TCS Daily

'Enemy Mine'

By Michael Vlahos - July 29, 2003 12:00 AM

Who is the enemy? Victory depends on our answer.


We think of the enemy as "the other" -- either as our opposite, or as a dark mirror of ourselves -- so how we define the enemy also defines us. Furthermore, war is an expression of a relationship. Our relationship with the enemy in war is bound up in our past and future ties to them, so the "nature" of our enemy tells us a lot about our larger relationship with them. Finally, "victory" itself can be seen as changing the terms of that relationship in our favor. Therefore how we answer the question -- who is the enemy? -- also describes the parameters of victory.


Let's take an example.


Defining Them, Defining Us


The Germans were, in a certain sense, our best enemy ever. As "Prussian Militarism" in World War I, and "Nazism" in World War II, they bestowed on us, quite unwittingly, a great gift. But also they spoiled us and badly skewed our understanding of "the enemy."


Modern Germany and the United States were both created in the 1860s. We were competitors, but also in our own eyes cultural mirrors of each other: industrial powerhouses, emerging democracies, speaking similar languages, sharing real familial ties, speaking from the same canon of modern thought, and believing in the same transcendent vision of our own national futures. We were called the new century's global "comers." Future history was to be the outcome of our competition. In a way it was.


When we went to war in 1917 we aggressively defined our enemy in ways that increased us and decreased them. "Prussian Militarists" who had led Germans to the Dark Side gave us the passionate motivation that comes from fighting evil. Yet we could look at the "German people" and see ourselves waiting to be redeemed.


By defeating the Prussian, we were impossibly elevated: Americans had defeated the Gods of War! That was what we believed. A bunch of American boys from farm and factory had bested the world's best.


We did not seek to punish Germany like the Pyrrhic victors, Britain and France. We came, we said, to renew a people like ourselves. Thus our definition of the enemy ended up as uplifting good karma. We defeated evil and did good toward our own.


We can glimpse this through the eye of postwar Hollywood. Movies morphed the great director-turned-actor Eric von Stroheim into the perfect evil Prussian: "the man you love to hate." But these silent films also showed chivalrous German flyers dropping wreaths on the aerodromes of Allied airmen they'd shot down, while movies like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and later, All Quiet on the Western Front, portrayed Germans as just like Americans.


In other words, we were able to have it both ways: the war made us feel better about ourselves -- uplifting our deepest ego -- while our empathy with a former enemy created the basis for a strong postwar relationship.


The Relationship


Much of U.S. diplomacy after the war was about that relationship, and encouraging a stable and truly democratic Germany. That relationship failed in the 1930s. The stark symbolism of the 1936 Berlin Olympiad announced for all to see that the U.S. and Germany were once again world-historical competitors. It was time for a sequel.


Prussian Militarism: The Nazi Menace was an even better sequel than the original. Nazis were a much better caricature than dignified Junkers. They were so thoroughly evil that they goaded us into a more satisfying war relationship: their absolute and utter destruction.[1]


But the more apocalyptic dramaturgy of this war also demanded a more passionate story of redemption for the German people, because they had so unreservedly embraced Hitler's vision. Thus the war relationship framed our postwar relationship. It was to be one of redeemer and redeemed, where the Germans could be saved only through their collective repentance -- "de-Nazification." In this fashion the war made of the Germans active participants in the American design. It was neither conquest nor liberation, but rather a form of religious conversion.


This conversion was made possible by the dramatic theater of the war. Allied bombing brought the life of German society and civilization to the edge of annihilation, and we could say that while their worship of Nazism had brought them there, we, their cultural brothers, had come to save them.


The Parameters of Victory


Three elements in our war relationship gave us the victory we wanted. First we defined the enemy so that their defeat fulfilled our deepest expectations -- while the enemy accommodated us in every way. Second, we framed the war relationship so that the postwar relationship would advantage us in every way. Finally, the theater of the war itself gave us absolute authority among Germans so that they actively collaborated to realize our new relationship.


