JUST HOW BARBARIC are the enemies we fight? As a historian of the Vietnam War, I’m accustomed to hearing tales of battlefield cruelty. But this autumn, after a panel discussion at the United States Air Force’s Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama, a Department of Defense employee approached to inform me that our current non-state enemies in the Middle East were “savages.” She went on: “They have no political aims. They are only interested in killing.” When I suggested that the Islamic State itself demonstrated at least some political ambitions, she forcefully shook her head. “They are only interested in killing,” she reiterated.
This exchange raises larger questions for us all. Could it be that our clean formulations of the enemy threat, and thus our thinking on war more generally, actually run counter to a more enlightened formulation and conduct of United States foreign policy? In employing vague words like “brutal,” “cruel,” and “savage,” are we, in fact, damaging American credibility abroad and security at home by misconstruing our enemies? And in regarding our adversaries as inherently uncivilized, do we not find it far more acceptable to engage in “savage cruelty” ourselves since the threat’s very nature justifies such a response?
With the Trump administration’s recent direct attacks in Syria, the time appears ripe to reconsider our “enemies” as they pertain to our national security. The crafting of foreign policy requires a thoughtful appraisal of the threat environment. Yet simply seeing our enemies as “savages” undermines vital decision-making processes. If we are to move beyond the fear-inspired politics of the moment, we must relearn a lost military art: empathy with the enemy.
A Long History of “Othering”
“Savages,” of course, have long played their prescribed role in the narrative of modern Western expansionism. Colonial control rested upon the assumption that unsophisticated natives were standing in the way of progress. Thus, French imperialists in Africa and Southeast Asia could speak of waging a guerre totale (total war) in their attempts to dominate the population. British colonialists fighting “small wars” along their empire’s periphery relied on similar notions, claiming that uncivilized races merely attributed “leniency to timidity.”
Hardly a European trait, Americans historically have shared these conceptions of the “treacherous” enemy. From pronouncing Amerindians as “heretic” barbarians to styling manifest destiny as an advancement wherein the “savage shall […] become civilized,” Americans long have couched territorial annexation in terms of bringing enlightenment to the Philistines. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, political cartoonists effortlessly depicted the Taliban as vicious animals living in caves, eschewing formal education, and engaging in bestiality. The American frontier, regardless of its location, seemed always a space inhabited by the “savage.”
Of course, at the sharp edge of war, dehumanizing the enemy, some have argued, is useful, even necessary. Seeing the enemy as savage aids in the process of desensitizing soldiers to the violence inherent in combat. Consequently, few Americans saw much need to empathize with their enemies if courageous veterans did not. In the process, stereotypes easily replaced reality, distorting one’s adversary while enflaming society’s more vulgar passions.
Hence, one only had to make a small step in calling for the enemy’s eradication. United States Air Force General Curtis LeMay, architect of the American firebombing campaign over Japan, thus could defend bombing North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age.” LeMay may later have regretted such language, but it surely has endured.
In 2012, Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper,” wrote of hating the “damn savages” he had been fighting, claiming his adversaries “only started coming to the peace table after we killed enough of the savages out there.” Three years later, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, vying for the Republican presidential nomination, said he wanted to “‘carpet bomb’ the Islamic militants and find out whether ‘sand can glow in the dark.’” The solution to the United States’s troubles with the Islamic State? “Overwhelming air power,” Cruz asserted.
While the senator clarified that he would bomb Islamic State forces rather than Syrian cities, a trend persists of policymakers believing they can kill their way out of most any problem; and the lure is appealing, because it provides strategic focus to more complicated problems. The specter of “godless communism,” for instance, played a vital role in buttressing the Cold War strategy of containment. And, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the September 11 attacks proved a politically opportune catastrophe. Violent Islamic fundamentalism, a new form of savagery, could now help “define the political and strategic contexts of the early twenty-first century.”
