Some of the most terrifying moments of my life have been in the midst of conflict: with American marines in Fallujah in 2004 and with armed bands in Sierra Leone in 1993. I stood next to mounds of dead Iranian soldiers, teenagers actually, during the Iran-Iraq War in 1984. The horror of war is a reality I have experienced firsthand. And yet an analyst must never give in to his or her emotions. He or she must view history with a heart of ice to find patterns that others miss. This is what Stanford classics professor Ian Morris does in his new book, War! What Is It Good For?
This summer, when advances by the Islamic State (IS) through northwestern Iraq were beginning to earn the extremist Sunni group unprecedented notoriety, a large number of social media users switched their profile pictures to the Arabic letter nuun,for Nasrani (Nazarene, that is, Christian), in an echo of the symbol scrawled by IS fighters on the
"Man's real treasure is the treasure of his mistakes, piled up stone by stone through thousands of years," writes the great Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset in his 1941 book, Toward a Philosophy of History. Though we flatter ourselves by always "wanting to begin again," civilization requires that we never break our continuity with the past, for it is the very memory of what has gone grievously wrong that is the signal requirement for progress.
The beheading of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq was much more than an altogether gruesome and tragic affair: rather, it was a very sophisticated and professional film production deliberately punctuated with powerful symbols. Foley was dressed in an orange jumpsuit reminiscent of the Muslim prisoners held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay. He made his confession forcefully, as if well rehearsed. His executioner, masked and clad in black, made an equally long statement in a calm, British accent, again, as if rehearsed.
Reality can be harsh. In order for the United States to weaken and eventually defeat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, it could use help from both the Iranian regime and that of President Bashar al Assad in Syria. In the Middle East, it takes illiberal forces to defeat an even more illiberal force. The mullahs' Iran and al Assad's Syria sadly represent the material at hand, with which the United States must somehow work or tolerate, however surreptitiously, however much it will deny it at the same time. Ah, you might say, What about the moderate, liberal opposition in Syria?
The establishment media has declared U.S. President Barack Obama a failure in foreign policy. He is worse than George W. Bush, say some journalists; he is worse than Jimmy Carter, say others. In much of this criticism there is a phenomenon operating in the background that goes unmentioned: The opinion pages of the large circulation dailies in New York and Washington are either liberal internationalist or neoconservative, meaning they all have a bias for action, for doing dramatic things to make the world a better place.
In November 1991 in Prague, in a conversation between the Polish historian and intellectual, Adam Michnik, and the late Czech president and playwright, Vaclav Havel, Michnik remarked that with communism set to expire and Yugoslavia having just erupted in war, a "coarse and primitive nationalism" had replaced communism as the great enemy. But last May in The New Republic, the historian and columnist Anne Applebaum wrote that a public-spirited nationalism was exactly what Ukrainians needed to buttress their own democracy. Are Michnik and Applebaum in disagreement? Not really.
A believer in the possibilities of coexistence, Sayed Kashua is, or perhaps was, the most prominent Arab-Israeli author writing in Hebrew. Punctured with staccato prose, his column on leaving Jerusalem, perhaps forever, was a beautifully written, heartbreaking admission of defeat. For him, the notion that Arabs and Jews could live together had been shattered. “All those who told me there is a difference between blood and blood, between one person and another person, were right,” Kashua concluded.
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