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Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes (Critical War Studies) [Paperback]

Patrick Porter
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

30 Jun 2009 Critical War Studies
From the Ancient Greeks' obsession with the armies of the Persians, Westerners have been irresistibly drawn to the exotic nature of 'Oriental' warfare and have sought either to emulate their enemies' imagined ways of fighting or to incorporate Eastern warriors and 'martial races', such as the Sikhs and Gurkhas, in their own forces. The alluring yet terrifying prospect of Samurai warriors, obedient to an ancient code of chivalry, or of the Mongol cavalry thundering across the steppes, continue to grip our imagination, while the courage and fighting prowess of today's 'Eastern' warriors, the Taliban and Hezbollah, have been grudgingly acknowledged by the hightech armies of NATO in Afghanistan and the IDF in Lebanon. Such romantic notions are based on a highly questionable premise, namely that race, culture and tradition are separate and primordial, and that they determine how societies fight. But how far does culture shape war? Do non-Westerners approach strategy, combat, or death in ways intrinsically different from their Eastern neighbours? This debate can be tracked through time, from Herodotus onwards, and features in innumerable histories and literary works as well as in poetry, art and oral epics. Yet there are few histories of the idea itself. Military Orientalism argues that viewing culture as a script that dictates warfare is wrong, and that our obsession with the exotic can make it harder, not easier, to know the enemy. Culture is powerful, but it is an ambiguous repertoire of ideas rather than a clear code for action. To divide the world into western, Asiatic or Islamic ways of war is a delusion, one whose profound impact affects contemporary war and above all the War on Terror. Porter's fascinating book explains why the 'Oriental' warrior inspires fear, envy and wonder and how this has shaped the way Western armies fight.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd (30 Jun 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1850659591
  • ISBN-13: 978-1850659594
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 21.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 549,735 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'This important new book takes a fresh and detailed look at the role of culture, culturalism, ethnocentrism and perceptions of the "other" in strategy. It should be required reading for any strategist or student of international affairs who seeks to understand the complex hybrid conflicts in which we now find ourselves.' --David Kilcullen, author of The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One

'This is an accessible and well-written book for a wide range of audiences. The author has a solid grasp of the historical material and has bravely tackled a contentious yet persistent issue Orientalism through the lens of military conflict, and the reader is wiser as a result.' --International Affairs

'Military Orientalism seeks to expose the perils of using "culture" as a means to understanding war, whether it unfolds in the East or (implicitly) closer to home. It is a rich and wide-ranging text which displays a depth of historical reading to good effect, and is beautifully written.' --Daniel Neep, University of Exeter

About the Author

Patrick Porter is Lecturer in History at the Department of Defence Studies, King's College, University of London.

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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Headlamps in the Fog of Culture 15 Oct 2009
This is an important book. As America hires anthropologists into its forces, Porter reminds us culture is a concept that should be handled with care.

His is a cautionary note against the new enthusiasm for 'culture' within the Pentagon and elsewhere, by survey of past intellectual engagement by western militaries with non-Europeans they confronted. Whether the British observing the Japanese in 1904, or Athenians observing Persia at the time of Salamis, the exercise has had more to do with domestic agendas in the observing country, and flattened out dissimillitude, flux and volition amongst the society being scrutinised; the new cultural turn comes across as deterministic, simplistic and unreflective.

This is all rather ahistorical; and Porter is an historian.

Amid this effort within a military to rearm culturally, we see perhaps an author's own reflections on the failure of an initial project to remake the world through putatively benevolent American power - viewed this way, ancient enmities, irrationality, tribalism, different rules and alien logic represent the converse of the stubborn failure in the last ten years of Arabs and Afghans to have become Americans.

Scrupulous as a researcher, Porter evinces instance after instance of the Taleban reinventing their cultural codes as they go, whilst Americans (and, one supposes, Brits) on both sides of the debate compete toward headier reaches of Orientalism about the 'Wild East'.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worthwhile studying 14 July 2010
By Rodin
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
An excellent critique of how we in the west have caricatured eastern military thought and practice and of the errors it has and continues to lead to. Thoroughly relevant.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars GreaT! 4 Sep 2009
By Swordsman - Published on Amazon.com
This is a GREAT book.

