A Tour of the Front

The landscape of the current war is especially bleak.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Since 9/11 there continues to come a swirl of bizarre images of this conflict — military, political, and cultural. In their aggregate, these symbols finally overwhelm the senses and lead to a profound sense of despair — if also occasional hilarity. Let me begin the tour with no fixed itinerary.

I thought the world was mostly over the divine right of kings and absolute monarchies sometime in the 18th century. But throughout this war — most recently in commercials on television — we are subjected to “His Highness that,” “The Kingdom this,” “Crown Prince what’s-his-name,” and “Princess so-and-so.” In the news, words like “palace,” “royal,” and “entourage” are sprinkled about with pictures of red carpets, glittering palaces, the hunt, expensive trinkets, and reference to falcons and prize stallions — the whole outlandish scene redolent of something in Arthurian romance, or perhaps a dark version of Scott’s Ivanhoe.

But more sinister than the imagery and nomenclature of monarchy are the shenanigans of hereditary autocracies, which seem on our screens more like Mafia crime syndicates than real nations. There is the Hussein consortium in Iraq, where wild stories about the epigoni of Saddam promise to the world more chilling things to come in the decades ahead. The more reserved hereditary autocrats of Jordan are perched next to La Familia Assad in Syria — perhaps not as murderous, but strangely Westernized as if they were British royals with real, rather than ceremonial, scepters. And are we soon to expect more Mubarakim in Egypt — and perhaps one or two Khadafilings in Libya?

There are also the weeds of the autocracies that have broken off and germinated haphazardly all over the Middle East. Offshoot hoods like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad are enforcers for their mother syndicates, hit men on the street that constitute the muscle to be directed or disowned by those with suits and ties — depending upon the relative size of the outrage provoked and of the body counts incurred by their murdering du jour.

Then there are the theocrats. If 10 percent of the lurid stories are accurate about assorted imams, mullahs, and muftis in Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, then we must concede that millions live in the 10th, rather than the 21st, century: public executions, lynchings, women stoned and burned alive, Jews called monkeys and worse, promises of nukes to rain down on Tel Aviv, support for more suicide murderers, anti-Semitic conspiratorial theories, backhanded support for al Qaeda’s jihad — all that and more published in Middle Eastern newspapers from purported men of God who either rule outright, or are subsidized by terrified autocrats. My favorite image was the atheist Chinese Communists, who swallowed Tibet whole, visiting the fundamentalist mullahs in Iran to offer crocodile tears for the “occupied” Palestinians.

We must not forget the bought suits. They are Western-educated diplomats, businessmen, and assorted spokesmen from the various autocracies, monarchies, and theocracies who haunt our airwaves and reflect a weird attraction to, and yet repugnance of, all things American. Their one and only duty — in English that is usually properly clipped, vaguely European-accented, and superficially more impressive than what we speak here outside of Fresno — is to deny vehemently the latest atrocious story about their homelands. Serious questioners like Tim Russert, Bill O’Reilly, and Brit Hume professionally and usually quite politely ask them about horrific documents showing how Saudi Arabia subsidizes suicide killers, poems from their diplomats praise the killing of Jews, religious prayers compare Jews to animals and vampires, and government receipts confirm sums remitted for bomb-making materials.

Caught red-handed with such incriminating “facts,” an assortment of dutiful Palestinians, Saudis, and Egyptians usually ignores completely the accusations at hand, vaguely bristles at the interlocutors for being so rude as to rise above their station to inject such “slander,” shifts immediately to the “dark forces” (read: the Jews) who are trying to subvert relations between America and the Arab world, and ends smiling, without answering a single question — but issuing some veiled threat of their own ranging from the embargo of oil, to the furor of the Arab street, to some superficiality about “declining American credibility” in the Islamic world. In their defense, we must concede that if any of such spokesmen were to say, “Hmmm, that is a good point and a valid criticism that needs addressing,” they would probably face either a mob, jail, or a noose back home.

Military culture presents images equally as jarring. In the West we have not seen chemical weapons since World War I — not so in the Arab world. We remember Nasser’s use of gas in Yemen in the 1960s; and shortly after he threatened Tel Aviv with it (prompting gifts of gas masks to Israel from the Germans). The New Yorker recently chronicled the horrific after-effects of Iraqi poison in Kurdistan. All recall Israelis huddling in airtight apartments during the Gulf War as Palestinians celebrated on their rooftops, hoping that the incoming scuds were spreading the promised toxins. The verdict is not yet in on anthrax; but when one of the 9/11 murderers seems to have contracted a subcutaneous form of the disease (rare, as I can attest from a lifetime of farm living), and the notes accompanying the deadly letters were in line with other al Qaeda threats, most Americans are inclined to believe the worst.

