Part 1: The Western Way of War: A reader writes:
Military historian John Keegan wrote some interesting immediate reactions to 9-11 that were along the lines of your bloggie. If memory serves, he said there were two styles (ie anthropological traditions) of warfare evident and relevant here: [Irregular vs. Regular war]. The Arab way of war had been that of the tribal raider and Al Qaeda was the latest incarnation. The western way of war had its roots in the Greek city state and their tradition of citizen soldiers. The citizen soldiers had farms and businesses to return to so were keen for campaigns to be decisive and terminal for the enemy.
(Keegan, by the way, relies on Victor Davis Hanson's work on archaic Greece.)
Two great adventure movies illuminate the contrast between irregular warfare, with its raids and retreats, and regular warfare, with its drilling and decisive battles.
In David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia," the British high command wants Lawrence to talk the Bedouin Arabs into incorporating their desert raiders as foot soldiers into the British Army currently bogged down in trench warfare with the Turkish regulars on the Palestine front. Lawrence insubordinately rejects this order and instead devises a more "culturally appropriate" strategy for the Arabs to harass the Turkish railway to Mecca with quick camel-borne raids, but to stay out of pitched battles with the Turks that the Arabs would be sure to lose, and, indeed, wouldn't even bother to show up for in the first place, not being as crazy about self-sacrifice as Europeans were during 1914-1918.
In 1917, this worked well, but in 1918 the Turks responded by obtaining more armored cars and airplanes from their German allies, negating some of the Arab advantage in mobility and elusiveness.
(This was the beginning of a general pattern. During the 20th Century, it turned out that cultures that were good at regular warfare, like the Germans, Russians, and Americans, were also much better at building the tanks and planes that could give regular armies the mobility of irregular warriors than were the cultures that preferred irregular warfare, which tended to be weak at organizing vast tank and plane factories. So, due to the introduction of tanks and planes, the desert, which as recently as 1917 could be dominated by irregular warriors on camels, turned into the terrain most easily dominated by regular armies. Meanwhile, irregulars held on in jungles, due to greater cover, and may have strengthened in cities due to increasing regard for civilians among nations with regular armies.)
John Huston's movie version of Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" illustrates the difference further. In a long essay on the film I wrote in September 2001, in which I predicted the U.S. would succeed at conquering Afghanistan, but fail at nation-building there, I noted:
A second insight into the difficulties faced by the Taliban at waging modern war - beyond their small and rusty arsenal - is implicit in Daniel's explanation to Kipling of their strategy for becoming Kings of Kafiristan. "In any place where they fight, a man who knows how to drill men can always be a King," Connery's character expounds. "We shall go to those parts and say to any King we find - 'D'you want to vanquish your foes?' and we will show him how to drill men; for that we know better than anything else. Then we will subvert that King and seize his Throne and establish a Dynasty."
Daniel's confidence in the might of properly drilled men goes to the heart of the difference between irregular and regular armies. For tens of thousands of years, men have been waging irregular war - shoot-from-behind-a-rock style raiding. If you assume, like many Afghans, that war sputters on forever - that it is the natural state of human relations - then sniping is the sensible fighting method for clans willing to lose some young warriors but not risk everything on one battle. Ambushes allow your men to slip away into wild country if the enemy proves too strong.
But nation-states long ago developed a more formidable style intended to win wars. The ancient Greeks discovered that trained, disciplined armies could maneuver to win decisive battles. Alexander the Great used this Greek breakthrough to conquer Afghanistan, among much else. (Kipling asserted that Alexander then married a Kafir princess named Roxanne and had a son.)
The famed military historian John Keegan wrote in "A History of Warfare," "It is a general rule that primitives lose to regulars over the long run; harassment is an effective means of waging a defensive war, but wars are ultimately won by offensives…"
Indeed, when Daniel and Peachey arrive at Er-Heb, their first Kafir village, headman Ootah, familiar only with irregular war, offers them two goats for each of his Bashkai neighbors that they will kill for him. Peachey, the embodiment of regular soldiering, replies suavely, "A handsome offer, but rather than knocking them over one at a time, we'll do the whole thing in one fell swoop: storm Bashkai and give you a proper victory."
The next morning drill instructor Daniel starts teaching the men of Er-Heb to march in ordered ranks like British soldiers. "When we're done with you," he roars at the recruits, "You'll be able to stand up and slaughter your enemies like civilized men!"
Daniel explains to his uncomprehending boot privates, "Good soldiers don't think. They just obey. Do you think that if a man thought twice, he'd give his life for Queen and country? Not bloody likely!" Noticing an Er-Heb man with an extremely small head, Daniel remarks, "Him there with the five and a half hat size has the makings of a bloody hero."
Indeed, their drilled army, stiffened by twenty smuggled rifles, quickly goes from victory to victory. And their pinheaded rifleman distinguishes himself for loyalty.
Part 2: The seductive logic of exterminationism: My reader continues:
Thus the Arab way of war is essentially opportunist where the western way of war is exterminationist. He was very pessimistic about the current situation more or less concluding that Arab terrorists will eventually use nuclear weapons against western targets, that would however reap a terrible revenge for which the neither the terrorists or their popular supporters have yet any glimmer of understanding.
Western regular warfare is by no means inherently exterminationist, as the careers of, say, the Duke of Wellington and Robert E. Lee attest. What it is, however, is more consciously logical, with tendencies toward radical rationalism.
The unfortunate continental European tradition in recent centuries has been to follow particular lines of logic too far, to convert logic into ideology.
Unfortunately, contemporary U.S. intellectuals have become ever more obsessed with Hitler and his exterminationist logic, even as the years since Hitler's demise have lengthened. Kevin Michael Grace remarked to me once that if space aliens had been hiding in the asteroid belt, monitoring our television broadcasts for the last ten years. the first thing they would say upon landing on Earth is "Take me to your Hitler," because the assumption that Hitler is the most important man in the world today, rather than a loser who has been dead for 61 years, would be the natural outcome of watching too much television.
All this obsessing over Hitler's exterminationist logic leads to two tendencies among more than a few modern American thinkers. The first is to see the threat of exterminationism where it doesn't exist. Muslims, for all their obnoxiousness, are simply too incompetent to be an existential threat to America.
Just because it says to wage holy war in the Koran doesn't mean Muslims would or could wage holy war in a broadly effective fashion upon America (unless we let them), just as Christians mostly don't give away to the poor all you own and come follow Me. (I doubt if Muslims are much of an existential threat to Israel, either, but the tendency among more than a few American intellectuals to get Israel confused with America exacerbates this tendency.)
Similarly, the President of Mexico staged 30 terrorist invasions of Texas under the genocidal Plan of San Diego in 1915-16, but, ultimately, it wasn't all that big of a deal -- we're talking about Mexico threatening genocide, not Germany.
The second tendency stemming from dwelling so much on Hitler's exterminationist logic is to begin to absorb it and to start thinking like Hitler himself, to say to oneself:
Well, while it wouldn't do to come out and quite say it publicly, it's simple logic that if we can't democratize the Muslims (which looks increasingly implausible), we'd better do unto them before they do unto us: exterminate them.
That way of thought leads toward a war of nuclear genocide that would be as unnecessary as it is criminal.