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Redeeming Honor — the South and Iraq

by Bertram Wyatt-Brown on Aug 28, 2003

Bertram Wyatt-Brown

American indifference to Iraqi society and values is proving calamitous. That’s because American authorities remain dismissive of Middle Eastern culture, in which the powerful and ancient code of honor determines behavior and ideals. That code fuels the enmity of our opponents throughout the Arab world. Yet Washington policy-makers seem oblivious to Arab motivations and how best to deal with resistance to American peacekeeping.

We should know better – from our own historical experience in the Civil War — how cultural differences powerfully affect events. With their defeat in 1865, Southerners claimed to have lost all “save honor.” Retaining their sense of insulted honor, they boiled with resentment of the Northern occupiers, brutally suppressed freedmen’s rights and eventually overthrew Northern-imposed Reconstruction.

In Iraq today, humiliation under the coalition forces sparks a mounting hatred of their presence and a hunger to restore Iraqis’ pride. The appetite for rekindled self-respect resembles that of the Johnny Rebs of 1865.

Honor in Middle Eastern societies serves not as a benchmark of upright individualism but instead requires demonstrations of martial valor, family loyalty and male power over possessions both material and human, most especially female dependents. The West no longer values the ethic of honor, but in the non-Western world honor traduced incites quick and bloody retribution.

The Middle Eastern expert Raphael Patai observes that the many shapes in which honor is molded, envelop “the Arab ego like a coat of armor.” He observes, “The smallest chink can threaten to loosen all the loops and rings.” Honor was avenged when thousands of irate Muslims protested when a helicopter inadvertently took down a religious flag flying over a Baghdad minaret. The flag’s dismantling signified to the Iraqis American contempt for them as if they were conquered, not liberated people.

The speed of the coalition’s triumph has left the Iraqis free of tyranny, as we promised. But they are now subject to Arab neighbors’ scorn for alleged cowardice in the briefest war imaginable. In dealing with Iraq, we can learn a sobering lesson from the policy misjudgments of the post-Civil-War era. In the glow of victory, the triumphant Republicans had hoped to fashion a bi-racial, two-party democracy in the South. Their experiment failed.

Occupying the former Confederacy, Northern forces were too few to control the murderous assaults on Republican state administrations and their black and white constituents. The Yankees wearied of constant turmoil and withheld taxpayers’ dollars for rebuilding the vanquished Southern states and policing them with sufficient troops. Sadly, that could be our destiny in Iraq.

The zealots’ sabotage heightens Iraqi insecurity and fear. It also suggests American vulnerability. With neither enough military personnel to secure the peace, nor enough experts to restore electricity, nor enough resources to put matters right, we resemble the undermanned Union peacekeepers in the Reconstruction South. By Middle Eastern standards of honor, America now appears shamed by displaying inadequacies that almost beg for Iraqi contempt and retaliation. 

The recent tragic bombings of the Jordanian Embassy and the UN headquarters in Baghdad were designed to destabilize the American occupation. They also were intended to restore Arab and Islamic honor, as the terrorists see it, even if it means misery for the people themselves. In the case of the embassy’s destruction, it’s possible that Saddam Hussein’s enemies sought to punish Jordan for the lavish hospitality shown to his relatives — with tacit American compliance. Or Osama bin Laden’s operatives could have been the perpetrators because of Jordan’s crackdown on their conspiracies. Those who committed these atrocities no doubt believe that honor is vindicated in dramas of death and retribution that degrade the American efforts of stabilization. 

To pull out of Iraq or let it fester in uncertainty would fatally diminish our sway throughout the Arab world. Moral retreat also confronted the nation in 1877. The new president, Rutherford B. Hayes, caved in to Southern demands for removal of all Union forces from the former Confederacy. That withdrawal permitted one-party rule, an epidemic of lynchings, Jim Crow laws, black and poor-white disfranchisement and the destruction of equitable governance.  

By means of ritual, gesture and subtle formalities, honor masks raw power and lends it the dignity of authority. We must win respect by appreciating Iraqi customs, conceding power gradually out of strength and not fatigue. To appear less than overwhelmingly in command would prove no less catastrophic for transforming Iraq than it was for Northern authorities at the tragic close of southern Reconstruction.

American policy-makers must use all the means necessary, including the aid of allies, to suppress terrorism and armed resistance They also need to understand the venerable codes of honor in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Our leaders would then be enabled to bring peace to that troubled region and not be forced to say all was lost “save honor.”


Bertram Wyatt-Brown, is Richard J. Milbauer Professor of History at the University of Florida in Gainesville and a writer for the History News Service.