Collections: The Fremen Mirage, Part IV: Desert Power

This is Part IV of our four-and-three-quarters part series (I, II, IIIa, IIIb, interlude) on the Fremen Mirage. We began by sketching out the basic outline of this pop theory of history: that a lack of wealth and sophistication leads to moral purity, which in turn leads to military prowess, which consequently produces a cycle of history wherein rich and decadent societies are forever being overthrown by poor, but hardy ‘Fremen’ who then become rich and decadent in their turn. Or, as the meme, originally coined by G. Michael Hopf puts it, “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And weak men create hard times.”

Putting this meme here one more time, just to make the point that I didn’t invent the Mirage’s web-presence out of nothing.

In Part I and II of this series, we put this idea to the test, trying to see if it actually served as an accurate description of historical processes. And by and large, we found that…no, it did not. Far from being superior warriors, ‘Fremen’ societies (those that correspond to the ‘hard time-strong men’ trope) tended to lose more often than they won. Often in absolutely appalling amounts. ‘Fremen’ success often came at the end of centuries of bloody failure – when it came at all – and was itself often transitory. States generally found their fiercest adversaries not in the Fremen of the frontiers, but in other states – peer competitors with matching levels of sophistication and capabilities for violence.

In Part III (‘a‘ and ‘b‘) we asked – if this Mirage isn’t a useful analytical tool for understanding history or conflict (modern or pre-modern, as we’ll see in a moment) – why do we have it? We found this mode of thinking emerged largely out of the ‘decadent’ societies’ own self-criticism and self-definition: the myth was never about the Fremen at all, but about the settled people who fought them, a mix of nostalgia, deflected political criticism and a deep concern present in seemingly all societies that proper, martial masculinity – true manliness – was being steadily eroded by the times.

But those ancient texts – which were never about the Fremen – were picked up in the modern period (especially the 19th century) and became a foundation for nationalist – frequently racist – identity-construction in much of the West. The Mirage reached its modern form mixed with a toxic brew of orientalism (where ‘decadence’ no longer described the self, but was now placed on Eastern societies) and so-called ‘scientific’ racism. And because the Mirage both fit the cultural zeitgeist and the policy aims of states looking to harness nationalism during a very formative period both for the discipline of history and for the development of public education, the idea of the Mirage ended up deeply embedded in the popular understanding of history in a variety of Western cultures, at least until its purest form was discredited in the fires of the Second World War.

Yet, as we’ve seen with our look at Dune more closely, the idea of the Mirage survived the demolition of the political ideologies it was mobilized to support, passing into the popular culture as a ‘fact’ everyone ‘knows’ about history, despite the fact that it was never intended as an objective description at any point.

I don’t have a good caption for this, I just really like this scene and wanted to put it in somewhere.

Today, I want to close out by talking about some of the generally proposed exceptions to the rule: the true Fremen, who supposedly live up to the billing that all of our previous Fremen have failed to match. So we’re going to talk about – above and away – the most successful category of non-state actors in the pre-modern world: Horse-borne nomads (mostly that means steppe nomads, but much of what we’ll say will also cover horse-borne desert nomads). And then we’ll take a look at modern non-state actors to see how they measure up. And finally, we’ll ask why the Mirage is so tenacious and also why, as a system for understanding the present as well as the past, it is so unhelpful.

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On with the show!

…Unless You Are the Mongols

Horse-borne nomads – and steppe nomads in particular – serve as the most obvious exception to the general rule that non-state ‘hard men’ fail to live up to their billing in the Mirage. Of steppe nomads, the Mongols of course serve as the standouts – easily the most successful single group of steppe nomads – but even more generally, a steppe nomad fighting as a mounted archer was, in his day, probably the most dangerous man-for-man combatant on any battlefield. The hype – which absolutely resounds from the sources in the period – was real.

Steppe nomads and their image in popular culture is something I want to return to in greater depth in a later series, so I don’t want to get too into-the-weeds here, but I will note that the popular conception of steppe nomads – presented often as big, burly, facial-hair-wearing brutes (think the Dothraki) – isn’t quite right. For one, Steppe nomads – past and present – generally seem to have been fairly small, compact fellows, not towering hulking brutes (although their style of warfare does require a lot of strength in the arms and shoulders to work the composite bow). And while steppe nomad society often had extremely limited literacy and ‘cultural refinement’ (by the standards of their agrarian neighbors), once they moved into the settled zone, steppe nomads are notable for picking up elements of agrarian culture with surprising speed. so even these most Fremen of the Fremen don’t quite fit the stereotype.

The military strength of steppe nomads came out of the intersection of their method of subsistence with their style of warfare. Steppe warriors battled with tactics learned from the hunt and engaged in operations with logistics they used for every day survival. But it isn’t the ‘hardness’ of this way of life that provided the military advantage (if it was, one might expect non-horse cultures on similarly marginal lands to be equally militarily effective and – as we’ve shown – they were not), it was the overlap of very specific skills (namely riding, horse archery and the logistics of steppe pastoralism) that led to the military advantage.

I always rather wondered how the Fremen combat system, which relies on sandworm-mobile troops (supported by ‘Thopter air-cav) worked on planets without sandworms – which is to say, every planet not Arrakis.
And yes, I know that there are all sorts of exciting fan-theories as to how Muad’dib’s war of conquest was accomplished; I’ve never found any of them persuasive. There aren’t anything like enough Fremen to hold even one heavily populated planet by force of arms, much less thousands.

Indeed, if we’re talking about the Mongols, they weren’t even the least stratified, least-wealthy ‘hardest’ men around. Individuals that couldn’t fit within the confines of the strongly communal steppe society, or whose communities broke or shattered (as did Chinggis’ own in his youth) were pushed into the life of forest hunters – rugged individuals living off of their own hunting skill alone or in smaller, more isolated groups. Except that the forest was no place to have a herd of animals – and thus no place for horses, horse archery or steppe logistics (indeed the ‘forest people’ who found themselves, perhaps by a lucky raid, possessed of a herd would move out onto the steppe) – and so, deprived of the very specific skills that made the steppe way of war work, these ultra-Fremen of the forest were never so militarily strong as their herd-owning pastoralist neighbors, despite their harder lifestyle (on this, see P. Ratchnevsky Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy, trans. T.N. Haining (1991), 5-7, 22-24). ‘Hardness’ was not the steppe advantage, specific skills were.

That said, those skills were a hell of a combination when a charismatic leader could assemble a large enough group of steppe warriors (one of the main military weakness of steppe societies, like most non-state peoples, being maintaining large group-size). Steppe nomad armies could move very fast at the operational or strategic level and could bring their logistics (read: herds) with them, giving them tremendous flexibility anywhere there was sufficient pasturage (which to be fair, was not everywhere, but it was a huge band of land stretching over Eurasia). Meanwhile, just the regular tactics of mounted steppe warfare (which in turn relied heavily on the tactics of the hunt) placed agrarian armies under tremendous psychological stress. This military package was very effective.

Now, we also do need some caveats on the difference between the popular perception of the dominance of steppe nomads and their actual performance. Put bluntly: the Mongols are not typical of steppe nomads in terms of scale or success. Quite the opposite: while Mongol military power is deeply rooted in Steppe subsistence patterns, a great deal of their success is rooted in Chinggis’ willingness to radically rework elements of Mongol culture, particularly to resolve scalability issues. Scalability is one of the major limits of non-state actors: systems of organization that work well for smaller groups often don’t scale up to very large groups; the success of the state as an institution is that it scales up very well (sidenote: in practice, Ibn Khaldun’s concept of asabiyah is all about the failure of clan solidarity to scale-up effectively to a state-level). Chinggis radically remade parts of Mongol culture to resolve some of these problems. He functionally abolished the traditional Steppe hierarchy, substituting it with a merit-based system under his control. He also implemented a ‘decimal’ system of organization with systematically obliterates pre-existing clan and tribal distinctions and power structures, instead tying them all directly to him. All of this works to resolve these scale issues, but also make the Mongols fairly unique as a Steppe polity. In short: not every Steppe society could do this.

(Note: missing from this list of reforms is anything to deal with Steppe partible inheritance – the tradition that all heirs are equally entitled to, and may split, the inheritance. That cultural practice plays a key role in the relatively rapid fragmentation and disintegration of Chinggis’ empire after his death.)

Interestingly, one thing Paul does is a set of Chinggis-style organizational reforms to allow for larger group-size. Rather than become a Naib himself, he essentially creates a political/religious position above the Naibs and his training of a core of elite troops resembles Chinggis’ establishment of a bodyguard drawn across tribal lines.
The one thing he does not do is break up the Sietch-based organization of the Fremen. Given that Alia faces a revolt from this very source, one imagines that doing so may have been wise.

