May 1, 2007  

Dream warriors: Our enemies fight for fantasies, not freedom

“Dreams have a vise-like grip on the people of Islam. We never grasped that it was more useful to let our Muslims dream than to build them schools, hospitals and factories.”

“You’re confusing dreams with hope, aren’t you?” asked Donadieu.

“Possibly. But I sense that the dream is vaster and more mysterious than hope.”

— Jean Larteguy, Les Praetorians, 1961

In his best-selling novel about the French botch-up in Algeria, the former soldier and daring journalist, Jean Larteguy, prefigured many of the problems that English-speaking nations face today in the Middle East. While there are profound differences between Algeria and Iraq, not least the fact that Iraq has not been settled by over a million American colonists and that today’s Muslim warriors are waging reactionary, not revolutionary, warfare, many of the ruminations of the officers facing Arab militants in The Praetorians are uncannily familiar to those of U.S. Army and Marine officers today.

The most-telling insight in the novel lies in the exchange above (amended from the clunky translation published forty-five years ago): The French have been focusing on statistics and infrastructure — and losing. A veteran officer who’s gotten to know the indigenous Algerians recognizes the futility of applying European analytical models to Arabs, but the vast bureaucratic machines of the army and the state plod on, obsessed by their own internal issues and rivalries.

With our armor-plated prejudice in favor of empiricism (“Just the facts, ma’am!”), we’re blind to our own irrationality and susceptibility to delusions. Faced with combatively non-empirical cultures, such as those of the Middle East and North Africa, we’re baffled: How can our opponents continue to deny proven facts? Our stock response is to insist, yet again, that Arabs, Persians, Afghans and Pakistanis really want the same things we want, but haven’t realized it yet and need to be convinced.

Yet, it’s our approach to life, although stunningly successful in other spheres, that’s out of step with history and humankind when it comes to sorting out the causes for which men (andwomen) will fight and die — even pursuing death with fanatic enthusiasm. The glimpses we can’t avoid of the mentality of other cultures are so disconcerting to us that, just as Arabs default to blaming the West for all of their ills, we default to our dogmatic insistence that the historical evidence that men fight hardest for God, bloodlines and collective dreams is wrong and that extremist insurgents, terrorists and suicide bombers are really fighting because they don’t have high-speed internet access.

Until we are willing to confront the mentality — the soul — of our enemies honestly, we can’t and won’t defeat them.

We seek a logical understanding of mass violence, but war and civil strife rarely explode because of rational grievances. Complaints about oppression, poverty or injustice may serve as superficial catalysts, but few wars can be traced to objective decision-making by the dispassionate leaders of cool-headed populations. War is an act of passion, not of policy — Clausewitz wrote of a specific period in European history, but largely misread even his own era: Napoleon was a protean, intuitive figure, not a product of the Age of Reason. For the Little Emperor, war was far more than a tool of policy — it was a glorious endeavor in and of itself, a human apotheosis, intensified by that murderous Corsican’s surreal visions of universal empire (a caliphate with quiche).

In this new age of atavism and wars spawned by the most elementary human impulses — religious fervor and ethnic supremacy — we need to come to grips with the true roots of mass violence, that ecstatic phenomenon that serves the human-aggregate as the equivalent of the individual’s sexual passion and release. Whether we speak of the intoxicated crowds that poured into Europe’s streets in August, 1914, of the orgiastic joy felt by the perpetrators of pogroms, or the coital rhythms of chanting mobs, the mass consumes the individual. And that mass operates according to a biological imperative we refuse to understand, since an honest evaluation of the murderous transfiguration of human beings absorbed into an aggregate would destroy so many of our cherished myths about humankind.

The human being is a killer, and the human collective is a killing machine. The purpose of civilization is to civilize the hunter and maximize his latent abilities to contribute in other spheres — ultimately strengthening the power of the collective in other ways and making it as robust behind the phalanx as at the tip of the spear. Now we face an age in which entire civilizations are in advanced states of decay and breakdown — shutting down alternative human courses and releasing the killer again. It’s far easier than we wish to believe to turn a potential neurosurgeon into a mass murderer — or to excite the dullard mass into a mob. Mundane successes placate the killer within us, but never extinguish him.

