Vanity and the Bonfires of the “isms”
© 1993 Ralph Peters
From Parameters, Autumn 1993, pp. 39-50.
Not long ago, with communism coughing up its diseased lungs,
radical Islamic fundamentalism seemed the obvious candidate to
provide the West with a galvanizing threat. While politically
correct intellectuals were initially a bit disoriented by the notion
that indigenous forces in the stagnant areas of the world might be
less than virtuous, the repeated brutalities of fundamentalists
from Iran to Lebanon so bloodied the fairy tales about the
psychology of underdevelopment that it became acceptable to
oppose–circumspectly–the “excesses” of fundamentalism. God’s
men in Teheran slaughtered Bahais and communists with equal
fervor, savagely repressed all political dissent, shackled the
media, tossed their countrywomen back into the Dark Ages, and
refused to compromise on anything ever. Fundamentalists
deepened the ineffably stupid Lebanese civil war, rolled back
social progress in Pakistan, and nearly ousted the “progressive”
government of Algeria. They blew up airliners and killed tourists.
They poked pocketknives into charred American corpses and
took hostages. Then they danced in the streets, fired their rifles
into the air, and yelled at us. Not only were they unashamed, they
seemed to be having an astonishingly good time. We had found
our new bad guys.
Then came Yugoslavia. Nagorno-Karabakh. Moldova. Ossetia.
Abkhazia. An epidemic of virulent xenophobia erupted, from the
Baltic states down through the Balkans: a black new beginning,
not the end of something. The ending was the death of neo-
Leninist hegemony and the Soviet empire. What we see now is
the brave new world.
Even within the fortress of the Russian Federation, tiny peoples
whose homelands Western experts cannot pinpoint on a map
demand independence from Moscow. Reason as a political force
plays no role. Ethnic groups of 100,000 or so–little more than
extended families–cry out for their own governments and flags.
Nationalism, against which our century’s great wars had
supposedly inoculated us, has come back with a power over the
human soul simply not comprehensible to the educated US
citizen (although, even within the United States, a nativist fringe
in Hawaii calls for secession).
Fundamentalism, which to Americans, after all, is primarily a
bother to foreigners, has fallen to second place on the roll of
threats to Western well-being. The horrendous images and
reports from Yugoslavia–so recently the exemplary darling of
intellectuals (and where the people look a bit more like us)–
drove home the revised lesson: the real number one threat of the
future is nationalism, and nationalism is now the domain where
academics and government analysts can make careers. . . .
As always, we are reacting to the crisis–or crises–of the
moment. We never thought the fundamentalist problem through.
Conditioned sociopolitical inhibitions may make it even more
difficult to understand what nationalism is about, since it not only
thumbs its nose at an incredibly wide range of cherished
disciplines, from sociology to political science, but also discredits
virtually every cola commercial produced in the last 30 years.
We are not going to teach the world to sing by handing it a sweet
little bottle of tolerance. The world is too busy shrieking. And
those indigenous peoples who were supposed to teach us
humanity, the nobility of poverty, and how to be one with nature
are having a grand time killing their neighbors, mass raping the
women from the next village, blasting and burning out the homes
and history of anyone born on the other side of the ridge or
across the river, and threatening to explode dams, chemical
plants, and nuclear reactors.
Is nationalism, then, the critical factor with which we must cope?
Or does fundamentalism remain the ultimately greater menace,
despite the transitory, if bloody, dynamics at play in the Red
Must we now prepare to fight a two-front ideology-inspired war?
The answer is no. On technical grounds:
Nationalism and fundamentalism are not separate problems. They
are essentially identical. If their rhetoric differs, their causal
impulses do not. Their psychological appeal to the masses is
identical. Nationalism is simply secular fundamentalism. To the
extent they differ at all, religious fundamentalism may even
become the preferable disease from the US standpoint. In any
case, these are twin enemies. And we are going to have to
struggle with them, on many fields, for a very long time to come.