We should also note that Steppe nomad effectiveness did not guarantee the ability to successfully operate offensively beyond the Steppe. China – severely exposed to the Eurasian Steppe – provides a clear example. Periods of nomad dominance are actually rare and the most severe threats to most dynasties (as long as you aren’t the Song) were other settled states – and indeed, mostly other Han Chinese peer competitors at that. As with Rome (where the greatest threat was the Sassanian peer-competitor), for most Chinese states, the greatest threat was meeting yourself: another sophisticated, highly stratified, wealthy Chinese state. Consider the timeline (I should note this is a vast simplification and the territory that defines ‘China’ in each of these periods changes a lot, but for the purpose of demonstrating this point, it will serve):

  • 771-221: Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period. Intense state on state conflict overshadows Steppe threat.
  • 221-207: Qin Dynasty. China unified under an agrarian, non-nomadic state.
  • 202BC – 220AD: Han dynasty. China unified under an agrarian, non-nomadic state.
  • 220-280: Three Kingdoms Period. Intense state on state conflict overshadows Steppe threat.
  • 280-386: Jin Dynasty. China unified under an agrarian, non-nomadic state.
  • 420-589: Northern and Southern dynasties. Northern China controlled to c. 550 by Wei; Dynasty is founded by Xianbei Steppe peoples, but sinicizes.
  • 581-618: Sui Dynasty. China unified under an agrarian, non-nomadic state.
  • 618-907: Tang Dynasty. China unified under an agrarian, non-nomadic state.
  • 900-1270: Division. Steppe nomads (Liao, Jurchin, Xi Xia) control significant parts of China, while the most populous areas remain under the control of the Song dynasty, a Han Chinese agrarian, non-nomadic state.
  • 1270-1368: Yuan Dynasty (Mongols): Complete Steppe nomad control over China.
  • 1368-1644: Ming Dynasty. China unified under an agrarian, non-nomadic state.
  • 1636-1912: Qing Dynasty. While not Han Chinese, the Manchus were largely not nomads, but agrarian peoples who had been settled for some time.

Counting it all up, that’s 98 years of complete (roughly) Steppe nomad control and another c. 540 years of partial nomadic control of Northern China (often far less than half of what we generally think of as China today). Out of a total of 2,683 years of history covered by the timeline. If we give half credit for years of partial control – quite generous given how limited some of that was – nomad control of China makes up about 13% of the timeline (less still, of course, if you include the span from 1912 to the present). Even allowing for the Qing – who, to be fair, certainly liked to represent themselves in some ‘Fremen’ ways – only brings us up to 24% of the total time-span. And remember what we said at the outset of this series: no one lives on marginal lands by choice. If you are in Inner Mongolia or Manchuria, it is by and large because you cannot fight your way into the more resource-rich parts of China proper – it is no great surprise that the Mongols eventually move the capital off the steppe. And for something between 87% and 76% of the time, that was the case for our Steppe Fremen: shut out of the resource rich territories of China, confined to raiding those areas for what could be plundered (and often with only limited success, given the long tenure of the polities that governed those resource-rich lands).

That record is little better than what our ‘Fremen’ achieved on the limes of the Roman Empire.

Your reminder that even against steppe nomads (but not the Mongols) these fellows – the professional, disciplined forces of well-organized agrarian states – generally still managed to hold the frontiers most of the time.
Also, I actually kind of love the Sarduakar hats.

That said, in parts of Central Asia, the Near East and India, Steppe nomads were far more successful. The Near East in particular was tremendously exposed, geographically, to horse-borne nomads and was repeatedly overrun by them (I think part of the endurance of the myth of the unbeatable Fremen has to do with the relative prominence of the Near East compared to Southern, Eastern or South-Eastern Asia in many ‘World History’ curricula – the Near East, flanked by rough country on three sides is tremendously geographically vulnerable to non-state incursions). As long as we are realistic about our expectations, I think it is fair to say that Steppe nomads often lived up to their billing.

Well, for a time.

What do I mean by that? Well, as we just discussed, nomadic prowess was based on the peculiar intersection of military and subsistence systems: it works because the nomads fight as they hunt. In practice, that means that the power of Steppe nomads is not a general phenomenon, but a contingent one. It doesn’t hold prior to the development of the composite bow or the domestication of the horse for war. If we’re thinking in terms of chariots, that’s c. 2,000 BCE or so (possibly earlier), but the problem with chariots is that they’re expensive and agrarian states could make more of them, so it is really only with the advent of true cavalry (and horse archers), which start reaching the settled world in force in the 9th century BCE (but may have been in use on the Steppe itself as early as c. 4000 BCE). The window for the devastating Steppe nomad package thus really opens up around 1000 BCE with all of the technologies securely in place (and impactful enough that we can see them clearly in the historical record).

And, on the other end, railroads and advanced firearms slam the window shut, as the practice of war decouples from the practice of subsistence on the Steppe. Railroads in particular make the previously impassable Steppe suddenly navigable for armies, but in practice the shift in the balance of power happens even earlier than this. The Qing are able to break the back of steppe power (in part by using their own knowledge of the steppe logistics systems) in the 18th century. On the other end of the Eurasian Steppe, the Russians were accomplishing much the same at roughly the same time. I don’t want to get too in-the-weeds on this, but I think we can fairly say that by 1750, the window for the dominance of the steppe nomad package closes. That’s not to say steppe cavalry become instantly useless, but it will never again effectively compete with leading state powers.

Now, on the one hand, for any military system to be competitive for c. 2750 years is absolutely incredible. This is part of why I say that the Steppe nomads live up to their billing. On the other hand, the state emerges around 3100 BCE (in Egypt and Mesopotamia; this is a conservative date – there are smaller ‘petty’ states in these regions much earlier) and remains the most effective and dominant way to organize humans for war from then to the present. In the c. 5,000 year run of recorded history (which maps over the lifespan of the state as an innovation because of its connection to writing) the steppe nomad system is technologically viable for about half of it – a slice that shrinks every year. Whereas the state has been the dominant form of organizing humans for war for that entire span and remains so today.

Again: that’s not a criticism. That’s a long time to bat well above replacement! But it should put some perspective on the idea that even these most Fremen of the Fremen are somehow generally better at fighting: their system of war made them competitive, but not dominant, and only within a broad, but limited time-frame. Because it was never based on the aspects of the Mirage (purity born of poverty) which ought to offer a permanent advantage but instead based on specific skills and technologies which might be dominant for a time and then fade. The Mongols were absolutely the real deal, but they cannot save the Mirage, because their strength didn’t come from the Mirage.

Desert (and Jungle, and Forest, and…) Power

And that brings us to the modern era. Because it might be argued that, sure, maybe the Mirage never applied to the pre-industrial world – but maybe that is because the living conditions of the poor ‘Fremen’ and your average Roman farmer were never that far apart to begin with. What about now, when the different in quality of life between the richest and poor countries is absolutely massive? Now, I feel that, in light of what we’ve already discussed, this is a bad argument even before we get to application: the Mirage isn’t some modern idea being mistaken retrojected into the past, but in fact an ancient idea which seems to have never applied well, now being applied to the modern period where it makes even less sense. Nevertheless, the Mirage has absolutely been applied as a rubric for understanding non-Western armies in the modern period.

I am by no means the first to note that, particularly after some of the spectacular successes in what we might call wars of national liberation after the end of the Second World War, the trope of the Fremen Mirage was adapted to fit guerilla insurgents all the world over. The application of the Mirage by Europeans and Americans to ‘non-Western’ forces is actually even older than that: the surprising Japanese successes of late 1941 and early 1942 forced an American military establishment to suddenly re-evaluate its view of the Japanese (which had been, in the pre-war years, heavily informed by ideological ‘scientific’ racism which assumed a priori that the Japanese were genetically inferior and therefore would lack strong military capabilities). The sudden success prompted instead a reversion to an analytical script that already existed: the Japanese were reinterpreted as ‘barbaric’ ‘supermen’ unencumbered by Western morality – and there we see the Fremen Mirage again (on this, see for instance, D. Ford, “Dismantling the ‘Lesser Men’ and ‘Supermen’ Myths: US Intelligence on the Imperial Japanese Army after the Fall of the Philippines, Winter 1942 to Spring 1943.” Intelligence and National Security 24.4 (2009): 542-573).

In practice, once the initial period of shock wore off, the Imperial Japanese Army and the land forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy fought hard, but performed poorly, in part due to antiquated tactical doctrines and poor equipment, which in turn derived from a command structure that had embraced its own version of the Mirage and attempted to operationalized it (on this in the IJN, check out J. Parshal and A. Tully, Shattered Sword (2007), and also R. H. Spector At War at Sea (2002); also for the IJA, note S. Ienaga’s Pacific War (1978)). But many Westerners, viewing that initial success did what humans all too often do: they applied a pre-existing mental model – the Fremen Mirage – to a conflict without really checking to see if it fit.

