RantList Archive

Tuesday, November 06, 2001

How Much Of This Is Legitimate?

There has always been a tendency for people to dehumanize their opponents in war. Statements like "They are not like us, they don't care if they die" should be greeted with suspicion, especially if you don't recall hearing anything like that before the shooting started.

This is not to say that such statements aren't sometimes true, of course, but due diligence suggests a little extra skepticism should be applied in times of war.

Given that, I wonder if anyone would care to challenge the following description of Pashtun culture I've excerpted from http://www.nationalreview.com/contributors/kurtz110501.shtml, much which was itself excerpted from a book called Generosity and jealousy : the Swat Pukhtun of northern Pakistan by Charles Lindholm. I don't know the first thing about either the Pashtun or about Mr. Lindolm, but if these assertions go unchallenged they certainly form a large part of my opinion of these people.

The Taliban are Pashtuns, and Pashtuns the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan are not like us. [...] Like the Spartans, the Pashtun are trained as warriors from birth. [...] A Pashtun boy is actively encouraged to respond to the harshness of his world by himself becoming violent, deceitful, and cruel.

The Pashtun unhesitatingly beat their children slapping them hard across the face simply for stumbling or bumping into something. For coming home late, spilling tea, or for almost any other reason, a Pashtun child may find himself tied up and hung from the rafters of the house. Not only do adults see nothing wrong with publicly beating a child, they freely show pleasure in doing so. Children are encouraged to beat each other as well. Lindholm gives the example of a six-year-old girl who spilled a bowl of curd. Her father punished her by making her do deep-knee bends while holding her ears until she collapsed. "He then asked her elder siblings to kick her, which they did with gusto." The story itself was told to Lindholm with pride and glee, much as are stories of Pashtun wife beating (and by the way, Pashtun wives give almost as good as they get).

It might seem odd to mete out such severe punishments for stumbling or for dropping some food. But Pashtuns don't [punish] behaviors that might disturb an American stealing from outsiders, lying, or fighting. On the contrary, a boy who steals a toy from his uncle's house might find his own father helping him to pull off the theft. For the Pashtun, the world is filled with deceit, and one must learn to fend for oneself, with only immediate family immune from betrayal (and sometimes not even them). What is odious to a Pashtun is not theft, or lying, or fighting, but weakness, carelessness, and clumsiness anything which diminishes an individual's power and self-command.

Boys roam in groups in which they constantly jockey for power and learn to fight. A boy running to his family when he's been beaten by a playmate may be beaten again by his father for his weakness. Mothers make no effort to see that playthings are shared. On the contrary, the stronger children will be encouraged to take from the weaker. Siblings regularly betray each other's misdeeds to their parents and are rewarded by being allowed to beat the miscreant. Children lie and pass blame without qualm. "Survival of the fittest," says Lindholm.

Older children are generally left to themselves. They huddle and shiver in the rain, since no one tells them to change into dry clothes. In summer the dirt and heat cause boils and running sores, which the children accept as of a piece with the ordinary depredations of life. In effect, Pashtun children are left to toughen themselves up, so as to endure without complaint the stresses of existence in a hostile and dangerous world. They learn that all men are equal equally free to dominate their weaker fellows. The Pashtun therefore cultivate a fierce and defiant independence, a thirst for dominance, and a reluctant but occasionally necessary willingness to acknowledge a stronger hand.

The Pashtun are accustomed to a life of suffering and violence in a way that few Americans can imagine. Toughness the willingness to bear hardship and to inflict pain are valued traditional traits. The Pashtun actually characterize themselves as cruel, and sensual pleasure in violence is considered an entirely normal and legitimate good in life.

This is some pretty severe stuff. I've excerpted only the worst of it here, leaving the moderating comments behind, and I suspect that a closer examination of their culture might reveal much in the way of their toughness and independence which is understandable, even admirable, to our Western eyes.

Nonetheless, if we do buy this as a reasonable description of these people, we would be well advised to calibrate our expectations accordingly. Last week as I watched Part 2 of an excellent National Geographic special on Afghanistan, I was taken aback by an interview with a warlord and his cherubic, nine-year-old soldier. The boy's duty was to kill Soviet soldiers in the marketplace with either a pistol or a grenade. My impression, clearly the one that the folks at National Geographic intended to convey, was that it was not unusual for a child to be given such a task, and that such use of a nine year old boy was considered a good thing by the folks who live in the region. This child was not a product of desperation or some sort of a last-ditch weapon. He was simply a native soldier of a culture far, far removed from ours.

I wondered how our media and our public would respond when we begin killing children like this, with the justification for their deaths echoing the justifications once offered during the Vietnam war.


Normally, the shooting of children by regular soldiers is a sign of something wrong, some terrible miscalculation or some a failure of discipline or control. It is natural, and correct, to demand that such a failure be addressed. However, I fear that in or ignorance, or in our unwillingness to face the truth about a culture that we find so foreign as to be abhorrent, that we might find ourselves in a position were we are unable to understand nature of what we will be demanding of our soldiers on the ground. This would be a terrible mistake.

I would like to know the truth of these people, and to have a realistic view of what to expect when we do battle with them. I want to judge our men and our leadership fairly.

Is this stuff accurate? Can anybody out there offer another source with a different point of view?



Original Content Copyright 2001 Mike Spenis