Keith Windschuttle: The Journalism of Warfare

Roundup: Historians' Take

Keith Windschuttle, in New Criterion (June 2005):

In December 1996, Robert Fisk of the London newspaper The Independent traveled to the mountains north of Khartoum where he met Osama bin Laden. The opening sentences of the article he wrote about the meeting went as follows:

Osama Bin Laden sat in his gold fringed robe, guarded by loyal Arab mujahedin… . With his high cheekbones, narrow eyes and long brown robe, Mr Bin Laden looks every inch the mountain warrior of mujahedin legend. Chadored children danced in front of him, preachers acknowledged his wisdom.
In a second article he wrote about the same meeting, Fisk upgraded bin Laden’s attire from gold-fringed brown robe to “white Saudi robes.” But whatever the detail, you get the same message. Here is a man whose face and garb reveal his nobility. Fisk’s description bears a close similarity to another account by a British writer of his meeting with an Arab aristocrat. In The Seven Pillars of Wisdom T. E. Lawrence describes his first meeting with Prince Feisal in 1916.
Feisal looked very tall and pillar-like, very slender in his long white silk robes and his brown head-cloth bound with a brilliant scarlet and gold cord. His eyelids were dropped; and his black beard and colourless face were like a mask against the strange, still watchfulness of his body. His hands were crossed in front of him on his dagger.
In Fisk’s description, bin Laden was attended by “bearded, taciturn figures” who never strayed more than a few yards from him. In Lawrence’s account, Feisal was accompanied by a retinue of slaves who guarded his person and lit his path with lamps. Students of British imperial adventure novels will recognize the genre. The world the writers conjure up is pre-modern, where natural aristocrats, tall and slender, lord over male servants and slaves who are handsome, silent, and strong. The aristocrats are famous for their warrior skills. Their long robes are trimmed with gold and scarlet. They carry daggers in their belts. It is a world without women and it reeks of homoeroticism.

In conjuring up this imagery, Fisk was doing the same as the many European writers who have been drawn to the Arab world over the past two centuries. In his book Muslim Society, the late Ernest Gellner analyzed the nature of the appeal of this pre-modern, feudal order. Gellner wrote:

The European discovery and exploration of Muslim tribal society occurred in the main after the French Revolution, and was often carried out by men—long before T. E. Lawrence—who were possessed by a nostalgia for a Europe as it was, prior to the diffusion of the egalitarian ideal… . They sought not the noble savage, but the savage noble.
This same hankering after the trappings of aristocracy, or anything that smacks of aristocracy, is behind much of the anti-American and anti-Jewish sentiment that now emanates from the European news media, especially in the writings of European leftists such as Fisk.

The aristocratic disdain for American society goes back more than two hundred years. It originated in the presumption that none of Europe’s cast-offs would ever amount to anything great. Even Alexis de Tocqueville’s otherwise illuminating work Democracy in America stated that only a society based on privilege, never an egalitarian democracy, could produce a great culture. Indeed, all the settler societies of the New World were saddled with the same condescending presumption: no greatness without an aristocracy. It is heavily ironic that leftist authors like Robert Fisk, who imagine themselves the ideological heirs of the French Revolution, now speak more for the world view of the ancien régime.

Similarly, despite the remarkable artistic accomplishments of the Jews throughout Western history, the fact that their own societies contained no aristocrats puts them in almost the same boat as the uncouth settlers of the New World. This also accounts for much of the current European cultural and political elite’s prejudice against Israel and support for the Arabs.

This prejudice is more than political ideology and more than envy of America’s wealth and power, although that is obviously a big part of it. It is a deeply embedded cultural trait that affects the way its adherents actually perceive the world. ...

The author, Victor Davis Hanson, is a classical scholar and a military historian who, on the conservative website National Review Online between September 11 and December 22, 2001, published no less than thirty-eight essays about the terrorist strikes on New York and Washington and the war in Afghanistan. In that brief time, the Taliban was defeated and a new government of reconciliation formed in Kabul. At a time when the shock of September 11 had disoriented everyone and it was very hard to think straight, Hanson’s essays rose above ordinary commentary. He told those of us in the West who we were, why we were being attacked, and why we would eventually prevail.

Hanson was not a journalistic bystander and made no pretense at being dispassionate. He supported the Bush administration’s immediate use of military force in Afghanistan. Indeed, he was an advocate of such a response and gave personal advice to that effect to Vice President Cheney. On September 12, 2001 he wrote:

Osama Bin Laden has made a fatal miscalculation. Like everybody who scoffs at the perceived laxity of Western democracies, these murderers have woken an enormous power from its slumber, and retribution will shortly be both decisive and terrible… . In the months to come, American ground and air forces, with better weapons, better supplies, better discipline and more imaginative commanders—audited constantly by an elected Congress and President, criticized by a free press—will shatter the very foundations of Islamic fundamentalism… . The Taliban and other hosts of murderers at bases in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria may find reprieve from Western clergy and academics, but they shall not from the American military. America is not only the inheritor of the European military tradition, but in many ways also its most powerful incarnation… . These are intimidating assets when we turn, as we shall shortly, from the arts of production to those of destruction. The world, much less the blinkered fundamentalists, has not seen a United States unleashed for a long time and so has forgotten all this.
Many of the other thirty-seven articles continued in the same theme. Some were straight pieces but others were satires, such as his imaginary re-run of responses to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and America’s retaliatory raid in April 1942, by current celebrity commentators such as Stanley Fish, Jesse Jackson, Oliver Stone, Susan Sontag, and Edward Said.
Fish: There can be no independent standard for determining which of the many rival interpretations of the raid is the true one. What we must not do is to fall back on some absurd notion of absolute and enduring values like truth, freedom and democracy … Sontag: I cannot accept the moral equivalence of an attack on our soldiers at Pearl Harbor with a desperate lashing out against Tokyo. The blood of Japanese women and children is on our hands. Who is the real April fool? Said: Among many Western colonialists there is a deep and abiding—may I say fear and hatred?—of what they have construed the Other into as the “Oriental.” Jackson: Stop the guns and save our sons. Keep peace alive and don’t let the planes dive. Don’t be in fearo of the Zero or Emperor Hiro. Let our planes drop more for the poor, and make less of a mess.
Another was a witty interview with the retired Greek general Thucydides, which used passages from the History of the Peloponnesian War as answers to modern questions about the motives of the Islamic terrorists, the attitude America should adopt to them, and the prospects of defeating them in war. Beyond parody, however, was another article about questions Hanson received on American university campuses from anti-war professors and their students.

Now, the obvious question to ask is how could anyone nominate as great journalism a work that is so partisan, that takes such a strong stand, and is so strongly committed to one outcome. Isn’t it hypocritical to laud conservative political writing while at the same time condemning radical political writing? That might well be true were there not an overwhelming imbalance in the volume and the quality of the scholarship and evidence deployed by one side compared to that of the other....

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