In two great wars the Germans made us the new "Gods of War" and de facto "Masters of the Universe." Our national karma increased a hundredfold. But this all came at a price. We were also spoiled by success. So in war we seek yet more lavish sequels to Prussian Militarism. Example: some call the History Channel the "Hitler Channel," for all its endless replay of World War II action. But red-blooded Americans don't love the Nazis, they love beating the Nazis, again and again, 24/7 -- after 60 years. Kids who couldn't tell you word one about the Versailles Treaty have made blockbuster hits out of Castle Wolfenstein and the Medal of Honor video game series, because it is still an honor to kill Nazis. It is a form of sacred trust, part of what it means to be an American.


We have ironically come to love our best enemy too well. The downside to this is clear in today's "Global War on Terrorism." Who is the enemy now? Terrorism? Truth is, we are not defining the enemy ... the enemy is defining us.


They Are Defining Us


America entered a "world-historical" relationship with Islam in 1973. Of course we didn't see it that way, and still don't, preferring to describe instead a menagerie of individual relationships with national regimes. The United States certainly does not admit to a relationship with a religion or a "civilization."


But Islam has a relationship with the United States. The years 1967-73 marked the beginning of a great struggle within Islam over its revival and future course. Its first great awakening was the Iranian Revolution, which was followed by the triumphant Jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the defeat of Israel in Lebanon from 1982-2000, and two effective Intifadas by the Palestinians. The United States has been entangled in each of these enterprises without ever facing the overarching theme they shared.


Likewise the U.S. has taken sides in the struggle, choosing the reactionary over the revivalist, the ancien regime over the insurgency, with the exemption of Afghanistan. There America trained and financed the greatest Jihad of recent times, thus helping to ratify the viability of Jihadi-style war against an invading Unbeliever, even if that invader was a world class power (the Soviet Union).


Every Muslim understands the brief against the United States as an Unbeliever colossus and a defiling invader. Thus we have already been defined, but we cannot engage that definition because we refuse to recognize the relationship between this definition and the Muslim world. Thus by default we have become defined as the enemy.


Moreover because we embody the mythic power of all that threatens Islam, every victory they score, no matter how small, increases them with a store of our mythic authority, which by the same small measure decreases us. Moreover every sacrifice, every martyrdom, represents a kind of karmic boost to their ultimate victory.


In contrast we are fighting mere "terrorists" who are by definition no more than criminals. If captured they are not treated as colleagues of war -- POWs. If to Muslims their fighters are true defenders of the faith, to us they are vermin. But what does that make of us? At best we are mere policemen, symbolically less than soldiers. How then do we look if as gods of war we fail to root this vermin out? How do we look if they get the better of any engagement, however small? We have deprived ourselves of war's karmic boost.


This clearly advantages the enemy. They are elevated by the energy we expend in Muslim lands. We have in fact elevated them to the status of a powerful foe. We daily send out the message, quite inadvertently, that they are the great enemy. But in exchange, we deny ourselves the satisfaction of engaging a great enemy. A great enemy raises you up, but a despicable enemy drags you down.[2]


Relationship Denial


In fact it's worse that that. We cannot openly name our enemy for fear of elevating them even further. Any move to make them like the Germans -- "enemy mine" -- would legitimate them not only as the great enemy, but also as our political equivalent within Islam, instantly stripping our tremulous Muslim clients[3] of their last shreds of legitimacy.


This is because the terrorists are fighters in an insurgent movement that has widespread support among Muslims. We cannot so elevate them that they become legitimated as the true defenders of Islam. But by denying their relationship to the Ummah as a whole we run the risk of legitimating them anyway, because defining them as criminals is an explicit form of defining all of Islam as something criminal or at least contemptible. There are many, many Muslims who believe that the United States is in the process of occupying their world so as to destroy their faith and their way of life. Furthermore our unconditional support for corrupt and tyrannical regimes in Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and elsewhere underscores America's choice of evil (a lá Islamic law) over the good.


America has chosen to prosecute a war that denies any possible future legitimacy to the Islamic insurgency, and indeed, any authentic connection between it and the Muslim world as a whole. To further this denial, the United States also ignores its own relationship with Islam, persisting instead in describing only formal micro-relationships with individuals or regimes.


No Name for Victory


Thus victory in this war can have no name, because for us victory does not exist. How can we declare victory against a bunch of criminals? Is another year of absolute power for Saudi princes a victory for our side? Here we can see perhaps the fateful legacy of VE Day, the dream of perfect victory.