How could all of those people in the intriguing folk costumes let
us down like this? We planned our vacations to admire them, we
made charitable contributions to give them a helping hand, we
praised them lavishly when they took their first baby steps
toward the sort of behavior we valued. They were such charming
waiters, and it was fun to go shopping in the bazaar. To prove our
earnestness, we helped them study in our universities and even
let them open restaurants in our cities where we could drink
terrible wine and reminisce about our holidays. Materially
speaking, they were making progress.
We’ve been through all this, of course. We are conversant with
the idea of “perceived relative deprivation,” the observation that
societies slip into crisis when expectations exceed the
possibilities of fulfillment, no matter the objective measure of
progress. But even this basically sound insight understates the
sheer vanity of humankind.
Every major religion warns its adherents of the danger of vanity,
decrying the sin of pride or insisting that only humility can lead
to enlightenment. In our rush from religion–be that flight good or
bad–we have certainly lost this fundamental insight. Everyone
everywhere wants more, usually in the most vulgar material
sense, because the display of possessions seems to verify the
worth of the self–“I have, therefore I am.”” We announce
ourselves to our peers through the possession of the mutually
desired object. And while European intellectuals, caught in a
pathetic timewarp, rail against American materialism, the
importance of “signifying” possessions is far greater in
economically stagnant or developing states. In Moscow, homegrown
entrepreneurs in top-of-the-line Mercedes speed by the
newly impoverished. For an Iranian, possession of a foreignmade
VCR is a far greater mark of distinction than possession of
a locally printed Koran. Within the United States, the most baldly
materialistic social sector is composed of young males from the
inner cities, with their ritual gold chain jewelry and their
willingness to risk prison if not their lives to acquire an
expensive car or at least an ornate pair of athletic shoes. These
young people fit a classic Third World rejectionist model–they
know what they want and believe they deserve, but they are
impatient with the legitimate means for acquiring it.
This cult of sheer material possession as a substitute for practical
accomplishment is one of the most severe childhood diseases of
civilization–it stunted the growth of Islamic culture just as it has,
more recently, incalculably retarded the development of
functioning economies in sub-Saharan Africa and, to a lesser
extent, in Latin America. Any culture or subculture where
possession has been disassociated from positive contributory
accomplishment degenerates into social cannibalism. This is as
true of the US welfare class as it was of the proprietary culture of
the Spanish Empire in America or as it is of the oil-rich lands of
the Persian Gulf. Much of the world has simply disassociated the
concept of “having” from that of “earning,” while the recognition
of the need to earn–either God’s Grace or an improvement in the
individual’s material lot–was a motive force in the rise of the
The collision with foreign modernity has brought most non-
Western cultures the worst of both worlds: they retain the vanity
impulse, even experience it in an intoxicatingly aggravated form,
while imagining they can skip entirely the difficult process that
has legitimized the possession of “signifying” objects in Euro-
America. Our own good-hearted intellectual corruption
compounds the problem whenever we apologetically agree with a
failing nation or continent as it cries out that the West has no
right to the wealth it has earned. Too often, those of us most
sincerely concerned with foreign suffering simply reinforce
utterly groundless assumptions that aggravate the plight of the
object of pity. Europeans–and Japanese and other successful
Asians–did not always have computers in their homes and CATscan
equipment in every hospital. If anything, resource-deprived
Europe (and, again, Japan) had to come from behind in the race
for well-being. Now we are the adulated model (until
disillusionment sets in–see below), and the world’s failures, both
individuals and entire cultures, don’t much like it.
The emergence of enduring liberal democracies in a small corner
of the globe is probably the most complex cosmic accident of the
past millenium. Expecting violently different cultures to adopt
the finery of liberal democracy and wear it with panache is as
silly as expecting Malawi to compete with Silicon Valley or
Tokyo in the technological sphere. Rather than entering a new
golden age of liberal democracy, we may find that other cultures
are beginning to fall farther away from our standard, just as the
lower echelons of the Third World continue to fall farther behind
the West in both absolute and relative measures of modernity.
