from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Born Fighting - Jim Webb, Scots-Irish and Iraqis. 

This is not a book review. I have just finished reading Jim Webb’s Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. I found it useful in understanding Webb, who wrote it because it is his heritage. Understanding the nature of the Scots-Irish might help some Democrats - progressive or otherwise - understand why they have lost otherwise winnable elections. Webb notes his belief that Al Gore lost in 2000 because his position on guns cost him among Scots-Irish heavily in TN and WV, which had he carried either Florida would not have mattered.

The focus of this posting will be narrower, and examine only the question implied in the title.
Webb opposed the current Iraq war as a huge strategic error. Unstated in his early criticism is something that I derive from reading the book, and that is the parallel between the Scots-Irish and the Iraqis, people who have a strong fighting nature rooted in an equally strong tribal ethic.

The book is part family history, part ethnic history, very much anthropology. How we categorize it actually is irrelevant. And Webb would not claim that he is doing original historical research. He quite properly addresses a wide range of sources in attempting to explain the roots of his own family, a family which had members participating in every war in this country’s history. Readers may know that Webb just formally kicked off his Senate campaign in Gate City Virginia, nearly 400 miles away from where I now sit in Arlington Virginia. Webb has members of his family, great-great-grandparents and others, buried near there. The book ends in the small town of Kensett AR, where he visits the graves of grandparents. I want to begin this essay by quoting the final two paragraphs of the book. Then I will explain why I think the book is relevant to Webb’s understanding of Iraq, as it should be to ours. The selection below appears on pages 342-343.

But to be sure, the Scots-Irish are a people filled with many off-shoots and derivatives, with common threads that join them while strong differences obviate any thought of “ethnic purity” or even complete philosophical unity. We are related to those who stayed behind in Scotland and the border areas in the north of present-day England. We count as cousins those who remained in Ulster, not only Protestant but many Catholics as well. We ourselves are those who remained in the rough north of New England and especially along the mountain ridges that stretch from Pennsylvania to Georgia and Alabama; those who settled the backcountry and farmlands and new freedom of the Pacific Coast. Some continued to marry among themselves, and some did not. Some are wildly prosperous, and some are not. Some remember at least pieces of this journey, and some do not. Some care, and some do not. Some think it matters, and some do not.
Who are we? We are the molten core at the very center of the unbridled, raw, rebellious spirit of America. We helped build this nation, from the bottom up. We face the world on our feet and not on our knees. We were born fighting. And if the cause is right, we will never retreat.

Webb traces the history of the groups the contribute to this ethnic background. He comments repeatedly on the tribal nature of the group, the willingness to follow those who lead from the front, who place themselves at the same risks they impose upon others. He views the organization as one created not by imposition from the top down but rather as created by bottom-up fermentation. He sees a particular relationship with a direct connection with religion - the Kirk - in which a government seen as interfering with man’s relationship with God and the church is illegitimate and should be resisted. There would a commitment to the values of the religion at the same time as an apparent contradiction in the passion with which people lived - here the tradition of whiskey made locally traveled with the people from Scotland to the Appalachian tradition of moonshine, whether it was the whiskey rebellion of the 18th century or the ongoing battles between mountain people and revenuers that in large part led to NASCAR. And this is part of the indomitable spirit of the people. Webb cites many historical examples of the people of this background being willing to fight and die knowing they might well lose, but going ahead to almost certain death because of the perceived rightness of the cause. As a result such a people could experience a devastating defeat that instead of breaking their will merely intensified their resolve to keep on fighting.

When Edward I of England determined to expand his power beyond Hadrian’s Wall, itself erected because the Romans could never completely suppress the Gaelic tribes in the North of the Island of Britain, he totally destroyed Berwick, then the richest city in Scotland, a major port. As Webb writes on page 45:
On March 30, 1296, Edward entered Berwick with some 5,000 cavalry and 30,000 infantry, and in one day killed an estimated 17,000 people. As Churchill rather drily put it, “Berwick sank in a few hours from one of the active centers {sic] of European commerce to the minor seaport which exists today.”
Why did Edward do this, and indeed, how could a supposedly Christian monarch have lived with such blood on his hands? Centuries later, in 1937, the Japanese would coin a phrase for such ruthless conduct as they took similar (though not so completely brutal) measures in Nanking, China. In Asia the concept was called “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys.” Laying waste to Berwick was a deliberate act of state terrorism, the medieval equivalent of a strategically placed atomic bomb. It was meant to create such fear in the rest of Scotland that the people would hurry to show their deference to the powerful English king.
Wrong country. Wrong people.

Here I want to jump ahead, to see how Webb’s insight applies in Iraq. I see an almost exact parallel in the Scottish response to Berwick - after all, the events portrayed in “Braveheart” of the rise of William Wallace come AFTER the sack of Berwick -- and what happened in Iraq after Fallujah. I remind readers that the Marines under Gen. Conway had worked very hard to build relations in Fallujah, and then were ordered, after the killing of the four “contractors”, to basically level the city. In the first round of attacks in April of 2003, all they did was anger the people and destroy the goodwill Conway and his Marines had attempted to build and maintain. 7 months later the city was besieged, largely destroyed, the US probably used improper munitions and violated international convention, we killed perhaps 1,000 “insurgents” while losing less than 100 of our own, and in the process gave increased impetus in still ongoing insurgency. I wonder if someone who knew the history about which Webb writes and could see parallels between the elements of Iraqi culture and Scots-Irish culture would have made such a strategic error as the destruction of Fallujah.

