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:
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.