Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Military Orientalism

Book Cover

Book Title

Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes. London:. C. Hurst & Co. Ltd. 2009


Porter, Patrick


Porter’s critical essay takes a new look at an old pattern: the tendency of ‘Western’ soldiers, strategists, and analysts to evaluate and appreciate ‘Eastern’ warriors and ways of war through a particular kind of cultural lens. That lens resembles the notion of Orientalism, as expressed by Edward Said and his school of thought, but long predates, and goes beyond, what Said saw as exotic essentialism. Military Orientalism can be traced back to the Greco-Persian Wars. In our own era, what Porter calls the ‘cultural turn’ in military appreciation and strategic analysis has revived it. The cultural turn is the idea that in order to prevail in war it is essential to know the enemy, and in order to know the enemy it is essential to understand his culture, which will shape his way of war. When applied by the West to the East, this is ‘military orientalism,’ which Porter defines as follows.

Culture is not an imposing straitjacket that dictates every thought and every deed, in primordial fashion. It is rather an ‘ambiguous repertoire of competing ideas,’ a dynamic and malleable collection of attitudes, customs, beliefs, and practices from which strategic actors can and do make choices. War makes this dynamic all the more volatile, because it generates imperatives and pressures of its own that often force participants to redefine their culture. Cultural realism, defining culture as fluid and changeable, better explains the relationship between culture and war. That relationship is usually expressed through notions of strategic culture. Culture does matter, always, and often a great deal. It can influence war aims, strategic priorities, conflict termination,etc. But seeing culture as static and imposing, and to make matters worse as exotic and particular to boot, can distort our understanding of the relationship between war and culture, and thus of the enemy as a strategic actor. Both culture and warfare are constantly shaped by a dynamic interplay between intrinsic, internal, external and competitive factors. People often describe each other as completely different, but then fight in rather similar ways. Adopting cultural realism as the basis for analysis can help us avoid two extremes: cultural determinism, the idea that people are prisoners of an intrinsic and unchanging culture; and the notion of the global ‘strategic man,’ the argument that culture ‘hardly matters’ and anyone anywhere will do the same thing in a given situation. Culture is malleable, which means choices can be made through constant interplay between power and identity, tradition and calculation. The interplay between war and culture is shaped by four variables: time, enough to allow warriors to make choices; motive, the incentive to do so; capacity, the ability to do so; and leadership, the vision and will to do so. Military Orientialism is the tendency to see Eastern War and warriors as cultural prisoners, to exoticize and romanticize them as strategic actors, and very often to project such understandings of the Eastern warrior as a reflection of anxieties about Western decline, weakness, or limitations. 

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

After a useful introductory discussion about the broad outlines and history of the phenomenon, Porter pursued four particular manifestations of Military Orientalism, as a sampling through which we can consider the whole. The first study looked at foreign, mainly British, evaluations of the Japanese and their military performance during the Russo-Japanese War. British observers tended to see the Japanese as having refined a potent strategic culture that could be learnt from, copied, even adopted. This ‘constructivist’ view stemmed more from British military officers concerns about supposed frailties in their own society, and its military performance. Japan was held up as a model to emulate, particularly through the social engineering that supposedly gave it such national discipline, and as a result military strength. Such conclusions reflected the authoritarian tendencies, and vogue for ‘national efficiency,’ that influenced British military and political discourse at the time. The second study examined Western understandings and interpretations of the supposed ‘Mongol way of war,’ as practiced by the all-conquering Chinggis Khan and his Chinggisid successors. Porter traced the deep roots and varied themes of Western analysis of the Mongols back to the contemporaries who suffered at their hands, but focused mainly on the revival of interest, between the world wars of the 20th century, in studying Mongol warfare. British strategist Basil Liddell Hart was a principal driver of this renewed interest. The two broad streams of Western views of Mongol warfare that Liddell Hart could investigate presented very different interpretations. One described Mongol warfare as barbarism for its own sake, culturally defined, almost a supernatural curse. The other saw it as ‘a system of military and strategic thought that must be taken seriously.’ Charles Oman modernized the first approach late in the 19th century, describing the Mongols as a force of nature, waging war for its own sake, defined by their own utter brutality and lust for combat. Liddell Hart begged to differ, seeing them and their way of war as the supreme expression of concepts he claimed for himself in the new industrial era: the indirect approach, mobility, and maneuver warfare. The Mongols practiced deception, cultivated intelligence, relied on speed, shock and awe, but adjusted battle tactics to the task at hand. Liddell Hart presented them as a rebuke to the grinding attrition on the Western Front during the Great War and sanitized the Mongols, ignoring both their systematic practice of siege-craft and static battle and their perennial brutality. His image of Mongol warfare aimed to legitimize the deep penetration tank-led mobile warfare of the future, by pointing to the great steppe cavalry armies of the past. As such, his interpretation said more about contemporary Western concerns about warfare, and rose very little above the cultural essentializing Oman expressed.

The third and fourth studies unfold Porter’s principal incentive for writing the book. Evaluating the Western military conflict from 2001 against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Israeli war with Hizbollah in Lebanon in 2006, Porter finds old wine in a new bottle: the cultural turn away from supposedly essentialist strategic analysis as defined by Clausewitz, where the universal imperatives of strategy shape everyone’s choices in pursuing war as a political act, and towards an equally essentialist argument that both movements are so deeply defined by their ethnicity, faith, customs and practices that these will dictate their every move. In both cases, Porter argues that this Military Orientalism is heavily influenced yet again by critics using an image of an Eastern enemy to draw out, and critique, concerns about the weaknesses, blind spots, and limitations of their own side. The Taliban are a completely alien force, supposedly beyond analysis according to Western understandings and themes. Hizbollah is just another  Arab force, expected to fight according to an already defined ‘Arab way of war.’ Neither are therefore given any real agency as strategic actors, capable of making pragmatic choices, or adjusting to changing circumstances or pressures. This turns culture into a dogma, the enemy into an inflexible cultural prisoner.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Porter’s central argument is that the cultural turn has gone too far, and now exerts too much influence over Western, especially American, military thinking because it has degenerated into Military Orientalism. The crippling combination of projecting your own fears and concerns onto a culturally different enemy, and assuming that enemy is so culturally alien that he will be too rigid to adjust to dynamic circumstances or adapt to fluid situations, is as bad as assuming that the culture of the enemy matters not at all. A particular target is the contribution made by academic anthropology to the renewed interest of the American military in ‘knowing the enemy.’ Whether it was seeing the Persian army as a faceless swarm  with no human initiative, the Mongol horde as the demonic expression of mindless savagery with no political calculation, or the Taliban as a dogmatic homogenous force of zealots that  fight strictly according to scripture, the West continued to define itself militarily by projecting its own concerns and fears onto an adversary it saw as so different that it would operate despite, or with disregard for, the very fog of war itself. Too much emphasis on the particularity of culture, at the expense of the universality of warfare, serves the West no better today than it served the ancient Greeks. Eastern, that is to say Asian, wars and warriors have always been marked by interplay between cultural characteristics, political agendas and pressures, military capabilities, and strategic uncertainties and choices. Warfare is indeed one of the most global historical experiences, and must be understood as such.

Annotated by Brian Farrell