And so too, the Mirage was summoned to explain non-Western fighters who – quite differently from the Imperial Japanese military – were not state actors at all, but insurgents and guerillas. After all, the Mirage was a model of thinking that – thanks to nearly a full century of use as a tool of European (and American) nationalism – was readily available to Western journalists, politicians and strategic thinkers. It was an idea, near to hand, that they fell back on to explain the otherwise unexplainable: the apparent inability of Western armies to win easy victories against non-Western foes. Which again – they had this model close to hand because it had been baked in to much of the teaching of history in the 19th century because of how foundational it was to the nationalisms of the day.

While I have more than my share of quibbles with Max Boot’s Invisible Armies (2013), he does a good job of documenting the almost bipolar shift from regarding modern insurgents as easily disposed military nuisances to movements composed of unstoppable supermen hardened by the conditions in their (often colonial) homelands. While this new version of the Mirage has its quirks, it falls back on many of the same tropes: the guerillas (or terrorists or insurgents more generally – there are real differences in these terms, but this trope gets applied equally to all of them, so I’ll leave breaking these down for another day) are assumed to be more religiously and morally dedicated than state forces, more tolerant of casualties, more willing to engage in brutal but effective violence, more inured to harsh conditions and poor diets and thus better fighters and more likely to win. Note how I say assumed – you functionally never see anyone try to assess these questions carefully (anyone who assumes Western armies aren’t willing to inflict violence on the level of, say, ISIS must not have been paying attention in either World War). This is a set of assumptions and intellectual categories I should hope by this point we can recognize: it’s the Fremen Mirage again, being applied – because it is the idea easily available and near-to-hand – to yet another group of non-Western fighters, quite apart from how well they actually fit the trope.

Assessing the strength of insurgents and terrorists is susceptible to the same problem as our pre-modern non-state peoples: failed insurgencies and terrorist movements are forgotten, while only the successes are remembered. Insurgencies that draw great attention as going concerns slide out of the news as they wind down unsuccessfully. Boot’s book is a useful corrective to this view, noting that in 443 insurgencies in the modern era, almost two-thirds unambiguously failed and only about a quarter appear to have unambiguously succeeded. Even this, I would argue, gives insurgents a bit of the benefit of the doubt, because Boot’s focus on modern insurgencies in his calculation (he discusses, but does not count pre-modern insurgencies and non-state actors in his book) means that he is mostly sampling the explosion of successful insurgencies which coincided with decolonization and the Cold War, where collapsing European colonial empires and readily available international support (from either side of the Cold War) created ideal conditions for such insurgencies to succeed. I want to note what that means for some of the core assumptions above: that the insurgent is supposedly more dedicated, more willing to stick to the conflict, more willing to take casualties, more willing to put up with bad conditions – evidently not, since most insurgencies are outlasted by the states they fight.

Pictured: the winners of the majority of insurgencies. I’m going to be honest, if you ask me if I’d rather have an army of desert-hardened badasses armed only with the weapons they can scavenge, or an army of decadent butterfly-dress wearing avocado-toast-eaters with modern, industrial firepower, I will grab the giant butterfly hat, every time. If for no other reason than we know how to train soldiers a lot faster than we understand how to build the vast industrial infrastructure necessary to sustain modern war.

(I should note that this fact – that most insurgencies fail – strikes me as still being underappreciated in the broader Counter-Insurgency (COIN) literature, although that literature has gotten much better over time (read especially E. Simpson, War from the Ground Up (2012); but for a quick primer, check out Lee, Waging War (2016), ch. 14.). The risk is the same cognitive bias that leads people to trust folk-medicine: ‘I took this and got better’ sounds great until you remember that most people who get sick get better naturally. You need a large sample size and careful analysis to figure out if what you took made you get better, or if you just happened to get better anyway. It strikes me this is a weakness, for instance, of J. Nagl’s (very influential) Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (2005), which sets out the classic comparison of COIN operations between British Malaya and the USA in Vietnam, but there are so many confounding variables in both stories.)


When we started this series, we set out to assess the validity of a certain model of history, which at its root posited that history functions in cycles, whereby successful societies, made wealthy by their success inevitably are weakened by that wealth and success and overcome by more supposedly ‘pure’ poorer societies which then repeat the process, unable to halt or arrest its motion. That simple assumption contains within it all sorts of complexities: the idea that poverty makes for better fighters, or more morally pure people, the concept of ‘decadence’ and its effects (which seem always to be framed in terms of panic about declining masculinity among a society’s men) and so on.

With luck, we’ve shown that all of these assumptions are part of the same coherent whole: they are corollaries and extrapolations of each other. The simple version of the Fremen Mirage contained in the oft-repeated Hopf quote (given above) assumes all of those other components – indeed, it makes little sense without them, because the Mirage is not the product of a careful reading of history, but the successive pigeon-holing of one society after another into a literary trope that never described any of them well. This is important to stress here at the end of all of this because the temptation for those attached to parts of the Mirage is to attempt to salvage this or that conclusion from the entire sinking ship. But it cannot be done. The Mirage is broken at the keel, at its foundation – the ship’s super-structure may not be made more seaworthy by sawing it off the hull.

And indeed, the fractures in the Mirage run all the way up. As we saw with the Romans, the assumption that wealth and decadence decay masculinity and military power falls flat: the very Romans complaining about decadence and codifying the very Mirage we’re tracking were writing not in the twilight of their civilization but at the dawn of a long period of power and effectiveness. Thier own future defies the theories they advanced. Meanwhile, our Fremen consistently fail to live up to their billing. The lone set of real exceptions – the steppe nomads – do manage to punch above their weight, but for reasons that have nothing to do with ‘hard times’ and everything to do with a window of time during which a very specific pattern of subsistence mapped very well onto a very specific pattern of war.

And yet the Fremen Mirage still influences quite a lot of modern thinking I see, particularly in the popular rather than professional understanding of history. And popular history matters! Those mental models are how we make decisions as a society, so it behooves us to keep them accurate! You can see the influence of the Mirage in assumptions about the invincibility of modern terrorists and guerillas, as well as assertions that the only way to defeat those enemies is to become more Fremen like them – something that even a limited acquaintance with modern thinking on COIN suggests is deeply untrue (again, check out Simpson, War from the Ground Up, cited above). The Mirage suggests a vision of war where victory goes to the ruthless and brutish, where sophistication is a liability and deep strategy is for pencil-necked nerds who can’t kick in doors. Needless to say, brutality without strategy is rarely successful, and modern war requires sophistication in spades to manage its ever-growing complexity. Brutal et continu wasn’t a great way to run a war in 1917; it hasn’t gotten any smarter since.

The Mirage also expresses itself in assumptions about the inevitability and irreversibility of social decline, where a state or society is imagined as being like a person, who ages predictably and in only one direction. I routinely encounter people who assume that decline, once having set in, is irreversible; that supposedly ‘decadent’ societies cannot be redeemed, but can only be conquered from the outside by more effective and morally pure Fremen. I can’t help but notice that this discourse dominates quite a lot of declinism in American thinking, with the assumption that virtue can never be regained (which assumes that it has been lost in the first place!) and all that is possible is a doomed rear-guard action against the inevitable forces of decay, decadence and decline. The Roman experience should caution us against such a simplistic view: a state that declined and revived multiple times and – despite being the cultural model for decadence in the West – showed little signs of succumbing to it. Assuming decline is a mono-directional and irreversible process closes the door to both historical understanding and effective responses to modern problems.

As a tool to understand our history or our world now, the Fremen Mirage is worse than useless.

I thought, “I need a picture for something worse than useless.” The Harkonnen soldiery suggested itself.
Seriously, these fellows seem poorly motivated, poorly trained and fight about how you’d expect. Turns out, force and contempt are poor substitutes for cohesion!

It is also, of course, only one part of a broader cultural discourse. A few of you have noted in the comments how the Fremen Mirage actually shares quite a few elements with the twin Myths of Sparta. Both have their roots in ancient literary tropes which never, in the event, described ancient history very well. Both speak to a concern about the decline in a certain form of masculinity and consequent decline in fighting capabilities (which honestly gets a bit funny when you think of how unmasculine your average Spartiate – effectively unemployed, concerned about his appearance, especially his long hair, and mostly preferring the company of other men to women – would seem by some modern standards; what counts as ‘masculine’ it turns out, changes a lot with the times). Both associate a certain kind of poverty or asceticism with both military prowess and moral virtue (despite the Spartan’s apparent lack of both). They both equate a sort of unsophistication, or even willful ignorance, with a kind of ‘hard’ virtue that produces good soldiers. And, finally, both value those things to the absolute exclusion of any other kind of achievement, praising ruthlessness and detachment from traditional morality in pursuit of this kind of supposed virtue (it is no accident, as a side note, that the Spartan Mirage and the Fremen Mirage both have their renaissance in Europe during the period of Romanticism).

