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Pressfield’s Reified Tribalism

Good Lord, I hardly know where to begin.

Late last night, I was pinged by Fabius Maximus who had just written a post about historical novelist Stephen Pressfield, author of Gates of Fire, The Virtues of War and The Afghan Campaign. I do not read enough fiction, so while I had heard of Pressfield because his books are very popular among milbloggers, I did not know anything about the man specifically. I was intrigued by FM’s post, here is an excerpt which will serve to introduce the subject at hand:

Advice about our long war – “It’s the tribes, stupid”

Today’s post examines advice to us from historian Steven Pressfield:

“The real enemy in Afghanistan isn’t Islamism or jihadism. It’s tribalism. … Can we Westerners impose ‘citizen values’ on a tribal society?”  (from his website)

Some people say our real enemy in Afghanistan is their religion.  Pressfield says our enemy is their form of society.  Both sides agree that they cannot be left alone, since they are “the enemy”.  This debate goes to the heart of our Long War, as both sides usually ignore the question of why we fight – and exactly how these people threaten us.

…. However, we can all look at his essay in the broader context of American grand strategy.  Please consider this astounding statement:

“What struck me most powerfully is that that war is a dead ringer for the ones we’re fighting today. … the clash of East and West is at bottom not about religion. It’s about two different ways of being in the world. Those ways haven’t changed in 2300 years. They are polar antagonists, incompatible and irreconcilable.

Economist and businesspeople discuss the Competitive Advantage of Nations (as in Michael Porter‘s 1990 book of that title).  Social scientists and geopolitical experts discuss Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory.  But Pressfield goes beyond these.  In effect he calls for a long war.  War between “polar antagonists, incompatible and irreconcilable” – perhaps running until one side is exterminated or conquered. 

Using Alexander’s invasion of Afghanistan as a paradigm raises as many questions than it answers.  What were Alexander’s reasons for invading Afghanistan?  Nothing rational, little more than love of war, power, and loot.  Do we have such aggressive motives?  Or do we fight legally under the international laws we both promulgated and signed, which means acting only in defense? 

Answering that requires a clear statement of the threat the tribes of Afghanistan pose to us.  Victory is impossible without a clear understanding of the threat and our goals. How can the tribes be enemies without a strong understanding of this?

Read the rest of Fabius Maximus’ post here. FM has a rich number of related links, most of which I will not duplicate here for sake of brevity.

Pressfield has been thinking about his concept for some time, having penned an op-ed piece for Dr. Chet Richards at DNI back in 2006 entitled “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” which I encourage you to read. Today, there is an impressively slick vblogging, presentation by Pressfield on a site of the same name “It’s the Tribes, Stupid”.  Pay close attention: this is what a bloggging series looks like with a budget and Hollywood production values. Agree or disagree with Mr. Pressfield’s argument ( and I shall do both) he is demonstrating “how” to use the online medium professionally in order to propagate a meme ( he just needs help maximizing the virality, but the components are “good to go” for anyone who cares to pick up the torch). It is first rate work, take a look for yourself at Pressfield’s intro piece:

Pressfield has three vposts up and two more for release in the pipeline on his site.

Joshua Foust of Registan.net has already taken issue on a host of Afghanistan context specific and non-specific ways while RAND emeritus David Ronfeldt has offered supportive comments at Pressfield’s blog. For my part, I think what Pressfield is doing here is well-intentioned, helpful to a degree, likely to be successful in spreading as a meme and ultimately off-target in a harmful way for the same reasons that his meme can effectively propagate in our information age. In short, what Pressfield is saying is useful tactically but could mislead us strategically, but boy, he sure says it well!

I say it is useful tactically in that most 18-21 year olds in military service are not cultural anthropologists and speaking from nearly 20 years experience in teaching, young Americans are breathtakingly egocentric in their worldview, even when they adopt a pose of critical antagonism toward their own country, it tends to be blindly self-referential. Walking a mile in another’s shoes is not something they do naturally and unprompted. That other people have radically different conceptions of “normal” is often a mind blowing epiphany for them when it sinks in, usually in their late 20’s, if at all.

In that Pressfield conveys the generalized and simplified basics of a generic “tribal mindset” in sound bites digestible to the average twenty year old from a dying Mill town or small Deep South rural county  is a feature, not a bug. We can’t send all the recruits straight from boot camp to do a few years at Oxford or Yale before they deploy to Khost or Anbar – we need “good enough” for a starting point, not perfection. Pressfield gets an “honor culture” and “primary loyalty identity” across effectively and that could, possibly, save some lives. Let’s keep that point in mind.

