All They Understand is Force

Kevin Drum juxtaposes a conversion Matt Yglesias overheard on CNN about how our opponents in Iraq “only understand force” with a quotation from a book on al Qaeda:

Like bin Laden, al-Zawahiri believed that it was time for jihadists to carry the war to “the distant enemy”….A key war-fighting principle, al-Zawahiri believed, was “the need to inflict the maximum casualties against the opponent, for this is the language understood by the West, no matter how much time and effort such operations take.”

Kevin quips, “That’s why they attacked the Twin Towers. Because everyone knows the only language westerners understand is force.” Several of his commenters note that that maxim has been trotted out for generations as justification for violence, a point which is well taken.

I would note, though, that there is a sense in which that sentiment and its cousin “life is cheap in [insert Third World country here]” are correct: The West has evolved a much stronger sense of the worth of individual life than is true elsewhere. This is almost certainly a function mainly of our vastly superior economic security–Maslow’s Hierarchy and all that–than of some inate cultural superiority. Beginning at least as far back as the time of ugustine of Hippo (354-430) there emerged a concept of Just War, something that remains largely a Western construct.

  • It is inconceivable that a mass movement could arise in the West wherein people willingly strapped bombs to their children so that they might murder innocent children in another town just to send a message.
  • I know of no other society that, were a holy war declared on it by another people, who then proceeded to commit acts of terrorism against it for a quarter century, would go out of its way to distinguish between innocents and the enemy as carefully as we have.
  • Contrast the way the West treats its prisoners of war with the way Western prisoners of war–if taken at all–are treated by its enemies. Even though the people held at Guantanimo are now living a much more opulent lifestyle than they’d ever imagined–as enemy prisoners–there are still howls of protest from within our own society that we’re treating them badly.

    It’s quite difficult to fight a war–which necessitates killing the enemy without hesitation lest he kill you first–without dehumanizing him. That’s true even when fighting a culturally similar enemy, as in WWII or even the U.S. Civil War or the War for Independence. Certainly, some of our soldiers are doubtless using culturally insensitve names to describe the “thugs” they’re fighting. Still, they are immediately able to turn around and help build schools and otherwise attempt to create a better life for the Iraqi people. That’s an extraordinary thing. And it’s almost uniquely American.

    Update: Michael J. Totten has a related post: Again, unthinkable in an American context.

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    James Joyner
    About James Joyner
    James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


    1. Kevin Drum says:

      I agree the economic progress is probably the main factor here. If you live in a place where life is short and risky even in good times, and death is a commonplace, it’s only natural that conserving life would be a lower priority than it is here.

      I also agree that the current American version of war is far more civilized than in any other culture or era.

      On the other hand, I can’t help but point out that even in the west this is a relatively recent phenomenon. A mere few hundred years ago the western version of war was awfully grim. And Muslims might be justified in suggesting that even given their well known hatred for Jews, no Islamic culture has ever coldly and methodically gassed 6 million of them….

    2. Chris says:

      On the other hand Kevin, they’re still working on the same exact motives…

      Otherwise there wouldn’t be a Rantisi or Yassin willing to figurehead his way into watching others do his dirty work.

    3. Clark Goble says:

      On the other hand the Islamists in Turkey (if we can call them that given the secularism) weren’t exactly being nice to the Armenians. If it doesn’t fit the exact definition of genocide, it comes close…

    4. James Joyner says:


      Agreed–although I suspect there are Muslims who would be happy to gas six million Jews had they the power to do so.

      And no doubt that civilization is relatively new–and I’d add, a thin veneer. U.S. and British soldiers have certainly been brutal given the right conditions.

    5. Paul says:

      Realistically, the call for a sanitized war only came with the advent of the televised war. (aka Vietnam) Although it could also be argued we did not have the technology to pull it off before then either.

    6. Jane Galt says:

      I agree that the way the West fights war is morally preferable to the way the West used to fight wars, and many other countries still do. But still . . . the Palestinian suicide bombers’ parents do not, in fact, willingly strap bombs to their children; that is done by other people, and the parents are usually devastated. Nor have we thoroughly excised the slaughter of civilians from our notion of warfare: Tokyo, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just to name a few, which are all still believed to be justified by most Americans, explicitly targeted civilians in order to terrorise the enemy population and sap their will. The “children” who become suicide bombers are, so far as I know, almost all at an age considered adult in less economically developed countries. Would Americans send their adolescents on suicide missions to blow up civilians in other countries? I believe the Army Air Command did, many times.

    7. James Joyner says:


      I don’t disagree that the West hasn’t lived up to its ideals or that it hasn’t evolved.

      It’s true that the notion of adulthood is different in the developing world than it is here–although I’d consider that another sign of the increasing value of life here. Once we could do it, educating children and protecting them from forced labor became a priority. I don’t have any data on the Army Air Corps in front of me, but I’m pretty sure the pilots were adults in even the modern sense–18 or 19 at a minimum.

      I’ve seen reports of Palestinian families seeming rather gleeful about their little martyrs; they may not be the norm, though.

      Tokyo, Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki would likely not happen today given our current sensibilities. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were legitimate military targets, although the use of atomic bombs created collateral damage that we’d now consider unacceptable from a proportional standpoint. We still likely killed a lot fewer people that way than had we been forced to slug it out on the home islands. I think Dresden was primarily justified in a tit-for-tat sense after the Battle of Britain.