Since the wanton destruction of the golden dome of the Shi'ite shrine in Baghdad, there has been an escalating sense that Iraq is on the brink, but the question is: on the brink of what? Warnings are flying about that Iraq is on the verge of civil war -- but what do we mean by this phrase, a civil war?
The first thing that we Americans must get out of our heads is our own memories of our Civil War -- a label that is in many ways unfortunate. A far more appropriate label was the one that was once given to this bloody conflict by those who had fought on the Southern side, namely, the War Between the States -- a cumbersome phraseology, to be sure, but one that recognizes the fact that the conflict was not between disorganized tribes and sects, scattered promiscuously hither and yon, but between two different confederations of states, where each confederation was looked upon both at home and abroad as a genuine state in the full European sense of the word. Both sides claimed certain territory, and, by and large, those who lived within the claimed territory recognized the legitimacy of the government that had been set over them -- a government, moreover, that in both cases functioned precisely the way any modern government is supposed to. Both had administrative systems, such as you find in any modern state, and both could field armies that had been created, organized, and structured along the lines of all modern armies.
In other words, the so called American Civil War was like any modern war that takes places between two independent states. It operated by the same rules that were observed by Germany and France in the Franco-Prussian War that erupted not long after the defeat of the South. Thus it is totally inappropriate for Americans to draw on memories of their own "Civil War" in order to understand what we are on the brink of in Iraq. For what Iraq is facing is not a war between states, but a war in a country where no state exists, yet where tribes abound.
Iraq, in short, is not on the brink of a civil war, as we understand it from our own experience; rather it is on the brink of something that no American, based on his own experience of civil life within his nation, can possibly hope to grasp in its full horror -- namely, tribalist anarchy.
Where there is no state, there is anarchy. It may be the philosophic anarchy of the libertarians, in which everyone peacefully goes about his own business, without harming anyone else. Or it may be the Hobbesian anarchy in which each individual is pitted against every other individual in a constant struggle for his survival. But neither of these kinds of anarchy approximates the tribalist anarchy I wish to describe.
In tribalist anarchy, there is no central government, no central security force, no central army. There is no Leviathan in the form of a state that can stand above the feuding tribes and that can force them to stop their feuding -- and force them, often, through acts of spine-tingling ruthlessness, the way that all modern states have historically crushed all those within their territory who persisted in tribalist feuds.
Under conditions of tribalist anarchy, instead of there being one centralized power, power is disbursed and diffused through the tribes themselves. The result is that there is no higher power that can restrain the power struggles that begin to erupt among the various competing tribes. There is no state-controlled professional army, made up of soldiers who have sworn to put loyalty to the state above loyalty to their differing tribes, and whose gut loyalty is, in fact, loyalty to the state. Instead, there are only informal and spontaneously generated militias or paramilitary groups, each of which is permeated with the tribal spirit, just like the boys in a gang. Each, that is to say, makes up an Us, and looks upon the rival gang -- or tribe -- simply as Them. If you are not one of us, then you are one of them -- and that is enough to make you my enemy.
But it gets worse -- and this is something that we all need to understand if we hope to have any grasp of what is unfolding in Iraq, and, more generally, throughout the Muslim world. Once a society has lapsed back into tribal anarchy, a vicious cycle sets in, one in which each of the feuding tribes will be egged on, by their own members, to perpetrate more and more ruthless acts against the enemy tribe. Thus new enormities are committed by one tribe, which immediately call forth even more hideous enormities by the other tribe. Under tribalist anarchy, the lex talionis is suspended. An eye for an eye is no longer enough -- there must be three, four, or a hundred eyes for each eye. If you kill our women, we kill your children. If you destroy one of our mosques, we will destroy a hundred of yours.
Which brings us to the dilemma of an American army trapped in the midst of tribalist anarchy. In our War Between the States, it was quite possible for an outsider to take one side or the other. For example, both the British and the French flirted with recognizing, and even throwing their support behind, the South. But, under conditions of tribalist anarchy, it is impossible for any outsider to try to take sides in the feud -- and this is especially the case for American soldiers who, quite naturally, feel no visceral loyalties to the various tribes and sects of Iraq, and who can only be horrified at the indiscriminate brutality and escalating ruthlessness that is modus operandi of all tribalist warfare. Hence, the only response Americans can make is to urge calm and recommend reconciliation -- precisely the virtues that are the first victims of tribalist anarchy.
Those who are predicting that Iraq is on the brink of civil war may well prove to be guilty of wishful thinking. What is unfolding in Iraq may turn to be something far more horrifying -- not the relatively civil Civil War fought by Americans a century and a half ago, but kind of tribalist anarchy that swept over Rwanda within our own lifetimes, and that has been the baseline of most human existence from time immemorial.
In short, the beguiling dream of the End of History is on the verge of turning into the nightmare in which the tribal Law of the Jungle makes its triumphant return. We may well all be living out the last days before the commencement of a new and yet very old Age of Kali.