27 September, 2005

Comparison: Iraq vs. the Civil War

The college where I work has a feature called the fourth Monday colloquium, where professors give a talk of general interest. Yesterday's colloquium was a historian's take on how insurgencies tend to have some very, very common traits. Naturally, he used Vietnam as one reference point, but a more interesting reference point, in my opinion, was the American Civil War, in particular his research into a vicious war within a war that took place in Georgia.

While conceding that almost everyone fighting in an insurgency makes reference to grand ideological or philosophical reasons, he pointed out that when you examine their letters, their writings, etc., you find that they tend to be most concerned about very immediate problems that have to do with their local community. His phrase was, "I don't want to miss the trees for the forest."

Residents of Appalachian Georgia, for example, didn't care much about the Civil War at first, since they saw it as a quarrel between people in Washington and Atlanta. When the firing on Fort Sumter occurred, however, they saw their communities as threatened by the Union, and became vocal Confederates. This continued until the Confederacy imposed a draft; since young men were needed on the farms, many families in one county especially turned sides and took up with the Union cause, fighting any Confederate troops who came into the area searching for that era's draft dodgers. A different county was, for various reasons, more sympathetic to the cause, and all sorts of historical rivalries contributed to a rather brutal fight. Unfortunately, he didn't dwell long on the details.

Passing to Vietnam, he referenced especially the book When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, commenting first that it was made "horribly" into a movie by Oliver Stone, then that it clearly shows how issues of community play into the reason for joining insurgencies. I won't detail what he said, but the nutshell story is that the woman started off as Viet Cong but ended up against the Communist war effort, largely because of how the war affected her personally or her community.

At this point, the speaker turned to Iraq, and pointed to Anthony Shadid's book, Night Draws Near. He highlighted the book as a rare example of a reporter going out of the Green Zone to do his reporting, which Shadid was able to do because of his fluent Arabic. (I pointed out in the questioning session that there was another reporter who also went outside the Green Zone to do his reporting, and paid for it with his life.) And, he says, wouldn't you know it; most of the people who take a side in the insurgency are concerned not so much with questions of Islam, Jihad, Democracy, or Independence, but with more pressing questions like opportunity, feeding one's family, tribal pride, and so forth.

I'm not sure I buy it. Another history professor pointed out that big picture topics can inform little picture topics and the two can feed each other; the Vietnam example was probably a very good analogy, since I've found that Marxist ideology filters things very, very strangely. You might think of it this way: if you're looking for a forest, then a sprig growing in a crack in the sidewalk will do, if all you've ever seen before are green fields and rolling hills.

Speaking of which, I noticed a sprig growing from a crack in the sidewalk under our house. That was the nicest thing that happened between the time I left home and the time I returned. I'd rather not discuss much of what went on in between.

You know, I was a really great teacher once. I have the course evaluations and the letters to prove it. You wouldn't know from how I've been doing lately, but once...


qkl said...

I think it's because you aren't passionate about stats...

Try to do the best you can and when they let you choose the courses you can teach choose what you like.

As for the colloquium, very interesting, I don't know enough about sociology and human psychology to discuss this subject for now. But that kind of informations would be priceless for military people.

jack perry said...

I think it's because you aren't passionate about stats...

That doesn't explain my other classes :-) I do teach two courses that I like; alas, the students have no interest in liking them.