Taken collectively, I think these are two parts of a broader way of thinking about the world in general, and military performance in particular: what I call the Cult of the Badass. That’s a theme I have no doubt we’ll return to in the future, because it is a hydra with many heads and here we have only cauterized two of them. But it is always striking to me how fiercely the Cult of the Badass is held to by its believers, and how poorly it describes actual military success (or any kind of success, really). It is just a singularly unhelpful, counter-productive way to think about military power or state success.

Instead, the lesson of the Fremen Mirage is not a lesson about decline or purity or ‘hard times’ or ‘strong men,’ but rather a lesson about the ways that we understand and misunderstand history. As humans, we are conditioned to think in terms of stories, and as a story, the Fremen Mirage, which turns all of history into a morality play wherein wealth and greed lead to defeat while austerity leads to victory – it is a very attractive story. And so it is all too easy, if we are careless, to let our story – with its roots and motives unexamined – define our understanding of the actual events, rather than the other way around, to treat our hypothesis as dogma and shape our evidence accordingly.

This tendency – like the Fremen Mirage itself – is a trap. And knowing where the trap is – that’s the first step to evading it.

79 thoughts on “Collections: The Fremen Mirage, Part IV: Desert Power

  1. I don’t have a good caption for this, I just realize like this scene and wanted to put it in somewhere.

    ITYM “really”.

    Given that Alia faces a revolt from this very source, one images that doing so may have been wise.

    ITYM “imagines”. Also, is there a “not” missing after “may”?

    Thanks for all these posts.


  2. There is a line about science fiction “A lot of science fiction is really about the present, not the future.”

    Reading your blog I am wondering if this is true of a lot of history also.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is absolutely the case, I think a lot about the Dunning School of confederate apologia being used as a justification for segregation and white supremacy

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “no one lives on marginal lands by choice”: Well, sometimes there are too many parasites in the valley bottoms, so you move up to the nice clean hills. There are all kinds of land which can support a good life, but not high-density or in a way that someone can shear the workers to pay for fancy toys.

    I notice that Roman historians usually like Rome, and assume that everyone else must have been trying to be Rome but failing to a greater or lesser extent. But most empires and dynasties are much less successful, and if you start to consider the possibility that ancient people were just as divided about the good life and just as willing to switch cultures or subsistence strategies to achieve it as people in the last few hundred years, a richer and less teleological world opens up. Between 3000 and 1000 BCE, what percentage of humanity is subject to a powerful king (we don’t know, but we can give an order of magnitude)? And given how interconnected Bronze Age Eurasia was, why might people have made that choice?

    I think what you are saying about Rome and the barbarians is fine, but your base of evidence is a bit too narrow for the bigger argument you are making.


    1. There’s the classic Chinese story of Confucius meeting a woman bewailing her son, eaten by a tiger, and how so many of her relatives had been eaten by tigers, and asking why she didn’t live closer to civilization.

      “Because there are no oppressive officials here.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. From which the handy chinese expression “A harsh government is more terrible than a tiger (苛政猛于虎)” derives. It is perhaps unsurprising that the culture with the longest record of a unitary state has a lot to say about its good and bad parts.

        In any case, this whole series was a fantastic read, as always. I’m sad to have almost caught up now with this blog but excited to see where it goes next.


  4. > that a lack of wealth and sophistication leads to moral purity, which in turn leads to military prowess

    From my reading, regarding the hard men meme in current the pop-culture, I don’t think I’ve seen moral purity as a reason to military prowess, rather living/surviving under harsh circumstances forged hard men (or just racial superiority created those hard men) and those hard men, stronger than their neighbors, won military victories over them. Moral purity/superiority leading to military prowess might have been present in older versions of the myth, though.

    The top part of the Sarduakar hats look like the berets of the French mountain fighter (chasseurs alpin), which is larger than usual and worn sideway.

    Anyway, the series has continued to be highly instructive, entertaining and easy to read (my nitpicking aside), so thank you!


    1. For me, the Sardaukar headgear is most reminiscent of 16th century Landsknecht fashion, which often featured a wide brim worn over a linen cap that could be tied to the chin. The technical term is Tellerbarett, “plate beret”, and some iterations had a fairly thick brim. Often hid a cerveillere.


  5. I’ve wondered if the classical world’s promotion of the austere, even ascetic life had anything to do with the fact that Ancient Greece and Latinium weren’t the easiest places in the world to make a living. They wouldn’t be the first to make a virtue out of necessity.
    The truth of course is that affluence is a Good Thing. That higher standards of living including better nutrition makes individuals stronger not scarcity.


    1. Well it is rich people writing for other rich people, so neither the author or the audience has a hard life (for the time).


      1. In an ancient/classical/medieval society, when you’re poor, abstemious living means “increased risk of literally starving or dying of exposure.” Your main luxury indulgences are “have more protein in your diet” or “get to take a day off of the back-breaking grueling manual labor.”

        When you’re rich, abstemious living means “getting some freaking exercise, not binge-drinking yourself into a stupor every night, and keeping your sex life moderate enough that you’ve got a chance of avoiding whatever STDs are going around.” Your main luxury indulgences are things that, while they may make you happy, will not do much if anything to preserve or lengthen your life or health.

        It is perhaps unsurprising that rich people talking to other rich people in those days would praise abstemious living, when it means something entirely different in their frame of reference than it would to a poor farmer

        Liked by 1 person

    2. That was part of the tradition back to Herodotus, but nasty buzzkilling archaeologists have discovered that southern Greece was one of the richest places in the world around 500 BCE, and Latium was some of the richest parts of the world around 180 BCE: lots of stone architecture, lots of bronze and iron, tall bodies with relatively few signs of disease and hunger in cemeteries. The health declines as Rome gets its hobnailed boot firmly planted on the rest of the Mediterranean, but that is another story. So this is brilliant as long as it focuses on Greeks and Romans and their neighbours and on the narrow definition of the Fremen Mirage.

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  6. (anyone who assumes Western armies aren’t willing to inflict violence on the level of, say, ISIS must not have been paying attention in either World War).

    The obvious rejoinder is that Western armies are much less willing to inflict large-scale violence than they were in the 1940s, so whilst Western armies may not be inherently less violent, Western armies in 2020 are. When’s the last time you heard anybody even remotely near any levers of power advocate that we deal with ISIS by carpet-bombing their cities or pumping mustard gas into their fortifications?


    1. So…we didn’t stop using carpet bombing and mustard gas because we suddenly got moral. We stopped using them because they didn’t achieve objectives. The scholarship on the effect of strategic bombing in WWII is complex, but it ranges from “It accomplished objectives it didn’t intend to, while failing at its stated objectives” to “It failed and was bad.” Overy, Why the Allies Won (1995) provides a good run-down on that.

      Likewise, chemical weapons were dumped because they were understood not to have worked – they slowed down the attacker as much as the defender.

      On the flip side, we sure didn’t give up bombing! We’re still bombing quite a lot even now! Check out the figures: keeping in mind that those figures are what journalists can put together, *not* official tallies (which are not disclosed) and that the strike-and-casualty figures thus represent lower bounds. That’s what we’re doing when we are ostensibly at *peace.* We just don’t hear about it.

      With luck we’ll never know, but I strongly suspect that – given a high stakes (much less existential) war – you’d find that the West hasn’t lost its willingness to inflict high levels of violence. What it has done is refined the means of inflicting that violence to a razor’s edge. The only difference is that we haven’t had a ‘big’ war in a while.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I recall riding a bus with a guy who was complaining about some device he had worked on being used for targeting bombs. I pointed out that it certainly beats not targeting your bombs.

        We didn’t exactly become moral, but morality was a part of why we stopped using carpetbombing and mustard gas—it wasn’t effective enough to be worth the “moral hazard”. The more effective alternatives are also morally, therefore politically, preferable. Just because the motive for the shift isn’t purely moral doesn’t mean it isn’t moral at all.


      2. My impression is that chemical weapons weren’t used in WW2 because of MAD, more or less, and that the same is still more or less true today. They were stockpiled and available for use, but nobody wanted to pull that trigger. Much the same as nukes today, really. And to this day, they still see use in conflicts where exactly one side has the ability to use them (Hussein, Assad, etc.), and where there’s no outside protector who’ll defend the side without them if they get gassed. (This is what Obama was trying to imply with his “red line” comment, but obviously that didn’t stop their use)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. There is no weapon yet developed that humans will not use in extremis.

          Chemical weapons just aren’t very effective for the sorts of missions an army might be doing (outside of one notable exception). Chemical munitions are a lot less useful against military targets: most vehicles are hardened against them, your target is likely to have protective equipment and be alert and able to maneuver away from the gas. Moreover, chemical munitions driven by wind and air patterns are unreliable and difficult to target. Finally, to the degree that they disable enemy forces, they are also likely to disable friendly forces maneuvering against those enemies. Since the modern system of warfare relies so heavily on rapid maneuver, chemical weapons just don’t fit.

