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Black Hawk Down and the War on Terror By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, January 31, 2002


THE CULTURATI'S DISCOMFORT with Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down is drearily predictable. Given the "deconstruction" of traditional values such as masculinity, honor, and self-sacrifice, any celebration of the qualities that few intellectuals possess will only put them in a funk. Nor are they too happy about the movie's popularity, which to them confirms, as do Bush's high approval numbers, their bigoted notion that the American people are brainwashed oafs vulnerable to the mystifying propaganda of military-corporate power.

At one level this is all old hat, reflecting the Lilliputian parochialism of the cultural elite. But a more interesting criticism that has cropped up is that the film is racist. Once again, the cheap melodrama of race blinds pundits to a more important point: the issue isn't the conflict of black and white, or even the First World and the Third, but the more revealing and ancient clash between tribalism and civilization, the struggle we find ourselves in right now.

Scott, in fact, makes this same point in the first twenty minutes of Gladiator. There the pale Germans, future pretenders to master-race status, are the tribal savages. Like the Somalis, they are remarkably brave and individually superb fighters. But they are no match for the superior technology, discipline, and political values of the Romans. So too in Mogadishu. Against horrendous numerical odds and a berserker enemy with no compunctions against using women and children as shields and even as fighters, American soldiers accomplished their mission, rescued their fallen comrades, and inflicted astronomical casualties while losing 19 of their own.

Rather than a failure or a disaster, then, the mission proved what we have seen demonstrated the last few months in Afghanistan: the remarkable lethality of Western war-making. As Victor Davis Hanson has shown in Culture and Carnage, Western military power can only be matched by another Western military power, and can be restrained only by the values or political aims or weaknesses within the West itself. Why this is so takes us to the heart of the matter: the constellation of values unique to the West, the same values that have created unparalleled prosperity and political freedom, has also created the most lethal killing force in history.

What are these values? A rational rather than supernatural understanding of the natural world leads to technology that magnifies killing power exponentially. This same rationalism applied to training, strategy, and tactics creates a highly disciplined force that does not have to rely merely on fanatical bravery or superior numbers or dumb luck, and that can adapt to and anticipate shifting circumstances. And most important, a consensual political culture that respects individuals and protects their freedom with the rule of law rather than of force produces independent citizens who value individuals over the clan or tribe, and who have at some level a stake in the government they can criticize freely.

In short, a culture that creates and respects free individuals will also create the best fighters. Western military superiority is thus a reflection of the cultural superiority of the West. The current war against terrorism must be understood in the context of this struggle between two very different ways of living: in a culture defined by rationalism, political freedom, and individual rights; or in one defined by superstition, autocracy, and the priority of clan, tribe, or sect.

This struggle should be no contest. The superiority of the Western way, demonstrated by the facts of immigration and the ongoing Westernization of even the most vocal and xenophobic critics of the West, shows as much. Yet the battle is still in doubt, for in the West itself lurk pathologies of self-doubt and hypocrisy that work as an internal corrosive.

`One of the most virulent is the cultural relativism that refuses to acknowledge the superiority of the Western way. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was excoriated-most vehemently by fellow Westerners-for his suggestion that the West is superior, a sentiment with which millions of Third-World immigrants to the West agree. This refusal to admit the obvious stinks of the bad faith of the rich man telling the bum that money doesn't matter. Most critics of the West, after all, live in the material comfort and political freedom of the West, and have no intention of demonstrating with their actions their belief that all cultures are equal, that the difference between Manhattan and Kabul is one merely of taste.

No matter how phony these attitudes are, however, they still can have pernicious effects. They can sap the will and weaken our resolve. In the current struggle, our success will depend on our clearly and confidently knowing what we are fighting for, and why what we are fighting for is more valuable than what the enemy is fighting for.


Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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