacks the courage and fortitude to drop poison gas on the cities of its enemies. Let me be clear; the only way in which “Peace on Earth” will come to pass is if men are too cowardly to drop poison gas on the families of their foes.

I should also note that the post-war situation described in Peace on Earth similarly fails to satisfy. An owl sagely read to the squirrel, when in reality the owl would take advantage of its Command of the Air to quickly kill, eviscerate, and devour the juvenile rodent. Simple logic dictates that the birds would quickly come to dominate any post-human landscape, with the largest, most powerful birds at the top. Much like the flocks of Caproni Ca.1s that would have darkened the skies over Vienna if the fools in Rome had listened to me instead of throwing me in prison, these birds will have dominion over the earth.

Skip “Peace on Earth.” However, I highly recommend “Donald Duck Snowball War,” a technically accurate and deeply moving film about the tragedy of siege warfare.

Santa Clausewitz

Posted: December 24, 2012 by blogtarkin in Uncategorized
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Santa Clausewitz

Hare Clausewitz makes his rounds.

Twas the night before battle, when all through the base.
The sentries were posted, the standards were cased.
The rifles were stacked by the tent flaps with care,
In the hopes that Saint Clausewitz soon would be there.

The majors were nestled all snug in their beds,
While flanking divisions danced in their heads.
Sergeant Major in his kerchief and I with my map,
Had just settled down for a long bivouac.

When out on the field there arose such a clatter,
I sent out patrols to see what was the matter.
Away to the front line I flew like a flash,
To rally the sentries to police up their trash.

The illum on the breast of the new fallen snow,
Removed fog of war from objects below.
When what to my wondering eyes should appear,
but a Prussian war theorist and eight tiny reindeer.

That wily old general, medals layered thick,
I knew in a moment in must be Clausewitz.
More rapid than hussars his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

“On Reason! On Chance! On Passion and Friction!
On Chaos! On Fog! On Flanking and Blitzen!
To the center of gravity! Where their defenses disjoint!
Unleash your attack, find the decisive point!”

As dragoons that before the columns do fly,
When they meet the defense and mount to the sky.
So up to the parapets the coursers they flew,
With a sleigh full of theory and Saint Clausewitz, too.

And then in a twinkling he told me the truth,
That with a good strategy, plans are bombproof.
As I drew in my lines and was turning about,
he bounded the trenches and jumped the dugout.

Though he was squared away in his dress uniform,
He was not here to drink, just to teach and inform.
“Trust your coup d’oeil when deploying your means,
You’ll achieve all your ends, if you use your Marines.”

“You do not need principles, nor geometry,
Or you’ll meet with defeat, like that fool Jomini.
Study On War to improve on your judgement,
So your enemy’s will can be surely outspent.”

Then he sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the path of a missile.
I heard him exclaim as he looked ‘cross the scenes,
“Remember that war is just politics by other means!”


This was a collaborative effort, with much credit to go around. Firstly, Brett Friedman wrote the lion’s share of stanzas, while Blog Tarkin’s Poetry Consultant Alex Olesker bent those lines towards meter. The lovely painting comes from our newest editor Caitlin Fitz Gerald, and features Hare Clausewitz, the star of Clausewitz for Kids. Additional guest verses were supplied by Hayes Brown, Jimmy Sky, and Dan Drezner.

Black Cape, Black Ops

Posted: December 12, 2012 by kdatherton in Uncategorized

Last night, while North Korea sent a rocket skyward, I went on a tear about IR lessons from Superhero Movies. Here they are, in storified tweet-narrative form.