One of my favorite lines of poetry is that which begins William Blake's “The Tiger”:
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
And it is this “fearful symmetry” that comes to mind when I consider our entanglement in the Middle East. Most of the wars of the 20th Century – at least the ones we were involved in – featured “our” armies – those of the U.S. and our allies – doing battle against the other side in a more or less “symmetrical” fashion. This not refer to equal numbers or firepower, but equivalent methods -- which is to say, although the causes and goals were in direct opposition, there was a uniformity of sorts in "theory"... in how war was waged. It was army against army (or navy against navy, air force against air force) using very similar tactics. Everyone was in uniform... they all carried flags... they all represented actual countries – places one could find on a map. What was called guerrilla warfare was the exception rather than the rule, and occurred primarily in the context of home-grown partisan attacks on occupying forces. And there was another sort of symmetry as well – a “fearful” one indeed – in that, despite claims to the contrary, the armies were fighting on behalf of secular values and entities – nation-states, political beliefs, and “ideas”. And this was actually considered an improvement over the “religious wars” of an earlier time, which were also wars of ideas, but of ideas grounded in religious belief. How refreshing it was to have all that nonsense over and done with, and be reduced to the straightforward, clean, rational struggle of ideas! -- or the even more primitively refreshing idea of territory. The secularists and materialists never had it so good. It was, “may the best political system win” -- and this was particularly the case in World War II and in all the hot and cold episodes of the “Cold War” (in which I include Korea and Vietnam). And victory – when and if it was achieved – would invariably be counted as a victory of ideas, rather than of faith or creed: democracy over monarchy, capitalism over communism, and so on. The materialistic premise that it was the duty of the state to impose its “system” over other states was unquestioned (as it is today) – and sure enough, the victors got to impose – or try to – their ideal form of government over the vanquished. Thus, World War I “made the world safe for democracy” -- even though it led directly to the imposition of Bolshevism over Russia and National Socialism over Germany... and World War II (AKA “let's get it right this time”) made the world safe for communism, which its adherents claimed was simply another form of democracy. But who was to say? Every communist state was styled a “people's republic” -- but wait, wasn't the United States also a people's republic? That's certainly what the Founding Fathers claimed... and they were echoed by Lincoln, among others. And when it comes to ideas, let's admit that socialism – broadly defined – had the upper hand throughout most of the world in the aftermath of World War I. It was our version (the New Deal) vs. the Soviet version vs. the Third Reich version. Clearly, some new terminology was (and still is) needed that satisfactorily differentiated among the different versions – you know, the “good” kind of socialism vs. the “bad” kind vs. the “not so bad” kind.
But then a funny thing happened in the aftermath of World War II. The “set-piece battle” concept declined in popularity (except perhaps in Korea) and was replaced by the guerrilla model, where “insurgents” and “fighters” on one side started waging war against more traditional forces – and this is why Vietnam was so disorienting. The other side didn't fight “fair” -- I mean, heck, they didn't even wear uniforms... and they did cowardly things, like disappearing into the underbrush after battles, or, even worse, “blending in” with the local populace (probably because, in most cases, they _were_ the local populace). And thus was born the concept of “asymmetric warfare” or “unconventional warfare”, and our military – and that of our allies – had to make painful adjustments, which have still not been completed. We still march (or fly, or ride) in with banners flying... in full uniform... soldiers weighted down with 100 pounds of gear... massive firepower at the ready... and are met by scruffy, lightly-clad combatants who are at times indistinguishable from the populace but whose "improvised" weaponry, when properly applied, is at least as deadly as our own. And thus, we find ourselves, contrary to our gentlemanly ideals, fighting not just armies but real people – citizens, “natives”. This is where we find ourselves in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this is why it “feels” like we're fighting... well, basically, everybody. Not just people in uniform, or carrying weapons, but everyone else besides – even women and children. And this, of course, gives the other side a golden opportunity to accuse us of waging “total war”... of brutality, atrocities, and all the rest of it. And the fact is, each side has a point – but simply realizing this doesn't solve anything.
And then, to add to the overall discombobulation, we're now faced with what we call “terrorism” -- which is, first and foremost, the way poor countries, or people, wage war against rich countries or people. It is basically their way of moving the conflict from their land, and their doorstep, into our land, and onto our doorstep. (And why "terrorism" causes more terror than "conventional" warfare is lost on me -- you're just as dead either way.) And this is particularly galling to us Americans, since, after all, our ideal vision of warfare is something that is fought elsewhere – certainly not on our own soil, and certainly not against our own citizens, i.e. those not in uniform. So there is a great sense of unfairness about it all – except that, to the other side, it's eminently fair. If we have the right to invade their territory and kill their people indiscriminately (or so they contend), then why don't they have the same right? And in particular, why don't they have the right to fight back against what they see as intolerable occupations and cultural, economic, and social warfare against them and their way of life? Don't take my word for it – just listen to, or read, what outfits like Al Qaeda say every time they pull off an attack. Do what Bush and Obama and all the others refuse to do, namely listen to what they say and take it seriously.
