First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
The War of Stories
Orson's Observation: For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert.
Card's Corollary: There is no subject on which anybody knows everything.
I recently read a valuable book called Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History.
The back-flap bio of the author, Lee Harris, talked about how he entered Emory University at age fourteen and graduated summa cum laude. Well, I entered BYU at age sixteen and graduated with high honors with distinction -- while on academic probation. He's got me by two years, but I think my academic probation thing trumps his summa cum laude.
My point is, it's always kind of sad when somebody's bio still has to point to things he did when he was fourteen. What matters is how smart, wise, and/or informed you are now.
And even if you're the smartest person in the world, it doesn't mean that your judgment is immune to distortion. We all bring our previous assumptions and expectations to every bit of data or experience we acquire, and see it all through the lens of our own minds.
Lee Harris is indeed a very smart guy. And there are two key insights, delivered early in the book, that made it, for me, well worth reading.
1. Osama bin Laden, like Hitler and Mussolini and many other more minor figures before him, is acting out a "fantasy ideology."
As Harris says, "It is a common human weakness to wish to make more of our contribution to the world than the world is prepared to acknowledge; it is our fantasy world that allows us to fill this gap."
Most of us keep this fantasy world hidden; but some act it out on a broader stage. The peril to the world is that for those consumed by a fantasy ideology, everyone who is not actively supporting the fantasy becomes a prop whose only value is to be a prop as the fantasist makes his dream come true.
His clearest example is the nation of Ethiopia when it was invaded by Mussolini's Italian army in the 1930s. The League of Nations tried to persuade Mussolini to stop. Ethiopia tried to behave in ways that might persuade Mussolini to stop.
What nobody recognized was that there was no behavior on Ethiopia's part that could prevent Mussolini's invasion, because Ethiopia was not a player in Mussolini's fantasy of a reborn Roman Empire with himself as conquering Caesar.
We are in a similar situation, not just with Osama, but with radical Islam: They have an all-consuming fantasy ideology, and our actions are irrelevant. Everything we do will be interpreted according to their fantasy, and all our actions will be construed so as to support it.
Here's a quote from the current (Sep. 04) issue of Atlantic Monthly, where an article by Alan Cullison ("Inside Al-Qaeda's Hard Drive") reproduces some of the correspondence taken from a captured Al-Qaeda computer. In a letter to Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden wrote:
"Keep in mind that America is currently facing two contradictory problems:
"a) If it refrains from responding to jihad operations, its prestige will collapse, thus forcing it to withdraw its troops abroad and restrict itself to U.S. internal affairs. This will transform it from a major power to a third-rate power, similar to Russia.
"b) On the other hand, a campaign against Afghanistan will impose great long-term economic burdens, leading to further economic collapse, which will force America, God willing, to resort to the former Soviet Union's only option: withdrawal from Afghanistan, disintegration, and contraction" (p. 70).
Whether Osama's predictions come true or not, the point is that he stands ready to interpret all outcomes as supporting his fantasy ideology.
In effect, then, what we are fighting is not a particular group of men, but a group of stories, and while armies can do a great deal against stories (the story of Nazism, for instance, was rather thoroughly done in by the combined military strength of many nations, as was the story of Japanese superiority and imperial destiny), a story can keep an enemy alive long past the point of military defeat.
The 9/11 attacks, then, were theatre, not a military action with concrete goals, says Harris. Whatever the military or economic (or architectural!) consequences, Osama was bound to "win" because his fantasy ideology converts all outcomes to proof that he is right.
Look how all of America's actions are interpreted by the Arab/Muslim world: When we want to save the non-Muslim blacks of Sudan from the genocidal campaign of the Islamicist government and its surrogates, the story told throughout the Muslim world is that this is all a lie, there is no such campaign, and America simply wants to control ... and here the story breaks down just the tiniest bit ... the nonexistent resources of Sudan.
And the places were we intervened for Muslims -- Kosovo, Bosnia, Kuwait -- are ignored or explained away. Nothing we do can be seen as good. They cannot see us, except as props in their own internal drama.
2. Harris's second insight is a simple one: Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are dangerous to us, not because they have great weaponry, but because they are ruthless.
It is ruthlessness -- being willing to perform even the most terrible acts in service of a cause or campaign -- that triumphs.
Here's the obvious example: In Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government brought in out-of-town troops to put down the peaceful, unarmed citizens' revolt. They fired on civilians and killed them, without qualm.
But in the old Soviet Union, when Russian tanks confronted Yeltsin and his fellow demonstrators on the streets of Moscow, they did not fire. The hardline junta that was in the midst of a coup against Gorbachev had qualms. They would not give the order; or the soldiers would not fire. In that moment, because they were not ruthless, they lost; just as, in Tiananmen Square, because they were ruthless, the Chinese Communists remained in power.
