October 1, 2008  

Fighting words

Imprecise language = inept policies

If our troops shot as wildly as our politicians and bureaucrats fire off words, we’d never win a single firefight. The inaccurate terminology tossed about by presidents and pundits alike obscures the nature of the threats we face, the character of our enemies and the inadequacies of our response. If we cannot, or will not, label our opponents, their cause and their motivations correctly, how can we forge an efficient and effective national strategy?

Let’s begin with the most-abused word in Washington, “ideology.” Flocks of Potomac parrots in Brooks Brothers suits tell us, again and again, that we’re in a “war of ideologies,” or a “contest of ideologies” with the terrorists we face. The speakers — not one of whom seems to have thought the issue through — appear to believe that ideology can be used as a pleasant euphemism for religious fervor, that ideology has been with us since the days of cave paintings and really bad hair days, and, oddest of all, that we ourselves are fighting for an ideology.

In fact, political ideologies are a relatively new phenomenon in the bloody pageant of history. If you open Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, published in London in 1755 (and still my favorite dictionary), you will not find the word “ideology.” The term first appears as “ideologie” in 1796, in Paris, in the noisy aftermath of the French revolution. The word and what it represents are products of the madly misnamed Age of Reason, when human beings discovered vast new horizons of causes about which they could behave unreasonably.

How does the current Oxford English Dictionary define “ideology”? The pertinent entry runs as follows: “A system of ideas or way of thinking pertaining to a class or individual, esp. as a basis of some economic or political theory or system, regarded as justifying actions and esp. to be maintained irrespective of events.” That’s a fine definition of communism, Maoism, Nazism, fascism, anarcho-syndicalism, Trotskyism, Fourierism and on through the -ism of the individual malcontent’s choice. However, it does not describe Islamist fanatics determined to sacrifice their lives to honor their god.

Religion is a deeper, far more enduring factor than ideology. Ideologies come and go, often making quite a mess along the way, but the remarkable thing about successful religions — those that survive over millennia — is their galvanizing resilience. They may evolve or devolve, adapt or mutate grotesquely, but they last and continue to inspire. In historical terms, ideologies are closer to fads, to deadly hula hoops. Religion, on its mundane side, may develop subordinate ideologies — such as liberation theology or other passing militancies — but no ideology has ever produced a religion.

Religion and ideology are essentially antithetical. Religion is not “a system of ideas,” but a matter of faith subduing and transcending reason. Religion may give birth to ideas, but ideas never give birth to a religion. So our devout enemies — and they are, indeed, devout — are not engaged in a battle of ideas or ideologies with us. They are driven by unreasoning faith, by passion, by furies, by a perverted vision of eternity.

And what about us? Are we fighting for an ideology? Absolutely not. Democracy isn’t an -ism. Democracy is a technique of human governance that uses the tool of elections. In the U.S., ideologies in their true sense only exist on the extreme margins of the political spectrum (where they belong, to the extent they belong anywhere). We are not fighting for an American ideology. There’s no American equivalent of Marxism or fascism, and we should be very glad of it. We’re fighting to defend our values.

Now, the relevant definition of “values” from the Oxford English Dictionary is: “The principles or moral standards of a person or social group; the generally accepted or personally held judgment of what is valuable and important in life.”

The “American way of life” and the values that have made it a success are a matter of national consensus that transcends our individual differences; an ideology is the opposite of a consensus approach to society — it’s dictated, one way or the other. Our consensus has developed organically, by trial and error. Ideology is artificial, constructed by an individual or small group and foisted on a society. There is no American ideology with its “Das Kapital,” Mao’s Little Red Book or “Mein Kampf.” The nature of this confrontation — between the all-or-nothing religious fanaticism driving our enemies and the cherished values motivating us, between a merciless interpretation of a god’s will and an ongoing experiment in human freedom — is yet another asymmetrical aspect of post-modern conflict.

If we were simply in a duel of ideologies, our task would be a lot easier.

The timeless fanatic

We desperately want our enemies to be reasonable, to operate from motives we can nail down neatly and explain without too much discomfort. But religious extremists are, by definition, not reasonable. The fanatic is driven by faith in a greater reality than that which our senses identify in our waking hours. And what is faith? I know of no better definition for our purposes than that proposed three centuries ago by Jonathan Swift and cited in Johnson’s magisterial dictionary:

“Faith is an entire dependence upon the truth, the power, the justice, and the mercy of God; which dependence will certainly incline us to obey him in all things.”