Taking on those who see a distinct "Occidental" way of war, the author demolishes Western notions of "the Orient". He shows how, in reality, those notions make a hopeless mess of Arab Islamic, Chinese, and Japanese ways in warfare. Next he demonstrates how, in reality, "Oriental" ways of war are often the expression not of some alien culture but of rational strategic thought; finally, he explains how the West has often used its notions concerning "Oriental" methods in order to define itself and justify its own brutal behavior.

Well written and easy to read, this slim volume has something original to say on practically every page. I wish I had the wit to write it myself.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A timely warning 29 Sep 2009
By Stage 3 - Published on Amazon.com
Military Orientalism by Patrick Porter was a book that I wanted to read as soon as it arrived from Amazon. It was a book that I knew very little about and even a quick search on the web did not turn up much about either the book or the concept. Patrick Porter has borrowed the term 'Orientalism' from authors like Edward Said and tweaked it slightly, although in essence it is still the defining of ourselves by the perception of what the East is. For instance Orientals are duplicitous while we are honourable.

I think at times the book could be sub-titled beware the Cultural snake oil seller, as he does list a number of examples of where cultural 'experts' have got it wrong, including General MacArthur's claims to understand the Asiatic mind in regards to leadership. For me I thought that Patrick Porter was too forceful here, almost implying that culture has nothing to do with the way that nations wage war. He does not say that, in fact his argument is more complex, pointing out that cultures do approach war differently but that military interaction does bring about a degree of conformity. His comments on the Taliban are very insightful when he points out that a movement that was painted as primitive and anti-modern in some segments of the media has embraced technology to prosecute its war. In addition, it has used women as combatants despite its view on women when it was in power.

After reading this book you will look scornfully at the next expert that tells you that an ethnic group only understands force. While Patrick Porter does seem to be very negative on people who have put themselves up as cultural experts where it relates to a military context he does also write about those who got it right, or mostly right. On Japan he talks bout two works, The Psychology of the Japanese Soldier and the The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, as works that did a good job of actually analysing Japan's military from a cultural standpoint. I guess that was where I came away from the book thinking how we, the west, had got our understanding so wrong and Porter was light on explaining how we could avoid this mistake in the future.

As the militaries of the West 'weaponise' culture and discuss human terrain I think that this book is a good warning that cultural understanding is not a panacea, especially if that 'understanding' is based on a perception of 'they' are different to 'us' because they are them and we are us. I recommend this book for anyone interested in how culture does impact on military operations.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Welcome Caveat 26 Feb 2010
By Graham W. Jenkins - Published on Amazon.com
Patrick Porter's Military Orientalism provides an excellent analysis of the recent culturally-focused bent within western military thinking. "It is not a question of whether culture matters," writes Porter, "but how it matters, and how to conceptualise [sic:] it." This is expressed through several case studies: British perceptions and accounts of the Russo-Japanese War, interwar military thinking and the "lessons" of Ghengis Khan (particularly as expressed by Basil Liddell Hart), the United States and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and finally Israel's experience in the 2006 Lebanon War.

Almost without exception, Porter does a fantastic job outlining relevancies, misperceptions, and the 'trap' that is overawareness of an enemy's culture. While there are certainly traditions and beliefs that inform the actions of say, al Qaeda, they are equally willing to preserve their own lives at the cost of their perceived traditions. Porter also goes on to demonstrate how a group like al Qaeda might encourage such unchanging assumptions, as then any deviation from those expectations will easily surprise their opponents.

However, it is the last of the case studies that might be a stretch. While Israel is certainly to be considered a part and an ally of the west, the circumstances and nature of their war in Lebanon is a bit tricky to use as an example of military orientalism. More than some sort of cultural bias, what the Lebanese experience shows is perhaps an overreliance on Israeli military history - a case of generals preparing to fight the previous war.

Nevertheless, Porter's book is an excellent counterpart to those professing to understand the "Arab mind" and other such monolithic nonsense, and recommended reading for anyone engaged in study on the middle east and eastern military history in general.
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