By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 21, 2011
Chapter 7 Tribes, Gangs and Terrorists
Every honorable convention has its shadow version, a pseudo or evil-twin manifestation in which noble principles are practiced—but in a “dark side” system that turns means and ends on their heads.
The Mafia and criminal gangs live by rigorous and sophisticated codes of loyalty, discipline and honor. So do terrorist organizations. Does that make them warriors? Do these groups practice the Warrior Ethos? When is “honor” not honor?
To answer this, we must consider the nature of tribes. What are the social, cultural and political characteristics of tribes?
First, tribes are hostile to all outsiders. This has been true, anthropologists tell us, of virtually all tribes in all parts of the globe and in all eras of history. Tribes are perpetually at war with all other tribes.
Tribes practice the primacy of honor. Tribes are governed not by the rule of law but by a code of honor (nang, in Pashto). Tribal codes mandate the obligation of revenge (badal). Any insult to honor must be avenged.
Tribes prize loyalty and cohesion. Tribes revere elders and the gods. Tribes resist change. Tribes suppress women. Tribes value the capacity to endure hardship.
Tribes are patient. Time means nothing in the tribal scheme. Tribes will wait out an invading enemy till he tires and goes home.
“You’ve got the watches,” say the Taliban, “but we’ve got the time.”
Tribes are tied to the land and draw strength from the land. Tribes fight at their best in defense of home soil.
Tribes are adaptable; they will take on any shape or coloration temporarily, if it will help them survive in the long run. Tribes will ally with enemy tribes to repel the greater threat of an invader, then go back to killing one another once the invader has been driven out.
There is much to admire in these qualities. In fact, a strong case could be made that what the U.S. military attempts to do in training its young men and women is to turn them into a tribe. Certainly it’s not hard to understand why tribes all over the world make such formidable fighting forces.
But the tribal mind–set possesses two potentially dangerous attributes, which can make its practitioners prey to what we might call “shadow tribalism” or “criminal tribalism,” particularly in the modern post- and anti-tribal world.
First, tribes exist for themselves alone. An outsider (unless he falls under the obligation of hospitality) is not considered a human being in the same sense that a tribal member is and is not protected by the same notions of fellow humanity. Tribes are the original us-versus-them social entity.
When this aspect of the honor culture is grafted onto a criminal, political or extremist religious doctrine—read: Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood, al Qaeda—the easy next step is dehumanization and demonization of the enemy.
The Warrior Ethos, on the contrary, mandates respect for the enemy. The foe is granted full honor as a fighting man and defender of his home soil and values. From Cyrus through Alexander to the Greeks and Romans and on down to Rommel and the Afrika Korps (with some notorious lapses, be it said), today’s enemy was considered tomorrow’s potential friend—and thus granted his full humanity.
Second, tribes are by definition limited in size (since social bonds are usually of blood or kinship) and thus feel vulnerable at all times to bigger or stronger rivals. Tribes live by the siege mentality. They see themselves as surrounded, outnumbered and ever in peril. Again, read: Mob, prison gang, al Qaeda.
The tribal mind–set thus has no trouble embracing the concept of asymmetrical warfare and pushing this to its limits, meaning terrorism and beyond. If the enemy is bigger, stronger and more technologically advanced than we are, says the Mob/gang/terrorist, then we are justified in using any and all methods to strike at him.
Criminal and terrorist organizations practice tribe-like codes of honor, but they do not practice the Warrior Ethos. They are “shadow tribes.” They are not warriors. In the practice of terror, in fact, the terrorist organization uses the enemy’s embrace of the Warrior Ethos against him. How? By violating the honorable tribal/warrior code in the most shocking and extreme manner—i.e., striking civilian targets, using women and children as human shields, etc.
The terrorist’s aim is to so outrage and appall the sense of honor of the enemy that the enemy concludes, “These people are fiends and madmen,” and decides either to yield to the terrorist’s demands out of fear or to fight the terrorist by sinking to his moral level.
What would Leonidas think of waterboarding or extraordinary rendition? How would Cyrus the Great look upon the practice of suicide bombing or of video beheadings on YouTube?
Chapter 8 The Difference Between Guilt and Shame
Sociologists tell us that there are two types of cultures: guilt-based and shame-based.
Individuals in a guilt-based culture internalize their society’s conceptions of right and wrong. The sinner feels his crime in his guts. He doesn’t need anyone to convict him and sentence him; he convicts and sentences himself.
The West is a guilt-based culture. Since the Judeo-Christian God sees and knows our private deeds and innermost thoughts, we are always guilty of something, with no way out save some form of divine absolution, forgiveness or grace.
A shame-based culture is the opposite. In a shame-based culture, “face” is everything. All that matters is what the community believes of us. If we have committed murder but we can convince our fellows that we’re innocent, we’re home free. On the other hand, if the community believes evil of us—even if we’re blameless—we have lost face and honor. Death has become preferable to life.
A shame-based culture imposes its values from outside the individual, by the good or bad opinion of the group. The community imposes its code on its members by such acts as shunning and public shaming.
The Japanese warrior culture of Bushido is shame-based; it compels those it deems cowards or traitors to commit ritual suicide. The tribal cultures of Pashtunistan are shame-based. The Marine Corps is shame-based. So were the Romans, Alexander’s Macedonians and the ancient Spartans.
The maidens of Sparta were taught songs of ridicule with which to humiliate any young man who displayed want of courage in battle. When a warrior accused of being a “trembler” returned to the city, the pretty young girls clustered around him, mocking him and defaming him with these anthems of shame.
Remember the Spartan mother who lifted her skirts to chastise her sons: “Where are you running—back here from whence you came?”
If a Spartan youth failed to show courage in battle, his fiancée would abandon him. The magistrates would not permit him to marry or, if he was married already, he and his wife were forbidden to have children. If the warrior had sisters of marriageable age, their suitors would be compelled to part from them. The man’s whole family would be shunned.
At Thermopylae in 480 B.C., every one of the 300 Spartans died resisting the Persian invaders except one, a warrior named Aristodemus who was withdrawn at the last minute because an eye inflammation had rendered him temporarily blind. The next year, the Spartans again faced the Persians, at Plataea, in central Greece. This time, Aristodemus was healthy and fought in the front rank. When the battle was over, all who had witnessed his actions agreed that Aristodemus had earned the prize of valor, so brilliant and relentless had been his courage. But the magistrates refused to award him this honor, judging that he was driven by such excess of shame that he risked his life recklessly, deliberately seeking to die.
[To be continued next Monday. To view earlier chapters, click on “The Series” in the header bar at the top of the page, then click “Warrior Ethos.”]