Vengeance, Time, and US Idiocy

Here’s a story from Arabic folklore. A man returned to his village after an absence of several days. He met his best friend, and they sat down to drink tea.

“Do you remember the man who offended me 25 years ago?” the man asked his friend.


“Well, I killed him two days ago.”

“Why were you in such a hurry?” his friend asked.

Now here is a true story reported in the news some months back. An American officer went to the home of a family whose young son had been killed by American soldiers who mistook him for an enemy.

“What compensation would you accept for your son?” the American officer asked.

“Ten dead Americans,” the father replied.

I tell you these anecdotes to point out something that apparently a great many American government officials haven’t quite grasped: When we operate in an Arab country, especially Iraq, we are operating in a culture that places a very high value on vengeance and honor. The significance is that when we kill an Iraqi, if the death is perceived by his family as unjust, then the dead man’s extended family assumes an unavoidable obligation to avenge it. The family might not try to avenge it the next day. That is the point of the first story. People in that part of the world perceive time in a different way than we do. But the passing of time will not lessen, much less eliminate, the desire and intention to avenge the death.

The object of the vengeance need not be the particular person who committed the original act. Any representative person will do. In our case, any American will do.

When a mob mutilated the bodies of four American mercenaries in Fallujah, a majority of the people there felt shame. Mutilating the dead is against the teachings of Islam. They didn’t regret the killings, but they were shamed by the mutilation.

Had we been smart, we would have played on that shame, and no doubt the people would have helped us identify the culprits. But smart is not what the occupation government in Iraq is. In fact, it is dumb. It made the decision instead to punish the entire city and all of its residents.

The battle is going on as I write, and already we have killed women and children in the course of it. This is a guarantee that we will lose in the long run. Oh, we can take the city. We can kill or capture a lot of people. We can blow up a lot of houses. But instead of solving the problem, we will be enlarging it, because we will create more enemies than we kill. After this is all over, Fallujah will not be pacified. It will be more dangerous than it is today.

This is precisely the problem that has so frustrated the Israelis. They have done a competent job, if you want to call it that, of killing Palestinians, blowing up their homes and uprooting their olive trees, but all they’ve accomplished is to produce more hate and more violence. Now we are following the exact same path in Iraq, and we will reap the exact same results.

Just because generals are good at moving around tanks, airplanes and troops doesn’t mean they know squat about the country or the culture in which they are fighting. Most of our generals are neither intellectuals nor scholars. That ought to be obvious from the inane and stupid names they apply to even the smallest tactical missions.

There are some people who can be beaten into submission by brute force. Iraqis and Palestinians are not among them.

I’m sure we have some Special Forces people who understand the Arab culture and could call the right shots. Unfortunately, they are kept out of the loop as far as being able to make the big decisions. They are treated by the brass as gofers. Iraq might not be George Bush’s Vietnam, but it’s certainly his tar baby. I predict a day will come when Bush will wish he had never heard of the place.

Author: Charley Reese

Charley Reese is a journalist.