Treason, Emprisonment and Two Heroes

combo montecristo_edited-2Alexandre Dumas: Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (Tome 1 & 2) ISBN 978-2-253-09805-8/978-2-253-09806-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Tom Reiss: Black Count. Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo ISBN 968-0-307-38247-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Holocaust has been an important subject on this blog lately, and I must confess, reading about it was exhausting and at times depressing. What I needed then in terms of reading was a radical break, and I found it in Alexandre Dumas’ famous novel “Le Comte de Monte-Cristo”. What a beautiful work! There’s love, treason, conspiracy, suffering and vengeance. In the end, the evil ones will be punished while the just triumph and real romances starts to blossom. What more can you expect from a novel in the middle of the summer? I was amused by the plot devised by Edmond Dantès alias the Count of Monte Cristo, captivated by Dumas’ extensive descriptions of people and landscapes, and en passant I learned a couple of new-old French words I had to look up in my battered dictionary. Well done!

The novel by Dumas naturally led me to Tom Reiss’ book about the person who inspired the character of Edmond Dantès: Alexandre Dumas’ father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, son of a nobleman and a slave from Santo Domingo, the Haiti of these days. Dumas senior was the first black general of the French army, a hero of his times. He was a contemporary of another general, Napoleon Bonaparte. Dumas contributed in a decisive way to Napoleon’s victory of Austria and took part in his ill-fated Egypt expedition. Being a black man in a high position illustrated that the decade following the French Revolution let France’s human rights record glow in a bright light.

However once Napoleon announced his political ambitions and turned into a violent autocrat, this light began to fade. Black people in France became subject to ever stricter segregation rules. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was to suffer from both this worsening climate and the jealousy of Napoleon. Dumas was famous, he was an imposing figure and the Austrians called him the “Black Devil”. Napoleon did not tolerate any perceived rivals, and certainly not black ones. His government abandoned Dumas when he was taken prisoner by the Italians and thrown into jail. Dumas even suspected that the French government gave the order to poison him.

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas’ fate at the hands of the Italians inspired his son, Alexandre Dumas the novelist, to start his novel with the imprisonment of Edmond Dantès at the Château d’If. And when Dumas mocks the customs of the French nobility and the newly empowered bourgeoisie in his novel, he obviously refers to the climate in which his father first strived and then sunk into misery. Dantès’ quest for justice under the alias of the Count of Monte Cristo reflects the novelist’s desire to avenge his father and to have his former glory restored.

Tom Reiss book is remarkable for two reasons: The story of the black general needed to be told as he has been forgotten in France while Napoleon is still glorified by many. And the way Reiss let’s the reader embark on his own investigation about this man is a brilliant story in itself. Digging through French military archives and breaking into a safe to get hold of the general’s personal document – mon Dieu! “Black Count” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and again I would like to say: Well done!

Edmond Dantès was illegally imprisoned after a vile denunciation, and Dumas novel is about the transformation of a man in a cold and damp cell. Dantès learns of a hidden treasure on the island of Monte Cristo, and after his escape from the Château d’If, he takes up the alias “Comte de Monte-Cristo” first to help hose who helped his father while he was locked away, and then to punish those responsible for his captivity. This transformation from protector to avenging angel is one of the turning points of the novel, and it’s setting is Rome during the carnival season. What other music could I recommend than Hector Berlioz’ overture “Le Carneval Romain”:

The Cursed Saltarello or Why We Should Be Foolish

Fighting Tomorrow’s Wars

Paul Scharre: Army of None. Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War. ISBN 978-0-393-35658-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ You don’t read books about military affairs? You should. Weapons research has reached a point where humanity faces moral, legal and technical choices similar to those at the beginning of the nuclear arms race. High-performance sensors, remote platforms like satellites, artificial intelligence, communication networks and real-time transmission of high volumes of data converge and make the fielding of autonomous weapons a realistic option – weapons with little or no human input. Does that correspond to the future we want? Think about it.

We all know about drones circling above the Gaza strip, Ukraine, Syria or Afghanistan to locate and kill targets. So far there’s still a human being in the OODA loop: Observation – Orientation – Decision – Action. An analyst decides whether a target is eligible for a kill within a set legal framework, an operator pushes the button that fires the lethal missile.