In other words, there is no truth but your god’s truth, no power comparable to his and his is the only justice, while mercy is also his alone. Above all, faith is not to reason, but to obey “in all things.”

Unlike political ideologues, religious fanatics have been with us since the infancy of history. For Johnson, a “fanatick” was “a man mad with wild notions of religion,” while the Oxford English Dictionary defines a “fanatic” as “a mad person; a religious maniac.” Those seem rather more appropriate descriptions of men who saw the heads off living prisoners to please their god or who walk into a marketplace crowded with fellow believers and detonate a suicide bomb.

Nonetheless, various U.S. government outlets and agencies, from military publications through intelligence organizations, have been discouraged or forbidden outright from bringing religion into their analysis of our enemies, or from using terms such as “Islamist terrorist,” because we would rather avoid giving the least offense than accurately describe the ambitious murderers we face. It’s a bit like banning the word “Nazi” when describing Hitler.

Political correctness has no place in the intelligence world and no place in (what should be) hard-headed government documents. If your enemy declares himself an Islamist and your enemy is a terrorist self-avowedly motivated by his religion, then it hardly seems unjust to describe him as an “Islamist terrorist.”

Nor does political correctness infect only the left. The conservative version simply obsesses on different terms. For example, some well-meaning (and some downright nutty) Internet activists on the right have argued that we should never use the terms “jihad” or “jihadi” when referring to al-Qaida, the Taliban and their ilk. In a bizarre confluence, those on the hard right find themselves sharing common ground with the extreme left, both agreeing that “jihad” isn’t really about war at all, but about an unarmed personal struggle (somewhere between morning-after guilt and a bowel obstruction).

This is nonsense. A personal struggle is an anomalous and far lesser form of jihad. Since the first conquering Arab armies exploded out of the desert 13 centuries ago, “jihad” has consistently described warfare waged on behalf of the faith. Were the hand-wringers to inspect the historical record, they would find “jihad” used from the start to describe campaigns against unbelievers, against schismatic Muslims, against Crusaders, against Byzantines, against Slavs, Austrians, Hindus, the British, the French, Americans in the Philippines, the Israelis, the Soviets, and, now, the West in general. An armed struggle waged on behalf of the faith of the Prophet is a jihad. Period.

Nor is there a supreme terrestrial authority who can give a jihad the thumbs up or thumbs down: jihad is practically “every mullah for himself.” While only the Pope could declare a Crusade in the pre-Reformation West, Islam is not only divided between Sunni and Shiite, but is a semi-anarchic collection of diffuse institutions that seldom agree on much. When it suits their whims, the Saudi royal family may be able to influence domestic clerics to declare a given jihad invalid, but that won’t stop Islamist extremists who view the entire Saudi establishment as corrupt and illegitimate. If a cleric of middling standing can persuade a sufficient number of people to launch a jihad, it’s a jihad. And those who wage it are jihadis.

The notion that non-Muslims have sufficient authority to declare that jihadis aren’t real jihadis reaches heights of absurdity rarely encountered outside of the House of Representatives. Do we really think that the Muslims of the Middle East hang on the words of our domestic pundits? If an American scholar of Anglo-Saxon heritage writes a carefully footnoted article “proving” that al-Qaida isn’t engaged in a jihad and that its members don’t conform to classical Quranic values, can we really believe that al-Qaida gives a damn? If a Saudi, Egyptian or Iranian authority declared that our soldiers and Marines fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan were not true Christians, just how seriously would we take it? We’re babbling for our own consumption — our enemies are not impressed. The terrorist enemies we face view themselves as jihadis and they are viewed as jihadis by many millions of Muslims (even by many who don’t approve of their actions — just as our domestic left accepts that a Marine is a Marine, like him or not).

The inability or unwillingness to speak clearly generally arises from the inability or unwillingness to think clearly. Our slovenly use of terminology — whether from intellectual sloth, political correctness or both — is a serious obstacle to understanding our enemies and fighting them effectively. We continually describe the enemies we want to face, rather than those who are determined to kill as many of us as possible.

If we lack the judgment and courage to speak plainly, where shall we find the strength to defeat men of such passion and will as those jihadis? No enemy has ever been defeated by a heavy barrage of euphemisms.

Good Dr. Johnson, who understood the value of specificity as well as any English-speaking man, gives us this definition of “folly”: “Act of negligence or passion unbecoming gravity or deep wisdom.”

Our official blasts of inaccurate terminology are folly, indeed. But that negligence only masks Washington’s deeper foolishness — the refusal to think honestly.

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer and the author of 23 books, including the recent memoir “Looking for Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World.”