While hybrid democracies may function in Latin America
because they have been adapted to suit regional, popular, and
elite vanities, we may find that democracy’s high-water mark has
already been reached elsewhere: the echoes we hear mark its
What are the common denominators of nationalism and
. Both are born of a sense of collective failure which frees the
individual from responsibility for personal failure. Nationalism
and fundamentalism both then transfer the blame for the
collective failure to another culture, religion, or ethnic group, or,
initially, to internal opponents. Thus, the individual has failed
only because his party was driven to failure by a malevolent
external force. Shouts of “Death to America,” or ethnic battle
cries in the Balkans, punctuate the efforts of broken men and
failed cultures to become whole again.
. There is always a sense of historical grievance. This may be
real, exaggerated, or imaginary. It does not necessarily involve
the contemporary opponent, but deepens and solemnizes the
sense of national or religious martyrdom.
. Both preach a lost golden age which can only be resurrected
when the nation is purged of corrupting foreign influences.
Interestingly, although fundamentalism reinforces this goldenage
myth with promises of a gorgeous hereafter, no significant
fundamentalist movement has omitted the vision of an earthly
paradise lost and to be regained.
. Both dehumanize their opponents and view mercy toward
enemies as an irresponsible show of weakness. The corollary to
this is that both preach the inherent superiority of their kind,
whether ethnic, religious, or a combination of the two.
. Both are dynamically violent. Nationalist and fundamentalist
leaders come to power on two-track platforms of rebirth and
revenge. They can excuse purges, severe economic sacrifice,
bloody battlefield stalemates, and even comprehensive failure–
but they cannot excuse inaction; their adherents want change,
even if it proves cataclysmic. One of the rare differences is that
fundamentalism can longer content itself with the persecution of
domestic enemies–heretics real and imagined–while nationalism
generally carries with it the spirochete of irredentism, of tribal
unification, of enosis.
. Both are aggravated by exposure to Euro-America. Not so long
ago, this exposure was limited to diplomats, adventurers of
miraculous variety, and the occasional thin red line drawn up at
the foot of a hill. Today, Euro-America–especially the United
States–is everywhere, thanks to the proliferation of media
technology. But far from serving the causes of education and
understanding, mass media have become the world’s single
greatest cause of cultural disorientation. We provide ill-chosen
information to people unprepared to process it and thus elicit
shock, revulsion, and jealousy, along with pathetic attempts at
emulation whose failure leads to embitterment.
We have yet to grasp the crisis of values that arises when an
insular, traditional culture is flooded by images of another culture
that is vastly more successful materially but whose values are
antithetical to those cherished by the receptor society.
Initially, the young and capable often imagine that by aping
externals they can transcend the differences and attain the level
of (various forms of) wealth, comfort, and convenience of the
external society. The two primary forms of this imitation of the
external model are domestic, in which the subject seeks to
“import” the lifestyle he desires; and emigre, in which the subject
travels to the promised land. The domestic approach may lead to
material well-being in lucky cases, but it fractures the society.
The emigre model can work for those willing to assimilate to the
necessary degree, who have a talent for mimicry, and who are
“doers.” But it also produces fundamentalist and nationalist
leaders through a process of multiple alienations. First, the
subject becomes alienated from his own “backward” society;
however, unable to satisfy his vanity in the adopted “progressive”
society, he undergoes a second alienation and concludes that the
superior virtues lay slumbering in the religion or ethnic culture he
abandoned. He assumes the mission of reshaping his roots to
meet a higher, exclusive standard, accenting differences, not
commonalities, with the foreign culture that betrayed him. He
runs home to an idealized mommy. Or, to use a more mature
metaphor, the psychology parallels that of a man who leaves his
wife for an intoxicating other woman, only to be ultimately
rebuffed. He feels betrayed and seeks revenge; meanwhile his
abandoned wife is idealized as the embodiment of virtue, whether
or not this corresponds to objective reality.