          They’re equally useless in COIN operations, since you have no way of targeting them effectively against enemy militants.

          They’re only really useful against 1) large, unprepared armies of poorly equipped infantry operating in the open (e.g. Iran-Iraq war) or 2) as weapons of terror against civilian populations (e.g. Syria). They continue to be used – with very little compunction – in both sets of situations. But a modern (in equipment, training and tactics, not periods: the Syrian army exists in the modern era, but it is not modern in the way that the US Army is modern) military has much more powerful means of accomplishing objective (1) (see: First Gulf War) and generally sees (2) as counter-productive for their mission profiles.


      3. In the modern world, I agree. In WW2, where terror weapons were used in extraordinary quantity against civilian populations, #2 was clearly not counter-productive for the mission profile. We need another explanation for why London and Berlin weren’t turned into green clouds, and I think MAD is the only plausible one.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Isn’t that the crux of a lot of the modern ‘mirage’ narrative though? That ‘The West’ has tried to keep its conflicts at arm’s length and doesn’t treat modern wars as being as ‘high stakes’ as they used to. Whereas the insurgents (be they Viet Cong/NVA, Mujahideen or modern Jihadists etc.) do treat the conflict as ‘high stakes’, and so they are more willing to go ‘all in’, which gives them an advantage.

        Note, I’m not saying I necessarily agree with the sentiment (tbh, I don’t know enough to draw a firm opinion on the subject). But that’s a narrative/explanation I’ve seen put forward (especially regarding Vietnam iirc, that the North was willing to trade bodies on very unfavourable terms, until the US got tired of coffins coming home).


        1. I think the ‘Fremen mirage’ has some big pieces over and above just “the modern guerilla fighter takes the conflict more seriously.” Because the ‘mirage’ isn’t just talking about the power of motivation, it’s talking about the idea that the Fremen are *objectively superior men,* at least for the purpose of winning wars.

          The idea that motivation confers advantages is separate from this, and is found in many areas, not just in the military cult of the badass.


          1. Except that’s directly part of the mirage as laid out in this article:

            “While this new version of the Mirage has its quirks, it falls back on many of the same tropes: the guerillas…are assumed to be more religiously and morally dedicated than state forces, more tolerant of casualties, more willing to engage in brutal but effective violence, more inured to harsh conditions and poor diets and thus better fighters and more likely to win”

            So the ‘Fremen’ is more dedicated to the cause, and hence more likely to win.

            The key point seems to be ‘more tolerant of casualties’ not ‘more willing to engage in violence’. The argument (and again, I don’t know enough to assert its validity, just that it’s one I’ve heard and seems to have at least a superficial ring of truth to it) goes that the West is no longer ‘tough’/motivated enough to face the reality of war (and the inevitable casualties), and so loses to the guerrilla/Fremen, not because they’re less willing to kill, but they’re less willing to die (again, most apparent in accounts of Vietnam, where the Americans lost the will to fight (and hence the war) despite taking only a tiny percentage of the casualties North Vietnam did). It’s this part of the modern mirage which seems to be most accurate, and isn’t really addressed by either this article or the follow up comment by Dr Devereaux.


      5. I’m pretty sure you’re wrong about chemical weapons – had we had a (non or only mildly nuclear) World War III between NATO and the Soviet Union, chemical warfare would certainly have happened in it. It’s not that it kills a ton of people, but it makes everything slow and annoying.

        SImilarly, chemical warfare would have been useful in some situations in World War II, but the combination of some reluctance about retaliation and Hitler’s personal distaste kept it from happening (I believe Churchill had to be reined in, because he never saw a chemical weapon he didn’t like).


        1. Except that ‘slow and annoying’ is against doctrine for both the USSR and the USA.

          You can actually see the same debate currently with the USA thinking about the use of landmines outside of Korea (e.g.: ). A weapon-system that makes everything slow and annoying isn’t attractive if your land-warfare doctrine is about speed and maneuver.

          Both the USA’s Airland Battle and the Soviet Union’s Deep Battle doctrines are about rapid maneuver and encirclement on both the tactical and operational level. Deploying gas munitions in that environment is more likely to hamper your own forces, making the battlefield more static. But both systems want *dynamic* battlefields. And unlike landmines, which are predictable and long-term area-denial weapons that can be maneuvered around, gas is unpredictable (because wind), while providing no permanent deterrent.

          And that’s the problem with gas as an interdiction A2/AD weapon: you can’t be sure, at the sort of close-quarters where it might be useful, that it will only effect the enemy and won’t prohibit your *own* motion. That’s part of why you do see chemical weapons employed, for instance, in the Iran-Iraq war – the fighting was relatively static and neither combatant had a modern maneuver doctrine (and the stunning liability of having a static combat doctrine would be demonstrated in 1991).

          I’d also note that the ability to cause casualties with gas is often overrated by folks who aren’t in the weeds of the numbers. It’s not clear how many people, for instance, Assad has killed with chemical weapons – it’s probably in the low thousands. But his conventional tools – barrel bombs, death squads and starvation – have killed a couple *hundred* thousand people. And that’s against unhardened civilian targets – chemical casualties against prepared military forces (hard targets) drop much faster than conventional weapons.

          For more on this, check out M. Meselson, “The Myth of Chemical Superweapons” in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (1991) (this link: hopefully will send you there).

          Quote, “Because well-protected personnel are far less vulnerable to chemicals than they are to the effects of an equal weight of conventional high-explosive weapons, using chemicals in combat is generally not an effective way to cause casualties….perhaps these weapons did their greatest harm by instilling fear in civilians and soldiers, a dread perpetuated by ill-informed reports that ignored or underestimated the effectiveness of modern antichemical protection.”

          As Meselson notes, it is well within the capabilities of any leading state to equip and prepare even their *civilians* to withstand chemical attack, making the only viable target for these weapons ill-prepared, third-world armies (which collapse even faster to modern conventional maneuver war) and defenseless civilians in poor countries.

          So to recap: we do not use chemical weapons, because chemical weapons achieve no goal we find useful. That would have been equally true had the cold war gone hot. We don’t use them because they don’t work.


      6. > So…we didn’t stop using carpet bombing and mustard gas because we suddenly got moral.

        That is not true in the case of poison gas. Only Germany and Japan used it in WW2, and against enemies they considered racially inferior, that is, non-human. Moral standards when bombing cities progressively dropped during WW2, as can be seen for instance by the ever vaguer definitions of acceptable targets in use by the RAF. Thucydides would not have been surprised when learning about this.

        I’m sure you would not dispute that Western warfare has long been highly ritualized. We just don’t notice the rituals because we take them for granted and get outraged when they are violated (with some double-standards). Western soldiers have died to defend their colors, granted the honors of war to surrendering opponents and followed prohibitions against raping civilians or enslaving enemy prisoners.

        While I do not believe the failure of Western armies in more recent conflicts like the war in Afghanistan is chiefly caused by insufficient brutality, they certainly have handicapped themselves by a long list of regulations that their enemies could exploit to their advantage (human shield tactics are but one example).


      7. Chemical weapons are not primarily about the battlefield, where people are protected and somewhat dispersed. What you want to do is soak rear areas, supply dumps, airfields, bases, and so on. There are unlikely to be many casualties, but now people have to work in protective gear, making everything take longer and be more exhausting.

        I’m not sure about whether things have changed since the 90’s, but when I did my military service, and from the literature then, this kind of chemical warfare was basically assumed. Not even a case of “maybe, maybe not”, but “this is what will happen”.


        1. So – the use case first. That is a sensible use-case, but so far as I can tell, not an *actual* use case. Chemical munitions in WWI targeted the front lines. As far as I’ve been able to find, most of Iraq’s use of chemical munitions in the Iran-Iraq war – the other large-scale usage – were aimed at front-line units, actively engaged in assaults, in order to stall those assaults out (exactly the use-case that the link I commented noted would just not work at all against say, a Soviet or American military formation with adequate chemical protection). And Assad isn’t aiming his chemical munitions at rear areas to damage logistics, he’s aiming them directly at what he perceives as the enemy center of gravity: a civilian population, to sow terror and create large-scale refugee flows. This is also how (‘allegedly’ I guess, but the evidence seems strong) the Soviets used chemical weapons in Afghanistan – to terrorize specific civilian populations.

          So the use-case is potentially sensible – I can absolutely imagine states with this in the doctrine – but so far as I can tell, is never how these weapons were *actually* used, and I don’t know of any concrete examples where this was *actually* in the doctrine.