Civilization bribes us to be good; if we are not good, civilization reveals its steely side. But once a civilization has gone into collapse, a foreign power’s imposition of bits of infrastructure will not arrest the process. The civilization may have to die before it can be reborn — at the very least, it requires a deeper transfiguration than any external power can impose (Cyrus didn’t release the Jews from their Babylonian Captivity because he was generous, but because he recognized that he couldn’t change or integrate them, just as the European colonial powers ultimately abandoned their empires from an unstated sense of hopelessness). American exceptionalism aside, human identity is intractable.

By regulating, organizing and channeling violence, successful civilizations allow the majority of their members to contribute to the general welfare while a minority provides security. Except in times of dire emergency, the superior organizational capabilities of civilized societies allow them to devote a much-smaller percentage of their human capital to defense than primitive societies can do. Thus, the most-successful civilization in history, that specific to the United States, has less than one per cent of its population under arms, yet spans the globe with its military and corollary forms of power. Certainly, size matters — the civilization’s size, as well as that of the military — but you will not find a warrior tribe anywhere in history that triumphed with under one per cent of its members dedicated to warfare.

We just don’t want to know what human beings, their societies and their civilizations are really like.

Wars of Fantasy and Nostalgia

People fight for different things. Americans pledge to protect and defend the constitution of the United States. We fight for national security and a sometimes-nebulous, but ever-powerful, vision of freedom. Arabs fight for faith, family and turf — but not for constitutions. And not only do people fight for different things in different civilizations, even within their cultures they fight for different things at different times: Arab nationalism 50 years ago, fundamentalist Islam today. This second point is vital to our misunderstanding of the conflicts engaging us around the world.

From international statecraft to military counterinsurgency operations, the United States and our core allies still interpret insurrections, rebellions and terrorism in terms of revolutionary struggle — the organizing principle, at least superficially, of so many 20th-century insurgencies. But we’ve undergone a profound global shift (most advanced in the Middle East) from wars of ideology and revolutionary liberation, to reactionary violence either demanding a return to a re-imagined golden age, or determined to enforce the implementation of a millenarian kingdom of heaven on earth, or both. As in the quote from Larteguy above, our enemies are fighting for dreams, and not the mundane more-bread dreams of Che Guevara, Leon Trotsky or even Gamal Abdel Nasser, but for faith-driven fantasies and nostalgia for lost greatness.

Certainly, all warfare has a more-power-for-us component, but it’s remarkable how frustrated religious visions and nostalgia for a distant past re-imagined as a golden age can inspire suicidal struggles on the part of entire populations. This longing for a resurrected utopia that never really existed is so powerful that it even infiltrated avowedly secular mass movements — the Nazi philosophy, such as it was, collapsed into neo-Nordic mumbo-jumbo and third-liter-of-beer notions of a glorious German yesteryear somewhere between Valhalla and Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg. In societies regulated by religion, the propensity to believe in Eden betrayed and waiting for redemption is incomparably more powerful. If suicide bombers plague us today, suicidal struggles by rebellious groups empowered by metaphysical visions have plagued civilizations since the murky dawn of history.

Today’s insurgents and terrorists aren’t fighting for freedom, but for voluntary subjugation to a stern, even punitive regime. Freedom is terrifying. Most human beings welcome just a little more freedom in their daily lives, but are ill-equipped to bear the responsibilities that American-style freedom thrusts upon them. Adults secretly crave rules as surely as do misbehaving children (and every mob quickly produces a leader with a commanding voice). Anarchy in the streets isn’t a rebellion against rules, but a protest at their absence: Give an anarchist the right demagogue to follow, and you’ll turn him into a storm-trooper marching in lock-step.

This phenomenon varies in intensity from society to society and from civilization to civilization, but it manifests itself particularly strongly in today’s Middle East. Iraqis may not want Saddam Hussein and the Mukhabarat, but they do require structure to a degree that Americans would find intolerable. Left without rules we would find insufferably strict, Arabs become lost and angry outside their womb-like families. Conditioned by their religious culture to life-by-the-checklist, they require a distinctly non-Western degree of regimentation to function as a society.

Instead of simply decrying the fact that our fiercest enemies “want to return to the seventh century,” we should attempt to understand why that’s their fervent, professed desire — and why the rallying cry appeals to such an astonishing range of people. Not least, they imagine Islam’s “golden age” as a time of good order similar to medieval Europe’s “great chain of being,” when everyone supposedly knew his place and found contentment in it.