The greatest failures among Third World emigres are consistently
intellectuals and the children of established families (often one
and the same person) who do not find the automatic, unqualified
recognition in the object culture that they enjoyed at home. Even
if they attain professorships or manage to buy lives of great
mortal comfort, they tend to remain outsiders, also-rans. These
are the men who go home to start (often reactionary and always
xenophobic) revolutions that reject the foreign culture that
rejected them. Wounded vanity has motivated cross-cultural
problem children from Arminius, who recognized a Roman glass
ceiling when he struck it with his Germanic head, to Ho Chi
Minh, who had to work as a scullery knave in Paris; from
Clausewitz, who learned to hate sweet, dirty France during his
captivity as a prisoner of war, to a recent prime minister of
Greece, whose academic career in California proved ultimately
dissatisfying to the Balkan bully lurking under the tweeds.
It is impossible to satisfy the vanity of intellectuals, and the
collision of intellectuals from the failing regions of the world
with the ultimately exclusive cultural context of the West
profoundly aggravates their ever-wounded pride. And, thanks to
modern communication means, they don’t even have to leave the
farm to find out they’re hicks. That is why we are so often
shocked to find that bloody-minded nationalist leaders such as
Karadzic or Gamsakhurdia were respected intellectual and
cultural figures back home: poets, historians, doctors, professors.
So much of the progress imagined for the post-colonial era has
come to nothing. All that remains to failing nations and cultures
is the ceaseless assault of things foreign, dazzling, and
Western popular media are immeasurably more powerful in their
impact on the values of other cultures than on our own. Wailing
that television and hit music play havoc with the morals of our
youth, we become obsessed by the behavior of the marginalized
elements of our society, while most kids grow up as normally as
they ever did. Because our children receive the media in its
greater environmental context, most learn intuitively to filter
reality from fantasy to a workable degree. The impact about
which we genuinely should worry strikes foreign cultures that
have not acquired a discriminating mechanism from their social
context and therefore cannot adequately separate fact from
fiction. Gang movies may cause a temporary increase in
minority-on-minority violence outside theaters in US cities–since
segments of our urban youth also lack this discriminating
mechanism to some degree–but Arnold Schwarzenegger films do
not cause statistically significant eruptions of mass slaughter in
middle America. An American ten-year-old knows intuitively
that movies are an illusion. Many foreign adults do not. I have
personally met no end of would-be Rambos in Armenia and
Georgia, even in Moscow, and the grisly clowns driving the war
in what was Yugoslavia are enraptured by film images. Yet
Croatians, Serbs, Russians, Georgians, and Armenians have longstanding
ties to Western culture. Imagine the effect on those who
have no frame of reference whatsoever.
Last year I caught a rattling airliner from Yerevan to Moscow.
The aged Aeroflot jumbo wore a new Armenian flag on its tail,
and the cabin was crowded with travelers, many of them
refugees, sitting on broken-backed seats or huddling in the aisles.
It was almost impossible to move about, given the mounds of
shabby luggage which had been brought aboard, and the flight
attendants disappeared after takeoff, not to be seen again. All in
all, it seemed like a typical domestic flight over the corpse of the
USSR. And then they caught me off guard: they showed an inflight
movie, something unthinkable on the old Aeroflot domestic
This nod to competitiveness and world custom was a bit marred,
however, by the film chosen. It was a black-and-white, Englishlanguage,
ultra-cheap “dungeons and dragons” affair, with
unknown players and a startling mix of cold steel violence and
nudity–some of which involved imaginitive perversions.
Some of the travelers were well-connected and relatively
sophisticated; others were low-level entrepreneurs off to trade all
they could carry in Moscow markets. Many were refugees from
the sputtering, thug-fueled war in the mountains–refugees for
whom Yerevan had no more resources and who hoped to rescue
themselves with distant relatives or just a vague address in
Moscow. Some of these people had never been on an aircraft
before–and many of them certainly had not seen a film of this
sort. But, suddenly, there it was: The West.