          As for US Military doctrine, we’ve had a no-first-use chemical weapons order since 1969, so I assume you don’t mean that we assumed that *we* would be using chemical weapons first. But the US military has – very sensibly – always left open the possibility that someone else would use them against us. We expected Soviet first-use in Europe (didn’t happen) and Iraqi first use in 1991 (didn’t happen) and 2003 (didn’t happen). Rational preparation is good! But when they told you “this kind of chemical warfare will happen” remember – it didn’t!

          American nuclear thinkers also, I should note, largely assumed the USSR had a nuclear-first-use doctrine (they didn’t and said so); Soviet thinkers assumed the USA had a nuclear-first-use doctrine (we didn’t, and said so). This particular kind of thinking (a form of strategic mirroring) is really common.


        2. Anyway, this discussion has been great. I think I’m going to write something a bit more substantive on this topic for the blog in the next few weeks. If you have any bibliography you want to send my way, feel free to hit me up with it!


      8. Yes, I agree about this – that was “this is what we assume about the Soviet attack” (which, let’s not forget, in some plans included an opening>/i> nuclear salvo against non-nuclear powers as pure shock and proof of willingness to use them). And an intriguing thing about the stigma against NBC weapons is that for the major powers, it’s just not worth it to use it in anything but all-out war.

        Meanwhile, actual>/i> use is/was against Abyssinia, Iran, Syrian rebels and so on (Churchill wanted it against basically everyone but never got it). But that doesn’t mean it’s redundant against a modern opposing force, if you’re going all in.

        Liked by 1 person

      9. If you think the Soviets didn’t have nuclear first strikes in at least some of their military planning, you should look up plans like Seven Days to the River Rhine, which nukes cities in Denmark, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and Italy in the opening salvo (including utterly non-military targets like Roskilde in Denmark for pure terror purposes). Yes, 7DttRR is theoretically a response to a NATO nuclear attack in Poland, but I think everyone regarded that as a mere fig leaf even at the time (although it’s very interesting that the Soviets were clearly willing to do a cynical “everyone gets to hit the other side’s non-nuclear allies” policy).


        1. I mean yes, but the US had “Plan Totality,” which included ‘drop 20-30 nuclear bombs on the USSR,’ in late 1945 when the Soviets didn’t have the Bomb and we thought they were like ten years away from it.

          Both sides of the Cold War *planned* nuclear first strikes. That doesn’t mean their doctrine included a situation under which they would use those strikes, or that they made those plans with the intention of carrying them out.

          Also, the idea that the US would have spared targets in Eastern European non-nuclear countries such as Poland and Hungary from nuclear attack seems… well, it seems like a pretty serious underestimation of the Department of Defense, if only because there would be a lot of targets in those countries that were critical supply and transportation nodes for the Soviet armies expected to come roaring over the East German border.

          I honestly suspect that the only reason we can’t casually look up US nuclear war plans that involve nuking Poland just like we can look up Soviet plans that involve nuking West Germany and Denmark is because the US government didn’t collapse and it still has better control over its old classified archives.


          1. I always assumed this; every decade or so a story makes the rounds that the Pentagon has plans to invade Canada, which they update every ten years or so. Conscientious military planners plan for unlikely foes and situations both because politicians be crazy (yours and theirs) and because seriously looking at unusual matchups can help reveal edge cases that will otherwise surprise you at the worst time.


      10. Oh, and unless i completely misremember, this kind of suppression chemical warfare is used in John Hacket’s The Third World War, and while that isn’t proof of anything, it at least it goes to show that it was widely assumed at the time.


  7. Seeming typo, “system of organization with systematically obliterates” should maybe be “which systematically obliterates”?

    And I was actually going to say when you first mentioned them, that the Mongol Horde was basically a sort of non-territorial state, and so has an asterisk by its record as successful “Fremen”.


  8. Have just discovered this blog, and read all the ‘fremen’ series, and I’m loving your writing – have learned so much. Obviously anyone with such an appreciation of silly hats and a love of cheesy sci-fi knows what’s up;)

    Now it seems I’m gonna find out some shit about Spartans…

    Oh, and you might be missing a ‘ly’ here:

    “…some modern idea being mistaken[LY] retrojected into the past…”


  9. Am I right that apart from the Parthians agrarian societies haven’t made much use of horse archers? Is there a reason? (I can see that they’re easier to develop if horse archery is how you hunt, but I can’t see that they’re harder to train and maintain than other dedicated military classes.)


    1. Quite a few agrarian societies developed horse archers. But the skills to do effective horse archery are almost impossible to train: good horse archers are *raised*, so you either need a military aristocracy focused on that kind of warfare, or a society where mounted archery is a life-skill trained from a very young age. In practice that means your society either affords you this kind of warrior, or it does not (though some places did develop their own horse archers, although they often performed more poorly than the ‘brand-name’ steppe fellows).

      That said, agrarian societies often found they could *buy* horse archers as well – the Romans and the Han both did this, enlisting steppe nomads as auxiliaries to their armies.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. As a former Ancients wargamer I would make a distinction between “light” horse archer steppe nomads such as Scythians, Huns, Seljuks, and Mongols; and other cavalry archers.

      Nomads taking over agrian societies from Iran to Egypt usually kept mounted archery but adopted armour and bigger horses, and hence new tactics.

      I’d suggest that this is because nomad archers really need the whole lifestyle to become effective, and have a very low population density. Horses always use up more space and resources than humans. If your state is not steppe nomad you’re going to lose all the other operational and logistic advantages anyway, so if you’re going to “waste” farmland on cavalry, you might as well extract more value with bigger horses and armoured riders. As Bret points out, you can buy nomads.

      The exception I find fascinating is the Byzantine empire around the 5th to 10th centuries, which used a lot of mounted archers. (Still usually armoured and better armed than nomads.) Are there explanations?


      1. Well, the Byzantines are best understood as an evolved form of the Roman Empire, and the Roman Empire had a professional military tradition. If you have a professional military, even as just the core of your armies that you assemble provincial levies around, then training that professional military to become horse archers is a bit more tenable.

        Plus, the Byzantines did have a landed, titled aristocracy. Which meant they could at least to some extent emulate the Parthians and train SOME of the sons of the nobility in horse archery to become ‘cataphracts with bows.’ I think that’s an important realization; when you see a sedentary society with horse archers, they are usually just like all the other sedentary societies that have a mounted knightly warrior caste, only in THEIR specific version the knightly warrior caste is allowed to use bows and arrows. Whereas Western European knights and Japanese samurai and suchlike generally did not do so.


        1. Samurai aren’t allowed to use bows? Kyujutsu is a thing and it’s associated with the samurai class, and it was sometimes practiced on horseback. ‘Yabusame’ is a shinto ritual that claims to date to the 12th century; the claim is that the shogun was unhappy with his samurais’ horse archer skills, and yabusame was a drill to improve those.

          The Japanese bow does have a grip that makes horseback use easier then European bows of the same size, but the low grip came first, then the horseback use.


          1. Coming back to this, I TOTALLY screwed up, YES samurai used bows. I knew that at the time of the previous post; I just had a horrific burst of absent-mindedness. That, or I was meaning to write something like “European knights, as opposed to Japanese samurai or ???, generally did not do so.”

            Sorry. 😦


    3. Both the Romans and Chinese introduced mounted archer units in response to experience fighting nomads.
      There are lots of other examples: Japan pre-samurai, post Mughal India and even the turcopoles of the crusaders.
      How good these were compared to the ‘real thing ‘ of the Steppes is debated but many agrarian countries had traditions of horse archery and there are some surviving military manuels.


    4. Parthians, Sassanids, Mamluks and Byzantines all used mounted archery (as did the medieval Japanese). It does require intensive training and constant practice, but so does most mounted warfare. The steppe advantage was in numbers and – for the Mongols – coordination. Most effective steppe armies included contingents of aristocrats on heavier horses, with more armour. Their role was to exploit the disorganisation produced by effective archery with a charge with lance and sword.

      A key steppe demand from neighbouring agrarian societies was grain to keep these heavier horses in greater numbers (along, of course, with luxury goods).


  10. >Except that the forest was no place to have a herd of animals – and thus no place for horses, horse archery or steppe logistics

    Agreed on the second part, but for the first – a forest is a very good place for a herd of pigs. There’s evidence that up until late medieval (deforestation) pigs were herded mostly in forests. In western Europe, forests were typically claimed by nobility and pork was associated with high status. So in some ways, forests were considered “rich lands”. Of course there’s no pig logistics and no pig cavalry.


    1. There also seems to have been a fair amount of forest grazing of sheep and cattle in the various systems of transhumance practiced in parts of Europe, e.g. the dehesas of Spain and montados of Portugal.


      1. (Actually since dehesa comes from Latin roots meaning “fenced off” it’s probably not directly related to the transhumant aspect of Spanish agriculture. Nevertheless, they kept not only pigs but even their fighting bulls in forests.)