World War II was the historical centerpiece of the Attack Iraqers. To them, Iraq was truly Prussian Militarism: The Butcher of Baghdad. It was to be Part III in the series, except that here instead of Germans, we would destroy an evil Arab regime and redeem a long-suffering Arab people. The Allied occupation of Germany -- and its attendant de-Nazification -- was held up like a sacred reliquary to silence the uncertain: for it held the authority of History itself. America's all-powerful martial narrative, they assured us, would be repeated.


Hence the Iraq War was invented as a piece of necessary theater. It replaced a relationship denied and an enemy that could not be named with an instantly recognizable story line. But the claim of "enemy mine" meant that no one, even trembling liberals, considered that this strategic ersatz might not work.


Beyond this the Iraq War was designed to be more than a distracting episode. It was planned as a strategic changeling that would have an unstoppable ripple effect. First "shock and awe" would give us so much natural authority that we could force peace in Palestine. Furthermore as cheering Iraqi flowers sprouted in the rifle barrels of American liberators, Tehran's freedom-loving students would rise up wholesale, sparking democratic revolution in Iran. Finally armed with a peaceful, contented, and democratic Iraq, the U.S. might at last nudge its corrupt "friends in the region" toward a stately historical exit.


In short, "enemy mine" has become our debilitating mindset. Even while Americans talk breathlessly about innovation and "military transformation," they cling to an historical paradigm where every successful war must be a sequel to World War II -- even if this means wantonly imposing our sacred narrative on a hostile and alien culture.


We should start again from the beginning. This is not a "Global War on Terrorism." In fact it is not yet a classical war at all, and may never be. Instead of war we are engaged in a strategic and cultural relationship with Islam. This relationship now dominates our national life, and indeed, world affairs.


But how should this relationship be characterized? If it is not classical war, neither is it comparable to the national-cultural competition between 20th century Germany and America. It is unique in the American national experience. Perhaps the Counter-Reformation and Thirty Years' War works as a rough parable. Like Europe in the 17th century, the world of Islam is also in the throes of a great struggle with itself ...


... And we are now a part of it. Moreover the dynamic of change itself cannot be stopped. There will be an Islamic revival.


Yet the United States is denying its relationship with the whole while nonetheless allying itself, regime by regime, piece by piece, with the "forces of reaction." Americans need to decide if they 1) wish to continue on this course, 2) will seek an alternative way to support Islamic revival without submitting to its "puritan" factions, or 3) will take on Islam directly and forcibly convert its civilization to Western-style modernity.


Right now we are "at war" explicitly only with the puritan factions of the revival. If we remain committed to our corrupt clients we will never nudge them to give it all up for blissful democracy. That will come only through their death. And by remaining in "occupation" of much of Islam's core we also inevitably inspire a larger if yet unrealized movement against us. The puritan factions do not yet represent such a movement within Islam. We have the capacity to so legitimate them.


In contrast however, it must be said that there is no safe way for the U.S. now to demonstrate sincere support for an Islamic revival. That opportunity was lost, perhaps forever, when we washed our hands of Afghanistan after 1989. Our knee-jerk support of the Saudis since then has probably made this option irretrievable. In the event, if half-heartedly pursued, it might well bring us the very thing we fear -- energized entities more powerful than any Muslim nation we know of today.


But that still leaves an alternative to the repressive and untenable status quo on one hand, or the forced conversion of Islam to liberal modernity on the other. By embracing both our relationship with Islam and the necessity of an Islamic revival, we may yet be able to coax History away from an eventual, and truly apocalyptic, sequel to "enemy mine."



[1] We should remember here that the Third Reich deliberately hid its truest evil, the Shoah, 'til war's end.


[2] The great Israeli historian Martin van Creveld put it this way: "If you are strong, and you are fighting the weak for any period of time, you are going to become weak yourself ... it's only a question of time ... The problem is that you cannot prove yourself against someone who is much weaker than yourself ... No [the Israeli forces] have not yet lost, but they are as far as I can see, well on the way to losing." World In Focus, Interview with Martin van Creveld, March 20, 2002, Australian Broadcasting Corporation,


[3] Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt Morocco, UAE, Qatar, Oman, Pakistan, just to name a few!


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