The men–all of them–watched with passionate interest as huge
swords descended and packs of deformed creatures fondled a
demi-heroine’s naked breasts. Sometimes a phenomenally
muscled hero saved the girl in a rush of violence, sometimes not
(it was, all in all, a rather existential affair). Invariably, an
explicit coupling followed the bursts of violence.
The female passengers, Christian in religion but oriental in
conditioning, theatrically averted their eyes. Then they hungrily
scouted the more shocking bits from their trenches of decorum.
Personally, I found the movie repulsive and dumb. It was pitched
at the pimpled 12-year-olds whom R and X ratings were created
to attract. But even the Western 12-year-old would clearly
perceive this as fantasy. The film was, however, perfectly
tempered to inspire the absolute worst behavior in the sort of
credulous and infantile adult males who are presently
slaughtering each other in the Caucasus and elsewhere.
A final note on the unrecognized power of the entertainment
media: no contemporary fundamentalist movement, Islamic or
otherwise, has attacked the West on grounds of profound
religious difference (although they don’t mind massacring sects
they view as heretical). The complaints, from Western religious
zealots and Iranian theocrats, have consistently been directed
against secular influences (Mark Twain, women’s rights, and
other horrors). They do not attack religious beliefs but
encroaching cultural contexts. Neither nationalists nor
fundamentalists fear alternative beliefs, religious or secular. They
fear dissident behavior, since behavior (certainly not art) is the
ultimate manifestation of culture. And the most accessible–and,
therefore, insidious–examples of this frightening behavior are
provided by the entertainment media. In their appreciation of the
threat posed by the proliferation of audio and video technology,
the mullahs and reactionaries in the failing regions of the world
are far ahead of Western academics–with their quaint, pathetic
love of books (the recorded voice cassette is perhaps the most
effective propaganda tool employed by Islamic militants). The
“battle of behavior” has nothing to do with ideas. It has to do
with images: short skirts, not long theories. And with the
seductiveness of pop hits that will not leave the ear. The threat
doesn’t come from Harvard. It comes from Hollywood.
Perhaps the greatest fallacy (out of so many) in contemporary
Western diplomatic belief is the conviction that we can more
readily reason with and trust in nationalists than in
fundamentalists. In fact, the matter is purely situational, and it
may at times be preferable to lie down with the fundamentalist
cat (when we must) than the nationalist dog. We might, on a
good and lucky day, get up with fewer fleas.
The behavior of Islamic fundamentalists in power has generally
been deplorable. They torture without remorse, imprison or
execute without trial, and restrict basic freedoms to a degree
intolerable to Western man. Yet, after all of the gore has been
hosed into the sewer, there is a moral center to the greatest of the
fundamentalists. It just isn’t our moral center. Many
fundamentalist leaders, from Iran to Algeria, may not share our
taste for liberal democracy (which we acquired over the better
part of a millenium), but they do share many other ideals we
profess. The best of the fundamentalists are resolutely against the
corruption that has so ennervated the failing regions of the world.
They are for mass education (although we might not agree with
the curriculum and their exclusion of women). They desire to
democratize the nation’s wealth, if not its government. They seek
todo that which socialist demagogues only promised. They have
a sense of honor higher than that prevalent in the deathbed
societies they seek to revitalize. And their actions have yet to
prove anywhere near as belligerent toward other states as their
Nationalists, on the other hand, tend to have a moral center
smaller and softer than the inside of a Tootsie Roll Pop. Hitler
was a nationalist. Mussolini was a nationalist. The military
leadership that steered Japan down the road to Hiroshima was
rabidly nationalist. Even Stalin, despite his Georgian antecedents,
became a Russian nationalist. Enver Pasha, the butcher of
Armenians, was a nationalist, and Mao ultimately proved more
nationalist than communist. Today, all the creepy little ex-party
bosses with Elvis haircuts who sponsor ethnic cleansing or the
suppression of minority rights from Dushanbe to the Danube are
nationalists–even when they profess otherwise for reasons of
expedience or intellectual confusion. Nationalists have not been
good to our century, and it does not appear that they will be much
kinder to the next.