  11. One area you could spend more time on is assassins, and their anti-republic mutation, terrorists (terrify the population where there’s no single figure to murder, and there are policies and institutions to elect new leaders). The order of assassins did eventually form a state, but my point is that through sheer dedication and ruthlessness you can achieve some political goals.

    “The murders of political adversaries were usually carried out in public spaces, creating resounding intimidation for other possible enemies.[97] Throughout history, many groups have resorted to assassination as a means of achieving political ends. The assassinations were committed against those whose elimination would most greatly reduce aggression against the Ismailis and, in particular, against those who had perpetrated massacres against the community. A single assassination was usually employed in contrast with the widespread bloodshed which generally resulted from factional combat. Assassins are also said to be have been adept in furusiyya, or the Islamic warrior code, where they were trained in combat, disguises, and equestrianism.[citation needed] ”

    I watched a documentary once and they were known for not giving a damn about getting caught, sometimes even laughing. They were fanatical enough that in some cases their agents were so determined to get close to the target they would spend *decades* building trust and social status.

    In modern times, suicide bombers had success in forcing all American troops to retreat from Lebanon in 1984. The documentary “Hypernormalisation” (chapters “The Human Bomb” and “A Cautionary Tale”) argues that since that time terrorism went out of control. If you watch some old movies, like the one with Chuck Norris, you can see practically no airport security.

    Even trucks and passenger cars are used as terror weapons.

    I think there’s a lot of overlap between terrorists and the qualities you describe as a part of the Fremen Mirage. Terrorism is commonly described as a weapon of the weak, poor and desperate. Like Palestinians trying to fight off Israel.

    Personally I think modern states haven’t figured out a good counter to terrorism. Developed countries like France and Germany are able to largely limit it and are successful in intercepting many attempts, but the public perception is that terrorism can strike from anywhere.


    1. Honestly, the “mostly ignore it unless you have a specific opportunity to target the terrorist organization either at home or abroad, unless it gets too big to ignore in which case mount a delimited punitive expedition” strategy seems to work fairly well. It *feels* like it’s working poorly because it has nonzero costs, but those costs may well be lower than the opportunity costs of the competing solutions.

      It’s not GREAT, but notice that international terrorism hasn’t had much of a success rate for the past 30-40 years or so that it’s been active. Like a lot of ‘Fremen myth’ things, it’s arguably a case where the supposed ‘Fremen’ get an exaggerated amount of credit for being powerful just from occasionally *not failing completely,* in a society where it is implicitly expected that they will always fail.

      Alternatively, it may well be that modern states HAVE figured out a good counter to terrorism, which is preventative maintenance. You counter epidemic diseases, not by having huge hospitals for plague victims, but by vaccinating against the disease. Maybe you counter terrorism, not by having gigantic strategies for taking out terrorists, but just by, y’know… figuring out what conditions create terrorism and making sure those conditions don’t happen.


  12. Doesn’t mafia embody many of the “Fremen” ideals? If you watch some Hong Kong movies, they’re chock-full of unwritten laws, codes of honor, brotherhood etc. My personal view is that criminal organizations must maintain cohesion through unwritten rules (and rule of fear) because any laws or rules that you write down are evidence and a potential sentence.

    Not all mafia/organized crime operates in poor areas, but poverty absolutely does lead to organized crime. In that sense, poverty can lead to badassery.

    There is the definition of a state that a state is an organization which has the monopoly for the use of force (and violence) in a given region. By that definition, a criminal organization can be considered a state. But isn’t that No True Scotsman fallacy? “Organized crime is not an example of successful Fremen mirage because organized crime is a form of state and therefore not Fremen”? You can change the rules on the fly using that tactic, and keep cherry picking the subset so that Fremen mirage can never be true.

    Also isn’t Russian Federation a criminal organization that scales very well? Common Russian people can be poor but very happy that the empire acts like a bully towards lesser states. Nationalism can be a good substitute for prosperity as far as state goals are concerned. There is a cult of war. Russian Federation has poor lands, mostly because of harsh winters and short growing period. Russians take pride in their ruggedness. There is a cult of heroes and vigilantes. A man lost a wife because a flight controller made a mistake and the plane crashed. So the man shot the flight controller, dealing justice himself. Russian society widely praised him, and he got a very small sentence.


  13. Also I think rebels (insurgents…) in general are worth their own whole part V of the Fremen Mirage. If only because Fremen map directly to Rebels in Star Wars. Star Wars was strongly inspired by Dune.


  14. Has the Mirage changed in the late 20th / early 21st centuries to a third form? Now it’s gone back to being about the decadence of existing institutions, but instead of a warning by elites to other elites it is now an appeal to the have-nots to overthrow them?

    I’m thinking specifically of the Westerners who joined ISIS. (Or maybe not just the Westerners.) I’m on the side of butterfly hats and avocado toast, so cannot understand what anyone, especially women, would see in ISIS. Yet they did.

    Transferring to Dune, this would explain where Muad’Dub gets the millions of recruits necessary to conquer the Imperium.


  15. I’ve greatly enjoyed this series, and ideas from it keep popping up in relation to my current reading — things I probably wouldn’t have particularly noted without it.

    I think that the most interesting example is a medieval European version of the Mirage, in the works of Honore Bonet (Bovet, etc.), best known (if at all) for “The Tree of Battles” (applying the Scholastic form to questions of proper military and chivalric behavior). According to one article, in another, satiric, work, he contrasted the soft and effete chivalry of France with the hard-living “Saracens,” by whom he seems to mean the early Ottoman Turks, in order to explain a recent, catastrophic, defeat. See Raymond L Kilgour, “Honoré Bonet: A Fourteenth-Century Critic of Chivalry.” PMLA, vol. 50, no. 2, 1935, pp. 352–361. JSTOR,


    1. In that connection, compare Shakespeare’s blatantly nationalistic Henry V, which contrasts the parodically effete French nobility with Hal’s “warriors for the working day, our gayness and our gilt are all besmirch’d with rainy marching in the painful field.”


  16. Discovered your blog a few days back and am tearing through it at a breakneck pace. Have read Siege of Gondor, GoT and Middle Ages and Fremen Mirage so far. Great content presented with a fantastic mix of authority and humour. Looking forward to reading about Sparta next.

    I have a significant interest in geopolitics and wonder if you share it too. If so, I would love to read your take on Afghanistan. The common myth about Afghans seems to be a variation of the Freman Mirage, viz an eternal stalemate in which they cannot defeat a modern army but neither will they accept defeat. While this does seem true for the last 50 years or so I wonder how much truth is in it over a longer time frame.


    1. I think the Fremen Mirage applied to Afghanistan is that Afghans, like Gurkhas, Circassians, Chechyans and Highlanders are a mountain people and therefore are warlike and battle hardened from young ages, whereas the truth is that the elevation and the roughness of the country make it difficult for large armies (especially unmechanized ones) to move around and live off the land while forcing them to use certain routes. This allows smaller, more mobile forces to either harrass the army and cut off its supplies, or avoid them all together until they declare victory and leave.

      It’s also worth noting that not all of Afghanistan is mountainous and nor has the country never been conquered. Kandahar, for example, was named after Alexander the Great and the country has been the center of various states and dynasties for millenia.


  17. While I agree with the overall thrust of the series (The Fremen Mirage is basically the Noble Savage myth), I will say that I’m not convinced that the hard times–good times–hard times meme is wrong. The people propagating it don’t think that decline is irreversible (well, some of them do, but they’re usually pretty fringe). The two biggest examples you cite to disagree with the meme are ancient Rome and Byzantium. However, when you look at Rome, the meme kind of holds–the hard times of the sack of Rome and wars with Carthage allow for the good times of the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, which create the conditions that lead to the Roman civil wars (which were pretty rough), and the polity that comes out of those hard times creates the conditions that allow for the good times of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.


    1. Even if good times and hard times occur entirely at random, if you zoom out to a large enough timescale, you will see a “pattern” of alternating bands of good and hard times. You’d still be able to stare at the historical record and come up with (placebo-effect) explanations for “why” the good times led to hard times, or didn’t.

      Good times can give rise to hard times if they result in bad policy choices, destruction of a resource required to sustain the good times, or some other major own-goal. But good times can also give rise to more good times, if the resources of the good times are invested well and if the right policy choices are made.

      Hard times can give rise to good times if the assets developed to fight hard during hard times are somehow turned against external enemies whose downfall benefits society. But hard times can also give rise to more hard times, for example when a civil war burns down the infrastructure of a society and destroys its future growth potential.

      The Mongol invasions were hard times for parts of the Middle East… but they were in effect PERMANENT hard times in some places, where the Mongols destroyed infrastructure or otherwise ensured that a particular place could never again rise to the same prominence it had enjoyed before.