But what if computers would take over these decisions? What if an algorithm would decide about who is to live and who is to die? After all computers are unemotional, never tired, never stressed, never sadistic. Objective in a way. What if a computer would release the missile from a long-endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or a seaborne platform? No more costly and dangerous deployments to war theatres far away. It could all be done from a terminal in the US or Europe or from a ship far away from a hostile coast.

Paul Scharre takes us on a journey into the world of software programmers and weapons engineers, of robotics and Artificial Intelligence to show where we stand in terms of technological progress. From there on he explores the moral choices we face and outlines the shape of tomorrow’s wars. This is insofar relevant as all major military powers push research in these fields, and in a world of global political and economic competition, war is always an option – open, offensive as well as undeclared, clandestine wars for some, purely defensive actions for others.

One of the key take-aways is summed up by Brad Tousley, the director of DARPA, the Pentagon’s R&D agency tasked to imagine tomorrow’s game-changing military technologies: “Until the machine processors are equal to or surpass humans at making abstract decisions, there’s always going to be mission command.” This means that human beings will remain in charge when it comes to evaluate options for action the machine may propose. A target may be identified by an algorithm to be legitimate, e.g. a person carrying a rifle in an enemy controlled territory. But only a human will recognize that it is an adolescent guarding his sheep and understand that pictures of killed children help the enemy’s propaganda.

For the time being, algorithms seem to be unable to analyze multi-dimensional contexts in the way the human brain does. This may explain why Google, Twitter, Facebook etc. have such trouble finding and removing extremist propaganda from their networks. Context is key and context is complex when it comes to human behaviour. Our brain, the collective rules that govern our societies, our empathy, our experience – evolution has produced a sophisticated system over thousands of years that technology can not easily emulate or surpass. However technology is getting better and better. Drones take off and land by themselves on an aircraft carrier. Unmanned ships have put sea and navigate on their own and may soon hunt submarines. Automated logistics systems and surveillance platforms are already operational.

Humans make mistakes, no doubt. Usually the consequence of one human error of judgment is limited. But machines make mistakes too, even those with Artificial Intelligence. And if one machine makes a specific mistake, all machines of that type will make the same mistake. And they will repeat the mistake until a human steps in. In autonomous weapons there would be no human to step in. A horrifying scenario!

The key question for developers is: Can we build a piece of technology that fulfills mission requirement with a high level of reliability? Soldiers want weapons they can trust under many different circumstances. Their life may depend of it. If a certain piece of hard- or software is mission-critical and its reliability is not proven beyond doubt, it may be safe to keep a human operator or supervisor in the loop.

Not that this will prevent fatal errors. When the US attacked Iraq after 9/11, Patriot batteries shot down two allied fighters. The software did what it should do: track incoming targets and destroy them when authorised by the operator. Man in the loop working on tested equipment. The software however did not distinguish between Iraqi ballistic missiles and friendly planes. And the operators did not question the information the battery’s sensors fed back to them. Soldiers need to trust their weapons – but not blindly.

In his book Scharre goes to great lengths to point out what technology cannot do yet and what it may be able to do in the future. And he highlights the machines’ vulnerabilities and their inherent shortcomings. Each course of action in terms of developing and fielding autonomous or semi-autonomous weapons needs an ethical evaluation and a consistent set of rules for its operation, embedded itself in a general strategy. This is the point where the human input will always remain crucial: Man sets the rules.

Technology will do what we will let it do. We can decide not to pursue certain types of research. It has happened before with the neutron bomb. We can prohibit the use of certain technologies as we prohibited the use of (not very smart) anti-personnel mines and biological weapons. But first of all, we, the tax payers, must know what is possible. We may then ask our politicians to present to us options and cost-benefit analyses. And then we can make an informed political choice. This is why this book is so important. Stay informed not only about politics or climate change, but also about technology. All three factors will shape our future more than any time before.

