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  • Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes
  • Peter Mansoor
Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes. By Patrick Porter. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. 256 pp. $25.00 (cloth).

Military Orientalism is a study of Western views of warfare as conducted by Eastern peoples and military institutions and Western fascination with (and often repulsion by) the seemingly bizarre and exotic military methods of “others.” Patrick Porter challenges the current popular view that culture underpins war in the postmodern age. To achieve a more nuanced understanding of the impact of culture on war, he analyzes the assumptions and myths through which Western leaders have viewed Eastern military institutions and methods of conflict. Well written and incisive, this book will appeal to military historians, defense intellectuals, students of international affairs, and others interested in the impact of culture on warfare over the ages.

Porter argues that in times of strategic crisis, Western powers turn to anthropology, sociology, and area studies to explain military-strategic failures against Eastern enemies and to provide knowledge on how to overcome the challenges they pose to the existing order. A number of military and defense intellectuals, for instance, point to American ignorance of culture as the primary reason behind the surprise of 9/11 [End Page 359] and the strategic failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Study of culture and the application of lessons learned in this regard are widely considered a necessary counterweight to the technology-driven conceptions of war propounded by the revolution in military affairs proponents in the 1990s and early 2000s. This trend is perhaps best exemplified by the U.S. military’s integration of anthropology and social science in newly formed “human terrain teams” that assist commanders in understanding the intricacies of local cultures and societies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the view of a number of defense analysts and military historians, distinguishable “Western” and “Eastern” ways of war exist that are largely determined by culture. Western militaries seek decisive battles, a tradition passed down through the ages from the ancient Greeks, while Eastern militaries prefer the indirect approach of stealth and guile, a tradition bequeathed by ancient Chinese and Persian armies, among others. Porter believes that these facile descriptions of strategic cultures of East and West do more to obscure than to clarify. Although culture has an impact on war, the actions and decisions of military forces cannot be understood without considering the action /reaction cycle of war. In war, the enemy always gets a vote, and the actions of one side inevitably cause changes in the ways of the other. Furthermore, competing strategic cultures within a state create a menu of choices for decision makers, who can mold culture to fit their desired policies. In Porter’s view, culture is a lot more malleable than popularly believed.

At its core, Military Orientalism challenges the belief that culture drives conflict in distinct and immutable ways. Porter explores four case studies to examine Western fascination with and misconceptions of Eastern warfare: Japan during the Russo-Japanese War, Sir Basil Liddell Hart’s writings during the period between World War I and World War II regarding Mongol warfare in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Taliban in Afghanistan after 2001, and Israel’s war against Hezbollah in 2006. In each case, Western observations concerning Eastern opponents shed as much light on the observers and their image of Western culture as they do on the military institutions being observed. Observations of foreign military forces often reaffirmed the West’s belief in its cultural and military superiority, while at the same time serving as a warning against hubris. The East can be the scene of the triumph of the West; it can also become the graveyard of empires.

When considered in view of the historical record, Porter argues, the East is neither more warlike nor more peaceful than the West. In contrast to some analysts who view war in a postmodern context as returning to a more primitive state, Porter argues that the Clausewitzian trinity of reason, passion, and chance still applies even in a world [End Page 360] of nonstate actors and failed and failing states. Political goals drive Al Qaeda as...


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pp. 359-362
Launched on MUSE
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