In this way, “terrorism” became the nation’s new code for demonizing, and hence defining, the savage other. The 2002 National Security Strategy declared that “the allies of terror are the enemies of civilization.” That same year, during his first State of the Union address after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush spoke of the need to “eliminate the terrorist parasites who threaten their countries and our own.” Such language could apply even to state actors, for terrorist allies like Iran and North Korea constituted a fictional “axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” Bush’s language also suggested a rarely spoken maxim of United States foreign policy. Only the United States, and its allies, had a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.
This process of dehumanizing the other also neatly complemented our nation-building efforts abroad. In environments ranging from Africa to the Middle East, United States nation builders often saw before them a tabula rasa. In disputed territories — breeding grounds for savage terrorists — local leaders’ lack of civilization and disdain for modernity, in short, were hindering progress toward the universally held American ideal of liberal democracy.
We’ve been here before, and it did not work out well. During the Vietnam War, one United States Army major believed American development programs would “bring about a restructuring of the Vietnamese society that will be truly revolutionary.” And despite American failures in Southeast Asia, such beliefs persisted long after the Cold War ended. In 2003, one senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York believed the United States should do more than simply maintain international order. “Remaking the Middle East, above all by bringing democracy to the Arab and Islamic nations of the region […] must be America’s overriding mission, since it is only by remaking these societies that the United States can be secure.”
Reconsidering the Political Enemy
Without question, there are those who rely on or turn to violence for nonpolitical reasons. Individuals may use force as a means to ensure survival in a hostile world, to right a wrong, or to maintain a family’s honor in a local “blood feud.” Or, as David Kilcullen has suggested, local fighters may engage in violence simply because they are “accidental guerrillas,” fighting because outsiders are in their space, not because they wish to invade ours. Motivation then becomes an important aspect of threat analysis.
But Americans often have found non-Western enemies “culturally very hard to penetrate.” In consequence, the savage enemy can more easily be deemed as “indifferent to the loss of human life.” Is not a suicide bomber, for example, proof that our enemies do not value the fundamental moral codes of humanity?
Such assessments erroneously dehumanize the other. As Hannah Arendt maintained, “violence often springs from rage […] and rage can indeed be irrational and pathological, but so can every other human affect.” To Arendt, rage and violence did not mean that individuals had become “animal-like,” but rather their conspicuous absence was the “clearest sign of dehumanization.”
Could it be, then, that violence actually demonstrates a measure of humanity rather than abject savagery? Viewed in another light, aggression becomes a tool for the dispossessed or disenfranchised because its offers them a voice, indeed a political one. Not all resistance bears witness to brutes engaging in acts of terrorism because they only are interested in killing. When calculated in terms of means and ends, violence serves as a pragmatic instrument for the political actor, just as we in the United States find it useful to employ military force to advance our own foreign policy.
In an age of global media, it thus seems incumbent upon the audience to resist narrowly focusing on the violent deed as evidence of raw savagery. All wars, and most all acts of violence, are, in Colin S. Gray’s estimation, “entirely the product of their contexts.” This reality is more than just an academic matter. How much of Americans’ attempts to fathom Osama bin Laden’s disdain for the West were overshadowed by simplified misrepresentations of the savage other? Even the military operation targeting al-Qaeda’s founder was dubbed “Geronimo” by the Obama administration, a 1939 film advertised as featuring images of “war-maddened savages terrorizing the West.”
Without doubt, scholarly literature on al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the early 2000s sought to appreciate the ideological and political underpinnings of these unfamiliar social movements. Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006) and Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (2000) proved important studies on the historical factors motivating students of Islam to engage in violence against the West.
Yet, despite these introspective studies, the public narrative of the global War on Terror remained far less nuanced. It seemed many Americans, in simplest terms, preferred to relegate fundamentalist interpretations of Islam to primitive desires of the tribal savage. Barbarous acts required retaliation without the troublesome complexities of social and historical context.
If our interests, however, are indeed linked to threats, then how we talk about the enemy is of crucial import. How we see our enemies sends a message globally. There are consequences of dividing the world between enlightened and savage. Samuel P. Huntington may have believed in the Cold War’s aftermath that “the principal conflicts of global politics [would] occur between nations and groups of different civilizations,” but it seems difficult to engage in such a clash when only one side is civilized.
