December 30, 2006
Knowing the EnemyBy J.R. Dunn
A recent New Yorker article "Knowing the Enemy" has aroused more comment than such pieces usually attract this time of year.
"Knowing the Enemy" deals with recent efforts by social scientists, anthropologists prominent among them, to assist with the Iraq war and the War on Terror in general. It focuses on David Kilcullen, a former Australian Army officer well-versed in both scholarship and warfare. The author, George Packer, a name new to me, is convinced that these people hold the key to victory, if only the fools in Washington could be made to understand. A number of commentators agree, including Janet Albrechtsen, nobody's fool, who believes we should take the suggestions embodied in the piece at face value.
This being the week it is, detailed analysis of this piece is beyond me. But a few comments don't seem out of order.
* The piece is not what it claims to be. Rather than an objective presentation of a new approach to the war, it's merely another attack on George W. Bush and all his works. The interviews and background are used as a frame for repeated sneers at the administration. If someone had introduced his dog, Packer would have written "George Bush would like to kill that dog." (He even goes so far as to resurrect the old paranoid daydream that Osama bin Laden, approving of the administration's policies, manipulated the 2004 election to assure that Bush was reelected. Presumably, this means that Osama was out to get his close colleague Akhtar Mohammad Osmani killed, among many others.) This is the standard metropolitan leftist take as of late 2006, and considering the venue, is only to be expected. (I should add that the subjects, Kilcullen on down, make no such remarks and were probably unaware of the spin their words would be given.)
* Some of the insights from these trained social scientists appear utterly trivial. For instance, Kilcullen points out that the 9/11 hijackers were known to have had problems with their fathers, which he implies is perhaps the most important factor behind the atrocity.
Really? It could be argued that "having problems with your father" is a normal phase of life experienced by many, if not most young men. I once read somewhere that a son's evolving attitude could be described as, "My dad knows everything", "My dad knows nothing", and finally "My dad's pretty smart for an old guy."
That being the case, how do the hijackers differ from, say, a representative Marine platoon? We know full well that they do differ, and that relationships with their fathers have very little to do with that fact. In that light, this comment comes across as incredibly obtuse - someone taking the minutiae of his discipline in place of reality. He may as well have said., "All the hijackers had two feet," for all the good it does. Let's hope there's better stuff than this in the official reports.
(Some comments also come across as seriously ill-informed. A man named Fondacaro is quoted as saying that it would have been nice if the military had exposed, punished, and rectified the Abu Ghraib miscreants. This, of course, is exactly what did happen. It was the military, not the media, who revealed the misbehavior at the prison, and who put the perpetrators on trial, and who punished them.
It seems that some of these scholars are operating in the same realm of delusion as most reporters and media commentators. Not a good sign.)
* One factor we need pay no attention to is religion. That's right -- ignore it, it's an illusion, a trap, it'll only lead us astray. It's actually "social networks" that are forcing gullible young men into the Jihadi orbit.
This is enough to make you throw up your hands and flick through the rest of the issue looking at the cartoons. Apart from the fact that, as Mark Steyn never tires of pointing out, every terrorist strike in the West for the past ten years has had somebody named "Mohammed" involved, there's the matter of what these "social networks" consist of. In the Muslim world, they consist of Islam. There is not a single element of Muslim social life, including the family, education, business, and government, that is not permeated with Islamic doctrine. (Consider only conversation, and how many times phrases such as "God willing" appear.)
The social sciences are extremely reluctant, as a matter of attitude and training, to grantreligion any importance. So instead, social mechanisms get all the attention. While there can be little doubt that such mechanisms play a part in generating terrorist behavior, the cultural roots of those mechanisms are even more crucial. Islam promotes certain kinds of behavior you simply do not find in other creeds - after all, there are many parallels between Muslims, Amish, and Mormons. But you don't see the last two smashing airplanes into buildings.
Peer group pressures may have had something to do with forcing Japanese pilots into joining the Kamikaze corps. But to claim that this renders the warrior cult of Bushido, and its associated pseudo-religion of State Shinto irrelevant would simply be asinine.
* So do anthropologists have "The Answer"? That's the impression you get from this piece. Part of the problem here is that few individuals outside the discipline are asked their opinion. So we get only the guild's point of view, namely that the social sciences are the peak of all knowledge, the center of everything, the final repository of wisdom that can be depended on in every circumstance.
This, in all particulars, is what you'd hear from anybody in any occupation placed in a similar position of being an expert on call. Yarns about military officers begging for answers, denials that anybody else -- the Pentagon, field commanders, and certainly the White House -- know anything at all worth knowing, assertions that unless every last suggestion the expert makes is put into practice right now doom is unavoidable... We've seen it all before, most recently in the report from the Iraq Study Group. As the saying goes, when you've got a hammer, everything looks like a nail. A crew of helicopter pilots sent to Iraq would call for more helicopters. A Foreign Service officer would demand more diplomatic overtures. The Barnum & Bailey clown team would call for more clowns, and could probably make a damn good case.
The social sciences, anthropology above all, may have contributions to offer. There's no other source of information on tribal relations, cultural taboos, and social behavior in the Middle East. But to argue for anything beyond that is specious. The late Robert Nisbet was known as the "Dean of the Social Sciences", which I'm sure pleased him less than the fact that he was one of God's honest men. Back in the 80s, Nisbet carried out an analysis of the major sociological journals in an attempt to nail down precisely how many successful policy suggestions had emerged from those sources since WW II. He didn't expect many, but neither did he expect the answer he actually got, which was "zero".
Would you trust such a discipline with the direction of a war? I didn't think so.
J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor to American Thinker.