“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Time to contemplate our inner savage? Mr. Wiles thinks it may.
Lest We Forget, There Are Things Worth Fighting For
By: James G. Wiles, For The Bulletin
What now - as the surge in Iraq begins - to make of the unremitting savagery of the foes we and our allies are facing?
This strikes me because I've been re-reading Michael Kelly's Things Worth Fighting For (2004). Kelly, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic Monthly, was the first American journalist to die in the Second Iraq War. The book includes some of his reporting from the First Gulf War in which Kelly describes the war crimes committed by the Iraqis during their occupation of Kuwait.
What strikes a reader in 2007 is how much of the savagery we are combating today is present in Kelly's reporting from 1991. Except for the IEDs, it's all there: the terror, the death squads, the horrible tortures and killing. And, of course, Saddam's defeat in 1991 was followed by his wholesale slaughter of the Shia and the Kurds.
At such times, it is comforting to have the examples of history at hand. First, of course, American soldiers have faced -and defeated - savage foes before.
During the Indian wars in the West, old-timers used to tell new recruits to "save the last bullet for yourself." At the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1875, as in Baghdad today, surrender was not an option for American soldiers. Col. George Armstrong Custer used his last bullet. Some of his troopers did too - all to escape being tortured to death by the victorious Indians.
Their corpses were stripped, scalped and hacked to pieces anyway. You won't find that in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
Second, this use of savage tactics in the name of Islam in the 21st century is a tragedy for Arab Muslims. While the American Indians of the 19th century were aborigines, today's demented killers - not only of us but of each other - are the inheritors of a high civilization.
In A.D. 1007 , London was a raucous, filthy, river town of 30,000 illiterates. Baghdad was the largest and most beautiful city in the world, population 1 million.
The caliph's capital boasted clean streets, fountains, libraries, public buildings, baths and parks, poetry, scholarship, science and music. (This Baghdad was razed in 1258 by the Mongols, probably history's most violent group of illegal immigrants.)
In the Middle Ages, aspiring scholars from all over the wilderness called Europe journeyed to the Muslim universities of al-Andaluz, in today's Spain. Arabic, with Latin,was the language of science, mathematics and philosophy.
Today, if Islamic civilization is going to survive, Muslims are going to have to put down jihadism as Christendom put down fascism in the 20th century.
Third, we need to remember that the tactic of savagery can succeed. The fact is that, not long ago, savage tactics defeated a superpower - and those tactics were used by the very same foes we are fighting now.
Only 20 years ago, in Afghanistan, Soviet soldiers - heirs of a martial tradition no less proud than our own - were saving the last bullet for themselves. They were especially fearful of falling into the hands of the Afghan women. Soviet casualties were sometimes sent home in coffins which had been welded shut so that their relatives could not see what the mujahedeen had done to their loved ones.
The Russians do not stand alone. Three times in the last 25 years, the U.S.has exited a country in the face of Islamic savagery. Our withdrawals from Lebanon,Iran and Somalia have all been cited by Osama bin Laden and the late, unlamented al-Zarqawi as reasons to believe that the current jihad will be successful.
It is true that, in our own history, Americans have been guilty of savage conduct too, not least of all the 300-year genocide against Native Americans. (Extermination of the aborigines was British policy, too, in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and, sometimes, Africa.) Terrible things were done by American troops in the Philippines only 100 years ago in the prolonged guerrilla war which followed our defeat of Spain in 1898.
But feeling guilty today about what our ancestors did in the past is a luxury for peacetime. Today, we need to learn the lessons of that past. One important lesson is that acts of savagery by an enemy of America can call forth savagery in our own people.
The Pacific theater in World War II was a race war with the Japanese and the Americans each considering the other to be sub-human.
In 1944, Life magazine printed a romanticized photo of an American girl writing a letter to her soldier boyfriend by candlelight. On her writing table is the skull of a Japanese soldier which he had sent her as a present. Savagery had called forth savagery.
Since World War II, we had fallen into the comfortable habit of thinking that the urge to engage in the unlawful killing, torture and mutilation of the enemy is confined to primitive cultures. We've been reminded that it's not. The urge toward what the German army called "frightfulness" is universal in mankind - and must be restrained and punished whenever it appears.
Finally, history is unforgiving toward a superpower which loses its nerve and its martial spirit. The Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. The Soviet Union, and its empire, lasted only two more years. After 1945, with their youth, their nerve and their finances bled white by two world wars in a 30-year period, the British began liquidating their empire.
Rome's fall took longer. The Western Roman Empire was overwhelmed by waves of illegal immigrants (aka the barbarian hordes) in the fifth century. The Eastern Empire finally succumbed to Muslim invaders (the Turks) in the 14th century.
As a great Philadelphia lawyer, Bernie Borish, used to tell his young assistants:
"Live and learn. But learn."
James G. Wiles is a lawyer and resident of Yardley, Pennsylvania.