Secondly, Pressfield’s point that tribal mentality is significantly different from that of a Western citizen is fundamentally correct. Different political economies and social hierarchies rest on different value systems and alternate psychologies. Col. Pat Lang wrote that most tribesmen could “escape to be cab drivers” if they chose to do; tribesmen prefer tribal life and believe it to be superior to a “civilized” society that is bereft of honor, even if it is materially richer. We are unlikely to convince them otherwise and they will resent us for trying.

What Pressfield gets horribly wrong is the discounting of the religious radicalism aspect as being superceded by atavistic, superempowered, Ur-tribalism. Umm, no and not at all. The neo-fundamentalist Salafi and Deobandi Islamist radicals are, as Josh correctly argued, pan-Islamist militants who are deeply hostile to tribal customs and authorities they view as “jahiliyyah”, un-Islamic or even blasphemous apostasy. As far as our current operations go, this reaction was on display after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan where Afghan Mujahedeen commanders tried their best to keep the Arab volunteers, Wahabbi extremists for the most part, from angering tribesmen by desecrating village shrines and graves of Sufi “saints” or revered, local, holy men. In reality, the conflict between Tribe and Religion goes back for centuries and periodically erupts in violence in one era and cohabitates peacefully in others.

Tribesmen and Islamist radicals are not natural allies unless we put them in that position and most of their countrymen are comfortable having multiple identities without choosing between them or abstaining from the elements of Westernization that they admire or enjoy. Viewing tribalism as “the enemy” makes the same mistake as viewing all Islam as the enemy. Frankly, we have enough enemies right now without multiplying them excessively and we can find many allies among tribesmen, if we approach them in the right fashion – something I suspect that Mr. Pressfield hopes that his videos will encourage American troops to do. I get the impression, from watching the videos, that Pressfield is employing many of the writer’s imaginative’s gifts there – simplifying, romanticizing, artfully mythologizing not by droning on but with clear, powerful, phrases that capture attention and have an impact. I am now tempted, after listening to Pressfield speak, to buy some of his books. 

With such skills though, he needs to take greater care to get his narrative right.

19 Responses to “Pressfield’s Reified Tribalism”

  1. Advice about our long war – “It’s the tribes, stupid” « Fabius Maximus Says:

    […] “Pressfield’s Reified Tribalism“  (well worth reading).  His analysis is at the end of the post. […]

  2. Fabius Maximus Says:

    A great post!  Even better than your usually high standard.

  3. zen Says:

    Thanks FM! I am glad you brought that to my attention – very interesting on many levels. Hopefully, more bloggers will pick up this discussion in the next few days.

  4. Lexington Green Says:

    "Tribesmen and Islamist radicals are not natural allies unless we put them in that position."
    Precisely Kilcullen’s point in his book.  We put them in that position.  We need to quit doing that. 

  5. democratic core Says:

    There ought to be a law.  Anybody who declares "war" on an abstraction – terror, extremism, drugs, poverty, now tribalism – goes directly to jail and has to write on a blackboard 100,000 times, "I will not declare war on an abstraction."

  6. slapout9 Says:

    Zen, don’t sell this guy short to fast. He statrted with TX Hammes(2nd smartest Marine Alive) excellant analysis of tribes on Astan from his book "The Sling And The Stone". It looks at the Tribe as a System!!!

    Also link 2005 study by a civillian employee from the Army Corps of Engineers on Tribes ……later Slap http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?PubID=619

  7. zen Says:

    Hi Slap


    Always good to have you here! I’m not selling Pressfield short and I would agree with him that tribalism is a critical layer of identity for a large number of ppl in the world and different from our own. Insofar as that is the case, Pressfield’s efforts to educate are laudable.
    That said, I think the evidence about the international jihadi hardcore, especially those who have killed large numbers of Westerners are often unmoored from their tribal identity for which a high octane religious identity has been substituted. Mohammed Atta, the London bombers, even bin Laden, are focused on an abstraction, the ummah, not their blood kinsmen. Secondly, I have to question the extent to which we should accept the proposition that all the Tribesmen of the East are Our Enemy should be a guiding principle for policy. I think that would be unwise.

