There has been a lot of chuckling about Obama’s replacing Hail to the Chief with a rotation of songs that includes Sting’s “Desert Rose.” The laughing has come from people that consider it ironic that we move towards a song with Arabic content during the War on Terror. But this is no laughing matter. It is a matter of life and death. We do not see this because of the illusion of progress.
History’s seemingly straight line from tribes to chiefdoms to nation states has conspired to give us all an illusion of progress. In a certain sense there has been progress. Laurence Keeley’s “War Before Civilization” shows that in tribal times 25% of males died in battle. Wars were fought approximately once a year and every male participated. If a tribe lost too many men the women were often raped, killed or enslaved by the winning tribe. By contrast, in 20th century Europe, with its two big wars and Stalin, 1.9% of males died in battle. There was remarkably little revenge imposed on the vanquished.
Developments in political organization also reinforce the illusion of progress. Mankind writ large has moved from tribal states to ever-larger political organizations. This has brought, again, a corresponding reduction in war deaths. And these states all contain some level of infrastructure, political hierarchy, taxes, borders and military. Whereas, Kelley tells us, 66% of tribes were at war yearly, only 40% of chiefdoms had this frequency. Nation states only go to war once per generation. And so, again, we believe we see a straight line constituting progress. Certainly, many assume, these trends towards larger political units and peace mean that a globalism is destined.
The problem with assuming progress is that nation states have collapsed and large systems disappear extremely rapidly. The Roman Empire fell as much as it dissolved. Furthermore, the move towards peacefulness is registered in averages. Some chiefdoms have been extremely violent. The Aztecs and Mayans are prime examples. They went to war yearly in order to get captives for sacrifice. And some nation states have also been very brutal. Nazi Germany is the paradigmatic example in this category. But, might you not say, weren’t the Aztecs and the Nazis defeated by more peaceful political organizations? Doesn’t this prove progress? No.
Before concluding, and returning to Obama, I must point out that technology does not prove progress towards peacefulness is a natural progression either. Nazi Germany was technologically advanced. Their eugenic rhetoric was heavily informed by the theme of science. Their killing was industrial. Imperial Japan was nearly as cruel as Nazi Germany. They kidnapped young girls from all the surrounding nations and gang-raped them for years. Japan too had high levels of technology. In fact, both nations’ command of communications, transportation and weapons technology helped them in their viscous endeavors.
The problem with the assumption of progress is that the experiment is only half run. Yes, we beat both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Japan’s behavior and China’s cultural revolution showed that Confucianism is not incompatible with tremendous cruelty. China is building a fierce military. More immediately, the Islamic world has declared Jihad or holy war upon us. Those who assume progress look at the fall of the Berlin wall and assume that history has ended. Conflict continues. Islamic nations and China are not buying into the idea of the destiny of cooperative globalism. Nothing is settled. America can revert back to tribal warfare. And either China or Islam may yet defeat and dominate us. The “march of freedom” does not destine global cooperative peace.
During World War Two we were famously united against our foes. We knew, as tribes in primitive warfare had to know, that our side was virtuous and the other side was evil incarnate. This knowledge led to near 100% effort by our population. Darwinian evolution does not favor the best, it favors that which is best able to survive and flourish. It may be that driven, racist, authoritarian China has more staying power than our current values based on multiculturalism can muster. More immediately, the fanatical devotion shown on the Islamic side may be able to defeat our diverse population’s nonchalant commitment to our nation. Had we been disunited and unclear about the nature of our foes in World War Two, we would have been defeated. Destiny did not lead to those victories, unity and determination did.
Obama’s saying that we are a Muslim nation during his inauguration and his adopting of an Arabic greeting for the Presidency both undermine our sense of unity and blur our ability to see good and evil. In a world with war, both the unity and erect posture Hail to the Chief engenders are very important. Furthermore Obama’s constant show of respect for Islam diminishes our understanding of why we might want to consider it our enemy. If we are unable to defeat our foes it will largely be because we are not both united and determined to defeat them. In that eventuality, Obama’s seemingly small insults to our traditions and identity will be shown to have been a matter of life and death. His adoption of a Sting song in place of a key anthem that united us will have proven to have been no laughing matter.