Wednesday, May 30, 2007

# Posted 12:09 PM by Patrick Porter  

ORIENTALISM AND WAR: It is axiomatic now in military education and for many military commentators that the USA has to improve at understanding foreign cultures in order to improve its performance at counterinsurgency, etc.

But this might involve some uncomfortable ironies, and not just for the military. Sometimes the media can take cultural sensitivity so far that they risk being delusional and patronising.

Part of overcoming derogatory stereotypes about these foreign cultures is recognising that the people are probably smart enough to tell lies occasionally. The Taliban, for example, are as aware as anyone else that this is an information war about political will, as Jonathan Foreman argues:
There is sometimes a strange, sentimental, inverted racism at work in this: Surely such simple, ardent, technologically unsophisticated people — like the mullah who speaks for the village, or the weeping mother who swears her slain son was a good boy and would never have shot at the soldiers — wouldn’t tell lies?

While there is no justification for reverting to Edwardian-era bigotry and assuming that all Orientals, especially South Asians, are compulsive liars, it would be equally wrong to assume the opposite or to ignore the role of rumor and the likelihood of deceit in a place like Afghanistan.

There is a good broader point here: that as well as denigrating foreign peoples, orientalism can be as much about idealising and mythologising them. In fact, the Edwardians themselves sometimes did this.

An argument I hope to put into print and make available in all fine bookstores (watch this space).
(9) opinions -- Add your opinion

"It is axiomatic now in military education and for many military commentators that the USA has to improve at understanding foreign cultures in order to improve its performance at counterinsurgency, etc.

But this might involve some uncomfortable ironies, and not just for the military. Sometimes the media can take cultural sensitivity so far that they risk being delusional and patronising."

-While I share your concern that one could take this rationale too far, I think we should not dismiss the importance of understanding foreign cultures in light of our failure in implementing a historically-informed policy in postwar Iraq...i.e. failing to understand the problems previous occupiers faced in Iraq, failing to understand the unintended consequences of alienating the Sunnis early on, failing to place on the ground a sufficient number of Arabic speakers…the list could go on much further.
I strongly doubt that either condescending primitivism or disdainful orientalism played much of a role in shaping the coverage of that incident in Afghanistan (or, for that matter, media critics' reaction to it). In fact, I'm quite confident that if the same Afghan spokeman had lavished praise on the Coalition forces, the same anti-interventionist journalists would have dismissed him or her as an untrustworthy, scheming shill for the Western-backed government and its allies, and the same media critics would have rushed to defend his simple peasant sincerity.

If there's one thing that binds the tribesmen of Afghanistan and the pundits of Washington, DC, it's Tip O'Neill's famous dictum that "all politics is local". Just as an Afghan's view of distant America will be strongly colored by his local loyalties, so, too, will the American analyst's view of Afghanistan. "Orientalism", "condescension", "mythologization", and so on, are simply tools for shoehorning unfamiliar people, nations and cultures into convenient roles for use in local partisan battles.
Dear Jeff,

I agree that cultural/historical awareness is hardly to be dismissed as a valuable thing.

But I'm not sure that culture really explains our failures in Iraq. In some respects, the problems were generated and inflamed by a range of decisions that were economically disastrous and spread anarchy, in a situation where almost any culture would find itself imploding.

Besides, cultural familiarity is no guarantee of sensitivity. Lord Kitchener, fluent linguistically and culturally, looted the Mahdi's tomb. Lawrence of Arabia said that Arabs were stupid and incurious (or something like that). Antony Eden was one of the British parliament's finer orientalists with an Oxford degree in oriental languages...Suez.

But the real point of the quote I linked to is that cultural awareness should actually make us more aware of the enemy's ability to lie to us and exploit the media coverage to their own advantage.
An interesting parallel it seems to me between the idealizing of Orientalism (going all the way back to Flaubert) and the idealizing of the "Noble Savage," in that those doing the idealizing have done so in countermeasure to those doing the (for lack of a better word) orientalizing, itself a sly synonym for cultural colonialism. To what extent was, say, Thomas Jefferson's idealizing of the Red Man also a way of easing him into submission? Remember: Jefferson's instructions to Lewis and Clark was to let the Indians they met know all about "The Great White Father" back in Washington. In other words, learn about them, but put them in their place. The same impulse informed colonialists going East. The same impulse informs American rhetoric regarding Iraq: we're there to save them from themselves. Perniciousness wrapped in idealism.
Following this line of thought,--i.e., using history to inform foreign policy today--it would be interesting to explore the similarities/differences of religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims in British India at the time of Independence and Partition and religious tensions between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq today.

The same colonial, neoimperial, divide-and-conquer rhetoric seems to be at play in both situations, which leads me to wonder: To what extent is the alienating "us vs. them" mentality rhetorically propagated? And how do American/UN/NATO forces build inclusive (rather than exclusive) democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan?
You are allowed to talk about "orientalism" as long as you read Robert Irwin's splendid book For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies. The best demolition of Said's meretricious crap I have come across.
"understanding foreign cultures" remains a vague and fairly useless expression. Usually it is taken to mean agreement with or approval of some foreign horror show in which Americans were judged to have played an active role. I can assure all that killing 3K or so Americans on 9/11 proves that some did not undertand cultures foreign to them.

I agree, have read the book and think that while Said helped put the concept of orientalism on the map, his version of it is seriously flawed. I've just put together an article arguing that often orientalist rhetoric is about idealising and romanticising the non-western way of war, not denigrating it.
I can assure you that the military comes to understand whatever foreign culture they find themselves among rather quickly.
Problem is, "understanding", and knowing about it are two separate items.
The former is mushy and insists the culture is wonderful and any differences are not to be judged.

What real understanding--defined as knowing what is necessary--means is usually the darker side. After all, nobody gets too upset if we don't care for the way they drive. The military "understands" that these people, for example, lie like rugs. They understand that in another country, if you can't get your wounded back, it's best to shoot them yourself. They understand that a fatalistic world view does not mesh with the need for contingency planning or paying attention to limits imposed by logistics.
They understand that the normal nepotism will reduce effectiveness and that the locals think that's a perfectly acceptable price to pay.
They will understand that a factor not a problem in the US is important here, which is to say the opposition will horribly torture and murder the family of anybody who enlists in the police, and what that means.
No. The military understands a good deal. But what they understand, and need to understand, is the dark side which, if you wrote about it in an op-ed, would probably be your last op-ed.
I read of a Christan missionary who had worked for decades in the Gaza area. He was surprised at the number of people, including his flock, who thought Arafat was a tool of the Zionist entity. Do you really want to be caught "understanding" a culture which can believe such incredibly stupid things?
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