I was working for the Saudi Press Agency at the kingdom’s U.S. embassy in Washington when the United States and the United Kingdom invaded Iraq in March, 2003. The Saudis I knew were not terribly supportive of the invasion, but they didn’t like the Iraqi government much either. They also knew there wasn’t much they could do, and that the Kingdom was tacitly supporting the invasion.
In the first week of the invasion, when the Iraqi army appeared to give little effective resistance to the American advance, a few Saudis I met in the embassy were a little glum. “We don’t expect them to win,” one told me. “But they do need to fight well. They need to show they can and are willing to fight to protect their country and their families.”
There is no sin in losing to a superior force if you at least acquit yourself honorably on the battlefield. This is both a matter of honor (in the premodern sense) and dignity (in a modern sense)*. To be utterly overpowered, to never have a chance to fight and die in a “fair” fight, to feel that you have been defeated fairly rather than unfairly is, I think, almost as important as whether you win or lose. The West’s way of war — technologically effective, impersonal, overpowering and overwhelming — is a way of war of the deprives those who are defeated of their honor and dignity. (This matters, because it’s impossible to make peace or even reconcile people to their defeat if they do not believe they maintain some amount of honor and dignity in the fight. It means that “winning” wars in such ways effectively does not matter.)
To stand, to fight, to even die like men — that’s important. We ignore that reality at our peril.
This came to me last night as I considered the scant reports we have now of Usama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. commandoes in north-eastern Pakistan. As of this writing, it appears he died on his feet, fighting, and it was important that he did so. I do not know if this was intentional or not, but the Obama administration gave bin Laden an honorable death. Granted, unlike Saddam Hussein, bin Laden probably reconciled himself to dying years ago. And with his faith, he likely had no fear of dying either. I suspect he was not inclined to be captured alive.
And capturing him alive presented any number of problems — where to keep him, how to treat him, how public a spectacle he is to become. Treating him the way U.S. forces treated Saddam Hussein, the public humiliation of something like a health checkup, photos of bin Laden in a cage in Cuba, would have enraged too many people. Granted, Saddam was a coward who talked big about fighting to the end but hoped, instead, to live and rule another day. He did not. The American desire to humiliate bin Laden was intense, and it is good we were not given — and did not take — the opportunity to act upon our worst impulses.
This doesn’t matter because somehow those waging war on the United States will say to themselves, “the Americans are now honorable, so we can stop fighting.” They won’t stop. But in the outrage to come — about the violation of Pakistani sovereignty, the dumping of the body at sea — many will at least be able to say bin Laden died fighting, that he died like a man. There will be some begrudging admiration from friend and foe alike. It will provide something resembling an ending.
The only problem I have with how the administration has acted has been with what they did with the body of bin Laden. I would have seriously considered giving the body to the Bin Laden family in Saudi Arabia, knowing that the burial rules and customs of the Wahhabis require burial in an unmarked grave. The Bin Ladens could have buried their wayward and long-disowned son deep on private property and no one would ever know where. It does, however, make sense that the administration feared they would no longer have control over the conversation if they released the body. The burial at sea — I suspect with the presence of a Muslim cleric and maybe a Muslim service member or two for a proper funeral — was basically a dumping, a way to easily get rid of a now-inconvenient artifact, something too hot to handle. It’s clever they are justifying this by motioning to bin Laden’s “religious beliefs,” but this was all about not wanting to keep the trophy too long.
Because it would have been too tempting to want to do something awful to the body. Something humiliating. (I can just see the likes of John McCain and Joe Lieberman demanding that Bin Laden’s body be publicly displayed and “desecrated”…) Something that would have only angered Muslims across the world. It would have been Americans at their absolute worst. In according Usama bin Laden the dignity of dying in a firefight, dying on his feet, and then dumping his body in the deep blue sea, the Obama administration has also according the Muslim world a matter of respect. Some honor. Some dignity.
Real power is knowing when you don’t have to, and don’t need to, and probably shouldn’t, lord it over others. There’s much that I don’t like about Obama, and the actions of his administration, but he does have a more sophisticated and effective understanding of power than many in the GOP, who confuse barking orders and threatening people with real power. Who confuse brutalizing and humiliating people with defeating them. And, like Israel’s Likudniks, confuse strength with aggression and domination.
* I have come to believe that dignity and honor are roughly the same thing. Honor being a pre-modern, very tribalist notion (that requires a community), while dignity is its modern and much more individualistic articulation.