War is often portrayed as a technological competition, or a contest of strategy — a tragic game of chess played out in 3-D using human lives. It can also, in the most romanticized representations, be envisioned as a moral contest in which the endurance or bravery or righteousness of the players are pitted against one another in a comparative measure of worth.
But war, as much as art, or language, or mythology is also an inherited cultural construct. We give ourselves too much credit when we believe that we pursue a war rationally to a desired end and that the outcome is therefore primarily a measure of wit or worth. Long before two players can compete, the rules of the game have to be agreed upon.
To use the worn chess analogy, not even the greatest Grand Master can lay claim to having suddenly discovered a new goal to the game, or having added his own rules of play in mid-game to achieve victory. In fact, one reason games are so satisfying is that the rules are so clear. These rules are cultural in nature. They are agreed upon and faithfully transmitted from generation to generation.
Unlike chess, however, in which the players share a single set of rules, war is sometimes a contest between different cultures. The two sides bring their own culture of combat and conflict to the competition, and are essentially referring to different rules from the outset of the war.
Wars between two different cultures are thus the most interesting to historians, since they give insights into the fundamental nature of the combatants’ conception of the world. But they also tend to be very unsatisfying for one or both sides, which can feel that the other side has broken the rules and obtained an immoral advantage from cheating. Intercultural wars can thus be very lopsided at times and usually reach equilibrium only after one or both sides begin adopting the other’s concept of the rules of war.
For example, the concept of a fair surrender and the taking of prisoners is well engrained in some cultures of combat, and disdained in others. In World War II, such a disparity in culture occurred in the Pacific theater, where the United States Military believed in the western concept of honorable surrender, while the Japanese believed in their indigenous concept that surrender was inherently dishonorable and immoral.
Thus, one of the greatest sources of moral outrage in the United States arose from the Japanese treatment of American POWs, who were starved, tortured, and worst of all, executed. Surrender, after all, is a cultural construct designed to prevent needless death in both armies once it has become clear which side will win a battle. We stop killing and give up, the losing side declares, and you are then obligated to stop killing and guarantee a minimum level of humane treatment for the vanquished. Both sides benefit. Massacres of prisoners, such as the Bataan Death March, are thus a violation of an explicit social contract in the western culture of war.
This source of outrage lessened with the war’s progress, though, as the U.S. military stopped expecting this rule to be obeyed. Marines and soldiers resolved to fight to the death in many cases and came to expect that the Japanese would do the same. They also came to believe that the Japanese that did attempt surrender were fair game, to be dealt with at the discretion of the man behind the trigger. The two sides arrived at a lowest common denominator and a new, more even set of rules.
A similar situation occurred in both theaters of the war regarding the aerial bombardment of civilians. The Axis bombings of Rotterdam, Shanghai and London created howls among the Allies because they were not reciprocal. Once the precedent was created however, the Allies responded with Hamburg, Tokyo, and Dresden. A new rule had been arrived at and applied with equal horror. The two sides learned to play by a new, shared set of rules and a victory was determined under these new rules.
Today, in the conflict between the West and Islamists, a cultural discrepancy between the rulebooks of the two sides exists that is far greater than any that existed in World War II. Indeed, the West cannot even decide what acts by our adversaries are war, and which are crimes or “isolated incidents.”
The greatest discord between the two playbooks centers around the concept of group guilt and the fairness of the targeting of civilians. The cultures of our enemies have a sweeping concept of both group guilt and group honor, with some groups believing, for example, that if one Israeli harms one Muslim, then every Muslim should be angry at every Israeli, and their allies the Americans, and the United Nations, and all Christianity and all Jews and even all the West.
Before anyone bothers writing me indignant protest e-mails, let me remind you that the publication by free individuals of smart-aleck doodles in an unknown newspaper in the tiny country of Denmark was judged a legitimate grounds by millions worldwide to murderously riot against all Christendom and the West, and the government of Iran sought retribution for the perceived affront from Denmark by holding a contest to belittle the killing of Jews in the Holocaust. That is what I mean by “The cultures of our enemies have a sweeping concept of group guilt and group honor.” Send your e-mails to someone else.
This same cultural tradition of group honor, group guilt, and group retribution is what leads a group of non-government directed Arab expatriates to believe that killing thousands of secretaries and stock brokers in Manhattan is a logical direct reaction to military defeat of Arab armies by Israel, and that they should personally take it upon themselves to accomplish that endeavor.
Contrast this with the current Western belief that targeting of retribution or acts of defense must be perfectly precise and without any collateral damage at all. Accidental killing of even those indirectly connected with our enemies, such as non-combatant support personal and sympathizers is considered a moral anathema, and carpet bombing of the entire supporting population is unthinkable.
When threatened by a global cultural phenomenon such as Islamism, we believe our response must be the moral equivalent of attempting to shoot the gun out the bad guy’s hand, thus sparing his innocent ribs. Our national defense culture at this moment appears to have been designed by the screenwriters behind the “Lone Ranger” children’s program, complete with GPS-guided silver bullets and a belief that “moderate Islam” is going to pop up and play “Tonto” out of gratitude.
Because we believe that government must come through the consent of the governed through elections, we have a tendency to believe that non-democratic governments and movements do not represent the views of the cultures from which they arise, and we try to conduct war against only the offending government or group in the most narrow sense, attempting to pass over the people that produced the government or group as though they were innocent hostages waiting to be freed from tyranny.
But few organizations or governments arise in a vacuum to oppress innocent masses, and all, through mutual influence, eventually reflect the culture in which they exist. The Sunni insurgency in Iraq shows how silly it is to believe that Saddam Hussein ruled an entire country through personal fear. One man’s bad attitude and Stalinist facial hair cannot enslave 25 million Iraqis. It requires several million helpers to do that. Yet we and the rest of the West are repeating this mistake of willed perception all over the world.
In looking at the extent of radical Islam throughout the world, the single most impressive feature to me is the degree to which is spontaneously self-organizing and endemic throughout the Muslim world. This is not a few lunatics who have hijacked a religion of over 1 billion people.
Again, one man’s bad attitude and impressive facial hair can only intimidate so many. The Taliban is more than Mullah Omar. Al Qaeda is more than Osama bin Laden. Hezbollah is more than just Hassan Nasrallah. And the myriad other groups from the Philippines to the Sudan are more than just one bad apple leading a bunch of weak-minded followers to drink the Kool-Aid in Jonestown. They’re just too common. They are a cultural phenomenon, and we will not defeat them until we address this directly.
To be blunt, this means we will need to extract a price not just from those that form the tip of the Islamist spear, but from the entire populations that produce them in such numbers. To win, we may have to make certain cultures regret such support and we may need to temporarily accept our enemy’s rules of war, rather than just whine that they are not ours. There may come a point in the near future, where our model will have to be the real hero Curtis LeMay, the architect of the fire-bombing campaign conducted against the population of Japan, rather than the fictional hero known as the Lone Ranger. There is a reason real cops are trained to shoot at the center of mass of their targets, rather than just the guns in the hands. It is a matter of survival.
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