This said I recently enjoyed a ride in what Luxembourg calls its “first autonomous bus shuttle”. Point 1: Its route is pre-defined by a human. The vehicle transports six passengers from a pedestrian escalator to a railway station and back. Point 2: It has an operator on board who defines when the bus moves and stops. The shuttle’s sensors identify obstacles on their own and forces the bus to stop, but the operator gives the go to move on once the obstacle is gone. Point 3: It is moving at a slow speed and it comes abruptly to a stop. At best we may call it semi-autonomous. And as far as its capacities are concerned, walking from the escalator to the station is smoother and almost as fast. But of course riding the shuttle was a lot funnier!

Napoleon Bonaparte revolutionized military affairs in the fields of training, tactics and grand strategy. His intellectual genius and his daring mindset enabled him to subjugate the European continent with the exception of Great Britain. He and his troops however failed to beat Russia in 1812. Napoleon’s lines of communication were overextended, his once successful maneuvering strategy failed when the enemy retreated further and further into the vast Russian plains. He occupied Moscow only to discover the Russians had set it on fire. Napoleon had to retreat without a decisive victory and his army was annihilated in rear-guard engagements, weakened by a harsh winter and a lack of both food and ammunition. Technology wasn’t an issue. Bad human judgment was the problem. Pyotr Tchaikovsky has set to music the events of 1812 in an overture of the same name:

Wargames at the Sound of Tchaikovsky

Intertwined Markets and the Armageddon to Come

Adam Tooze: Crashed. How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. ISBN 978-1-846-14036-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ This book is a challenge and it is a challenge worthwhile to be taken up. A basic understanding of how bond markets work and how the yield of bonds is tied to the evolution of interest rates is helpful. An interest in economy and politics is indispensable.

Tooze retraces the three highly dramatic episodes of the financial Armageddon of 2008/2009: It starts with the crisis of the US mortgage system, becoming victim of deregulization and banks accumulating debts. Tooze walks us through the failing of American and European banks to provide sufficient liquidity to alleviate that first crisis leading to a European follow-up crisis. The final episode is the rescue attempts of the US Federal Reserve Bank and the European Union, the first being forceful and crowned with at least some success, the latter being timid, incremental and prone to create new problems without solving the old ones. The author shows the different crisis response mechanisms on both sides of the Atlantic and how intimately the two financial markets are linked. If one fails, it draws down the other. Forget all those dreams about national independence. People like Donald Trump, Michael Gove or Nigel Farage are either incompetent or liars. Or both.

Tooze points out fundamental problems of the financial markets and especially the institutional weakness of the European Union when it comes to crisis response. The system of checks and balances between the Commission, the European Central Bank and the Council may give the EU a democratic veneer, but it ties crisis management to the political doctrines of the bigger member states: Germany and France. Greece become an unvoluntary guinea pig and its economy suffered to such a point that is no longer clear what was worse: the disease or the cure. The newly created European Stability Mechanism may able to absorb future shocks, bu for how long? And having a fire-brigade ready never prevented a fire from breaking out. The inherent logics of the financial markets present a risk of their own and the question is whether we have enough safety rules and firewalls to either prevent or contain in a very early stage a would-be inferno.

I learned a great deal from the book. I had to look up a few things I had not learned at school. I still don’t feel comfortable with the concept of bond yields. But once I had worked my way through the first 150 somewhat technical pages I began to dive into a fascinating and scaring politico-economical thriller – John Le Carré for economists! And since the errors of the past tend to be the precursors of the errors in the future, I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in current affairs. With Trump playing with fire and China holding large reserves of foreign assets – US bonds – we are heading for an uncertain future. If we can’t prevent the next crash, we may at least find some comfort in understanding it!

The potential risk of destabilisation and violent revolt after a collapse of financial markets is comparable to the French Revolution in 1789 and or the Russian Revolution of 1905. Dmitry Shostakovich has captured this spirit in his Symphony No. 11 in G Minor:

Managing Change – A Matter of Life and Death

Walking Around in the House of Suffering

George Szirtes: The Photographer at Sixteen ISBN 978-0-85705-853-9 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Quite a bewildering book. Szirtes sketches a portrait of his mother, and he sketches it with little sympathy. He is interested, but distant. Portraying a stranger. How little he knew when he started the journey back in time, trying to understand her. How much remained unclear when he was done. Right at the beginning, he says about his parents: “They were my parents. They did not speak. I did not ask.” Strangers. I always felt it was more cruel to be with people that do not communicate than to be lonesome. Silence works both ways: offensive as a weapon, defensive as a shield. But silence is always a challenge for a child. Just like a “no” , that perhaps might become a reluctant “yes”.

