Eastern and Western Views of War

Lessons from the Balkan Conflicts

There is a well-developed view of war in the Western World codified in the Geneva Convention. One of the key elements of this view is the attempt to shield civilians and non-combatants from conflict and collateral damage. You don’t shoot “innocent civilians” on purpose. To do so is a war crime. Legitimate targets are enemy soldiers and war equipment factories, but hospitals and schools are illegitimate targets unless the enemy happens to be occupying those buildings for purposes of combat. The protocols for fair treatment of prisoners of war, the prohibition against using gas, etc. are all part of this Western view which is predicated on a respect for the value of the individual life.

For centuries, European warfare was conducted with clear lines of battle out in the open. Like puppets, Kings and generals put their armies on the field of battle, aligned their troops against one another, and shot at each other until their soldiers either dropped or retreated. The armies were moved about like chess pieces on the board, and both sides played by the rules. The very idea of “rules of war,” betrays a Western view of justice, fair play, accepted standards of conduct in war. There is a long history of the history of the Church in Europe enforcing a type of Judeo-Christian ethic upon combat, since all parties shared a similar religion. The modern rules for war are part of a Judeo-Christian ethic which dates back centuries. The Jews, for instance, were not permitted by God to rape their captives, in stark contrast to other armies of the time. The idea of protecting innocents in combat dates back to Jeremiah, where God told the prophet: “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But every one shall die for his own sin; each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge,” Jeremiah 31:29,30, RSV. This idea that guilt and sin were individual, rather than corporate, led naturally to the conclusion that is unjust to punish the children for the acts of their parents. You separate the innocent from the guilty in meting out punishment. Therefore, in war you don’t punish the civilians because to do so would mean you are killing them for the crimes of their rulers and governments.

Western Christian civilization adopted this biblical view and developed a whole rubric for the proper and improper use of force according to the example of scripture. So today, we consider the mass murder of the innocent, or non-combatants, a violation of the moral principle of holding only the guilty accountable for their deeds. However, this desire to protect non-combatants as innocents was not a universal value either in ancient Israel nor is it in the East today.

We see a different view expressed in early scriptures. Sin and culpability were considered corporate events that affected the entire tribe and nation. When Achan sinned at the Battle of Ai by stealing goods that were to be dedicated to God, it caused the army of Israel to suffer defeat at the hands of a small band of soldiers. In order to cleanse the nation of the sin, not only was Achan put to death, but so was his entire family!

” And Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver and the mantle and the bar of gold, and his sons and daughters, and his oxen and asses and sheep, and his tent, and all that he had; and they brought them up to the Valley of Achor. And Joshua said, ‘Why did you bring trouble on us? The LORD brings trouble on you today.’ And all Israel stoned him wi th stones; they burned them with fire, and stoned them with stones.” – Joshua 7:24,25, RSV.

While only the father took the forbidden things, the sin and the punishment however fell upon the entire family. There are also times that the sin of the city is so great, that Joshua is commanded by God to kill every man, woman, and child in the town. This happened at Jericho [Joshua 6:21] and several other towns as well [Joshua 10:30-39]. Not only Joshua, but none other than King David practiced tribal slaughter as well:

” And the number of the days that David dwelt in the country of the Philistines was a year and four months. Now David and his men went up, and made raids upon the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites; for these were the inhabitants of the land from of old, as far as Shur, to the land of Egypt. And David smote the land, and left neither man nor woman alive, but took away the sheep, the oxen, the asses, the camels, and the garments, and came back to Achish. When Achish asked, ‘Against whom have you made a raid today?’ David would say, ‘Against the Negeb of Judah,’ or ‘Against the Negeb of the Jerahmeelites,’ or, ‘Against the Negeb of the Kenites.’ And David saved neither man nor woman alive, to bring tidings to Gath, thinking, ‘Lest they should tell about us, and say, “‘So David has done.'” Such was his custom all the while he dwelt in the country of the Philistines.”- 1 Samuel 27:7-11, RSV.

Today, we call this behavior “genocide,” or “ethnic cleansing,” because it is ethnically delineated. Tribal warfare is not abstract and impersonal, like a game of chess. Tribal warfare is not against a government, because the East had no concept of an abstract “government” as an independent body of laws, rules and regulations which ensured justice and equity. The Eastern view of king is that the king is the ‘head of the tribe,’ or head of all the tribal families in covenant with one another. The greater the tribes, the greater the power of the king. Therefore, when war breaks out between tribes, it is not just a war against a government. It is a war between people groups and every man or woman who is part of the enemy tribe is by definition “the enemy.” There are no innocents or non-combatants. War is total war, and the only way to assure victory is to wipe out the other tribe, or to so totally devastate them that the tribe becomes an enslaved tribe.