Terrorism is, of course, the litmus test of this entire conflict. Middle Eastern fundamentalists — 15 of 19 from the “kingdom” — butchered 3,000 of our folk, something the Saudi public-relations mouthpieces who lecture and admonish us daily seem to think we Americans have forgotten. Our dead usually warrant about 10 seconds of their lengthy exegeses about 9/11 and the war on terrorism. Similar suicide murdering is the favorite tactic now of Palestinian militants. Polls in October revealed that a vast majority in Gaza supported the 9/11 killings; Gallup surveys reflect a deeply held belief among a large majority of the Arab world that bin Laden had nothing to do with the September massacres. The qualifiers “but” and “however” in every discussion of terrorism are de rigueur not only for Arab apologists, but also for many of their sympathizers in America: “Of course, we condemn 9/11; however…” “No one supports suicide bombing, but…”

We are seeing also a funny type of war. We know that the Taliban hid in mosques and hospitals. The terrorists in Palestine commandeer ambulances, booby-trap apartment buildings, and storm churches. And it is reported that Saddam has hidden his biological arsenal among private residences and in places of worship. There is a trend here aimed at incurring the requisite collateral damage at a time of war — tactics even more baffling when they are juxtaposed with loud bravado about doing this and that on the field of battle.

So inflated rhetoric at last becomes repugnant. We were told “ten thousand” were butchered in Jenin — an incursion variously called a “massacre” or even “genocide” and “a holocaust.” When the body count did not reach “thousands” and the conditions of the street fighting never approximated a “genocide,” there was nonetheless never a retraction of the Big Lie, never an apology for deliberate misstatements, never forthcoming supporting documentation to support such incendiary allegations. This misinformation campaign is now quite tiresome. We have gone from millions of starving children in Iraq, to the even more millions lost to famine in Afghanistan, to tens of thousands of innocents bombed by our own planes, to thousands in the last weeks butchered by Israelis with “Apaches and F-16s.” When no evidence supports any of these wild numbers, the modus operandi is not to retract the initial untruths but to produce yet more lies.

We should not forget the other visuals. Most prominent are the various species of the panoramic “Arab street.” Before the demise of the Taliban, we saw the same carnival of burning flags and shaking fists in Kabul. Pakistani mobs were a little more animated and frothing in their antistrophe. The canaille in the North African autocracies were not quite as venomous as those throngs in Palestine. For some reason the Syrian, Iranian, Libyan, and Iraqi hordes seem tired and not so genuinely hateful as those in Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf States. We await a Linnaeus who can classify all these “streets” — providing genus and species according to their variant characteristics of locale, mantras, effigies, burnings, banners, and relative magnitude of hatred expressed toward Israel or America.

More eerie are the reactions of Arab diplomats and PR spokesmen to all these uncomfortable street spectacles — scenes, by the way, quite absent in American boulevards on September 12, or even in Israel in the grim aftermath of the Passover killings. Hardly embarrassed by the sloganeering of hate and the third-grade posters — whether a watercolor of Saddam holding his shotgun or a Star of David beside a swastika — commentators instead speak in almost reverential terms of “the street.” Rather than expressing abject shame that such spontaneous outbursts of vulgarity are real proof of such closed and unfree societies, our explicators oddly seem proud of the venom — especially in warning us about such powerful mobs that hate us so. Personally I find the quiet wake of the USS John F. Kennedy or the stealth of a wing of B-2s scary — not 100,000 people screaming on cue in Cairo.

Finally, most disturbing are the images and stories that do not appear — the abject historical amnesia displayed by so many of our Arab friends and enemies. After seeing and hearing all of the above, no one would believe that the United States presently gives billions of dollars to Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians. There is even less mention of the fact that we alone saved Muslims in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Somalia. No one reflects on life under the Taliban vis — vis conditions under Mr. Karzai’s new government. Do any remember that a mere decade ago, Kuwait had ceased to exist — or that, in another two weeks of late summer 1990, Saudi Arabia’s 5,000 royal cousins would have fled to ensconce themselves in Aspen, Palm Springs, or Fifth Avenue while Saddam’s minions took over their former palaces? When Saudi princes kiss Iraqi henchmen, what in the world are American troops — our female warriors now veiled, many of our soldiers blown up in their sleep — doing in the desert? Exactly what are they now defending, and against whom?

Much is made of a Saudi “peace plan”; nothing is said of a half-century in which the kingdom did not even recognize the existence of Israel. We are told to be properly thankful that rumors of an oil boycott remain just that — and that oil has not been used as a weapon — but a few of us do remember an oil boycott, and recall that the Saudis in fact organized it. Attention turns toward an autonomous West Bank as the key to peace — not to the first three wars when it was a launching pad to destroy Israel. Land-for-peace is said to be the only formula for a settlement, no doubt — yet we never hear that unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon brought rockets into Israel, not a quiet armistice. Could some historian add up all the Palestinians killed or ethnically cleansed in Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Syria — or at least give a tally sheet of those Arabs slain by the elder Assad, Saddam Hussein, or Mr. Qaddafi? In short, to be sympathetic and supportive of the aspirations of the Arab people, as we should, we must be adamantly against their present governments — and many of their most prominent state-sponsored and -bought clerics, intellectuals, and journalists as well.

What are we to make of all this absurdity? Laugh or cry? The continually disturbing rhetoric and visual images are the wages of the complete absence of truly liberal and free societies in the Arab world, where parliaments are functionaries, courts dependent, presidents not really elected, and the media free only to slander and libel Israel and the United States. So we are witnessing the same rhetoric, the same mistruths, the same distortions and general coarseness that characterized all the Communist states of the Cold War — when, once upon a time, another 500 million poor souls likewise had little access to freedom or human dignity and likewise did not deserve their so often murderous governments. It is all so chilling — and so old, and so familiar.

©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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