Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dialogue on Military Arm Patches

Recently, there's been some traffic on an older post of mine about the American soldier wearing his militum Christi arm patch.  "Mike" had some interesting thoughts that I wanted to share.  My response is below his:

Matthew, have you ever been to Afghanistan? If not why are you contending a statement I made based on what I've seen in this country since the war started. Christians were prosecuted just as much as Muslims were in the Crusades so even if it would offend Muslims, why should we care? Also, I didn't say they can't read because I'm naive. I said it because they really can't read. Unless they were educated in Kabul (about 1% of the country's population) they can't read anything. They don't even know what year it is or their own age most of the time. I'm not naive at all, I know for a fact 95% of them can't read because I'm in Afghan villages 2-3 times per week. Besides that, I work alongside Afghan Commandos mainly, but also ANA and ANCOP and ANSF. They are not offended by patches such as the one in the picture. Most of them don't even know what it means and don't know who the Templar Knights even were.

You are right, the Taliban and similar terrorist organizations are very tech savvy. But only because the stuff is given to them by bigger players and they are taught how to use it. Terrorist training camps don't teach about how to read and the Crusades, they teach how to kill people.

I didn't chime in here to have a big internet argument, I just think all these negative comments about the soldier wearing the patch are completely irrelevant. I'm sure most of you have never been to any Muslim 3rd world country, let alone Afghanistan. Yet you make these statements like you can read people's minds and know how they would react to some things. You have no understanding whatsoever of how these people think and live their daily lives. If you base your statements on the news or anything you read on the internet you're wrong. Unless you have firsthand experience in this country, and I don't mean never leaving the FOB, there's no point in arguing.

One more thing, as I see you have a PhD in history. Obviously you have a much greater scope of knowledge of the Crusades than probably anybody else that posts here. I'm also sure you've been taught a great deal about religious wars and the history of Islam and Islamic nations. However, when people such as yourself refer to 'Islamic understandings of the Crusades since the 19th century' Afghanistan doesn't really fit into that. Almost every generic reference to Islamic nations in more recent history is based on developed locations that actually have an education system in place and have contact with the rest of the world. Afghanistan doesn't quite fit into there. I can't speak for Iraq as I have much less experience in that country. But these people really don't know much of anything in Afghanistan besides farming. Sure they have some technologies from the bigger cities like Kabul and some from Khandahar, but nothing you could even remotely call advanced. Their technology doesn't go beyond old crappy cars and tracfones. They don't have electricity in their homes. Their homes are made of mud and feces. They poop in their home right on the floor and it just stays there until flies eat it. These people have bigger problems and concerns than what our patches say. They really couldn't care less. The patch that soldier is wearing is not a big deal, no reason to make it a big deal.

On a side note: Some Air Force actual unit patches refer to the Crusades or Templar Knights. 
My response:
Mike, thanks again for coming back and thanks for these thoughtful comments. I don't (totally) disagree with what you're saying. Personally, and given my own research interests, I'm more interested in what this says about some (not universal) American attitudes towards wars against radical Islamic groups.

Framing the conflict - in any way - as "Christian" against "Muslim" moves the level to a different, troubling level. For example, how does a war between "Christian" and "Muslim" end? With the elimination of the other, either by death, conversion, or subjugation? How does a "war against terror" end? It can't -- at least not in this lifetime -- because there will always be those who seek political/ social power through violence against innocents. The only way to "square this circle" is through an apocalyptic, zero-sum war in which there's only 1 winner and 1 loser. That means that all Muslims, everywhere, are on 1 side and all Christians, everywhere, are on the other. But that's not useful. We're fighting the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, etc. -- just like the many peaceful inhabitants of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, etc. are as well. Ultimately, you're certainly right on your last point (that Afghanis have bigger problems than American arm patches) but I'm wondering about us. Do some of us have bigger problems too or is this THE problem we have?

I have much more to say and I realize that this brief comment doesn't do justice to your longer one above. Hopefully, this dialogue will continue. 
 Mike's right too, of course, that I don't have experience in Afghanistan and he's clearly more informed about the situation on the ground.  That said, the ideas that animate this conflict can be said to be more cultural than literate (if that makes sense).  Ideas move even in pre-literate societies and I know something about that, having studied the European Middle Ages.  For example, Afghanis by and large may not be able to read, haven't read Edward Said, and have no idea what militum Christi means, but my guess is that they "understand" (not objectively, but based on their own cultural assumptions) an American showing up in their village wearing a cross on his arm. 


Historian on the Edge said...

What *does* militum Christi mean?

Unknown said...

The problem is not limited to what each and every person on the ground in Iran or Afghanistan or any other Muslim country thinks of (if anything) when they see the patch. The problem is what it says about the mindset we are creating, among our own forces, and even as a society, about Islam, America, and our relationship to the Islamic world. It doesn't require some official proclamation in order to create a discourse, or to shape societal reality. Even beyond the historical reality of the Crusades there remains the idea of the Crusades in the contemporary consciousness. The patch is significant because it is only one of myriad examples, all of which are indicative of an invocation of an ideology of Crusade and all it signifies in the context of societies acting on a world stage.

Lorenzo said...

Surely it is an ancient pattern that experiencing -- particularly in a situation of violent conflict -- a very different outlook can result in more sharply defining one's own. There seems to be a subtext here that somehow "real" Westerners should be immune to this process. This seems to say more about angst about Western identity than it does about the soldier with the "soldier for Christ" patch.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Lorenzo, I'm not sure what you're saying here. Doesn't the "angst of Western identity" apply to the soldier too? And shouldn't we feel a bit of angst (at least) about a religious warrior, since such a person necessarily thinks he fights against other religious (not political) groups?

Lorenzo said...

Matthew: you are reading a lot into an arm patch. I suggest that Afghans may be across the fact that most Americans are Christians. That someone is a "soldier for Christ" has all sorts of meanings (St Francis said something similar did he not?) and does not imply opposition to all Muslims.

My point about angst is that Christianity has a large part to do with the evolution of Western civilisation. That many folk are Christians is a noted feature of Western civilisation and has been since about the C4th. The notion that there is some inherent problem in having a religious identity and expressing it in a personal patch seems to imply that religious identity is not allowed to have this sort of public persona.

I can entirely understand a rule banning soldiers from having such patches. But let us not read quite so much into an arm patch.

Unknown said...

I want one

Semper FI