How We Regard the Wars That We Wage, Our Enemies, and Ourselves

A year ago, in the wake of the protests across the Muslim world ostensibly sparked by the Internet trailer for the film Innocence of Muslims, Aya Bratrawy and Rachel Zoll, writing for the Associated Press, collaborated on the article “An Overview about the Prophet Muhammad and Why He is So Revered by Muslims.”

The writers posed and answered five basic questions: Who is the prophet Muhammad? What is the prophet Muhammad’s role in Islam? Why are depictions of the prophet seen as heretical by most Muslims? In what ways does the prophet’s life impact Muslims today? And what is an example of a hadith?

All of the answers that the authors provided were very straightforward and relatively concise without being patently simplistic.

When I read the article, I initially thought that such an explanation was probably long overdue for many American readers. I recalled President Bush’s seeming ignorance of the longstanding conflicts between the Sunni and Shiite sects that greatly complicated the conduct of the war in Iraq and the extended, costly occupation of that country. I thought of all of the “anti-Mooslim” rhetoric that has been directed at President Obama and has led to the passage of legislation prohibiting the imposition of Sharia Law in a number of middle-American states with very negligible Muslim populations.

But then I considered that we had just commemorated the eleventh anniversary of the 9-11 attacks and that we were and still are embroiled in the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history—regardless of how one measures our direct involvement in the war in Vietnam. Therefore, it would not be unreasonable to expect most Americans to have become much more knowledgeable about the basic history and tenets of Islam than we seem to be.

Or, perhaps, than we care to be.

During World War I, Allied propagandists may have greatly exaggerated the German slaughter of Belgian infants, but the German decision to wage unrestricted submarine warfare, with the focal example being the sinking of the luxury liner The Lusitania, made it easy to vilify the “Hun.” Likewise, during World War II, the death camps, the war crimes, and the ruthless fanaticism of the Nazis and the Japanese militarists made it easy to demonize them, to reduce them to savage stereotypes that justified the use of any means available that would insure their unconditional defeat. Domestically, the leaders of the German Bund were imprisoned and all Japanese-Americans were herded into detention camps located in remote areas of the Western states, but the great bulk of German-Americans simply de-emphasized their ethnic heritage and Americanized. (To provide one ready example of this cultural shift, the township in which I currently reside has a large Mennonite population and was originally called German Township. Shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, it was renamed American Township.)

In both Germany and Japan, we literally leveled most of the cities and then spent the next quarter of a century helping to reconstruct those countries from top to bottom. While the war was being waged, anyone who was German or Japanese became a fair target. After the war, the war-crimes trials provided the illusion that the reconstruction of those nations was being accomplished in conjunction with “good Germans” and “good Japanese,” despite our previous insistence on the unmitigated evil of the regimes and the complete complicity of the populations that had embraced them.

Our enemies in the Korean War and the Vietnamese War were less easy to vilify because, in both instances, our allies were in many ways much less easily distinguishable, if not completely indistinguishable, from our enemies. This reality complicated the conduct of the wars because, especially in Vietnam, it was often very difficult to identify the primary enemy, the Viet Cong, until an attack was underway. It also complicated our relationships with our allies, with the people whose independence we were ostensibly fighting to preserve. When our soldiers disparagingly referred to their enemies as “gooks” and used other similarly racist terms, our allies felt the sting of the insults. The use of such derogatory slang was just the most obvious of a whole host of tensions that made for very uneasy relationships between us and our allies—militarily, politically, and culturally. Indeed, a case can be made that our propagandists compensated for the racist undertones of the war efforts by exaggerating the effectiveness and minimizing the corruption of many South Korean and South Vietnamese civilian and military leaders. In the end, especially after the fall of Saigon, when the South Vietnamese military had been routed much more quickly than even the North Vietnamese had anticipated, the collapse of the regime reinforced the general sense that our allies had never been equal to the task.

