Friday, March 26, 2010

Duty, Honor, Country

I finished reading Tamler Sommers's A Very Bad Wizard yesterday, but I'll probably be writing about it for a while to come. Certain themes keep turning up, as in the concluding interview with law professor William Ian Miller about societies based on honor. In his introduction to the session Sommers writes (208),
Many Arab and Islamic societies are thought to be honor cultures, and as a result research on this topic has attracted the attention of political and military strategists. Former US Army Major William McCallister, for example, has attributed the US's initial unpopularity with Iraqis during the Iraq War to, in part, our failure to grasp the pervasive role that the concepts of shame and honor play in Iraqi society; they are as important to the Iraqis as land and water. McCallister, who now consults with the Marines in Iraq, writes that "It has taken us four years to realize that we must execute operations within the existing cultural frame of reference."
(The link to McCallister is given by Sommers in a footnote. It's amusing, in the same way that having a finger shoved down your throat is amusing. Among McCallister's recommended readings are Eric Hoffer's The True Believer, which I must reread soon and write about here; Bernard Lewis's The Multiple Identities of the Middle East; Kanan Makiya's long-discredited Republic of Fear; and The Code of Hammurabi, translated by L. W. King.)

So, really? The US was initially unpopular (well, "in part") because of "our failure to grasp the pervasive role that the concepts of shame and honor play in Iraqi society." That the US had invaded Iraq, devastated the country, killed and injured thousands of Iraqis, installed a corrupt gangster as our local puppet -- none of this, and more, rates a mention. (Though as I recall, many Iraqis did initially welcome the US invasion for dislodging Saddam Hussein from power -- but they didn't want us to stick around afterward. That seemed reasonable to me at the time, but now I realize that I misunderstood their honor culture.)

In the body of the interview (which is actually pretty interesting; I may look up Miller's writing on honor in the Icelandic sagas), Sommers brings up the subject of Iraq as follows (224):
TS: ... Let me put it like this: you see in reports from Iraq that some officers come back almost bewildered by the honor codes. One former army guy said that honor and shame are their moral currency, and that until we understand that, we're screwed. Do you think a general misunderstanding of honor cultures has led to (honest, in a way) mistakes, like thinking we'll be greeted as liberators, or that we can establish a democracy without too much pain and loss of life?

WIM: It isn't honor culture the officers don't understand; hell, they live in one. It's the particular substantive matters that trigger honor concerns in Iraq -- just what precisely they will take as a big offense and what they'll shrug off. That's where the misunderstandings take place.
Miller's initial comment is good: it's true, career military officers live in an honor culture -- but he doesn't question Sommers's delusions about US motives in Iraq. I have to remind myself that for these guys, the fact of the invasion, the aggression, is simply off the table; they don't even ignore it, because that would mean being aware in some way that it's there and it's a problem. Just as in Sommers's interview with Joseph Henrich, there is no question that the US, in its honest but bumbling way, was trying to "liberate" Iraq, to "establish a democracy without too much pain and loss of life." (Noam Chomsky likes to tell how the original Great Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Company "depicts an Indian with a scroll coming from his mouth pleading 'Come over and help us.' The charter states that rescuing the population from their bitter pagan fate is 'the principal end of this plantation.'") Only the pacifists, the isolationists, the reflexive opponents of the Republicans or the US military would dwell on such trivial irrelevancies. Nor can Sommers and Miller begin to imagine, apparently, that Iraqis might see it any differently.

The pattern is familiar: we tried to help the Iraqis / Vietnamese / Haitians / Filipinos / name your favorite recipient of Euro-American assistance, to bring them democracy, freedom, Christianity, but they just aren't ready for democracy. Their values, their "norms," are different from ours, and that's "where the misunderstandings take place." Even worse, they are crafty, deceptive, corrupt and irresponsible, and we simple, innocent, direct Americans don't know how to cope with their devious ways. We're the New World -- fresh, scrubbed, untouched by Old World wickedness -- so how could we possibly understand them?

One thing that doesn't get covered in the interview, unfortunately: Sommers mentions in the introduction that among the topics covered in his more than three hour gabfest with Miller was "the appalling hypocrisy of the Israeli University boycott" (209). I guess he means this? I feel sure that Sommers's take on the matter would be every bit as profound as his understanding of Iraqis' reaction to the US coming over to help them.