"I and My Brother against My Cousin."
April 07, 2008, 05:52 PM
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Anthropologist Stanley Kurtz has a long, useful article in The Weekly Standard about Middle Eastern tribalism, "I and My Brother against My Cousin." He argues that we`ve overstated the importance of Islam in our recent troubles and understated the importance of tribal behaviors, rooted in nomadism, that are older than the Koran. (Indeed, Islam can be seen as both assuming but also criticizing the low-level feuding that was endemic to that difficult-to-police part of the world.) Fans of "The Man Who Would Be King" and "Lawrence of Arabia" won`t be terribly surprised, but will still find the essay provides a solid framework for understanding.

I agree with Kurtz`s article on just about everything other than the scale of the threat posed to the U.S. by Middle Eastern tribal tendencies. My view is that the danger, while not negligible (obviously), tends to be self-limiting due to the fractiousness exemplified in the title of the article. These guys aren`t the Russians with 10,000 nuclear warheads mounted on ICBMs. It`s not like Al-Qaeda is going to build its own fleet of jetliners to fly into our skyscrapers. They`re only a danger to us to the extent that we let them be a danger to us. To stop the Russians, we had to build a fleet of Poseidon subs. What we needed to stop Mohamed Atta and Co., in contrast, was a memo to Customs agents telling them to not let terroristy-looking guys through the gates at JFK.

Late last summer, with no decent new movies out, I wrote a retrospective review for The American Conservative of "Lawrence of Arabia" that discussed how we get a glimpse in the second half of the movie of the end of the ancient struggle between the regular armies of settled nations and the irregular warriors of tribal nations:

Among its numerous virtues, "Lawrence" provides insight into America`s quandary in Iraq by offering a vivid primer on what William S. Lind calls "asymmetrical" war.

In "Lawrence," regular warfare, with its drilling and decisive battles, is exemplified by the stolid Turkish infantry, while irregular warfare, with its interminable raids and retreats, is embodied in the mercurial Arab camel cavalry.

In the famous screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, the British high command wants Lawrence to trick the Bedouin Arabs into enlisting as cannon fodder in the grinding British attack on the Ottomans at Gaza. Lawrence insubordinately devises a more culturally appropriate strategy for the nomads: "`The desert is an ocean in which no oar is dipped` and on this ocean the Bedu go where they please and strike where they please." They will harass the Turkish railway to Medina with hit-and-run attacks, avoiding the pitched battles, for which the tribesmen, no fools, wouldn`t even show up.

In 1917, in the first two-thirds of the movie, Lawrence`s insight works wonderfully. In the 1918 conclusion, however, although the British and Arabs win, the failures of irregularity become clearer. The victorious but still fractious clans can`t competently manage the hospitals and waterworks of Damascus. Even before then, there are hints that irregular desert warfare is doomed by the new age of mechanized mobility. When the Turks can get their hands on enough German armored cars and airplanes, they negate the traditional Bedouin advantage in mobility and elusiveness.

Subsequently, it turned out that cultures that were good at regular warfare, like the Israelis and Americans, were also better at building and maintaining the tanks and planes that gave regular militaries the mobility of irregular warriors. But history never ends; losers adapt. As Lawrence tells Omar Sharif`s Sherif Ali, "Nothing is written." Now, after two easy victories in open country over Iraq`s derisible regular army, America has bogged down in Iraq`s urban jungles fighting countless irregular units that disappear into the alleys as Lawrence`s mounted warriors vanished into the dunes.

In other words, while irregular warriors from the Middle East long harassed Christendom due to their often superior mobility (such as that provided by the camel), the mechanization of military mobility in the 20th Century meant that the cultures that fostered cooperation and discipline were much better at building and maintaining the tanks and planes that have determined victory since WWI. Now, though, tactics have evolved, and we`re bogged down in places like Basra ... but only because we`re in places like Basra.