Military Orientalism: Observing the East at War


“The Oriental tradition, however, had not been eliminated…On September 11, 2001 it returned in an absolutely traditional form. Arabs, appearing suddenly out of an empty space like their desert raider ancestors, assaulted the heartlands of Western power, in a terrifying surprise raid.”                   

– John Keegan, 2001

War is a political act. Following the intellectual tradition set by the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in his book On War, war is best described as a duel against an intellectual opponent on an extensive scale, its dominant features consisting of enmity, chance and reason. In the context of traditional Western armed conflicts, observers have come to conjure up the historical image of two states “arraying their military forces against each other, followed by combat between distinctively designated, organized, and marked armed forces” for the purposes of achieving political objectives by imposing their will on the opponent.[1]

However, war is also a cultural act. It is an expression of identity, cultural norms and beliefs as much as it is about coercive means to political ends. Culturally alien belligerents have gazed upon one other with bewilderment, dismay and curiosity from the crossing of the Hellespont by Xerxes and his army in 480 BC to the Battle of Rorke’s Drift between a small contingent of British colonial troops and swathes of Zulu warriors in 1879. Trans-cultural conflicts between Eastern and Western warriors have caught Western imaginations ever since the father of modern Orientalism, Aeschylus, wrote his play The Persians in 472 BC.

Following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the chasm between the West and its enemies seemed vast, highlighted and exaggerated by the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the past decade, marked by the Global War on Terror, we have been shocked by televised beheadings, passenger jets smashing into buildings, and explosive vests detonated in the middle of busy streets and bazaars. These images have left us horrified and at a loss to understand the pathologies behind these acts. Yet, perhaps consequentially, we are drawn to the crude Oriental caricatures of religious zealots and fanatical tribesmen and their barbaric, primitive acts of war.

The geopolitical context of the late 20th and the early 21st centuries caused considerable interest in cultural analysis, which has manifested itself as the “cultural turn” in strategic studies. An acute sense of crisis developed as strange ragtag militias with limited military capabilities managed to rout Israelis in southern Lebanon, Americans in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, and Russians in Chechnya. The false promises of a systemic-technological superiority that was supposed to lift the fog of war faded away in a series of setbacks that caused Western militaries and societies to search for a reason behind their military-strategic failures. Many turned their eyes on cultural illiteracy – failure to understand the new socio-cultural context in which wars were waged and its impact on the actions of non-Western belligerents – and subsequently identified cultural knowledge as the tool to restore Western military superiority on the battlefield.


Orient at war

To study war as an activity separated from our preconceptions of it or the people who wage it is a Herculean task.[2] The phenomenon of war is a potent site for Orientalism. As Patrick Porter argues, “in, and through, war, people formulate what it means to be western and non-western.[3] Indeed, the Orient, to an extent, has helped the West to define itself, and war has served further to highlight distinctions between the two. For Western observers, studying and observing Eastern wars often means focusing on difference and separation rather than resemblance and linkages.[4]

For some, the separation between Western and Oriental relates essentially to why war is waged. The Western preconception of instrumental war in the service of Clausewitzian Politik is so prevalent that we struggle to understand warfare for other purposes while nevertheless readily assigning great explanatory power to “other reasons” when it comes to Oriental wars.[5] Indeed, some maintain that our Oriental enemies – the religious zealots and the fanatical tribesmen – wage war purely for religio-cultural self-expression.[6]

This separation between Western and non-Western war does not confine itself to a debate on violence instrumental and expressive, but also extends to how war is waged. For instance, John Keegan has argued for the existence of a separate Oriental warrior tradition, apart from its Western counterpart, determined by culture and characterized by traits peculiar to itself, foremost “evasion, delay and indirectness”.[7] Behind Keegan’s assertion is the idea that there are separate, hermetic, monolithic and temporal civilizations with their own distinct warrior traditions.[8] The idea was first introduced by Victor Davis Hansen, who argued for a culturally unique Western way of war dating back to Ancient Greece that explained Western military prowess throughout the ages.[9] Similar notions have been entertained regarding timeless Middle Eastern ways of war used by regional violent non-state actors, ranging from al-Qaeda to Hezbollah, that date back to Sun Tzu, Mohammed, or the Assassin sect.


Cultural fallacies

In its haste to produce a cultural silver bullet that would restore Western military superiority, the cultural turn has affected analysis in a myriad of negative ways. First, dividing the West and Orient into distinct civilizations with their own cultural warrior traditions is misleading. It misperceives Western and “non-Western” entities as polar-opposite strategic actors, one dominated by Clausewitzian Politik and the other by religio-cultural self-expression. Culture is not an omnipotent force that determines every act of violent behaviour. By constructing a binary typology between West and “non-West”, many Western observers have missed the all too obvious point that all war is cultural and political. Indeed, expressive acts of individual or collective violence often have a strategic logic behind them. Even al-Qaeda has overtly political objectives, even if their chosen methods for obtaining the goals seem strange to us.[10] Clausewitz’s chameleon may have changed its colours, but it still endures.

