TCS Daily

Beyond 'Us and Them'

By Lee Harris - April 1, 2003 12:00 AM

War is a time of disillusionment; and the Iraq War is proving to be no exception. But to expect war to confirm our expectations of it, and of our enemy, is to misunderstand the nature of war.

War is a life-and-death struggle, and in life-and-death struggles all the rules are called off, and for an obvious reason. They no longer apply. Death and rules do not go together. If the difference between my survival and yours lies in the breaking of a rule, this rule will be broken-be it an international covenant or a sacred moral principle or a religious prohibition. Which is why men often begin fighting thinking that they will not stoop to the practices of their enemy, and end by teaching their enemy what inhumanity really means.

And this is where we went wrong. Our first thought, guided by our humanity and our good will, was that this would not be such a life-and-death-struggle. We had sincerely hoped that this would not be quite a war, but more like a coup d'etat during which everyone else-including the Iraq army-would prudently stand aside while we surgically removed a monster who should have been removed twelve years ago. But in fact we have discovered that many Iraqis wish to die for this monster, just as millions of Palestinians see him as the great Arab hero, a second Saladin. Is it because of all that Saddam Hussein has done for them, and for his people-such as twice leading them into defeat?

No. It is simply because we are attacking him. They hate us so much, that they will love anyone that is willing to kill our people, soldiers or civilians, it does not matter; and this is the first brutally disillusioning lesson that we must begin to try to absorb from the Second Iraqi War.

And this term "they"-this amorphous third person plural pronoun that can mean so much and so little-is a concept that we are going to have to rehabilitate after having prematurely condemned it to the trash bin of history for its atavistic connotations: "Us versus Them" being the code of the vendetta and the blood feud from which the West has long since heroically freed itself.

We are going to have to rehabilitate it because it is the way our enemy thinks when it thinks about us. We may reject this way of thinking, and condemn it; but it would be dangerous folly to pretend it doesn't exist. If we are to be successful, we must take the leap of the imagination that is required to see us as they see us. We are their necessary villain-the one whose existence explains all their failings. If something is wrong, we did it. And that is why whatever we do is bad, and whatever is done to us, no matter how ghastly, is good.

And this is the second lesson we must learn from this war: to appreciate the magnitude of the West's achievement in overcoming the rule by tribe that still dominates the Arab world, except in those places where sheer terror rules. For unless we are prepared to grasp how unique our achievement has been, seen from the perspective of world history, we will make the fatal mistake of underestimating the obstacles that must be overcome before another culture can be brought to stop thinking in terms of Us versus Them. We will be like the man born to a long line of millionaires who can never imagine how money can be a problem for other people-forgetting how hard the previous generations must have worked in order to make our lives so easy that we could forget how difficult theirs must have been.

How did we come to see ourselves as citizens before we see ourselves as tribes or clans? How did we come to care whether we killed our enemy's children? Or to worry about civilian casualties?

We think that there is some kind of automatic progression from the barbarism of Us versus Them to a civilization in which we are all resolved to see the other person as an individual, and not as a generic sample of a hated Other. We say that societies that persist in the Us versus Them are merely politically immature-as if they were going through a phase like awkwardness and acne that one day soon will be outgrown.

Like the way the political immaturity of the Weimar Republic was outgrown.

The metaphor that permits us to think that our civilized values are just waiting to be adopted by the Arab world as soon as they have a little experience of them under their belt overlooks the fact that in order to have a genuine experience of these values you must do more than buy things from the West, you must live these values in your daily life-they must become part of your thinking and integral to your habits, as well as the thinking and habits of those around you, and only then can you have any just or realistic appreciation of what really makes the West work, and what gives us our great power.

Our power arises because we can put away our differences, and work together. That, and nothing else. All the wonders of technology that we possess, our weaponry and our gizmos, these are all merely the products of our organizational genius, our ability to put the right people in the right places, and have all of them cooperate on a general project, instead of bickering and feuding over turf and territory.

It is our ability to get along, and to work together as a team. This is the great American contribution to the world.

Is this racist? Emphatically not-it is simply taking history seriously, and seeing in it not merely the errors and follies of the human race, but something else as well-a design whereby mankind has ascended slowly and painfully from lower stages of ethical development to higher ones.

But the secret behind this design is simple-we have come so far because we have made many mistakes before, and we have insisted on learning from them.

That is the difference between us and them. They prefer to live in a fantasy. We prefer to live in the real world.

And, yes, living in the real world can be painful, and it can be disillusioning. We are experiencing that now. But not only is there no harm in that, there may be great health. It may force us to see what must be seen, and to do what must be done.

Editor's note: Make sure to read Lee Harris' new piece in Policy Review on "The Cosmopolitan Illusion."

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