Another example: General McClellan utterly failed against General Lee because McClellan could not bear to risk anything. He could not move until victory was guaranteed -- which it never is, so he never took any decisive action. Grant, on the same terrain, ground the armies of the Confederacy down until he won -- because he understood that only the ruthless prevail in war.
This does not imply that to win, America must be as wasteful of human life as Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. What it does mean is that we cannot defeat them by means short of absolute destruction of them and their armies of "martyrs," because any appeasement, any forbearance, will be interpreted by them as victory and proof that God wants them to continue.
These are important insights, as far as they go. Sadly, Harris spends most of his book in support of a weird and baseless theory that all of civilized history can be interpreted as a struggle between "family" (which he defines as what I would call "tribe" or "clan") and "team," which he treats as a state cooption of the adolescent gang.
There is a tiny shred of truth in this, though it's merely a part of a far larger tension between the reproductive unit (the mating couple and their offspring) and the larger community (which can be tribe, clan, city, state, or, yes, gang).
The result is that Harris puts his powerful intellect in the service of a fundamentally shallow and unworkable idea. The rest of his book is still valuable and I'm glad I read it, but he has fallen into the common error of intellectuals: the belief that because an idea excites them, it is the "key."
I call this the "everything theory," and most intellectuals, when you scratch them deeply enough, have one. The smart ones, though, keep it to themselves. Rather like a fantasy ideology.
If you read only Harris, you might have one picture of the world. But you can't read any source and think you have "the" truth.
For instance, in that same issue of Atlantic Monthly, there is a review of Imperial Hubris, a book "written anonymously by the former head of the CIA unit devoted to assessing and tracking Osama bin Laden" (p. 123). The same author wrote the prescient Through Our Enemies' Eyes, which was published before 9/11 but ignored by almost everyone.
According to the review, the author rips into the current administration but offers no comfort to Democrats, either. "He's scornful of liberal notions that the campaign against al-Qaeda should be pursued as a law-enforcement problem (he argues persuasively that al-Qaeda is a worldwide Islamic insurgency, not simply a terrorist organization, and that America must pursue a 'savage' military policy against it); ... and he favors a less multilateral approach to national-security policy and a far more ruthless use of military power than the Bush administration embraces" (p. 123).
Reading Harris's book, if you get caught up in his worldview you can start to see everything through his eyes. He's right! you say to yourself. But reading even a review of Imperial Hubris, you start to think, But this guy really knows Osama, he's right!
Well, not necessarily. Because (unlike Harris) he believes that Osama has specific war aims, he advocates a "dramatic foreign policy change" (p. 124) that essentially undercuts those war aims by giving Osama what, according to Osama's letter to Mullah Omar, he wants: A much-reduced global role that amounts to giving up our support of the regimes that Osama hates: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and, above all, Israel.
The fact that this would result in a holocaust, as the ruthless Islamicists carried their fantasy upon the bodies of Israeli Jews, seems irrelevant to those who think that only American lives and American freedom and prosperity matter.
(Isn't it odd that those who insist that we have no right to intervene abroad call themselves "internationalists," even though what they're really saying is that it's OK for foreigners to be slaughtered, because that's just their way. The truth is, as President Bush says so clearly, there are no peoples on earth who do not aspire to be left alone to raise their families in peace and freedom; there are no peoples who wish to be oppressed or have their families starved or slaughtered. True internationalists recognize that with America's great power comes the duty to help ordinary people lead better lives, wherever we can -- the limiting word being "can".)
What the author of Imperial Hubris has apparently forgotten is that appeasement does not work. Harris is right about this: If we give Osama what he claims to want, his wants will expand until he wants things we cannot give him. In this respect, Osama is Hitler.
There are other books that give us powerful insights, and unfortunately I will not be able to give them a full discussion here and now. For instance,
Thomas P. M. Barnett, in The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-first Century, spins a marvelous story of how military policy and doctrine are generated and transformed. It's a great read.
But ultimately, the value of his book, as the title implies, can be distilled down to a map of the world that shows the clear division between nations that are included -- in the process of globalization and the generally increasing prosperity -- and those that are disconnected.
His case is unassailable: Almost all the troubles in the world right now are generated from within the disconnected, unincluded nations. Where we are successfully exporting the global economy, the Pax Americana generally prevails; where that economy does not reach, for whatever reason, there is no peace. And now those disconnected nations are exporting their conflicts abroad.
Contrast this with Marc Sageman's brilliant Understanding Terror Networks. Sageman's book examines known terrorists to try to find out who they are.
And to everyone's surprise, they are not the victims of poverty and oppression. In fact, the vast majority of them are recruited from the rising (and previously nonexistent!) middle classes.
They are educated -- often in the West (so much for sharing our "values"). There is no way to classify them as "hopeless," or to view their seeking of martyrdom as the result of "desperation."