Of course, even members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban would find it unpleasant to return entirely to the turbulent aftermath that followed the Prophet’s death, or, for that matter, to the mythologized era of the Caliph Harun al Rashid a few centuries later: The cell phone and the dentist would soon be missed.

Yet, even such an assessment is too literal, too Western. The bin Ladens and al Zawahiris aren’t interested in the perfect replication of the distant past, but in the galvanizing vision of a better, godlier world for which a fairy-story past serves as an inspiration and affirmation. The air-brushed past is just a catalyst for the dream — and, as Larteguy’s Frenchman suggests, a mighty dream will mobilize far more potential martyrs than a new sewage system.

In Iraq, we tried to share our own dream, one that’s worked remarkably well for us. But our efforts may be as hopeless as an attempt to convince a friend obsessed with a destructive lover to decide, on a rational basis, to choose a less-menacing partner: Reason is an ineffective weapon against passion, whether in love or war. Many in the Middle East, perhaps even a majority, have fallen madly in love with fantasies that can only be sustained through a culture of blaming others for all that goes wrong, by embracing self-contradictory conspiracy theories, and by rejecting — in a rage — the contours of more-successful civilizations. Like that lovesick friend of ours, humans don’t want sober advice, but affirmation that their folly is wisdom.

We’re left with a war not of ideas, but of competing visions: On one hand, the congenial disorder, bounded by humane laws, that has allowed us to rise to such heights of power and influence, and, on the other, the reality-shunning fantasies of grandeur resurrected and militant sanctity that blinds the people of the Middle East to their own practical self-interest.

After their basic physical needs are satisfied, what invisible needs drive human actions? Certainly, it’s not the Western admonition to “be reasonable.” Whether the fantasy is of eternal salvation or of a vanquished national glory revived, human beings will rush to their deaths to sustain their irrational, but satisfying, beliefs.

The Great Reaction

Over the last few centuries, men and women gave their lives for man-wrought utopian visions. But all the invented ideologies not only failed to work, they ultimately failed to satisfy. Now the great reaction has set in, the retrograde shift to defensive intolerance. Even in our own incomparably successful society, both extremes of the political spectrum are no longer occupied by progressives, revolutionaries or reformers, but by ferocious reactionaries who dream either of a “return” to a godlier age that never existed as they imagine it, or who fantasize about a neo-agrarian society that has no more chance of coming to pass than al-Qaeda has of re-establishing the caliphate.

From the Taliban to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and from the foreign extremists haunting Iraq to the opponents of women’s rights in North America, our age is characterized by self-righteous fanatics who — terrified of freedom — believe it their duty to impose their rigid social norms on the rest of humanity. Their rigid visions are unanimously about turning back the clock to a “simpler” age that supposedly didn’t suffer from the ills afflicting our own, Eden without the serpents. (It’s piquant to note that Hitler, a strict vegetarian and animal-lover, would have backed PETA to the hilt.)

Yet, humans are humans. There never was a perfect golden age, and Atlantis remains a dated pop song, not an archaeological site awaiting lucky scuba divers. Yet, the longing for the “lost” golden age or the perfect future is endemic to the human condition — like the poor, fantasies will always be with us for those who cannot accept the challenges of the here-and-now. The difference today is that both the tumultuous pace and the universal awareness of change is more threatening than it ever has been in the past: Our enemies are either fighting to stop the clock, turn back the hands, or to make the clock irrelevant by achieving timeless perfection. The one thing they all dislike is American-style progress.

Human beings have always been frightened by change. Today, most of humanity is terrified. And tens of millions, if not more, will fight for dreams that promise them an escape from the reality plaguing them with a sense of inadequacy and failure.

We seek to improve the reality of the Middle East, but the people of the Middle East just want to escape reality.

Understanding this enemy

If we are to avoid the fate of that fictional French officer who, faced with comprehensive failure, belatedly recognized that a people’s dreams are more inspiring than the arrival of traffic lights, we have to challenge our own illusions about both our enemies in particular and humanity in general. In some respects, our own behavior patterns have been disturbingly similar to those of the Middle East — just as our opposite numbers reject empirical data in favor of comforting fantasies, we, too, flee from reality when it makes us uncomfortable: The liberal fantasies that “all men want peace,” that “war doesn’t solve anything,” and that’s it’s in the natural order for societies and civilizations to get along just fine all defy the historical and contemporary evidence.

