In Delphi, a temple near Athens, there was an intellectual phrase carved in stone more than 2,000 years ago. “Know thyself” was the philosophical motto of the old world. Today, the philosophy is reversed. The common phrase carved in the hearts and minds of many in the vast area of the so-called Middle East is: “Know thy enemy.” In the era after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, culture as a weapon has proven to be more lethal than the weapons of mass destruction that Uncle Sam went looking for.
While enemies nowadays are easily identified, culture has become a weapon easily mobilized and delivered. It is a bomb that explodes inside each house, in the middle of our living rooms.
We are not generals, and most certainly we are not soldiers. Patriotic citizens are what we should be. And battlefields are ones chosen by our states and not our culture. This thin line is worth fighting for. Amid World War II, navigating through the rivers of blood that were flowing around, a German general once said: “Lions are led by lambs.”
Describing one of mankind’s ugliest wars, his comments came with a clear disgust with the manipulation of culture and the mobilization of all kinds of weaponry. Mankind has yet to comprehend the role of war as a tool of protection and defense. The Middle East, post the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, suffered and still suffers.
Identity has been a favorite tool of use in times of war and conflict. It also has been observed as such in times of peace. Specifically, in times of conflict, the creation of fear is the driving force in weaponizing people. And culture comes at the top of the list. Tools such as culture can be considered the atomic bomb of warfare. This demonstrates the epic transformation of mythical Greek prorations that changed our perception of the “other.” Our understanding of life has become one stemming from outside our bodies and not from the inside. While many scholars emphasize the importance of self-satisfaction, our world today imposes the other in a hostile confrontation with ourselves. A world today coupled with ongoing state power is capable of creating easy divisions along cultural lines. “Culture” as a mainstream word became dominant post-Sept. 11 attacks on the US. It exploded into our main vocabulary with the US invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
As mentioned by Rochelle Davis: “When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, ‘culture’ was not part of the vocabulary of war. In the period from 2003 to 2007, the vast majority of the military, both leaders and troops on the ground, saw culture as either irrelevant to the mission or possibly corrosive of military effectiveness.”
It became difficult for the US Army to control its objectives, let alone achieve them. As a result, the use of culture was transformed from daily vocabulary use to an actual weapon of choice. In 2006, the US Army created “The Human Terrain System.” This was a process in which scientists were trained for nine weeks on the language, culture, politics, and geography of Iraq and Afghanistan and then sent to work with combat units to provide relevant cultural knowledge for day-to-day interactions and the collection of intelligence. In April 2010, Maj. Gen. David Hogg, head of the Adviser Forces in Afghanistan, proposed that the US military think of “culture as a weapon system.”
The literal “weaponization of culture” continues as a trend that began with the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Davis continues: “The US military’s adoption of national character studies allowed for an easy portrayal of what constitutes being ‘Iraqi’ and ‘Arab’.”
Similarly, with the Lebanese discourse after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, this was fueled by the brutal barbaric events transpiring in Syria and Iraq. Culture had become both a weapon and a shield as Daesh took lives indiscriminately. A common belief grew in the East that Daesh and its exclusion methods were a direct product of the US invasion of Iraq.
• Tariq F. Zedan is a writer and analyst of public policy and international affairs.