December 29, 2002

One of the reasons a story has power is it speaks about and to the core ideals and beliefs of a culture. The latest installment of The Lord of the Rings (The Two Towers) is a fine example. We all know it's a good story, but there's more to it than just interesting characters, clever dialog, and spectacular visual effects. At its core, the film is also about one of the defining aspects of western, and therefore American, culture: war. And not just any sort of war, but the peculiarly unique form which our culture practices. The west, unique in all the world, has for more than 2500 years viewed war as a collaborative, co-operative endeavor dedicated to the complete annihilation of an enemy.

Nearly every point in the film speaks to this simple, but deeply important, premise, and yet we hardly even notice it. Indeed, the post-war era of western thought has busily tried to repudiate it at every step. And yet it is very important to understand and accept that the success of the most advanced, progressive, and liberating lifeway the world has ever seen is due primarily to that lifeway's ability to both attack and defend in unprecedented, innovative ways that have been proven superior to all other cultures it has ever encountered. Understanding, even accepting, this heritage is key to realizing why other cultures detest the west, and, paradoxically, why the west has little to fear from this hate, no matter how spectacularly demonstrated it may be.

We simply accept as normal, for example, that a king's nephew could repudiate that king's policies to his face without fear of mortal reprisal. We are not surprised at all when junior officers, even outsiders, innovate on their own on attack or defense in the face of sudden adversity on the battlefield, without even considering consulting the king. It requires not one ounce of suspended disbelief that a siege could be lifted by rushing head on into the teeth of the adversary, seeking out a simple, violent, conclusive battle to decide victory or defeat in the shortest time possible. Finally, we accept without question the premise that there can be no compromise with an enemy, no settlement. To win we must not just defeat a single force in a single battle, take captives, or cause dishonor, but rather must utterly destroy an entire army, wreck its infrastructure, and exterminate or transform its people. While it is all too easy to focus on the latter and weep, we must, as Tolkien did, focus instead on the former, and take heart.

Because in reality, if given the proper opportunity, every society seeks the annihilation of every other society. The difference is that the west's traditions of individual responsibility, free inquiry, personal liberty, rigid discipline, and citizen-soldiery have made it actually capable of outright conquest far more often than any other culture it contacts.

It would be simply inconceivable, to choose an example, for a samurai to openly dispute the decisions of his shogun. Far more expected would be to protest by suicide, thereby not only silencing a potentially important idea, but also removing a strong back and ready hands to fight whatever type of battle is decided.

It would also be impossible for, say, an Iraqi lieutenant to exploit an obvious hole in the lines of his Iranian adversaries, rush in, and thereby assure a victory in battle. While such victory might bring him glory, if it highlighted his superior's incompetence he could probably expect his reward to instead be a long stay in a small cell. Defeat would simply mean execution out of hand.

It is also almost beyond imagining for any non-western army to openly confront a western one by seeking out a single, decisive, "shock" battle. Even when equipped with near equal, even superior, materiel, and always equipped with far greater numbers, these battles and these wars have invariable resulted in the defeat of such a force.

As has been amply demonstrated time and again throughout history, the things which make the west great, individual responsibility, free inquiry, personal liberty, rigid discipline, and citizen-soldiery, are not things which can be "cherry-picked" one over the other, one instead of the other. Rather they are things which come of a piece, a totality that at root makes the west, well, the west.

The collapse of the European colonial empires and the experiences of America in Vietnam and Russia in Afghanistan taught the rest of the world important lessons. It taught them we are no smarter, no better, than they are, that white skin bestows no special form of invulnerability, that we can be as moronic as the next guy, that we bleed the same blood and die the same deaths.

Unfortunately it also caused them to forget other, equally important lessons. We do not fight for personal honor, symbols, or glory. We never fight the same way twice, and learn from our defeats rather than surrender because of them. We care little for the rank, status, color, or creed of a soldier if he or (lately) she has an idea that works. That soldier also has the expectation that, success or fail, their life or their liberty will not be taken away at the whim of a commanding officer.

We do not defend ourselves until an attacker gets what they want or goes away; we defend until we are able to attack and then exterminate our attackers so they may never threaten us again. When humiliated, frightened, or threatened, we do not negotiate, we do not prevaricate, we do not moderate. We defend, we learn, we invent, we adapt, we seek out, we attack, we win, and then we sow salt into the earth of your lands to ensure you never threaten us again.

The Japanese were the first non-western nation to seriously challenge the western world on its own terms, with weapons of its own design and tactics of its own making, in more than five centuries. They remain the only nation in the world to be victimized by an atomic device.

Some parts of the world have already forgotten these lessons. They do so at their peril.

Posted by scott at December 29, 2002 12:25 PM

eMail this entry!

Scott, I don't always agree (okay, rarely agree) with what you say, but you write some fantastic essays.

Posted by: Pam on December 30, 2002 02:44 AM

:) Thanks! :)

Posted by: scott on December 30, 2002 08:00 AM

very truely stated. i live in japan myself and they were so utterly humbled at the loss of ww2 by the us (my home) that they honestly hate war in any form or manner. most westerners hate war but are willing to make the sacrifice for a war that is for, in their mind, the right reasons. japanese avoid war regardless of the reasons because of the scars they still have from confronting the us.

Posted by: matt on January 9, 2003 11:45 PM
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