Radical Islam’s edge lies in its willingness to horrify the West, I have contended since October 2001. Now this sword is unsheathed, and America is reeling. In the unlikely personage of Private First Class Lynndie England, America has confronted its grand strategic weakness. What has horrified the West during the past week or so is not so much the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, but rather England’s clueless expression while holding a naked Iraqi by a dog lead. “We are turning our children into monsters,” whisper the mothers of America. Abu Ghraib is only one battle in a long war, but it is the first that strikes directly at America’s willingness to wage war in the first place.
“By operating in the midst of civilian populations, Islamist radicals put Western counterinsurgency in a delicate position. The Western response must be harsh enough to humble its adversaries, without turning the stomach of the Western population itself,” I wrote on April 26 (Horror and Humiliation in Fallujah). It is quite possible to inure Westerners to an extreme level of violence against civilians, for example, the destruction of German and Japanese cities during World War II, by casting the enemy population as an enemy. But in Iraq, American soldiers were told that their mission was to remove a hated tyranny in order to allow the people to pursue their inherent impulse for Western-style freedom. Instead, the coalition confronts a resistance willing to die to delay the Westernization of Iraq.
Nothing more than this horrifies Americans, who descend from people who willingly abandoned and traded away their culture in return for a fresh start. The dead hand of the past does not weigh on the American mind. Put a young American from a West Virginia trailer park among the diehards of an alien culture, and she will imagine that she stumbled through the silver screen into a monster movie.
“Mistah Kurtz, he dead,” was the epitaph for Joseph Conrad’s mining official gone native in The Heart of Darkness, as well as the epigraph for T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men,” a horrific elegy for World War I. At Abu Ghraib, Mistah Kurtz may not quite be dead, but he evidently is extremely confused.
The scandal over the prison parallels the stalemates in the cities of Fallujah and Najaf. A hardened band of fighters sheltering among an apathetic but half-sympathetic population does not present an insuperable problem for counterinsurgency, as the British showed in Cyprus and Northern Ireland, and the Israelis more recently with Hamas. Operations of this sort require excellent intelligence, which the British and Israelis had, but the Americans manifestly do not (Why America is losing the intelligence war, Nov 11, 2003). They also require a somewhat callous attitude towards the surrounding civilian population, which must learn the hard way to steer clear of the resistance. Washington does not merely wish to crush resistance to its military forces, but rather to turn Iraq into a model for Mideast democracy. If that is the mission, open warfare with either a Sunni militia in Fallujah or a Shi’ite militia in Najaf presumably will generate too much collateral damage and general ill-will. Unable to reconcile the situation on the ground with its policy, American forces have stumbled from one expedient to another without, however, improving their grip on the situation.
Who now doubts that radical Islam might win? Both the mission and the soldiers assigned to execute it are wrong to begin with. Many Iraqis would rather be dead than Americanized, far more than the Americans hoped. Short of well-trained, linguistically qualified counterinsurgency forces to begin with, the American military has had to spread the burden of dealing with hostile locals across the broad and flabby base of its available personnel, sadly including England’s 372nd military police company. Of secondary importance is whether the 372nd operated under the direction of higher authority or invented these grotesqueries. In the absence of reliable intelligence, soldiers attempting to control guerrilla attacks will resort to whatever interrogation methods seem best at the time in order to protect their comrades. What the photographs of Iraqi prisoners being abused have shown is less harsh than the methods the British, Israelis, and others routinely employ with suspect terrorists. Nonetheless, to young soldiers unprepared for a culture of absolute resistance, the encounter will be horrifying. Through them that horror is projected into American living rooms.
What will happen next? America will not fold its tents and silently steal away, and those who expect a few photographs from Abu Ghraib to undermine America’s resolve underestimate American stubbornness. An open repudiation of past errors is most unlikely during an American presidential election year, but some adjustment is inevitable.
Ultimately, I expect failure to establish order in Iraq will lead Washington to jettison the goal of Iraqi democracy, as George Will suggests in the May 4 Washington Post. It is likely to embrace the next best thing, namely Iraqi chaos (The devil and L Paul Bremer, Jan 20, 2004). Rather than make itself the common enemy of all Iraqi factions by raising its profile, the coalition will allow the Iraqis to settle their differences by the usual means by lowering its profile. The “usual means” bespeak unpleasantness unimaginably worse than anything that occurred at Abu Ghraib but, like the Sudanese civil war, barely will disturb the slumber of Americans.
Postscript: The Horror! The Hanson!
In a May 7 essay, the omnipresent Victor Davis Hanson has changed his tone from triumphalism to authentic concern that radical Islam might win. In fact, his arguments are flatteringly similar to this writer’s, e.g., “The challenge again is that bin Laden, the al-Qaedists, the Baathist remnants, and the generic radical Islamicists of the Middle East have mastered the knowledge of the Western mind. Indeed they know us far better than we do ourselves … These rules of the strategy of exhaustion are complex, and yet have been nearly mastered by the radicals of the Middle East. First, shock the sensibilities of a Western society into utter despair at facing primordial enemies from the Dark Ages.”
In an October 3, 2003 essay (How cherry-picking militant Islam can win), I took Prof Hanson to task over precisely this issue, to wit:
“In [a Sept 20, 2003] 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.”
Better late than never! Prof. Hanson, welcome to my world.
The full text of Hanson’s essay can be found at: