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Mocking the “culture clash” reporting about the Iraq War

6 May 2008

Spencer Ackerman makes a valid observation.

Is this really such a culture clash?

Blackwater shooting highlights a U.S., Iraq culture clash“, LA Times (4 may 2008) — Excerpt:

U.S. officials painstakingly examine evidence and laws while attempting to satisfy victims’ claims through cash compensation.

But traditional Arab society values honor and decorum above all. If a man kills or badly injures someone in an accident, both families convene a tribal summit. The perpetrator admits responsibility, commiserates with the victim, pays medical expenses and other compensation, all over glasses of tea in a tribal tent.

“Our system is so different from theirs,” said David Mack, a former U.S. diplomat who has served in American embassies in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. “An honor settlement has to be both financial and it has to have the right symbolism. We would never accept their way of doing things, and they don’t accept ours.”

If an unaccountable band of politically-connected soldiers-of-fortune shot my mother as she was trying to flee from a traffic circle, and the State Department offered me $5,000 in order to make the incident go away, I would not only be angry, I would be exploring my options for revenge. You don’t have to be an Iraqi to understand this.

In “Culture Clash” Matthew Yglesias goes one more step with this analysis. — Excerpt:

It’s really bizarre how, in the context of war, totally normal attributes of human behavior become transformed into into mysterious cultural quirks of the elusive Arab. I recall having read in the past that because Arabs are horrified of shame, it’s not a good idea to humiliate an innocent man by breaking down his door at night and handcuffing him in front of his wife and children before hauling him off to jail. Now it seems that Arabs are also so invested in honor that they don’t like it when mercenaries kill their relatives.

What a fascinating place Iraq must be! Maybe someday we’ll discover that in Arab culture they have this weird thing where people’s political allegiances are heavily influenced by issues of ethnic, cultural, and religious identity and that having their destinies controlled by a foreign, religiously alien, occupying army that doesn’t speak the language is kind of a drag. Who knows?

Some of the comment continue in this rich vein of gallows humor; here are two examples.

I.  The obligatory story from The Onion:  “Study: Iraqis May Experience Sadness When Friends, Relatives Die”  (26 July 2007).

II.  From Lon: 

Do you think that the spokesman being quoted has never seen the legal drama in which the family refuses to accept a large settlement because they are insistent that their be an acknowledgement of wrong doing on the part of the evil company.  And by “the legal drama” I mean every legal drama on tv for the last few decades at least once, and often more than once.  It is funny to see an idea which is so common that our tv writers must say, “Can we really get away with using that one again” treated as something foreign to western values.

Please share your comments by posting below, relevant and brief please. Too long comments will be edited down (very long ones might be deleted). Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

 

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Alex Broner permalink
    6 May 2008 5:32 am

    Pretending Iraqis don’t have emotions like we do is just part of the process of dehumanization. We also pretend that they lack rationality. Some (though not all) of the 9/11 conspiracy theories is rooted in the idea that “those ignorant savages couldn’t have done this”.

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  2. 6 May 2008 11:39 am

    My old advice is to treat foreigners as if they were your people. If the troops did so – and would not search a house without special jugde-like approval process – then they would create much less troubles.

    It’s also no good idea to believe that a military convoy owns the road and can shoot/ram other vehicles that are “too” close. “COIN – four choices, no more” This kind of stuff is typical for excessive force protection that hurts the mission.
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: When this war ends (I only write “if it ends” when depressed), the #1 discussion I suspect to see will be “Is COIN possible for foreign occupiers?” the evidence is at best mixed so far. Also, I am disappointed that you missed the opportunity to title that post “Four COIN’s – no more.”

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  3. Pode permalink
    6 May 2008 3:04 pm

    “My old advice is to treat foreigners as if they were your people.
    If the troops did so – and would not search a house without special jugde-like approval process – ”

    Found your mistake, Sven. Requiring a warrant before searching a house would be treating foreigners BETTER than we treat our citizens. Read the PATRIOT act.

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  4. 6 May 2008 6:24 pm

    I made my opinion on wars quite clear in my blog at “About myself

    It is like this:

    “I’m no pacifist, although that was suggested recently as well. My recurring critique on wars might mislead people to that conclusion, but in fact I’m just hard to convince about going to war and continuing wars for far-reaching goals. I frequently use the word “needless” in combination with “war”. As I see it, there are wars that need to be fought and wars that are plain stupid.”

    Show me a single really necessary, well-justified COIN war outside your own nation in history.
    Afaik, you could always easily withdraw and the partisans rarely if ever pursuit (some troublesome examples exist in sub-saharan Africa, though). I don’t need to expect defeat to say no to such wars.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Nicely said! This echos these lines from Gone with the Wind, which follow those I quoted in “A militant America, ready for war with Iran“.

    Mr. O’HARA: And what does the captain of our troop say?

    ASHLEY: Well, gentlemen…if Georgia fights, I go with her. But like my father I hope that the Yankees let us leave the Union in peace.

    MAN1: But Ashley… MAN2: Ashley, they’ve insulted us.

    MANS: You can’t mean that you don’t want war.

    ASHLEY: Most of the miseries of the world were caused by wars. And when the wars were over, no one ever knew what they were about.

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  5. 12 May 2008 2:17 pm

    Update: “Blood debts and exotic others”, posted on 11 May at the Kings of War site (blog of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London). This makes much the same point as my post, with more detail. Excerpt:

    “The many shifts and changes in propaganda by Saddam Hussein should make us remember how fluid, contested and volatile culture really is. Iraqis have ‘tradition’, but they also have politics, they may have tribe, but they also have the interpenetration of ideas, technology and influence.

    “Unfortunately, dodgy ideas of culture are not just evident in popular media, but amongst some retired generals, academics, at least one senior cultural anthropologist, respected public affairs journals, and military doctrine. Hopefully the talented (and brave) folk at the HTS will push back against this wave.”

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