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Do you wonder what President George W. Bush reads at night? Westerns? Methodist sermons? His favorite, it seems, are popular military histories by Professor Victor Davis Hanson, who reads classics in the California state university system. Hanson now advises the Bush administration, reported the London Times on September 20.
Recently, Hanson dined with Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne, while his book Why the West Has Won has a place on the president’s night-table.
Fine fellow that he is, Hanson is the wrong man for the job.
In the Times story, Hanson unintentionally explained to Times journalist Giles Whittell precisely how it is that radical Islam might destroy the West, namely, by “cherry-picking Western culture”. He said, “If you’re a Wahhabi mullah and you want American antibiotics for your daughter’s strep throat, do you deny her them because that’s the country that gives the world [television shock jock] Jerry Springer? If you’re a Saudi sheikh and you want a heart bypass or Viagra, do you go without because it’s contaminated with Western decadence? I don’t think so. It’s as if they don’t realize that the whole supporting infrastructure … is a product of a complex system of secularism, rationalism, tolerance, sexual equality, consensual government and free expression … they’ve tried for 50 years to cherry-pick the West and it doesn’t work well.”
Despite himself, Hanson has put his finger on the reason militant Islam well might defeat the West. It can cherry-pick Western culture, eg weapons of mass destruction. But that is not the most dangerous adaptation of Western culture in the hands of militant Islam.
Hanson’s examples (a Wahhabi mullah or a Saudi sheikh) betray the racism of which I accused the Western leaders immediately after September 11, 2001.
The challenge to the United States comes not from ignorant relics who do not understand the US, but from a generation of Western-educated Muslims who understand the US perfectly well, and would rather be dead than be absorbed into it.
Two years ago in Asia Times Online, I took issue with a better military historian, the estimable Sir John Keegan, over the same subject (Sir John Keegan is wrong: radical Islam could win, October 12, 2001). Keegan’s argument was identical to Hanson’s: the Westerner stands up and fights to the finish, while the Oriental raids and runs. That is self-consoling delusion.
Suppose that the concept of tragedy is the element of Western culture that Islamic radicals have cherry-picked? By this I mean that the target is not the Western capacity to make war, but rather Western morale. There are Islamist leaders who think in terms of classical tragedy. Author and expert on Islam Daniel Pipes cites the case of Islamic Jihad founder Fat’hi ash-Shiqaqi. Prior to his assassination in 1995, he spoke to a Western interviewer of his love for William Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov, Jean-Paul Sartre and T S Eliot.
In particular, he expressed a passion for the Greek tragedian Sophocles, whose Oedipus Rex he had read 10 times in English translation “and each time wept bitterly” (see “The Western Mind of Radical Islam”, First Things 58, December 1995).
Just how might militant Islam succeed against the enormous might of the US? The racist stereotypes of Western military historians do not explain Islam’s early success. It is worthwhile reviewing how it was that Islam conquered the world from Spain to the Indus Valley in the first decades after its founding. There was nothing “Oriental” about Islamic generalship. Mohammed’s tactics closely resemble those of Albrecht von Wallenstein during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48, or Francisco “Pancho” Villa in the Mexican Civil War of 1910-18.
Asked in 1626 to raise 8,000 soldiers for Holy Roman emperor Ferdinand to oppose Danes and Northern Protestants, Wallenstein instead offered to raise 50,000, on the condition that he could take whatever he needed to sustain the army from the countries through which it passed.
Seventh-century Arab raiders attacked the frontiers of the Byzantine and Persian empires, where prolonged strife had weakened defenses. Quite small forces were able to destroy the riparian agriculture of Mesopotamia and later Persia, leading to mass starvation. Those who wished to live joined the army and moved on to the next objective, and the army grew in snowball fashion.
Islam wiped out long-resident Christian and Jewish populations, reduced huge stretches of irrigated land to a desert, drastically shrank the population, and turned the remnants into a conquering force. It is remarkable how much one can conquer when human life becomes a free resource. That is the secret of Islam’s appeal to the downtrodden: whoever joins the war has an equal chance at promotion. Wallenstein was an egalitarian, just like Mohammed.