The portrait of the mother betrays the son. It is intentional. “The Photographer at Sixteen” is a hybrid: part portrait, part memoir. Death is never very far. Nor is desperation. Szirtes language is blunt, laconic. And if father-son-conflicts have inspired more than one novel, drama or poem, the relationship between mother and son is no less… no less what? Cruel? Fascinating? Parents, be they male or female, who pass their unfulfilled social ambitions on to their children are a terrible burden. They want you to have a happy life or what they consider a happy life. As for your wishes, they usually are secondary.

“She had suffered history, now history had to redeem itself through the future.” The future of young George and his brother. Their mother had survived the Nazi concentration camps, and the family had fled Hungary after the Soviet repression of the uprising in 1956. History, suffering, the will to survive, ambitions past, present, future – Szirtes offers a remarkable insight into his family’s story stretching “from Cluj or Koloszvar, also known as Klausenburg” to Wymondham. The elements he reveals give his mother and his relation to her a more precise contour: admiration for his mother’s beauty and her sense of chic, respect for her will-power and ambition, mixed with a healthy dose of scepticism about her choices, her priorities.

Changes in the society of Szirtes’ adopted home country and his mother’s declining health account for the souring relation between a challenging mother and rebellious son. The UK was a safe haven, but not heaven. Delusions, disappointments, a feeling of alienation leading to a certain bitterness – does that sound familiar? Brexit is the final episode of something that started back then in the 60s and is coming to its conclusion in our days. And it had and still has a profound impact on the individual’s life.

What struck me, was the effort invested by the Szirtes family in creating a maximum distance between them and their original Jewish identity. The Holocaust and the prevailing anti-Semitism may have justified such an attitude in Hungary, but not in the UK. To me it looks like fleeing from oneself. And what identity is to be found instead? A post-World War II British identity? If Britons struggled with this concept – they still do – how could a family of Hungarian exilees of Jewish descent possibly succeed?

What I appreciated most about the book, is the fact that Szirtes does not shy away from showing us how little he knows of the biography of his mother. By extension he says that we can only have a fuzzy idea of some person’s identity, changing over time and with the source of our information about that person. How little we know about even those who seem close to us. “I am interested in her, so I go on inventing a truth I can believe in … The trick is to invent the truth.” This book is about composite identities: what others see in us, what we see in us, what we try to make others see in us. Man is a confusing species.

I recently came across a composer who first had to flee the Nazis and seek refuge in the USSR, where a decade later he was arrested by the Soviet authorities who sensed a “Jewish cosmopolitan conspiracy”, whatever that might have been. In 1940 Mieczyslaw Weinberg wrote his String Quartet No. 2:

A Quartet Written on the Way to Tashkent

World History Seen Through a Middle-Eastern Prism

Peter Frankopan: Silk Roads. A New History of the World ISBN 978-1-4088-3999-7 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ The subject of this book is so vast that I hardly know how to begin this review. Perhaps I should start by saying that I was overwhelmed both by the author’s detailed knowledge and his analytical ability by which I mean his way to connect the past to the present and to show hidden links between events that do not seem connected in the first place. I have rarely seen a researcher presenting such a complex issue in such an intelligible way.

For complex the subject is: the history of the world. One has to be a little ambitious, hasn’t one? But why a new history? Peter Frankopan’s stroke of genius consists in a shift of perspective as he explains in the preface. We tend to have a Eurocentric view of history: the Neanderthal, the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Middle Ages, Enlightenment, World War I and II. Perhaps we may spare a thought for the colonisation of the Americas, feel a little guilty because of the genocides we orchestrated, and even after the United States seemed to be the biggest winner of World War II, we tend to view the history of the world through the prism of Europe. After all, the likelihood of the Cold War turning into mutual nuclear annihilation would had the first and most violent impact along the Iron Curtain.