Second, the notion of separate, hermetic, monolithic and temporal civilizations with their own distinct warrior traditions is false, and relies on obsolete and erroneous conceptualizations of culture. As Porter argues, no culture, no matter how strange, is an island, contained from outside world, or immune to internal strife. Indeed, trans-cultural civilizations exist only as loose, imagined communities interconnected with the outside world through various networks – that carry goods, ideas and people – rather than concrete political entities. Hansen’s idea of a Western way of war has quite rightly come under heavy criticism from failing to understand these perspectives.[11]

Similarly, there is no direct strategic highway that connects Ancient Greece with the modern Western world. Cultures and trans-cultural civilisations change over time. Cultural factors informing why and how we fight are discarded for countless reasons, ranging from technological advancement to changes in socio-cultural dynamics. The same naturally applies to non-Western cultures. Belligerents from the ancient heartlands of Arabia are not the strategic forefathers of post-modern belligerents found in Mogadishu, Abyan or Swat. Yet, these features persist in the literature focusing on the role and impact of culture on Middle Eastern armed conflicts.

Indeed, the study of war as an activity separated from our preconceptions of it or the people who wage it has turned out to be a nearly impossible task. Our preconceptions have permeated much of the analysis on Middle Eastern violent non-state actors, whom we have observed focusing on difference and separation, rather than resemblance and linkages. In this sense, the literature on strategic studies is one of the last vestiges of Orientalism, maintaining a plethora of Orientalist fallacies – partly reinforced by the cultural turn – long since abandoned elsewhere in social sciences.


Military Orientalism

The debate on Orientalism in the context of armed conflict begun in earnest in 2006, when Tarak Barkawi coined the term “military Orientalism”, which links Western identity with a tendency to place itself in a superior position to the East. Barkawi’s conceptualization of military Orientalism, which rests to a great extent on Edward Said’s more ambitious thesis on the nature of Orientalism, misses the subtleties and nuances of military Orientalism, where the Oriental warrior tradition can also be a source of envy or fear. However, it accurately describes the relationship between Western society and failures in expeditionary warfare: it fuels an “imperial crisis” that challenges not only Western perceptions of the Orient but also of itself.[12] The imperial crisis has done much to fuel the need to restore Western military fortunes through cultural knowledge.

A somewhat similar but wider critique was published in 2009 by Porter, who focused on how misconceptualisations of culture have intertwined with military Orientalism. On the one hand, this has eroded rather than increased the explanatory power of the cultural turn. On the other, it has attracted Western observers who have sought to deploy cultural insight as a strategic weapon. Often the effect has been to the contrary, as studies have simplified their subjects –be they the Taliban or al-Qaeda – to prisoners of their culture, unable to transcend its limitations.

Cultural analysis has its uses, as war is also a cultural activity and is waged by people who enact their identity and culture. However, Western observers need to pay more attention to their own preconceptions about war and the people waging it. This begins with understanding that there are no mystical transnational ways of war, in which culture is an omnipotent, unchanging force that determines how and why war is waged. Despite their cultural differences, Western and Middle Eastern societies are intertwined, open to external influences and internal change.

And so are the violent non-state actors that are, on the one hand, a product of the culture from which they arose and, on the other, a reaction against it, often borrowing from the global marketplace of ideas. As much as we would like to think that actors such as the Taliban or al-Qaeda – with their brutal and barbaric tactics – are throwbacks to medieval times or the result of reactionary local cultural forces, they are actors shaped by modern and global forces. As Western observers, we need to note that even their strategic behaviour reflects survival and political objectives as much as it expresses culture.


Juha Saarinen is an independent analyst and a PhD candidate in Helsinki University focusing on political violence and armed conflict in the Middle East.



[1] Holsti, Kalevi: The State, War, and the State of War. Cambridge University Press: New York. 1996, p.1

[2] The dangers one’s own cultural preconceptions to war and strategy were first highlighted by Ken Booth in Strategy and Ethnocentrism. Croom Helm: London. 1979

[3] Porter, Patrick: Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes. Hurst & Co: London. 2009, p.2

[4] Ibid, p.1

[5] Coker, Christopher: War without Warriors? The Changing Culture of Military Conflict. Lynne Rienner Publishers: London. 2002

[6] For instance, see Devji, Faisal: Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity. Hurst & Co: London. 2005; and Shultz, Richard & Andrea Dew: Insurgents, Terrorists and Militias: The Warriors of Contemporary Combat. Columbia University Press: New York. 2009

[7] Keegan, John: History of Warfare. Pimlico: London. 1994, p.387

[8] Some have gone as far as to identify an Oriental or Arab mindset behind the Middle Eastern warrior tradition, such as Norvell De Atkine, retired US Army colonel, and Montgomery McFate, leading cultural anthropologist in the US Military and architect of the Human Terrain system.

[9] Hansen, VD: Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. First Anchor Books: New York. 2001

[10] Jeffrey Cozzens (p.128) in Ranstorp, Magnus (ed.): Mapping Terrorism Research: State of the art, gaps and future direction. Routledge: London. 2007

[11] For a critique of Hansen’s thesis, see Lynn, John: Battle: A History of Combat and Culture. Westview Press: Boulder. 2003

[12] Barkawi, Tarak: Globalization and War. Rowman & Littlefield: New York. 2006