Just because we don’t like the truth, doesn’t mean that we can declare it false.

We may heartily desire it otherwise, but far too many human beings enjoy killing and abusing others; perhaps a majority of humanity is convinced that its path should be imposed upon all others; and the impulse to wage collective violence, whether in spontaneous massacres or in wars, is irrefutably embedded in the mass psyche — to which the individual is tethered in ways that we refuse to acknowledge or investigate.

When faced with the facts of the human experience, the “enlightened” citizen closes his mind and starts calling the messenger nasty names. But if war were not part of our make-up, why have there been so many wars? Can we really blame a tiny numbers of individuals who suffered unhappy childhoods? Isn’t it time that we seriously investigated the ugly phenomena of mass behavior and the collective organism that devours the individual’s conscience in times of stress and disorder? A mob is not a collection of individuals, but an organism with its own biological and psychological dynamics. If we continue to see humanity only as a collection of individuals, we will never understand war, or insurgencies, or terror — or even the popularity of American Idol.

As reality forced our military — or at least the Army and Marines — to confront the changed security environment since 1991, the services entered a painful learning process. In the beginning, there was well-intentioned “cultural understanding,” the essential purpose of which was to avoid offending a terrorist’s value system. Since then, we’ve moved on to seeking a more tactically useful grasp of our enemy’s culture, the sort of insight that allows us to operate more effectively. But tactical successes, although vital, lead nowhere if our strategic analysis is wrong: We study the individual and extrapolate to the mass, when the correct approach is to seek to understand the mass, then use that knowledge to control individuals. We’ve got it exactly backward.

Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as special-operations forces in general, viscerally grasp that the asymmetries we face today go deeper than mismatches in organizations and weaponry. The problem is that thinking officers have yet to discipline their knowledge into words, into articulate insights and appropriate doctrine. Paradoxically, one of the greatest obstacles we have to understanding our enemies is that our officer corps is too well-educated in the formal sense. Officers with master’s degrees in international relations and Ph.D.s in government have become prisoners of the outdated theories they encountered in graduate school (alchemy in the age of particle physics).

Perhaps the best piece of advice you can give to an officer with advanced degrees is, “When the reality confronting you contradicts the theory you learned at Harvard or Stanford, believe the reality.” This sounds like common sense, but it’s routine to encounter dutiful officers struggling to fit a confounding and deadly reality into the cookie-cutter formulas their professors insisted would turn human lead into strategic gold. Post-graduate education, if its teachings are in error, can cripple a talented officer and leave him a menace to his subordinates — or to the entire force, if he rises high enough.

The military can’t look to the academic world for answers — the campus is as out of touch with reality as an al-Qaeda cabal in a cave fantasizing about the revival of the caliphate. Academics will defend their obsolete theses to the last infantryman in the streets of Baghdad. Our military leaders, at all levels, must scrutinize their own experiences in the field and do their best to see the facts clearly, to discard the Vaseline-coated lenses their educations convinced them to wear. You can’t understand today’s conflicts from Cambridge or Ann Arbor. Military men and women have the experience to achieve a fresh, more-accurate understanding of human motivation and the roots of conflict. It’s their duty to reject the intellectual alchemy of liberal-arts faculties and the circular logic of think-tanks.

The professors will tell you that it’s all about deprivation and demographics, mistaken American policies and, yes, the need to build those schools, hospitals and factories. Nothing wrong with a clinic here and a co-ed classroom there, but the real problem is that our opponents refuse to accept the empirical reality we insist is the global standard. If we continue to misunderstand the psychological and spiritual environments in which we operate, the clinics will continue to be bombed and the classrooms will remain empty, their teachers assassinated.

We need to spend at least as much time asking ourselves what our enemies want as we do telling them what we think they should want. Unless we accept the power of the enemy’s dreams and deal with those dreams as a motive shaping reality, we’ll get it every bit as wrong as the French did in Algeria.

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer. His most recent book is “Never Quit The Fight.”