So this is part of the “new” asymmetry, but the other part is, I believe, even more profound. We're still fighting, allegedly, for ideas – for “democracy” and “freedom” and so forth, but always with a completely materialistic basis and ideational – dare I say philosophical? -- premises, whereas they are fighting not only for their culture and their traditional way of life, but for faith and creed. And this is where the gap in understanding is greatest. They're fighting a religious war – you know, that nasty old thing that we thought we had long since done away with. Why, even the Catholics and Protestants of Europe eventually managed to work out ways to coexist – except in Northern Ireland. And Catholics and Orthodox and even Muslims had it worked out, more or less – until Yugoslavia broke up. But those crazy Islamists in the Middle East, well, how do you deal with people like that? Ah, I have it – call them “Islamofascists” -- that'll show 'em! That'll impress the world and convince them that our cause is just – because, after all, wasn't “fascism” dealt a death blow in Europe by our victory in World War II? Well, of course, that sort of moronic name-calling doesn't impress them one iota – and rightly so. I imagine that a few of them even remember that the “fascists” of the World War II era were dead-set against the Jews... and guess what, so are they. So they might even be proud of the term, and wear it like a badge of honor.
The point is that when it comes to “ideas” versus faith – no matter how atavistic or benighted we believe that faith to be – faith has a way of winning out in the long run. After all, it is intimately connected with race, ethnicity, geography, language, and culture -- all the connective tissue of human life on earth – whereas no one can make that claim when it comes to “democracy”. Democracy, at least as practiced in the United States, actually stands in opposition to ethnicity, geography, language, and culture (although not race, for some strange reason). It is an idea, pure and simple... an abstraction... and an absurdity in many of the more traditional corners of the world. What is “democracy” when you have a religious hierarchy that is reflected in the way ethnic groups, tribes, villages, and even families are run? Are there any true believers in democracy who can hold a candle to true believers in a faith that has an other-worldly frame of reference? How many suicide bombers, for example, do we have on our side? My offhand guess is “none”. Even Japan, which was an extremely militant and secular-seeming state leading up to World War II, was able to come up with kamikaze pilots; how many did we have? See, the problem with fighting for ideas is that one wants to be around when the fighting is over, to impose and implement those ideas on the losers. Getting killed in battle sort of spoils things in a way. Whereas for the “faith-based” warrior, as with the Crusaders of old, you can “win” by dying just as effectively – if not more so – than by staying alive. (I refer again to the Japanese, and their horror of surrender.) So again, how do you deal with people who even have a totally alien idea of what constitutes victory or defeat? Even a “secular faith” like Maoism had its limits, when it came to self-sacrifice... whereas with militant Islam it seems to know no bounds.
Our usual answer to this dilemma, of course, is to exercise brute force and an overwhelming advantage in power – weaponry and mobility (“nation building” having been exposed as a total scam). It becomes a matter of our iron vs. their blood – and it seems to work at least some of the time. We managed to tame the Japanese tiger, and convert them to our way of life (politically, I mean). But will the same thing be said some day when it comes to the Middle East? The only Islamic country I can think of that has made that transition is Turkey, and that was done voluntarily. No one forced them to secularize, or to deracinate themselves – they just thought it would be in their best interests. They wanted to, after all, be part of Europe – and Europe was not about to put up with that old-fashioned religious nonsense. But no one else over there has followed suit – not really. For every national leader who mouths good Western democratic words and ideas, there is an undercurrent, right outside the palace walls, of reaction – of traditionalism, of the old ways... of “clinging”, in Obama's word, to the Koran. They would literally rather die than become like us – simply because they consider us materialistic, secular, and degenerate – and, again, rightly so. (This is, by the way, not why they hate us – it's why they despise us. They hate us because we're on their soil. If we got off their soil they'd still despise us, but I don't think they'd waste much time making war on us, no matter what our politicians and media types claim.)
So in their book, there is nothing the least bit shameful about fighting for faith and tradition... and nothing shameful about carrying the battle into the homeland of their enemies, AKA “terrorism”. Whereas we prefer to fight for anything but faith and tradition – and I say this despite the “Christian”, actually Protestant, actually Evangelical, undertones to our exertions in the Middle East. We are formally and overtly fighting for ideas, but if you ask any number of our own troops (and mercenaries) they will admit that they are, in fact, fighting for their version of Christianity and against Islam – not against “terrorism” but against Islam, period. And the Islamic world hears this, and knows this, and responds accordingly. The problem is, we may make those claims “off the record” but when it comes down to cases we don't act that way – we don't go all the way... we don't meet them on their own terms, because we can't; it's simply not in our makeup. It's not part of our own “tradition”, which is nominally Christian but is, in fact, materialistic and ideational. Plus, our efforts in that region are driven by people – the powers that be – who are anything but Christian. They use Crusader imagery and ideas to motivate the troops, but they're in it for the usual things – power and money.
And I would be remiss if I didn't mention Israel in connection with all this. The Moslems may be fighting a religious war against Israel... but is Israel fighting a religious war? How many Israelis, especially those in positions of power, are truly religious? I think the answer is that they are fighting for the tribe, as they have been doing down through the ages – and at this point in history the tribe is synonymous with the State of Israel. Certainly, the Jewish religion is correlated with Israel; how could it not be? But is it the driving force? I daresay that if every Israeli were a secular Jew, the situation would not change in the slightest. But at least – to give credit where credit is due – they are fighting for a race or tribe, and not for “ideas”; that's our job, apparently. So this introduces still another level of asymmetry – a three-way misfit – an ideational nation (us) fighting true believers (the Islamists) on behalf of a by-and-large secular and non-ideational tribe (Israel).
And we wonder why things aren't working out over there.