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Insurgent psychology - Honour, Dignity, Shame and Humiliation - the roots of an endless war

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2007-06-30 10:17:24     
Article by Stephen J. Morgan

Working out the perspectives for war takes a certain type of empathy. It should not be confused with sympathy or even, in this case, as necessitating a positive connotation. Every general should be empathetic to his enemy counterpart. If he is to stand a good chance of anticipating his moves and thereby forearming himself with the knowledge to defeat him, he must understand, get a feel for, and even put himself in the practical and psychological shoes of his opponent. This was sorely lacking both in the Administration and the Pentagon.

The Administration's want of cultural and humanitarian empathy meant Iraq was lost on the psychological level before a boot could hit the ground or a shot could be fired. The simplistic attitude that US occupation would be unconditionally welcomed and that there would be a relatively smooth transition to a model Western-style democracy, which would act as a bulwark against fundamentalism and a beacon to transform other regimes in the region was pure fantasy. If anything testifies just how divorced from reality the Bush Administration is, it was this. Indeed it was something, which was so stubbornly entrenched that, they continued to believe in their own propaganda when the entire country began burning down around them. Their attitude was a gross misconception, derived from the inflated egocentric, all-American, Imperialist mindset that consumed the Administration and which doomed it to calamity for the start. It was very much reminiscent of the arrogant way in which Central and Latin America has been regarded as the United States' backyard, and now euphemistically re-named our "neighbourhood" by Bush.

The Administration and the Army made no initial effort to understand the psychology of the Arabic and Muslim mind and the ways in which its invasion would be perceived and eventually repulsed. The problem with the egocentric and ethnocentric mind is that it, at best, perceives all others as thinking and feeling in ways which it does, of having the same norms and values as the West and believing itself to be perceived as some marvellous example to be modelled. At worst, the West still views other cultures as inferior and in need of civilizing, by force, if necessary. Not for one moment did the Bush Administration consider that Arabs and Muslims have their own quite different emphasis on mores and values, which often come into sharp conflict with those of the West and which they are deeply devoted to defending.

Consequently, with the utmost arrogance, US troops booted down the door of Arab values and brought the worst of all possible insults upon them by dishonouring and humiliating them. In a region and culture, both Arabic and Muslim, where one's dignity and honour are to be defended at all cost, including one's life, the US shamed the Iraqi nation, the Arab nation and the Muslim world. This, in a culture where shame is the worst possible of destinies - unlike the guilt based societies of the West.

The psychological and political difference is important and not semantic. Guilt focuses on inappropriate, bad behaviour aimed at creating a social conscience. Shame concerns self worth and profoundly affects a sense of value towards one's worthiness to exist. Guilt can lead to reforms, while shame can lead to more harmful consequences, especially in terms of violence towards oneself or those who create it.

If shame is a stronger component of a culture than guilt then the motivation to avoid guilt leading to shame is far greater. The fight for one's honour is therefore much more ferocious than in a culture where guilt is more ready accepted and then paid for and forgiven. Indeed, it rules out compromise, negotiation or trading. It is above legal statutes. It is a matter of life and death.

If a shame-based culture is attacked and threatened with humiliation and dishonour, the likely reaction will be fiercer than guilt based cultures. This is the case in the Middle East and among Arab and Muslim peoples, among others. And what comes with it is a tendency to need to regain one's honour through retribution and retaliatory shaming of the persecutor. This extends to become the blood feud common to many Eastern rather than Western societies and is very dangerous once extended along national and religious dimensions.

It is a reason why the humiliation and shaming of the Palestinians has made it the cause célèbre of the Arab and Muslim world and also explains the ferocity of the eventual resistance to the US occupation in Iraq and its condemnation of by Arabs and Muslims worldwide. The occupation is felt and empathized as a humiliating, shameful, dishonour perpetrated by the infidel, United States upon Arab and Muslim brothers and sisters.

For Arabs and Muslims their honour and the shaming of themselves and their brethren is something, which cannot go unavenged. One must be prepared to die for it. It is linked to the culture of retribution, where a hurt or death brought upon another of one's family, tribe or clan must be avenged and this now extends to one's sect, nation, ethnicity and common religion.

The Bush administration, thus, blindly and arrogantly entered a war, which would inevitably result in a ceaseless Arab fight to regain their lost honour, dignity, pride, and to exact revenge upon an infidel who has dared to so grievously injure it. The shame dimension of the conflict rules out a negotiated settlement. The fight for regaining honour cannot be compromised, traded or negotiated; it can only be one to the death. Therefore, psycho-culturally, the US has entered an unwinable and endless war, so long as it refuses to back down.