The Seneca Indians of the Iroquois Confederacy so decimated the Delaware Indians that the Delawares became a squaw tribe. The Delaware Indians were a peaceful group by comparison to the Seneca and the Delaware had refused to join the Confederacy. The Seneca butchered the Delaware until there was almost nothing left of them and they became a vassal tribe of the Seneca. Often, as was true in ancient Israel, the Native American’s would not kill the children of the defeated foes, but would adopt them into their tribe, but that was not always the case. Often they would kill the children as well.

My point is that tribal warfare is personal. Being personal, it is often more vicious. It becomes a war of vengeance and it becomes total war. No rules or laws govern the combat. The only goal is wiping out the other tribe and wiping them out completely.

Now in the Middle East, the lines drawn on the map of the Earth in our geography books do not mean that the people there view their world from a Western perspective, much less accept the “rules of war” as we understand them. Those lines on the map were drawn by Western colonial powers to divide up the land according to logical boundaries and measured borders. Tribes, by contrast, view the lands controlled by their tribes and families as their land. Often, Western powers would draw lines through the middle of tribal areas because those lines were convenient markers between the French, English, Spanish, Dutch, and German spheres of control. The nation states that resulted reflected European worldviews more than tribal self-identity. And because the tribes crossed borders and were joined unfriendly tribes within the same borders, the European methods of establishing nations created a situation where warfare was likely to break out along tribal lines as one group struggled for dominance over the other. The blood bath in Rwanda in the 1990’s is just one such example.

More recently, in the former Yugoslavia, the same type of tribal, genocidal warfare broke out. The Turks, the Serbs, and the Balkan states have a long history of tribal slaughter and total war that dates back centuries. When the Western nations tried to impose a democratic peace upon the region, the leaders failed to appreciate the depth of visceral hatreds that exists between these people groups over religion and ethnicity. The West assumed that the idea of tolerance and democratic resolution of conflicts through negotiation, voting, and civility could be imposed upon people whose worldview is totally different. The East does not share the assumptions and values of the West, and it is cultural arrogance to assume that they do – even if we think that they ought to! We might tend to think that they are “cheating” because they don’t play by the “rules.” But if they grew up without our rules, why should we expect them to appreciate them or abide by them. Genocide is an extension of tribal combat. It is war against a people not against a nation.

When I read Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage Departures), it really opened my eyes to the clash of worldviews that were engaged in the conflict over Kosovo. Like telling a Mafioso to “play fair and be nice,” for us to expect others to play by our rules is an exercise in naivety to the point of being disconnected from reality. It is fantasy and illusion to expect the East to share our cultural assumptions about the value of human life. Tribes are not made up of individuals, they are made up of family groups who are bound to one another by oath and blood. To fight against one member of a family is to go to war with the entire family. There are no individual innocents or civilians in the Eastern way of thinking.

Which brings me to the current situation in the Middle East. We are fighting a war against a people who believe in tribal war as total war. They do not share our assumptions about civilians or non-combatants. Even women and children are expendable, especially if they are members of minority tribes. The Easterners perceive our restraint in battle as weakness and our desire to protect innocents as a folly. They do not value life in the same way we do. Why? Because tribal identity and family blood lines mean more than human life.

One aspect of tribal identity and tribal war should be noted. If you belong to “my tribe,” you are fully human, and because you are “family” we are bound to one another by obligation and by blood. However, if you are not of my tribe, then I owe you nothing. You are, in one sense, less that human because you are less than family and blood. We see that same mentality displayed in many places. A Japanese high-ranking businessman or politician recently referred to the United States as a mongrel race. Our diversity and identity as equal citizens of an abstract nation state meant that our bloodlines are impure and mongrel. To the Japanese viewer, the homogeneity of his national tribe of ethnic Japanese is a sign of social health and welfare. The Sioux, like many other Native Americans, called themselves the “human beings” but considered all people outside the tribe as barbarians, or less than human beings. The Nazi’s considered Jews sub-human and so unleashed terrors upon them without conscience. Not to long ago in this country, Blacks, Slavic, and Italian immigrants were considered the ‘lesser races’ by those in the population control and eugenics movements. Today, many consider those waiting to be born as less than human as well. Whenever you determine any group as non-human, or less than human, it gives you free reign to unleash all sorts of terrors upon them. By excluding a group from the ranks of humanity, conscience is appeased and atrocities become merely one acceptable tactic of total war.

I bring to mind all these things not to justify the Eastern disregard for rules, fair play, life, and for the role of non-combatants, but merely to point out that we are playing by different rules, and we should not expect our enemies to “fight fair.” This isn’t a soccer match. It is war. There is no referee except our conscience. What is legitimate and justified to our opponents may seem inhumane to us, but to them it is a natural complement to the state of total war. Don’t expect them to play by our rules. And if you want to begin to understand the difference between the East and West, get a copy of Balkan Ghosts. The book has been criticized by some for its lack of nuance and lack of understanding of the complexities of the Balkan nations. However, its insight into the concept of total war in Eastern history gives a much needed corrective to our Western assumptions about what this war is all about.

See also “War, Pacifism, and the Christian Tradition”

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