  8. historyguy99 Says:

    Masterful post Zen. You and FM continue to set the bar for thoughtful posts.

  9. zen Says:

    Ah, you are too kind, HG, thank you!

  10. Smitten Eagle Says:


    I’m quite the fan of Pressfield.  He, along with Anton Myrer, were responsible for first sparking my interest in military fiction beyond it’s short-term utility as a source of entertainment.  There are actually lots of leadership lessons and much military knowledge to be gained from reading both authors!

    I absolutely agree with you.  I think Pressfield is making a flawed argument, and at the same time is highly persuasive of that argument.  He is a master of the meme.

    Semper Fidelis,

  11. Joshua Foust Says:

    Thanks for the shout out. I’m a bit confused, though: Pressfield sets up a straw man (he can’t define "tribalism" or "citizenship" or even "soldier" in a consistent way), declares that the one thing we need to realize to understand our enemy, and, despite ignoring the religious aspect of it, which you argue is vitally important, is still doing everyone a service?

    Color me confused. The anthropology on Afghanistan—that is, relatively recent anthro written after 1950 (and no, I don’t mean Barth, since he was writing about Pakistan)—is adamant that "tribe" is not just an incomplete concept for understanding the people of Afghanistan, but is outright misleading about it. The experts on the area—and I do not mean myself, but people with legitimate academic credentials and often decades of study—specifically discount tribes as an interesting but not revealing component of identity in the area.

    It’s interesting, too, that when we sit down and read the literature on modeling decision-making in Afghanistan, we come away with an annoying, chaotic picture… not because of the tribes, but because of all the autonomous decision-making. Pressfield describes the area as tribal robots, obeying programming that can never change. It defies personal experience, and it defies study of the area.

    It will be nice if Pressfield’s work sparks an interest in Afghanistan studies for soldiers deploying there. But my previous employer has spent years trying to break the Army out of thinking "it’s the tribes, stupid" in Afghanistan. There’s just now starting to be progress—after years of effort. If Pressfield instead gets all those 19-22 year olds back to thinking of Afghanistan only in terms of an unchangeable, inscrutable, hopelessly  foreign OTHER… then we will be significantly worse off.

    That is why I am so irked at what he’s doing. It is ignorant, plain and simple. Why he still gets praise for saying ignorant things eloquently is baffling.

  12. purpleslog Says:

    Is tribalism gene-based or mostly genetic? If not, then I would think those societies can change as the individuals in those societies can and do respond to incentives.

    There may not be short-term efforts that can create long-term changes, but I would think long-term efforts could have long term-effects.

    When I look at Barnett’s GAP map, it look mostly like the Islamic world to me. How much of that GAP is really a tribal world and just incidentally Islamic? Maybe targeting the tribal mentality and the tribal form are the way to go strategically long term. Must think more on this.

  13. slapout9 Says:

    Hi Zen, as the Tribal Leader of the Zen Pundits I am not about to knock tribalism, it can be a critical resource hence the Report I sent you. I read your stuff daily or try to anyway. Keep up the good work. Slap

  14. zen Says:

    Hi Slap,
    I will be putting your link up in a update post shortly with some comments – glad to hear that you read so often, please feel free to sound off here whenever the mood strikes you!
    Hi SE
    Glad to see you back at blogging – very intriguing post you have up, just read it – we need to get a discussion going on some of your key points