Later Islamic rulers
Today’s raiders are not horsemen but terrorists, and their objective is not to conquer territory but to demoralize the populations of the West. When I say that they yet may defeat the West, I do not mean their victory is assured or even probable (asked to bet, I would give them odds of 1:2). Flushing out the terrorists is a wearisome, dirty, costly chore that threatens to exhaust the patience of Western populations.
In his “National Review Online” column, Hanson frets that the US public may lose patience over Iraq and America’s foreign commitments in general. “The American public is tiring of them all – and that will be the real challenge for any president in the years ahead,” he wrote on September 26.
That the US will be worn down by having to send two or three soldiers a day home in body bags is an obvious danger, as opinion polls appear to suggest. Less obvious is what future terror attacks may bring. As I remonstrated to Sir John Keegan in 2001, “The grand vulnerability of the Western mind is horror. The Nazis understood this and pursued a policy des Schreckens [to cause horror] and Entsetzens [terror, literally: dislodgement]. Horror was not merely an instrument of war in the traditional sense, but a form of Wagnerian theater, or psychological warfare on the grand scale. [Adolf] Hitler’s tactical advantage lay in his capacity to be more horrible than his opponents could imagine.”
One danger is that al-Qaeda or some similar organization might compel the West to inflict collateral damage on a very large scale in response to future terrorist attacks. How much civilian suffering can the US tolerate without succumbing to horror?
A terrorist who understands Sophocles, as I have written in the past, is a formidable opponent. He provides an opportunity for his enemy to play out the role of tragic hero, who wishes to bring the benefits of Western democracy to the Arab masses, but only redoubles their suffering.
The winner in this game is the one who best can tolerate instability. US policy remains obsessed with bringing stability to the Middle East, no matter how much the US must spend. Bush gambled and lost a good deal of his reputation blowing soap-bubbles about an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.
Islamic radicals benefit from instability, like Mohammed, Wallenstein or Villa. More chaos means more recruits and less patience on the part of Americans. At the point that American patience with counterinsurgency operations in distant theaters has exhausted itself, only then launch the next mega-terrorist attack. It is not hard to imagine the will of the West gradually eroding over a decade or two.
What should the West do? Again, he wins who best can tolerate instability. Once upon a time the British were quite good at that. They ruled India with a tiny civil service and a small army, recruiting local forces and using them to excellent effect in a fragmented, multi-ethnic subcontinent. In essence it means recruiting Turks to patrol Basra, Kurds to patrol Tikrit, Shi’ites to occupy Baghdad, while offering bribes, territory and other inducements to Iraq’s neighbors to meddle. The result would be a ghastly mess, perhaps even a state of perpetual war, but one for which the US could take limited responsibility.
At the same time, the US might try a campaign of psychological warfare against Islamic fundamentalism. Rather than bend over backward to show that it is fighting terrorism rather than a religion, it might offer sly incentives to (for example) Christian evangelists to popularize Koranic criticism. Judging by the war of the websites between Christian and Islamic partisans, something like this already might be in the works, at least on a small scale.
In the meantime, Bush should find other things to read than Hanson’s military histories. Hanson’s books are quite enjoyable. The Soul of Battle compares the ancient Greek commander Epimanondas with Civil War general W T Sherman and World War II commander G S Patton Jr. Keegan did the same thing better in his Mask of Command (Alexander the Great rather than Epimanondas, Ulysses S Grant rather than Sherman, and so forth).
Why the West Has Won convinces me less, due to fallacy of composition; it excludes any number of battles in which the West came to grief. More to the point, the problems that Hanson’s Greeks had to confront bear little relation to the military issues of the day. If he dares, Bush should instead read up on Cardinal Richelieu, and how the prime minister ruthlessly solidified the authority of the French crown against the Huguenots in the 17th century, among other things.