Interestingly, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we have been fighting to provide political alternatives to Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athists and to Mullah Omar and the Taliban. But, very curiously, we have never embraced and celebrated the leaders of the governments that have succeeded Saddam Hussein and Mulah Omar. Instead, we have kept the new leaders at arm’s length, regarding them with fairly blatant skepticism, if not outright distrust. I wonder how many Americans can even identify the current president of Iraq, even though Jalal Talabani is in his second term. I wonder how many of Americans know that he is a Kurd or have any idea of how the Governing Council of Iraq is organized. I wonder how many Americans know that at the end of 2012, Talabani suffered a stroke and that, as soon as his condition permitted it, he was flown to West Germany for treatment. Even worse, although more Americans may recognize Hamid Karzai by name, almost no one really believes that the President of Afghanistan rules his country in any effective sense. In fact, the American media continually reinforce the impression that his influence does not extend much beyond Kabul, as well as the characterization of him as a corrupt figurehead prone to expressing renegade opinions about his American allies.

So even though the conduct of the first Gulf War has often been framed as a final purging of the last remnants of the demoralization that carried over from the Vietnam War, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq  have become more like the Korean War and the Vietnam War than anyone cares to admit. Unable to embrace the emergent leadership in either country, we have demonized our enemies without celebrating our allies. In Afghanistan in particular, we have embraced, instead, images of the women and children to whom we have provided at least a temporary reprieve from hopelessly repressive existences. But there is a creeping sense that if we can’t take all of them out when we ultimately do leave, many of them may be doomed. One wonders with great dread what the equivalent of the Vietnamese “boat people” will be as refugees pour out of landlocked Afghanistan into the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, into autocratically governed Uzbekistan, or into an Iran that has had difficulty embracing its own non-Persian minorities.

In many of our previous and now more distant wars, we have drawn on paradoxical stereotypes to come to terms culturally with those conflicts. For three centuries, European-descended settlers engaged in successive conflicts with Native American tribes. Although the stereotype of the blood-thirsty savage was used to justify what amounted to a prolonged genocide, an alternative stereotype of the “noble savage” was produced to expiate some of our cultural guilt. Likewise, although the battles of the Civil War produced slaughter on an industrial scale, the stereotype of the gallant Southern soldier committed to the “lost cause” became a central part of our national re-unification, as well as a rationalization for allowing institutional racism to continue in the Deep South for another century after the end of the war. And, despite the demonization of the Nazis and Japanese militarists, we have become obsessively interested in them, producing books and films about them in such numbers that a simple urge to measure their evil cannot account for the persistently intense interest. We have even made a few individuals such as Erwin Rommel into something close to tragically deluded heroic figures. In each case, we have, in effect, culturally reconstructed the “enemy” to accommodate both the scale of the effort expended in defeating them and the stakes hinging on the outcome of the conflict.

Again, very curiously, none of this sort of cultural readjustment has occurred in the aftermath of the Korean War or the Vietnam War or our recently concluded and ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are no North Korean or North Vietnamese equivalents of even another Cold War figure, Che Guevera. Likewise, we did eventually root out and kill both Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, but whereas the death of Hitler coincided with the end of the war in Europe, the deaths of Hussein and Bin Laden never seemed to have the decisive effect that one might have expected them to have. Although that it is true that diehards resisted the allied occupation after the defeat of both Nazi Germany and Japan—and that we and our allies quashed that resistance with more summary executions than we have chosen to remember—the end of World War II was essentially the end of the worst of the violence (even if one argues that the assertion is true only in terms of scale). In contrast, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, “victory” has been a prelude to prolonged insurgencies that have been much more costly in terms of casualties and material than the formal campaigns ever were.

So, although I have no ready answers to why we have not become more interested in and knowledgeable about Islam, it clearly has something to do with the kinds of wars that we have been waging and with our difficulty in resolving our involvement in those wars culturally, as well as militarily and politically.

Looking back on the Vietnam War from some distance now, I am not certain that the general public ever seeks or finds resolution to such cultural dilemmas. Instead, the issues seem to fade as the public memory of the events gradually fades, though sometimes the issues seem to resonate longer than a full awareness or understanding of their context. In most cases, the cultural resolution emerges from novels and films that treat the events in multi-dimensional ways and from the research conducted by academics, often quite long after the fact.

An analogy in my discipline can be found in the way in which the sense of the significance of certain authors shifts and sifts over decades until some consensus emerges. Some authors—a very notable case is Herman Melville—die in relative obscurity only to have their work rediscovered and reappraised decades later.

So, just as notable works covering new ground continue to be produced about the Second World War, it may be that many of us who have lived through the wars of the first decade of this 21st century will not live long enough to know how they have truly impacted American history and culture—or how they have helped to shape Americans’ sense of our national identity.

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