  15. Smitten Eagle Says:

    I don’t think that Tribalism can be described a gene-based any more than the capacity for Citizenship can be described as such.  It’s a form of social organization, and I know that when Pressfield sets up his strawmen, he greatly oversimplifies the issue.  I’m sure that most people would actually be uncomfortably "tribal" using Pressfield’s criteria.  At the same time, how do we know that the mass of Western Citizens isn’t viewed as "just another tribe" by so-called "tribal people"?
    Also…why must tribalism be "targeted"?  It seems quite awful to seek to undermine an entirely legitimate form of social organization for destruction, and quite honestly, such a task should only be viewed as taking a great step backwards, and perhaps a sort of cultural genocide.  Fortunately, such an undertaking would almost certainly be a failure.
    When you look at Barnett’s Gap Map, and you see mostly the "Islamic World", you are actually seeing preconcieved notions of what a lawless, tribal, Islamic World would be.  That map is very full dangers, because it causes people to make huge and unintentional errors.  Example:  Pakistan.  When most Americans think of Pakstan, they probably think of the part of Pakistan that is the NWFP.  They are probably very much unaware of the part of the Pakistan that is governed by suave Princeton-educated, Queen’s English-speaking, Cricket-loving urban elite.  On Barnett’s Map, it’s easy to call Pakistan lawless, tribal, Islamic, Gap-ish, etc., and generally, be the map promotes an uncomfortable level  intellectual laziness about many parts of the world.  Pressfield makes it easy to continue along this intellectually lazy path, when he rather uncritically starts labeling peoples "Tribal" and starts talking about their generalized characteristics.
    A couple general notes on Tribalism:  Pressfield went a long way when he said the Marine Corps is a tribe.  There are lots of tribal aspects:  unique traditions, a tendency to view the world in terms of the Corps, an enormous respect for tribal history, legends, and sea stories, unique tribal clothing (uniforms), ranks, etc.  But wait…the Corps is also a tribe of Citizens!  It’s probably not going to far to say that many of America’s best citizens are, or were, members of Tribe Marine.  Stuff like this really ought to make you wonder whether it’s the so-called tribal mentality that should be "targeted", or whether such tribal talk is more or less nonsense.
    If I came off a bit harsh, Purpleslog, I apologize.  I’m only tryting to push the debate.
    Semper Fidelis,

  16. zen Says:

    Hi Joshua.
    Ok, I understand your frustration but let me try to put my argument in slightly different terms. I alluded breezily to the "how" of Pressfield’s project in my post but in terms of cognition and epistemology it is really a *vital* element of communicating effectively
    Most people, that is most people in the US population, are not able or inclined if able, to leap into the granular academic understanding of a complex subject ( Afghanistan, molecular chemistry, programming in PHP, whatever) held by an expert, and I would put you in that category, Josh.. Don’t even bother trying using recent anthro scholarship as a starting point with a general audience, you will be talking only to people like me and everyone else in this comment section, none of whom are likely to be in Afghanistan anytime soon except Smitten Eagle. A large part of the general audience will not hear you, will not process your argument and another part will misunderstand what they do hear. It is too big a leap for one sitting. They can get there, but not as an intro.
    What grabs a general audience outside of the nerd zone we reside in is not nuanced expository discourse but a narrative. A story. A hook. if you hook successfully then you can reel them in for some real teaching and correct the errors and gross simplifications to grasp some of the real understanding you would like them to have. Pressfield is creating a narrative hook with his tribes videos – though I join you in strongly urging Pressfield to cool it in laying on the enemy other imagery. That is counterproductive. Getting across the point to 18 year olds to treat tribal/clan men with healthy respect, to stay the hell away from their women, to realize they are not longing to become Americans, has utility. That is the proper starting point for a raw recruit of no great education or worldliness but it should not be the stopping point.
    Ideally, a briefer who is an "old hand" in Afghanistan might show a clip to the recruits, comment on the good points and correct errors, relate it to stories of their own to exemplify their points as "lessons learned", introduce a more sophisticated cultural perspective of Afghan society and tie it to the mission. That would be my hope at any rate. Slapout and Smitten Eagle might care to comment here in regard to that.

  17. Joshua Foust Says:

    "Getting across the point to 18 year olds to treat tribal/clan men with healthy respect, to stay the hell away from their women, to realize they are not longing to become Americans, has utility. That is the proper starting point for a raw recruit of no great education or worldliness but it should not be the stopping point."

    I agree with that 100%. But… that’s not what Pressfield is doing. At all. He is not urging respect for "the tribesman," but rather contempt. He is doing the opposite of what you and I think SHOULD be done as a way of introducing people to the society they’ll be entering. That’s why I’m so frustrated. Pressfield’s videos don’t engender respect, they engender fear and paranoia about hidden "tribal" motives when it’s nothing of the sort.

  18. T. Greer Says:

    @Joshua: I think you may be misreading Pressfield’s position. He spends the greater part of his second video proclaiming the glory of all that is tribal. "In many ways tribalism is the best kind of life there is."

    With that said, it is pretty hard to view his 4th video as anything but an all out assault on Islamic belief systems.

  19. Kill the Tribes « The Committee of Public Safety Says:

    […] offers this commentary on Pressfield’s argument: …I think what Pressfield is doing here is well-intentioned, […]

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