Reconsidering the Role of the Warrior in Our Post-Enlightenment World
In one of the final events of the recent Lincoln Center Festival, a lone Mongolian bard named Burenbayar came onstage and chanted “The Secret History of the Mongols.” He had memorized the 13th-century text during long hours grazing animals on the steppes of Central Asia. And as is true of many ancient sagas, he sang of arms and the man — that is, of warfare and heroism.
His subject was Genghis Khan, a conqueror of many peoples who was both barbarically ruthless and soulfully sentimental, reveling in revenge by tearing out an enemy’s heart and liver with his bare hands while also forgiving, again and again, the bloody treachery of an envious childhood friend. He was at all times a warrior whose goal was conquest and whose demands could not be assuaged, except by victory.
Almost every culture has such figures in their past, men like Odysseus, King David, Muhammad and Aeneas, whose triumphs were often attained through extreme, horrific battle. Such founding figures often also display powerful streaks of sensitivity and elevated vision along with prophetic abilities; on their broad chests and battle-readiness rest the later triumphs of their civilizations. But warriors don’t have to display such qualifying attributes; throughout history they are revered.
Except for now, it seems, and particularly in the West. Today we are so wary of the warrior that we would find it unthinkable to celebrate him with elaborate descriptions of the beheading or disemboweling of his enemies. Instead we think of the warrior as a fanatic, an extremist with a streak of the berserk.
In “The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the West” (Basic Books), a new book in which the idea of the fanatic warrior plays a central role, Lee Harris points out that the word berserk comes from Icelandic accounts of Norse warriors of the 12th century who were so fierce in battle they fought without armor and raged like wolves. They were called “berserksgangr.” These days we tend to think of all warriors as berserk.
It isn’t that we don’t recognize, at some level, a need for warriors. At least in our cinematic fantasies warrior heroes abound. But they are kept on a short leash; they need a license to kill. Though they keep testing constraints on acceptable behavior, when they violate them, people around them tend, as the films put it, to “die hard”; freelance warriors like those played by Bruce Willis pay a steep personal price.
It is a measure of how distant we are from the ancient Greeks, Mongols and Romans that the most complete contemporary incarnations of the warrior are supervillains. Such evildoers display, as their ancient models do, a fierce tribal loyalty; a scorn for any life that stands in their way; a blood lust that megalomaniacally affirms human expendability. “Do you expect me to talk?” James Bond asks Auric Goldfinger, who has strapped Bond to a table where a knifelike laser beam gradually approaches his crotch. The villain laughs in amazement and says: “No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.”
We watch these figures or read about their exploits with a certain sense of superiority. We like to think we have transcended this kind of ruthlessness; we are no longer tribally bound, but universally concerned; we don’t imagine eliminating our enemies in battle, we imagine driving them to the bargaining table. The West, riven by tribal and religious wars for centuries, imagines that humanity is capable of overcoming that past. Genghis Khan has been superseded by Jimmy Carter. The world’s remaining barbarians, even those in our midst, will eventually come to learn the virtues of the Enlightenment, the powers of reason and the prospects of a democratic future.
On the other hand Mr. Harris’s arguments should give us pause. And his book demands close attention even by those who would mistakenly consider him another form of berserk. By taking a long view of history Mr. Harris argues that the modern view of how to vanquish enemies is based on false ideas: first, that history progresses; second, that it progresses toward greater influence of reason; and finally, that reason, through its powers, can overcome all opposition. Our smug disdain for the warrior, he suggests, is based on a mistaken view of the powers of modernity and the Enlightenment.
In Mr. Harris’s view these errors are affecting the crucial confrontations now taking place between jihadists and Western liberal culture. We keep straining, he says, to see terrorists as if they were just slightly more extreme versions of ourselves, reflecting our own convictions, as if the jihadist were advocating destruction in the name of a version of liberalism.
A Palestinian blows himself up in a pizza parlor, a Shiite drives a car bomb into a crowded plaza of Sunnis (or vice versa), videotapes display beheadings and Internet sites herald massacres. Such horrific deeds are taken almost as proof of suffering, poverty, frustration. The surest cure for terrorism, the argument goes, would be to ameliorate injustice; in the meantime violence can be curbed with well-considered policing.
But Mr. Harris suggests that the jihadist is more accurately thought of as a fanatic, a warrior of the old school, whose technique has been remarkably successful over the centuries. Such warfare accepts no rules other than fealty to the tribe and accepts no compromise other than victory. Islam, he points out, has made “permanent conquests in every part of the world into which it has expanded with only three exceptions: Spain, Sicily, and certain parts of the Balkans”: three areas where Islamic fanaticism was confronted with opposing fanaticism.
Mr. Harris argues that by failing to characterize Islamist warfare accurately, the West deludes itself, even employing another Enlightenment idea — tolerance — to grant harbor to those who seek to destroy it. And the West implicitly affirms that, in the end, reason will triumph.
But why? The Enlightenment had inordinate faith in itself and the evolutionary progress of history. But look closely at the few places in the world where these ideas have triumphed, Mr. Harris writes: their success is more fluke than destiny. Democracy and reason displaced warfare and fanaticism not because of their superior powers, but because of rare historical circumstances difficult to replicate (including, he argues, in Iraq). Their survival, far from being inevitable, is always tenuous; liberal societies will always need to live with war.
So Mr. Harris mounts a challenge, and even if we harbor less apocalyptic visions, that challenge is considerable. If we believe, as Mr. Harris affirms, that the societies that have arisen out of Enlightenment ideas, whatever their flaws, really are morally superior to others, if we are convinced that the values of the West are rare and crucial and fragile, then to what extent are we willing to make a stand on their behalf?
In the most extreme case, how does a liberal society embrace the practices of the warrior, which are inimical to its most fervent beliefs? Wouldn’t this destroy precisely what’s being defended? Mr. Harris can’t fully imagine the ways in which liberal society will evolve under such circumstances, but he believes we will soon need to find out. And one way or another somebody like Genghis Khan will be involved.