It would be easy to see Sageman's and Barnett's works as reaching opposite conclusions: Barnett that terrorism grows out of poverty and despair; Sageman that terrorism grows where magical stories energize bored or perhaps guilty young men who are desperate, not for food and shelter, but for meaning and nobility.
But there is no contradiction at all. In fact, there can't be contradiction among any of these books -- insofar as they describe the real world, they must agree, because there is only one real world.
Putting It Together
How do we reconcile it all?
Believe me, I don't have the answer. And if I did, I wouldn't have the space here to explain it all.
But some reconciliation is not only possible but obvious.
Card's Law: No event has just one cause, no person has just one motive, and no action has just the intended effect.
Osama is a true believer in the story he tells, as are his followers. Al-Qaeda is composed of people who believe they will make the world a better place, even for Americans and Jews, by destroying all powers in the world that are not subservient to Islamic law (as interpreted by them).
Their story is a resilient one, adaptable to almost any reasonable response; and their story allows them to be ruthless toward anyone whose death becomes useful to them.
But it is vital to remember that they do not live in the same world as us. They live in the Muslim world, and the Muslim people are the audience for whom they put on their theatricals.
Osama is not the selfless servant of Islam that he purports to be. Like Hitler and Mussolini, he is profoundly ambitious. He aspires to nothing less than the Caliphate -- Osama sees himself as the leader of all Islam.
That is why he must destroy the government of Saudi Arabia, which has control of the holiest sites of Islam -- they are his most dangerous rivals for the Caliphate.
That is why he hates Jordan's royal family, because the Hashemites have a legitimate hereditary claim, which Osama does not have.
That is why he hates Egypt, because the current secular government has successfully put down the Islamicist Muslim Brotherhood and maintains a secular government in power.
That is why he must coopt all the causes of Islam -- destruction of the West that has thrust the Muslim world aside; destruction of the Israeli "crusader state."
So yes, Osama has motives that seem noble in the eyes of all Islam; but he also has personal ambitions that, if they were exposed, would discredit him in the eyes of many.
No matter what we do, the Muslim world spins our actions by making up fantasy motives that explain even our most noble actions as having evil motives.
We need our own stories -- and ours will have the enormous advantage of being true.
Here's the story we need to tell:
Every action of Al-Qaeda is part of Osama's cynical plan to become the Caliph of Islam. He is persuading young Muslim men to kill themselves in order to further his own climb to absolute power over all Muslims, and then (he hopes) over the whole world.
These young Muslim men, Osama says, are "martyrs," but every Muslim knows that martyrs are killed by the enemy, not self-murdered in order to kill innocents.
Because they believe Osama's teachings, these young men cut themselves off from a lifetime of service to God, a lifetime of fathering children who would grow up to serve God. Instead they die in service of Osama's ambition.
They are, in effect, suffering the same fate as the eunuchs who served as loyal slaves in the court of the Sultan in Istanbul. Cut off from the hope of having families of their own, their lives were spent in the service of Sultans who claimed to be religious leaders but were really nothing more than vicious exploiters and oppressors of the Muslim people.
It is a cruel trick that Osama plays on these brave young men. He takes their faith in God and their willingness to die in the service of Islam, and he twists their beliefs so that instead of serving God and following the Koran, they give up their own families and defy God in order to make themselves eunuchs in Osama's future palace.
The same can be said of the Palestinian suicide bombers, only they are eunuchs for Yasser Arafat, whose ambitions are as small as his mind: They are dying so that Yasser can be dictator of Palestine. At least you have to give Osama credit for grandiosity.
Why do you think Iran is not just developing nuclear weapons, but proclaiming that they are doing so? Because the ayatollahs are jealous of Osama and want to do something to take the leadership of radical Islam back from him. They also encourage and train young men to kill themselves in order to murder non-Muslims -- all in the service of their own ambition.
But ultimately, all these self-murdering "heroes" are not martyrs at all, they are victims of the trickery of ambitious, selfish, ruthless men.
That is the story that we must tell, over and over again. And, unlike the vile stories they tell about American motives, this story has the great advantage of being obviously and relentlessly true.
Telling this story is not enough, of course. We must also show that we are relentless in our pursuit of these ruthless enemies of civilization, and that we will allow them no shelter. The combination of our true story and their endless series of defeats will, eventually, be this:
They will no longer be able to persuade young Muslim men to become eunuchs in the service of their ambition.
Instead, the Muslim world -- which consists, after all, of mothers and fathers who want their children to grow up and have families of their own -- will recognize that if they stop these fanatics from killing non-Muslims, the rest of the world would be glad to help them get better governments and rise out of the poverty and oppression that make their lives so miserable.
But military victories without a powerful story ultimately create more recruits to give up their future in service of Osama's ambition.
Copyright © 2004 by Orson Scott Card.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.