Samuel Johnson, normally a precise fellow with his language,
misspoke himself on one fateful occasion, declaring “Patriotism
is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He meant to say “Nationalism
is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He just didn’t have the
Despite the relative virtues of fundamentalism as currently
practiced and promised vis-à-vis nationalism, there is, in the end,
not much pleasure in the choice between them. By their essential
nature, both nationalism and fundamentalism stand firmly against
“us.” We are the necessary Satan, the galvanizing enemy.
If fundamentalism is sometimes marginally less repulsive than
nationalism, it is, unfortunately, less able and willing to
cooperate or compromise with the West. Fundamentalism is
utterly rejectionist, while nationalism is only partially so.
Nationalists are more mentally agile–and less scrupulous–and
can more easily digest sophisticated techniques and technologies
that promise them advantage. Nationalists are also far more
flexible when it comes to rationalizing alliances. Finally,
nationalists are quicker to welcome foreign assistance,
particularly if it is humiliating, threatening, or, best of all, lethal
to their neighbors.
But the problems in dealing with nationalists and
fundamentalists, whether fighting them or aiding them, are
If you enter an alliance with them, you must support them
without reservation, no matter how heinous their deeds.
The moment you introduce moral scruples concerning
treatment of the enemy or begin to speak of compromise
and just settlements, you have betrayed them and you will
become their enemy.
Both will interpret any offer of a just peace from an enemy
as a sign of that enemy’s weakness.
Neither fundamentalists nor nationalists will honor any
form of agreement a moment longer than it suits their
needs–unless they are afraid to abrogate it.
Even when they admire your practical prowess, you are
despised as a lesser creature.
Both are dogmatic and thus will behave even more
irrationally than other states.
Both will inevitably commit atrocities that will embarrass
any Western state allied with them. In peacetime, they will
commit domestic atrocities; in wartime they will mistreat
enemy soldiers and the enemy population.
In war, they will employ all available means to win, no
matter the degree of moral censure they receive, unless
they clearly understand that they will be punished for their
behavior by an external force so powerful that even the
most obstinate fundamentalist or nationalist ruler must
recognize his relative impotence. Even then, some of them
will ignore the danger of penalties.
Not all nationalists or fundamentalists will fight to the last
man, but their behavior cannot be confidently predicted in
advance, and it will vary from culture to culture. Without
exception, the best way to make war against them is to
deliver an initial blow so comprehensive and powerful it
emasculates them militarily and psychologically. Even
then, the true believers among them may continue to resist.
As stated above, nationalists and fundamentalists need
enemies. Although nationalists are more apt to carry
this Feindbild over into active aggression against another
state, the quickest way to start or expand a war of
aggression by nationalists or fundamentalists is to let them
imagine they have your unequivocal support, or that you
No matter the extent of your support or the sincerity of
your commitment to nationalists or fundamentalists, it will
never be viewed as sufficient.
You will always be suspect.
Your interests don’t count.
Where nationalist and fundamentalist currents exist in the same
nation, they are (perhaps increasingly) symbiotic. Even
nationalists who harbor no personal religious beliefs find that
traditional religions lend credibility to the nationalist cause–as
well as expanding its power base. Conversely, fundamentalist
movements, such as the one in Iran, can broaden their acceptance
by couching harsh programs in terms of national necessity. This
symbiosis thrives in the ruins of Yugoslavia. Prior to the
outbreak of the wars of dissolution, religious differences in
Yugoslavia pretty much meant that the population failed to go to
the church of its choice. Bosnian Muslims were perhaps the least
religious of any major Muslim population. The Serbian Orthodox
Church slumped upon the shoulders of bent old women, and
Croatian Roman Catholics were perhaps more European in their
disregard of religion than in any other respect. Yet members of
each side in that guilt-rich conflict have attempted to wrap
themselves in the armor of a true faith, perceiving essentially
defunct religious professions as a perfectly good reason to
butcher and rape neighbors who resemble them genetically,
behaviorally, and materially.
