As a regular reader of my blog you will almost certainly have noticed that from time to time I quote Christopher Hitchens, whom I regard as perhaps the most impressive mind currently around. He once pointed out that being a good author is basically about being a good reader. He is, I dare say from the limited amount of experience I can call my own, quite right. So from time to time I use this blog to recommend or review a book, a classic or, more precisely, modern classic that broadens our understanding of war and warfare. And in that regard Military Orientalism, first published in 2009, is (or at least it ought to be) a must read. I got my copy back in July when I attended a conference in Shrivenham at the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College, but it was on my list ever since it first appeared on KoW. The local book seller told me that the book did not sell quite as well as hoped for by its author, Patrick Porter, and after hesistating myself he gave me a copy of David Kilcullens Accidental Guerrilla on top (don't worry, eventually I'll get around to that one as well).
Now its conference season in Germany and I spend most of my days on trains and airplanes and finally got around reading this, shall I say, masterpiece in warfare studies. Military Orientalism picks up todays debate on Afghanistan, Iraq and other small wars but departs from Edward Said's 1978 landmark Orientalism. In his work, Edward Said pointed out that Western orientalists tended to portray the Middle East as static, backward and a distinct other. This conceptualisation of the East helped fuel and perpetuate a sense of superiority in the West that made imperialism possible in the first place. Edaward Said became a doyen of the intellectual left and his book is a must-read in cultural studies and ethnology (and rightly so). Patrick Porter, however, departs from Saids argument in one important respect: His basic argument is that this Orientalist mode of conceptualisation of the East has prevailed only that today it fuels an understanding of the Middle East as an impenetrable, invincible region, removed from modernity and the complexities of the Western way of war (and well, politics). The result being, that the West begins to assume that its wars in the Middle East are lost even while they are being fought and even more problematic that military orientalism actually blocks interventions in the first place. Here (p. 53), he refers to the Bosnian war as an example for how that Orientalism blocks interventions that otherwise would have been called for simply out of humanitarian considerations:
“Lawrence Eagleburger, a US advisor on Yugoslavia, insisted in September 1992 that the Bosnian war was 'not rational. There is no rationality at all about ethnic conflict. It is gut, it is hatred; its not for any common set of values or purposes.' This fatalism helped prevent international military intervention. General Colin Powell, his influence and prestige heightened by the 1991 Gulf war, staked his opposition to intervention on the idea that war sprang from 'deep ethnic and religious roots that go back a thousand years.' Orientalism served not to spur Western interference, but to block it.”
He's got equally strong statements when it comes to the War on Terror or the war in Afghanistan. For now, however, this shall suffice. In a nutshell: I really encourage you to read it (but then again you almost certainly already did).