Friday, January 23, 2009

Steven Pressfield on Democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan

Steven Pressfield has written two books about Alexander the Great: The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Greatand The Afghan Campaign: A Novel. While researching the projects, he couldn't help but see the parallels of what is going on today with the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. I found this op-ed he wrote in 2006.

The tribesman does not operate by a body of civil law but by a code of honor. If he receives a wrong, he does not seek redress. He wants revenge. The taking of revenge is a virtue in tribal eyes, called badal in the Pathan code of nangwali. A man who does not take revenge is not a man. Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the sectarian militias of Iraq are not in the war business, they are in the revenge business. The revenge-seeker cannot be negotiated with because his intent is bound up with honor. It is an absolute.

Perhaps the most telling difference between the citizen and the tribesman lies in their views of the Other. The citizen embraces multiplicity; to him, the melting pot produces richness and cultural diversity. To the tribesman, the alien is not even given the dignity of being a human being; he is a gentile, an infidel, a demon.

The tribesman grants justice within the tribe. In his internal councils, empathy, humor and compassion may prevail. Outside the tribe? Forget it. Can Shiites really sit down with Sunnis? Will the pledges of Hezbollah or Hamas to Israel prove true?
The democratic virtues of the Enlightenment, the Rights of Man and the American Constitution are not virtues to the tribesman. They are effeminate. They lack warrior honor. "Freedom" to the tribesman means the extinction of all he and his ancestors hold dear; "democracy" and Western values are a mortal threat to the ancient and proud way of life that the tribal mind has embraced (whether Scythian nomads, Amazon warriors, or American Indians) for tens of thousands of years.

Here is another essay on tribalism he wrote earlier: It's the Tribes Stuipid.


  1. The essay on tribalism is must read.
    The old saying know your enemy, is something the US needs to work. Bush always makes the statement
    "the Iraq people". There is no such thing. The country has three components and they all hate other. The same thing happened in the former Yugoslavia, without the strongman Tito, civil war erupted. Without Saddam, civil war took over. The Iraq borders were drawn up by Winston Churchill after WW1. At the time there was no consideration given to the population.

  2. It is a great essay. I was a supporter of both wars and that piece was one of the things that threw a bucket of cold water on me.

  3. I should note, those Alexander books by Pressfield are great reading.