Frankopan takes a different look at the past 2500 years. He and this book’s readers board a time-machine and fly back to the times and places of Cyrus the Great, the founder of a powerful Persian empire. Location is paramount here. Frankopan analyzes how the power balance in this region, the wealth of its natural resources, the industriousness of local traders at the origin of the Silk Road, the genius of the local intellectuals, and, last but not least the refinement of arts impacted over the centuries first on Europe, than on China, India, on what today is Russia and finally on the New World.

This completely new perspective on the correlation of political, military, economic, sociological and philosophical events affecting us Europeans is the key issue of Peter Frankopan’s monumental work. His research was both broad and deep, his sources are well documented. His analytical brilliance is matched by an easy-to-follow narrative leading in my case to many new insights, insights that many years of studies in political science, in political journalism and in government service did not give me. I was truly impressed and at the same time frustrated about my past ignorance. So much had not known or understood!

Let me just name a few examples. Fact 1: Jews and Muslims supported each other politically and economically in the early years of Islam, both gaving identified a win-win situation and a common religious heritage. Fact 2: A transcontinental slave trade between Europe and Asia, spanning over several centuries, was economically of the highest importance to the political entities of these times. Fact 3: Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union had an important economic rationale as Nazi Germany needed the grain harvested in the Ukraine to feed its citizen and the oil of the Caucasus to feed its war machine. Fact 4: Not only the United States, but China too supplied Afghan insurgents against the Soviet occupation force with weapons and trained Islamic fighters from its western province; a support it would letter regret – just like the United States – when these fighters turned their arms against their former patrons.

In each chapter of this highly recommended book, Frankopan focuses on a different type of “Silk Road”. At times human ambition was motivated and fuelled by the appetite for textile, furs, gold, silver, oil or grain. At others Man embarked on the road to moral salvation or hell on earth, to crisis and war, to revolution and genocide. The earth’s political and economic center of gravity shifted east and west, and the last chapter of the book remains to be written.

If the original Silk Road linked China to Europe with the Middle East as the indispensable transit point, the current government in Beijing intends to rebuilt this political and economic power axis with its “Belt and Road Initiative”, a system of overland corridors and shipping lanes from South-east Asia to Eastern Europe and Africa. It is an ambitious project aiming to translate economic into political leverage and to make China the leading nation of the world at the expense of the United States, perceived by many inside and outside of China as having passed its zenith as a superpower. “The Guardian” had published an excellent piece about this project.

I am looking forward to a new edition of Frankopan’s book in ten years and another one in twenty years. It would have to address in a new chapter China’s emergence as the world’s economic leader or, alternatively, the fall of an ambitious state that failed to address migration issues, civil unrest, political corruption and ecological disasters. In which direction the centre of gravity would shift in the second scenario will remain a challenging question.

It is this context that makes “The Silk Roads” a highly stimulating read. It shakes our Eurocentric view upon world affairs and encourages us to look at globalisation with the eyes of an Iranian banker, a Chinese entrepreneur, a Kazakh railway engineer or an Indian aerospace scientist. If George Orwell coined the phrase “Who controls the past controls the future”, I am tempted to believe that who knows the past is well prepared to anticipate the future. Human life is 50 percent ambition turned towards the future and 50 percent experience gained in the past by himself or his ancestors. Frankopan concludes the book with a stern warning: “What has been striking throughout the events of recent decades is the west’s lack of perspective about global history – about the bigger picture, the wider themes and the larger patterns playing out in the region.”

When I closed the book I felt that politicians and citizen in Europe and in the United States would be well advised to display a little humbleness when dealing with Asian countries, their governments and their citizen. There is no natural law that makes our countries more important than others. We may dictate the rules now. A look back shows that others have written them in the past, and it is not unlikely that they will write them again in the near future.

Obviously the treasures of the Orient have tempted many adventurers to explore the Middle East, and the legends around both the treasures and the adventurers have excited generations of story-tellers and their audiences. “Sheherazade.2”, a piece composed by John Adams, is part of this tradition:

Sheherazade – Only Smart Women Survive