Force Majeure

Wisdom is a rare thing. It crops up in the most unexpected of places, and one of the marks of the truly wise is to see lessons and take them from wherever they can be found, regardless of their surroundings.

David Eddings is, in my opinion, the finest fantasy writer alive today. In his “Mallorean” series, there is a part where two great armies are fighting in the empire of Mallorea — and neither answers to the Emperor. The Mallorean emperor is counseled to let the two fight it out, let one defeat the other and then use his forces to crush the weakened victor.

Zakath, the emperor, rejects this advice and rides out to confront both armies. It is his policy, he says, to not allow any forces other than his own to win a battle within his territory.

In the books, it doesn’t go exactly as planned. Zakath discovers that the armies are demon armies, and is persuaded to spare his forces the inevitable slaughter. In the end, the demon armies are defeated by magic and gods.

But the principle Zakath espouses is a sound one. One of the criteria for a nation-state is that the government must needs hold a monopoly on the use of force.

No government can withstand the presence of a large, armed body within its borders that is not answerable to that government. Mao declared that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” and that monster was an expert on power and guns.

We can see that throughout the Muslim world.

In Iraq, the government has control over only one of three (or more) large, armed factions. The single most powerful force in Iraq today is the US military, and while we are allied with the Iraqi government, and influenced by them, they do not exert control over us. But there are also large groups of “militias” and “insurgents” and other terrorist groups who also wield military power — and pose a tremendous threat to the future stability of Iraq.

In Lebanon, the government has been almost subsumed by Hezbollah, to the point where the Lebanese army is banned from large swaths of their own nation — and is currently fighting a “militia” allegedly aligned with Al Qaeda in the north.

The supremacy of military power is one of the key definitions of a nation. In a democracy, this is checked by the political power of the people — and by commanding that the military give their highest allegiance not to the government, but the founding principles of the nation. In the United States, members of the military pledge not to George W. Bush or the presidency in general, but the Constitution. And the people have the ultimate political power in the United States — we can (and often do) change our government, without ever having to pick up a gun.

A government cannot survive without the faith of the people. And, for better or worse, the people’s faith and trust is most often earned by strength of arms — even when not used. Most people feel more secure if they know that the government holds more power than criminals, than terrorists, than “insurgents,” than any enemies foreign or domestic.

Because when they don’t, you end up with Iraq. Or Lebanon. Or Afghanistan. Or Yugoslavia.

Christopher Hitchens: How did a nation move from cricket and fish-and-chips to burkas and shoe-bombers in a single generation?