The Administration was three times blind to these subterranean forces at work and were taken in by their own initial and fictitious victory following the initial shock of invasion. They were doubly taken aback by the new opposition, which emerged in multifarious forms triggered by the overwhelming sense of humiliation felt and the Pandora's box of unresolved internal grievances and injuries, the retribution of which has laid unsatisfied for generations and even centuries. This blindness to reality, which continued throughout the war, was epitomized in the first period, when Bush blissfully announced, in a typical act of crude bravado that "all combat operations" had ended, under the banner of "Mission Accomplished" on an aircraft carrier in 2003!

Furthermore, the United States has trampled underfoot the most basic democratic entitlement of the right of nations to self-determination. Moreover, the right of self-determination is something, which, like honour, is so basic that it goes beyond legalistic niceties and generates revolutionary fervour. And although much of the character of the struggles is clouded in forms of black reaction, they are fought with revolutionary zeal. Ironically, in different forms and from different groups, the US has taken the place of the dictator they deposed, by robbing the Iraqis of the right, the satisfaction and the honour of overthrowing Saddam themselves.

Today, the driving forces of the character of the insurgency is not so much to defeat the American enemy, as to repay him in the form of dishonouring and shaming him. Guerrilla war which is the traditional form of Arab combat, going back to Bedouin tribal times, is precisely fought, not for victory as such, but for shaming and dishonouring those who have brought shame and dishonour upon them. Bedouin tribes would not seek to conquer kingdoms and occupy others territories, so much, but rather preferred to execute raids aimed at shaming another tribe through robbing it of its honour. Much of this lies at the root of the psychology of the unwinable asymmetrical war the US is now embroiled in. The longer they stay the longer they remain an object to be shamed and dishonoured. The aim will be to defeat them, not so much militarily, which is impossible, as psychologically through the unrelenting humiliation of its forces.

The insurgent aims dictate the means. They wear down and ridicule the US army by their hit and run tactics, their invisibility, they picking off of choppers, the sniper, the IEDs and, of course the suicide bomber. When suicide bombers first emerged in Palestine and Lebanon against the overwhelming might of the Israeli forces, the responses to why they did this was that "our bodies are the only weapons, we have left." The suicide attack is seen as the ultimate act of superiority left to the attacker - the "spiritual" superiority of having the courage to take one's own life against an infidel enemy, hiding behind his unassailable array of armaments, defending his shameful materialistic Western values. Suicide bombing confuses and terrifies the opponent, however much feigned distain they attempt to show towards it. For similar reasons, the beaten Japanese, with a similar shame/honour culture code, resorted to the terrifying tactic of kamikaze pilots of the 2nd World War.

What hold true toward the US occupiers is also the case for the unresolved historical blood feuds between the different sects and ethnic groups. Centuries of insults are heaped on fresh memories of atrocities under the Hussein regime. The tactics of suicides, of the torture, throat slitting, public beheading and the dumping of victims in groups in street dumps or floating as bloated corpses down the Tigris, are all meant to shame and humiliate the opposite camp. This is not only applicable to the long-suffering Shiites, but conversely to the Sunnis, who are well aware that they will be held to account and face retribution for the crimes of Sunni dominated regimes of the past. They are fighting to pre-emptively shame the vengeful shamers; dishonour the avenging dishonourers in advance of an all-powerful Shia government. Indeed, in an unconscious and perverse form, part of the character of the sectarian carnage the Iraqis are wreaking upon themselves also plays a role in the blaming and shaming the US in the yes of the international community for the situation it has created.

The US cannot create stability or effect regime change, because it would entail achieving an impossible cultural change from bottom up. For these reasons, the mounting military operations to achieve security as a space to achieving political solution and national reconciliation, is purely pie in the sky. The US is applying sticky plasters to gaping gangrenous wounds at a tremendous and worthless price. They are doomed to failure. Thus they are stuck in an endless war, they cannot win.

For the blinkered and myopic, cultural ignoramuses in the White House this is a book closed with a thousand seals. Consequently, the Iraqi adventure turned out to be a victory of astonishment over foresight. But having banged their heads on it they have chosen either to ignore it, or to treat it with contempt and carry on regardless. The bankrupt Administration has chosen to simply repeat and repeat again and again the same failed strategy and tactics, regardless of whether they kept coming up with the same failed results - something someone once described as being the definition of madness.

It would take a leap of the imagination for the Administration to realize that the aim of the insurgency is not to win, but to take retribution and to heap shame upon them. Culturally, this would even be the case should they be able to win militarily! Humiliation not annihilation is their payback for the occupation. Thus, withdrawal is the only option for the US, since they cannot uproot an emotional motivation by military means. It is not just that the US cannot succeed in an asymmetrical war, but that they cannot win a psychologically asymmetrical conflict. Withdrawal will be a victory for the insurgents. But regardless of all this, sometimes eating humble pie is the most emotionally intelligent course.

Specialized in: Insurgent Psychology
URL: http://morgansreview.tripod.com
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