Sunday, May 22, 2005

The High Hand

Glenn Reynolds notes that the New York Times coverage of prisoner abuse in Afghanistan may not really be about prisoner abuse or even Afghanistan, but about maintaining the prestige of Newsweek. He calls it "circling the wagons", the idea being to teach press critics an object lesson in how expensive it is to humiliate the mass media by catching them at sloppy reporting by flooding the zone with stories similar to the one which was discredited . That may or may not be the case, but it is nearly undeniable that the effect of the media's coverage of American misdeeds has been to make the slightest infraction against enemy combatants ruinously expensive. Not only the treatment of the enemy combatants themselves, but their articles of religious worship have become the subject of such scrutiny that Korans must handled with actual gloves in a ceremonial fashion, a fact that must be triumph for the jihadi cause in and of itself. While nothing is wrong with ensuring the proper treatment of enemy prisoners, the implicit moral superiority that has been accorded America's enemy and his effects recalls Rudyard Kipling's The Grave of the Hundred Dead.

Kipling described how the 19th century Indian Army maintained the myth of the Raj and upheld his prestige to compensate for their small numbers and military weakness. When a Subaltern of the First Shikaris is slain in a jungle ambush, his men know that they must teach the Burmans, first and foremost, how blasphemous it was to hurt one of the elect. For the sake of their masters and themselves the Shikaris raid the home village of the foe and slay them to the last man. "And Sniders squibbed no more; for the Burmans said that a white man's head must be paid for with heads five-score". Kipling's verse finds its modern analogue not in punitive visitations against "insurgent" strongholds in Afghanistan or Iraq -- which would be eagerly reported by the press if they could at all find them -- but in calls for the arrest of the American President or the dismissal of the the Secretary of Defense for a handful of cases of prisoner abuse gleaned from a global battlefield.

For example, a court in The Hague turned down a demand by a dozen plaintiffs who wanted to force the Dutch government to arrest US President George W Bush when he visits the Netherlands. Donald Rumsfeld has been repeatedly asked to resign over 'widespread prison' abuse in Abu Ghraib. The point of these calls for lopsided retribution is to drive home just how dangerous it is to trifle with sacred person and belief system of the enemy. It aims to paralyze anyone who even contemplates such an act of lese majeste. The modern "grave of a hundred dead" isn't a pyramid of skulls over the tomb of British Subaltern: it's an American Secretary of Defense's head on a stake over a photograph of a jihadi wearing a pair of panties as a hat. It is front-page calls for an abject American apology for flushing a Koran down a toilet even if it was never flushed down a toilet at all, except on the pages of Newsweek. It is calls for an admission of guilt if only the mere possibility of guilt existed. And if that were not psychological domination at par with the worst the British Empire could offer in its heyday then nothing is. There are Empires today of a different sort, but they maintain the power by much the same means.

There'll be some who say that toppling Saddam was meant to be an object lesson to the Arab world. If so, it has sent mixed messages because it was never prosecuted with the kind of frightening brutality that some have advocated. The image of the US after OIF is one of a giant afraid to hurt or even give offense to its enemies. Even in the battles of the First and Second Fallujah there were always extraordinary efforts to preserve mosques and similar places, probably to the glee and wonderment of the enemy. If the Kevin Sites incident and the subsequent investigation proved anything it was that the Marines were no Shikaris.

But if the US has been at pains to avoid the image of ruthlessness, the enemy by contrast has made a special effort to magnify his brutality by attacking mosques, beheading women, mutilating children, etc. often on camera. And the really disappointing thing it is that the intended intimidation works. If George Galloway's standard response to his critics is a lawsuit and radical Islam's first recourse is a fatwa then terror's first answer to insult is always the Grave of a Hundred Dead. Intimidation brings them respect from the very people who style themselves immune to intimidation. It is plain to the lowliest stringer from the most obscure tabloid that to insult America is cheap but to insult the local 'militants' very, very expensive. Kipling's cynical dictum is proven again and the lesson not forgotten.

We live in a strange world where the Beslan story vanishes in weeks while Abu Ghraib lives on for years. Maybe it reflects the inherent importance of the stories but it more probably demonstrates the media's ability to prolong the life of some stories while ignoring others. I hope it is not impertinent to observe that the media's demeanor towards terrorism bears more than a passing resemblance to cheap cowardice; but though outwardly similar it really springs from a high-minded idealism, deep courage and profound learning. Or so I hope.

The Grave of a Hundred Dead

There's a widow in sleepy Chester
Who weeps for her only son;
There's a grave on the Pabeng River,
A grave that the Burmans shun;
And there's Subadar Prag Tewarri
Who tells how the work was done.

A Snider squibbed in the jungle-
Somebody laughed and fled,
And the men of the First Shikaris
Picked up their Subaltern dead,
With a big blue mark in his forehead
And the back blown out of his head.

Subadar Prag Tewarri,
Jemadar Hira Lal,
Took command of the party,
Twenty rifles in all,
Marched them down to the river
As the day was beginning to fall.

They buried the boy by the river,
A blanket over his face-
They wept for their dead Lieutenant,
The men of an alien race-
They made a samadh in his honour,
A mark for his resting-place.

For they swore by the Holy Water,
They swore by the salt they ate,
That the soul of Lieutenant Eshmitt Sahib
Should go to his God in state,
With fifty file of Burmans
To open him Heaven's Gate.

The men of the First Shikaris
Marched till the break of day,
Till they came to the rebel village
The village of Pabengmay-
A jingal covered the clearing,
Caltrops hampered the way.

Subadar Prag Tewarri,
Bidding them load with ball,
Halted a dozen rifles
Under the village wall;
Sent out a flanking-party
With Jemadar Hira Lal.

The men of the First Shikaris
Shouted and smote and slew,
Turning the grinning jingal
On to the howling crew.
The Jemadar's flanking-party
Butchered the folk who flew.

Long was the morn of slaughter,
Long was the list of slain,
Five score heads were taken,
Five score heads and twain;
And the men of the First Shikaris
Went back to their grave again,

Each man bearing a basket
Red as his palms that day,
Red as the blazing village-
The village of Pabengmay
And the "drip-drip-drip" from the baskets
Reddened the grass by the way

They made a pile of their trophies
High as a tall man's chin,
Head upon head distorted,
Set in a sightless grin,
Anger and pain and terror
Stamped on the smoke-scorched skin.

Subadar Prag Tewarri
Put the head of the Boh
On the top of the mound of triumph,
The head of his son below-
With the sword and the peacock banner
That the world might behold and know.

Thus the samadh was perfect,
Thus was the lesson plain
Of the wrath of the First Shikaris-
The price of white man slain;
And the men of the First Shikaris
Went back into camp again.

Then a silence came to the river,
A hush fell over the shore,
And Bohs that were brave departed,
And Sniders squibbed no more;
For the Burmans said
That a white man's head
Must be paid for with heads five-score.

There's a widow in sleepy Chester
Who weeps for her only son;
There's a grave on the Pabeng River,
A grave that the Burmans shun;
And there's Subadar Prag Tewarri
Who tells how the work was done.