Of course, persuading a nation to go to war often proves far easier when one paints the threat as an existential one. Hence, in narratives based on racialized othering, savages — whether they be “gooks” or “hajis” — only understand the blunt instrument of force. Debates over terms like “radical Islamists” or “religious extremists” thus arguably miss a crucial point. Regardless of framing, Westerners tend to see a vulgar distortion of religion rather than more complex political aims as driving our enemies to violence. Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, illustratively, called for confronting “Islamists everywhere and in every way,” to include “attacking their evil doctrines.”
With little chance of redeeming themselves, savages become nothing more than targets. What ensues is justification for persistent war, as barbarians will always be at the gate. Calls for “strategic patience” in the face of Islamist terrorism are consequently pilloried as examples of “timidity and ineptitude,” our “dithering” giving organizations like the Islamic State “time to refine its techniques and strategies.” The answer is obvious, at least to military media commentator Ralph Peters: “You must take the war to the enemy — without restraint. If you’re not determined to win at any cost, you’ll lose.”
In this way, the savage killer’s deeds justify our own extralegal processes. Engaged in an enduring state of war, waterboarding, for example, becomes acceptable against nonhumans. Thus, then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump could declare on the campaign trail in October 2016 that if elected he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” This loosening of what Trump saw as self-imposed restraints evidently made sense given that Islamic State “savages” were acting as if they lived in “medieval times.” Apparently, extreme interrogations, while cruel, were still better than what these primitive killers found acceptable.
It seems plausible, then, that viewing the enemy as little more than savages helps us embrace, without much thought, a military-centric United States foreign policy. There are enormous risks to such an approach. Reconciliation, not to speak of negotiation, becomes more difficult with the savage other. And no foreign policy can be effective in the long term if based upon “muscular dominance” alone. Perhaps just as importantly, reducing one’s enemies to “half men” or “a shade above the beast” also ensures their indiscriminate killing no longer matters as a point of that policy.
Savages, Societies, and American Foreign Policy
In this era of enduring war, the time has come to reconsider the frameworks we employ when characterizing our enemies and the threat they pose to our national interests. This is not a naïve call for discounting that there are those who aim to do the United States harm. A global power will always have enemies across the international landscape. Deterrence against threats should continue to be a cornerstone of our defense policies.
The point, rather, is that elevating the means of killing savages to the very ends of United States foreign policy is not only counterproductive, but dangerous. It seems doubtful that additional bombing overseas will persuade people to reconsider the purpose behind United States engagement abroad. Nor, either, will it solve Syria’s enduring internal problems. Indeed, when we hyperactively respond to the actions of those we see as savage, we run the risk of strategic reaction rather than strategic planning. Moreover, such worldviews become reinforcing, as overstated threats, according to one study, “increase intolerance, prejudice, ethnocentrism, and xenophobia.”
Perhaps most importantly, constructions of the uncivilized other lead to a question of paramount strategic importance — an almost Zen koan of our foreign policy prison: how is it possible to have lasting peace with “savages”?
This scenario would seem only a peace of one kind — a brutal and inefficient one — which should give us all sober pause. Surely the international environment is more complex than Manichean conceptions dividing the world between civilized good and savage evil. Recognizing that violence — even forms like chemical warfare — primarily serves as a means to a political aim surely would aid in fewer Americans embracing policies for which outright annihilation of the enemy is the only outcome.
Our characterizations matter far more than we think. Our enemies, including ones we deem vicious, have political agency. If we listen more closely to their voices, consider the differentiated responses required to manage the threats they may pose, perhaps we can start better dealing with the causes of global conflicts than merely their symptoms. In the process, we might rely less on the primacy of military force as we craft our nation’s foreign policy for the future. We might also act in ways that avoid becoming the evil we so abhor.
Gregory A. Daddis is director of the graduate program in War and Society at Chapman University and a retired United States Army colonel who served in operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. His new book, Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.