To an extent, the rediscovery of traditional religion by ethnic
groups fired with the nationalist impulse is natural, since religion
is an important part of any people’s history. Religious
establishments, on the other hand, welcome growth opportunities
and official protection. Even in countries not ruptured by civil
war, populations and governments often have a difficult time
determining the proper relationship between religion and nation.
Poland is discovering that the Church Triumphant is not entirely
without imperfections, while governmental actors in Turkey are
assuredly playing with fire when they entertain Islamic
fundamentalists and endanger the unique legacy of Ataturk.
Saddam Hussein tried–with limited success, thanks to his sordid
past–to play the Islamic card during the Gulf War, while
nationalist leaders in India and Pakistan have long recognized the
power of appealing to religion whenever party energy threatens
to flag. It is impossible to separate religion from nationalism in
Israel, and the preservation of Islam’s sanctity is perceived by
some to be the only moral justification for Saudi statehood.
In an age haunted by cataclysms real and imagined, in this era of
disappointment and wracking international failure, men and
women will prove increasingly vulnerable to anti-modern, antirational
explanations for their misfortunes and their
inextinguishable impulse to vanity. Even in the United States,
many of those least able to keep material, intellectual, and
spiritual pace with the demands of modernity turn to primitive or
exotic religious forms, from revivalism to New Age God-candy.
In the failing regions of the world, such trends can only acquire
greater momentum. There are no irreversible physics in the
fundamentalism-to-nationalism equation: unsatisfying
nationalism can evolve “backward” into theocracy. To paraphrase
the most thoughtful soldier who ever learned to write,
“Nationalism is merely the continuation of fundamentalism by
Our century has been one of fragmentation, of devolution that
flirts with chaos. Mankind has not experienced so universal a
breakdown in the established political order since the shattering
of the Roman Empire. Brotherhood-of-man platitudes have been
consigned to the “ashheap of history” with even greater certainty
than has Marxism-Leninism, but we, convinced of the allconquering
virtue of liberal democracy, still cannot accept the
essential realities of human political behavior. The world has
cancer, and we are in the denial phase. If you want to see the
future, look to Cambodia, to Somalia, to “Kurdistan,” or to
Yugoslavia, Angola, Tadjikistan, or Georgia.
We Americans must avoid fantastic schemes to rescue those for
whom we bear no responsibility, and we must resist imagining a
moral splendor for murderers who better understand media
manipulation than the murderers with whom they are in conflict.
We must learn not to trust our eyes and ears–and, especially,
their electronic extensions: the media, forever focusing on the
crisis of the moment, almost never understand what they witness.
In dealing with nationalism and fundamentalism, we must be
willing to let the flames burn themselves out whenever we are
not in danger of catching fire ourselves. If we want to avoid
needless, thankless deaths among our own countrymen, we must
try to learn to watch others die with equanimity.
We won’t learn this, of course. We will be moved to action
because of our emotional needs, heightened by the nonsense of
post-colonial guilt. We will send troops to places where they can
do no long-term good. We will be forced to choose which human
beasts to back. And we will always pay more than we expected to
pay when we began our intervention.
Major Ralph Peters is a member of Task Force Russia. He is a
foreign area officer specializing in the ruins of the Soviet empire.
Over the past four years alone, nearly 20 trips to Russia, newly
emerging states, and Eastern Europe have taken him to 14
countries. He has participated in Kremlin conferences and seen
the effects of civil war firsthand. He has repeatedly been the first
American to reach extreme or closed areas of the former USSR.
In addition to dozens of articles on a wide range of militaryrelated
topics, Major Peters has published four novels. His first,
published in 1981, predicted the resurgence of the German
extreme right. A later novel predicted the breakup of the Soviet
Union. In his latest novel, Flames of Heaven, he chronicles the
collapse of the Soviet Union as experienced by simple Russian
Reviewed 28 May 1998. Please send comments or corrections
Vanity and the Bonfires of the “isms”