  18. “Hard times make hard people” isn’t just something we believe on a societal level. It can sometimes be very personal. My father would sometimes talk about how his father (my grandfather), who lived through the Great Depression and WWII, was a “tougher” man than he himself. More willing and able to make sacrifices, more capable of handling a crisis, more self-sufficient… My father would then add that his grandfather (my great-grandfather) who grew up on a farm without electricity was a tougher man still.

    Does that sort of toughness lead to greater military success? Well, you’ve made a pretty compelling case that it does not. It’s still hard for me to reject the idea of “toughness”, though, which I guess you could distill down to the idea of someone more capable of carrying and thriving in the face of setbacks and tragedies.


    1. With respect to your father, grandfather, and great-grandfather… an alternate hypothesis:

      Something about our culture, up to your father’s time and perhaps to yours, causes people to idolize their fathers and dwell on the ways in which their fathers are superior, while ignoring any ways in which they might be inferior. Or compels men to conceal their weaknesses and project an aura of invincibility regardless of whether they are actually stronger or weaker in a meaningful sense. Or compels men to *choose to believe* that the bad things they endured in their life are necessary sacrifices that have made them stronger, and not just, y’know, bad things that happened.

      This may also be combined with a tendency to idolize rural living (such as your great-grandfather’s), or to tell tall tales emphasizing a father or grandfather’s moral and physical superiority out of a desire to “set an example” for sons.


  19. There’s a great youtube analysis of game of thrones (the show) released during season 5, which talks about how the show was going to be undone by the “Cult of the badass” that it was cultivating and its glorification of Heinleinian violence when the books were all about how messy and poor a solution Heinleinian violence was.


    1. Reading the comment, I guessed it was this video you were talking about. The same author wrote about the following seasons on the Twenty Sided blog if you want more of the same.


  20. Thanks for that informative series.

    I wonder, if you happen to know: Framing the US revolution as hardened frontiermen against decadent British empire, (while factually untrue, Eastern US had cities already) – did that happen later, during the Romantic/ Nationalistic changing of the Mirage?

    And was the racist re-interpretation of Fremen Mirage the reason that American writers always overlooked the Native Americans as Fremen Mirage, instead calling them savages to be eradicated? (Though the East Coast Natives whose graves and villages the Pilgrims plundered were also partial-agriculture, because the land was rich; the Fremen warriors were out in the plains which were too dry for farming).
    Do you count the 5 Nations Confederation as state-like?

    And yes, the threat, or rather, lack of threat, from other states helped USA: France selling of part of its territory because of 7 years war and similar; Span not caring about US stealing/ invading their territory because of trouble with other states elsewhere, otherwise, might the Native Americans have kept playing two sides against each other, as African new states did in the 1950s and 60 with Cold War, using closeness to USSR or USA to get maximum support?


    1. The trick here is that the frontiersmen are ‘fremen,’ too. They’ve chosen the rough, violent life on the frontier, and gained the ‘virtue’ such a life brings, but still have the backing of the ‘decadent’ American state.


  21. I wonder how much overlap there is in the believers in the Fremen Mirage and those who consider the poor — deprived of wealth and sophistication — to be essentially inferior humans. This is especially bizarre since most armies in industrialized countries don’t get the majority of their other ranks from wealthier elements of society.

    The Mongols were successful for several reasons, one of which was that they could simply move faster than could defending armies. A well organized messenger system may be able to get the message to the provincial headquarters 150 km away in two days, but it would take at least a week for the cavalry to arrive to the market town that was just looted, by which time the Mongols had gone, leaving large piles of heads and burned buildings behind. They could do this again a two weeks later at another market town, and repeat as needed. The second is that composite, recurved bows were the highest tech personal weapon of the age.

    Out of my vast historical ignorance, I’ll offer an alternative hypothesis for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire: it wasn’t the German barbarians, or the rise of Christianity, but the power of the army and its centrality in choosing the emperor, usually based on “bonuses” given to his legionary supporters.


    1. If there’s one thing I learned from this series, it’s that if someone claims “X” is the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire, the question you ask back should be, “Interesting. How long after X came into play did the Empire last then?”

      The centrality of the army in choosing the Emperor started with, what, Vespasian? I guess that’s when the rot set and and only (checks timeline) a mere 400 or so years later was the Western Empire finally done in by that practice.


      1. Well, I didn’t say it was a rapid process. 😉

        I don’t think the fall of Rome — which probably took several generations — was caused by those Fremen-ish barbarians. Those barbarian invasions were more symptoms than causes, although, analogous to opportunistic infections in a hospital patient, they quickened the end.


  22. Other comments on several of the posts in this series have hinted in this direction, but it seems like you’ve left a lot of potentially relevant material on the table by not directly discussing Anglo-American nationalist ideology regarding the indigenous peoples of North America. Hell, it seems pretty obvious that Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous American exceptionalist “frontier thesis” of the late 19th century (the idea that the US national character is categorically more independent, free, and masculine than the decadent nations of Old World Europe as a direct result of its formative experience violently taming the savage Western frontier) articulates the ideology of the Fremen Mirage about as directly as possible, including all the attendant late 19th century angst about rising decadence and feminization as a result of the closing of the frontier, an obvious central concern of contemporary American political figures like Theodore Roosevelt. And the ongoing use of native American imagery in modern US tough-guy ideology, from the names of military vehicles and civilian trucks/SUVs to the part-“Injun” ancestry of action heroes like John Rambo, seems like a testament to the enduring importance of the Fremen Mirage in the American nationalist self-image, even compared to other Western nationalisms.

    On that note, since you did spend a fair bit of time on the Fremen Mirage in connection with 19th century German romantic nationalism, do you have any thoughts about the German relationship with American frontier literature? I’m thinking in particular about the ideology of the proposed “Drang nach Osten,” or “drive to the East,” an obvious piece of context for the Third Reich’s settler-colonial vision as articulated under Generalplan Ost and partially realized via the Holocaust, with Nazi ideologues up to and including Hitler openly framing their approach toward Slavs and Ostjuden as inspired by the US approach toward American Indians. In so many words, were the Nazis trying to make Germans Fremen again, and were they tapping into American nationalist ideology to do so?


  23. A bit addition for steppe people and China:

    All the steppe regimes that posted a serious threat for China proper, Xiongnu, Northern Dynasties, Khitans, Jurchens, Mongols, Manchus – all had well-established state apparatus (even different institutions for different ethnic groups), consolidated political and military structure (ruler-viceroy-aristocrats-centurions-soldiers), as well as complex economic foundations (Jurchens and Manchus also do farming, while Mongols knew how to tax cities from early on).

    In a word, these “successful” steppe powers operated near/in the East Asia were all established states, rather than stateless Fremen. They had the ability to fight state-on-state wars and were able to beat Chinese Empires in that field.

    Sometimes the stateless steppe powers could collapse Chinese Empires – the Disaster of Yongjia in 311 is a perfect example – but the Empire just moved its political center away from the border and continued to survive for several centuries (I omitted a lot of details here but the general picture was basically it). Only after the stateless steppe powers consolidated themselves into Northern Dynasties, with well-established political and military organizations – did they begin to literally crash the Southern Empires.


  24. It’s interesting (to go back a couple of posts) what you say about the gap in the mirage before the rediscovery of Tacitus – because I would have thought the go-to-example of the mirage appearing to have happened in reality was in the 7th century: specifically, the rise of the Rashidun caliphate.

    You have what seem to be the obvious ingredients: an essentially clan-based society boiling up out of a marginally habitable region and rapidly overrunning not one but two settled empires. And the two empires are Persia and Byzantium, both of which are bywords for decadence (treating the reign of Heraclius as the transition point from “Rome” to “Byzantium” given the shift in official language, but even if we call it Rome the shoe still fits).

    Byzantium doesn’t fall, but it loses all its African territory and most of its Asian possessions, and never recovers most of it. Within a few decades Byzantium even seems to be struggling with the mirage itself to an extent, manifesting as iconoclasm as it seeks to regain some sort of moral authority in the face of an apparently more “pure” opponent.

    (Gibbon in particular seems to have entirely bought into this narrative. I was struck by the attention he pays to the Arabs and the consistently positive tones in which they are described in contrast to almost every other non-Roman subject.)

    While the mirage is an unsatisfactory explanation for what actually happened there (Roman-Persian mutual military exhaustion at the outset of the conquests being a critical factor, even before we start examining to what extent the Arabs were really “Fremen”) it seems surprising that what superficially seems like a textbook example of the mirage in action didn’t prompt a resurgence of it in the Middle Ages. Unless it did, but only in Byzantium and the east, and therefore outside the normal western narrative?


    1. But remember, once in place, the Rashidun Caliphate was more urbanized, wealthier and more socially complex than most societies in Europe, save perhaps the Byzantines. And the Byzantines, to my sense, contextualized the Islamic world through the lens they had understood the Sassanids, as this equal-and-opposite power to the East.


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