I do not know how clearly Webb himself saw the similarity between the cultures. He did not address it specifically in his opposition before the war. Here I note that both cultures had a tradition of tribal organization, with something not like the hierarchical fealty of the feudal system of England or France. Their tribal organization was much more like local clans, with a fierce loyalty at the local level. There was a rich history to which people could refer, living in the land of the world’s oldest civilization, which had resisted and worn down and outlasted previous attempts to subject them, in ancient days from the Persians, in more modern times from the Ottomans and then the British. They could look back upon religious heroes who died rather than submit to that which they thought wrong, heroes named Ali and Hussein, who claimed descent from the Prophet -- as some Scots-Irish will claim descent from Robert the Bruce. They could look back upon military figures who had shown great success against those peoples and societies which looked down upon them - the Scots-Irish could look to William Wallace, the Iraqis to Sal-a-din, who was born in Tikrit.

Far too often we as Americans assume that our ways are the only ways. We have a kind of arrogance that leads us into trouble. There can be a real nobility to the American spirit, as shown by the generosity of this country to willingly give of its wealth to rebuild Europe through the Marshall plan, an offer made to the nations of Eastern Europe but rejected by Stalin. But our arrogance in our own sense of superiority can lead us to misunderstand what confronts us when we engage other societies, economically, politically and especially militarily. In Vietnam the Tet offensive was a military disaster fro the N Vietnamese. But it was a political success. That was partly the fault of the American leadership, which had continually understated for political reasons the size of the forces we were facing. Thus the American people were unprepared for the ferocity of the campaign, its breadth, the daring of sappers fighting their way into the American Embassy compound in Saigon. And those who argue that it was a military defeat for the Vietnamese forces arrayed against us are correct, but miss the point -- the leadership in Hanoi was fully prepared to accept those kind of losses repeatedly because they were unwilling to have their will broken, because they were fighting for their concept of their nation, and were willing to risk all that the Americans fighting 12,000 miles from whom would be unwilling to continue the fighting necessary to kill enough of their opponents as to effectively end opposition.

We might note another kind of arrogance - the belief that we could in Iraq make an example that would effectively intimidate other nations in the region so that we could impose our will. Lessons are learned, but as teachers and administrators in schools often learn when the seek to impose order and discipline by force of will, it may not be the lesson that is intended. Other nations know that they cannot stand up directly to the force of the US Military machine, but that does not eliminate other forms of conflict. And if enough people are sufficiently committed, such asymmetrical warfare can be effective in breaking the will of the superior force as the application of overwhelming power is intended to be in breaking the will of weaker nations.

I am not a military expert. My service in the Marines was limited in scope and length, serving as I did only stateside in non-combat units. I am also not an expert in cultures of other nations, as historian or anthropologist or sociologist. I do read, and absorb, and think. I read contrasting points of view, and weigh as best I can the evidence each presents, before I attempt to come to conclusions. I think the only long-term impact of attempting to impose our will by the use of force will be the destruction of the United States as a democracy. That is the strategic blunder upon which this administration has embarked. And I think it could well have been seen as a blunder, an embarkation upon an unrealizable goal, before we even started, had there been people willing to pay attention to things other than ideology and aspirations of grandeur and power and riches.

Let me be clear. I do not think that Jim Webb has drawn all the lessons he could from what he has studied and experienced, about which he has written not only in this book but elsewhere. He has demonstrated -- and not just in this book - an ability and a willingness - to learn history and to see how it might apply in different situations. Eugene McCarthy once said that one problem in the cold war conflict was that Americas’ national game was poker while that of the Russians was chess. By this he meant that we have far too great a tendency to think in shorter periods of time. I realize that many of the Neo-Cons would argue that they are thinking in the longer term, as for example they attempt to ensure access to if not control of the world’s supplies of petroleum. But to me that is still tactical, not strategic. Had we continued down the path of exploring alternatives to a petroleum based economy begun under Carter (but abandoned under Reagan) our own vulnerability would be so much less, and we would have developed the kinds of technology that would have brought great economic benefit as we sold to other countries. of greater importance, the entire world would have seen far less conflict, because it is not just the Middle East which is roiled by the contest over oil, it is also our interference in Venezuela, it is the conflicts in places like Sudan and Chad, it has been the continued conflicts in Indonesia.

The conflict over resources is one example where our vision is far too short. Our total misunderstanding of other cultures, of the motivations of other peoples and other societies, has seen us repeatedly make blunders that were completely avoidable, as the conflict in Iraq demonstrates on both the tactical and strategic levels.

Webb’s book can help us understand things about our own society that can reshape our thinking and our actions, politically, ethically, and on other levels as well. If we do not seek to understand the validity from his viewpoint of the person who opposes us, we have no choice but to attempt to destroy him, and in that attempt we may destroy ourselves. The lessons we can derive from learning about our differences at home are equally important in our relations with other nations, other peoples who may either be scattered across multiple nations, or striving (as are the Kurds) for the nation they never had.

I recommend a thoughtful reading of this book. I do not doubt that you will be impressed with the quality of Webb’s thinking and writing. I am supporting him for the Senate, and wish there were far more seeking or serving in political office who displayed this depth of thinking. I make this suggestion independent of my concerns about who will represent me in the US Senate. I think this book can help expand our insights on many levels. I have chosen to use it to explore merely one, our involvement in Iraq. You may well find issues of greater importance for which it gives you deeper understanding. I hope that you do, and that you will share those understandings with the rest of us.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
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