Ranking Historic Atrocities: Pinker’s “Better Angels.”

I have been swamped recently, but regardless of how busy I get, I try to make time for reading of one type or another. In this case I have recently started to reexamine Steven Pinker’s much debated book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (Viking, 2011). For those unfamiliar with the book, Pinker argues that, in contrast to modern assumptions that the modern age (World War I, World War II, etc…) has been more violent than the past, violence has actually declined in the modern era in comparison to past centuries.

Various aspects of Pinker’s many arguments related to his thesis have been praised or criticized by scholars in a variety of fields and disciplines. I do not intend to add to either those praises or criticisms here. First, so much has already been written about Pinker’s book that I am very late to the party. I also do not have the time, at this busy point in the semester, to offer any substantive analysis.

But regardless of where one falls in their estimate of Pinker’s arguments, his book contains a lot of interesting information that can provide useful fodder for classroom discussions on the topic of historical violence in human societies, particularly (perhaps) in a world history survey course. One example is the chart (borrowed from Matthew White- who has since updated his figures and rankings) laid out on page 195, which ranks the 21 greatest causes of death (related to violence in one form or another) in human history.

Pinker notes: “’The twentieth-century was the bloodiest in history” is a cliché that has been used to indict a vast range of demons, including atheism, Darwin, government, science, capitalism, communism, the ideal of progress, and the male gender. But is it true?” (page 193)

Pinker then cites the above mentioned chart, which lists seven of the ten greatest death tolls in history as taking place Continue reading


The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: An Interview with Dr. Michael S. Neiberg

Michael S. Neiberg, Chair of War Studies at the U.S. Army War College and Professor of History in their Department of National Security and Strategy, is a leading military historian of the World War I era. He has authored or edited eighteen books on modern military history, with many of them having been translated into various foreign languages, including Polish, Turkish, German, and Chinese. Moreover, his books have won a number of impressive awards, to include the Harry S. Truman Prize, the Madigan Award, the Tomlinson Prize, the Choice Outstanding Academic Title Award, and various other honors. He serves on a number of editorial or advisory boards for various publishing projects, museums, and research centers, and has provided commentary in articles or television and radio appearances for a variety of media organizations in the U.S. and Europe, including PBS, National Geographic, France 24 Radio, Belgian National Radio, the Los Angeles Times, and others. He is, by all accounts, a leading intellectual voice on matters of modern warfare.  Continue reading


Nine Days in the West Bank: The Issue of Israel’s Settlements

Above Image: Taken on the day I visited the Al Jalazoun Refugee Camp, which houses about 15,000 refugees. It is one of 19 such camps in the West Bank.The camp is right on the edge of an Israeli settlement. This picture gives a sense of how close they are, as the fenced wall to the right in the foreground is the wall of a refugee school for boys, while the Israeli settlement homes are in the background. Unsurprisingly, it is often a site of hostilities.


I recently had the opportunity (along with four other U.S. academics) to participate in an Education and Cultural Exchange Mission to the West Bank and Israel from July 22-30. The trip was made possible by the efforts of a colleague, Dr. Justin Bateh, a Palestinian-American born in the U.S., that I got to know while at a conference in Chicago, who connected me with the the program through the American Federation of Ramallah-Palestine. The purpose of the trip was to gain first hand experience with some of the key issues that influence Israeli-Palestinian relations and current conditions in the West Bank as they relate to Israeli (and sometimes U.S.) policy.  

It was an extraordinarily eye-opening experience, that included meetings with the Mayors of Ramallah, Bethlehem, and other smaller towns, the Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Education, the leaders of important NGOs working in the region, various Palestinian university officials and professors, and a member of the Israeli Knesset (Israel’s unicameral parliament). In addition to all of the famed holy sites, we also visited a refugee camp, a Bedouin community, some of the more troubled towns like Hebron, and interacted with everyday Palestinians who, of course, had a lot to tell us about their experiences. Continue reading

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My Sabbatical: The Year in Review

Image above: Standing on the walls of Acre (“Akko”) in northern Israel, July 2016.

Over the next week or two, I will be turning my thoughts to the coming semester, with classes starting soon. I am happy to be getting back to teaching, as I generally enjoy it very much (my occasional complaints on Facebook aside), but I am also grateful to Florida State College at Jacksonville for granting me a twelve-month sabbatical over the past year, which I have tried to make as productive as possible. While many academics are familiar with the sabbatical process, I have learned few of my friends outside academia, or even many graduate students, understand it. Since I also assume I will need to account for my time spent during the sabbatical during a future evaluation for the college, I want to reflect here on the topic, how it works, and what I was able to accomplish as a result of it. Particularly in light of some of the good spirited teasing I have received from old friends (non-academics) worried about how their tax dollars were being spent as a result.

Continue reading


The State of Crusade Studies: An Interview with Dr. Helen J. Nicholson

Among modern crusade historians, few are as respected as Helen J. Nicholson. Indeed, as Professor of Medieval History at Cardiff University, where she has taught for more than twenty years and served as the head of the Department of History from 2012-2015, Helen has established herself among the top tier of the world’s crusade historians through no less than twenty-one books she has authored or edited on the crusades or the military orders. In addition, she has also authored nearly seventy scholarly articles or essays in peer reviewed journals or edited volumes and has served on review committees for numerous academic presses or journals. This is all in addition to her often active participation and leadership in many scholarly societies to include, of course, the Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East.

Helen certainly has an academic background that would have suggested she was primed for success as a crusade historian early in her career. From 1979–82 she studied at the prestigious Oxford University, where she earned her BA in Ancient and Medieval History (1st class hons.), which she then converted to a MA in 1986. Then, from 1986 to 1989, she worked on her doctorate at the University of Leicester under the direction of the renowned crusade historian Norman Housley. She continued to teach part time at Leicester until transitioning into her position at Cardiff University in 1994 where she has remained until the present. Continue reading


The Current Status of the Islamic State’s “Caliphate”

Map: Situation as of June 29th, 2016. The grey area represents the territories effectively under the control of the Islamic State (source).

A July 12th report in the Washington Post by Joby Warrick and Souad Mekhennet has caused a stir recently for suggesting that the Islamic State’s “caliphate” is on the ropes. Titled “Inside ISIS: Quietly Preparing for the Loss of the ‘Caliphate,” the story has received a lot of attention on cable news and has been widely (and in some cases, enthusiastically) shared online. Indeed, I have been asked to comment on the topic in an interview for a local television station on Saturday morning, but I assume the topics considered during the interview will now, unfortunately, expand to include discussion of the terrorist attack killing 84 people in Nice (and wounding over 200) that took place on July 14th. Yet here I want to focus on the claims of the Washington Post article and think through the issue a bit.  Continue reading


Gregory VII: Call for a “Crusade”, 1074

Image: Engraving of Pope Gregory VII saying mass from Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints (1878).

Provided below are English and Latin accounts of Pope Gregory VII’s calling of a sort of proto-crusade as early as 1074. Although this venture never materialized, it is interesting to note that only three years after the events of Manzikert there was serious advocacy of providing major Western military aid to Eastern Christians by the papacy. Yet it never got off the ground due to the distractions and problems Gregory VII had to deal with as a result the Investiture Controversy. Continue reading