Magazine article The Spectator

'Female Soldier' Ought to Be an Oxymoron

Magazine article The Spectator

'Female Soldier' Ought to Be an Oxymoron

Article excerpt

Anyone who wants to understand the peoples of Arabia and the surrounding regions ought to start with Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands. He was writing about the late 1940s and, as he knew, the world which he described was about to vanish. This provides the modern reader with a necessary perspective. It should make him aware that in the whole of human history, no major region has undergone such profound changes in such a short period.

Today, the Maktoums of Dubai fly the world in their private 747s to inspect racehorses. Then, they still rode out on camels to battles and blood feuds against their neighbours. In the late 1940s, oil exploration was gathering momentum. The first consequence was a greater demand for labour and an increased traffic in negro slaves.

There was also cruelty. In one Arabian town, Wilfred came across three youths who looked miserable. That was hardly surprising. Their right hands had just been cut off on the King's orders because they had been circumcised in the wrong way. Even for those correctly cropped, the conditions of life were hard, especially in the desert, 'a bitter, desiccated land which knows nothing of gentleness or ease'. But its inhabitants 'were not ignorant savages; on the contrary, they were the lineal heirs of a very ancient civilisation who found within the framework of their society the personal freedom and self-discipline for which they craved'.

They also had high standards of conduct. Wilfred Thesiger once heard two youths arguing about the merits of their paternal grandfathers. One scored a knock-down victory. 'My grandfather never farted in public.' The flatulent grandfather had been dead for 20 years, yet his breach of decorum was still a matter for mockery and shame.

So was nudity. The Bedu would not undress completely in front of each other; their very wives probably never saw them naked by daylight. In the nature of things, armies have to desensitise their soldiers, but nothing would have prepared Iraqi troops for the treatment they received at the hands of uniformed American females. Throughout the Arab world, there will be humiliation and rage. It was a cultural atrocity. Indeed, the killing of two Iraqis in captivity was a lesser offence.

It is never easy to be an occupying power. However just the cause, however necessary the invasion, resentments are easily aroused. The conquered young men will be especially quick to impute the worst of motives to the occupiers. Even those who are willing to acknowledge that Saddam's regime was unspeakable can quickly develop a hostile attitude towards those who displaced it, and will not take much persuading that the Americans are no better than Saddam. If the US forces had set out to create adverse propaganda and enrage al-Jazeera's audience, they could not have done better than they did in Abu Ghraib prison.

Of course, that was not a deliberate policy, but is al-Jazeera's audience aware of this? It was an appalling failure of command and control, which merges into other areas of American weakness.

It is not true that Americans always fail to understand the rest of the world. In Washington, around the two miles or so between the White House and Dupont Circle, there is an awesome amount of think-tank expertise which has no equivalent in any other capital. But the USA seems incapable of transmuting knowledge into public diplomacy. This is not just a failure in the Islamic world. It also applies to the US's relations with Russia and China, not to mention Europe (the Europeans may not deserve better treatment but even if they did, they would not receive it).

Recent history has been kind to Americans. That may explain why they find it difficult to identify with less fortunate nations. Over the past few years, Russia has undergone a succession of crises: economic, social and geopolitical. Thus far, the outcome has been surprisingly benign, which is just as well given that we are dealing with a nuclear power. …

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