The great British poet Rudyard Kipling, understanding today’s situation in Afghanistan better than our State Department wrote, “I have eaten your bread and salt. I have drunk your water and wine. The deaths ye died I have watched beside. And the lives ye led were mine.”
There are two points the President and the Secretaries of State and Defense may want to keep in mind as they evaluate future problems in the Middle East and how to successfully address them. Both are easiest illustrated by real life happenings.
Many years ago I attended the Infantry officer Advanced Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. Probably ten percent of the students attending that ten month course of instruction were from foreign countries. For about half of the course my tablemate was an Arab. We studied together, completed homework assignments together, got to know each other’s families and generally enjoyed each other’s company. Part of that time we students were immersed in reading about, researching and discussing wars and problems of the Middle East. By this time my Arab classmate and I had, I thought, become close friends. A question popped into my mind and without evaluating it I said, “I have a question to ask you, but you may find it a little impertinent … or, perhaps, offensive.”
“That’s quite alright,” he replied. “We know each other well enough to be honest with each other. So go ahead and ask your question.”
“Well,” I began. “Each time you Arabs start a war with Israel, they beat your socks off. Why don’t you learn your lesson and quit making war on them?”
The words hadn’t passed my lips before I knew that I shouldn’t have asked that particular question. But I was wrong. My Arab officer friend didn’t get angry. He didn’t even think before replying.
“My dear friend,” he said in his British accent, “You are absolutely right. Each time we attack the Israelis they whip our asses. But have you noticed that with each loss we get better. We get whipped not as badly as in the war before.”
Then he got a faraway look in his eyes, pounded on the table and said, “Sometime in the next thousand years … we will win!”
Up until then I had never thought in terms of a thousand years, and I don’t think I’m very good at it today. But for those formulating foreign and defense policy for the nation, it is worth making the effort. For it is difficult to think in terms of the immediate future while negotiating with a nation whose leaders are thinking in terms of hundreds or thousands of years.
Point two: during the first Gulf War U.S. and Arab forces fought side by side and some of the officers became close friends. When the war ended in victory there was a celebration in the officer’s club with everyone congratulating each other. A lot of handshaking and hugging was going on. It was a time of displaying real brotherly love.
Seeing this, one of the senior Arab generals felt the need to set the record straight. “Look,” he said to a small cluster of American generals. “We have fought together and some of us have died together. I know you feel that that makes us brothers. But that is not the way it is in my world.”
He looked around the circle making eye contact with all of them. “I don’t want to see you hurt so I need to share this with you. There will be no tomorrow for us jointly. No matter how much you have helped my country — and you came and helped us when we desperately needed your help – and no matter how friendly you feel toward us, we are still Muslims and you are still Christians. That means that in our eyes, we can never be brothers. I’m sorry but, to us, you will always be – Infidels!”
And so we Infidels have liberated Iraq and Afghanistan, but we have not made their countries nor their people depositories of freedom and liberty. No matter how hard we work to rebuild their governments, infrastructure, educational and medical institutions, and no matter how desperately they need our help — as the Arab general pointedly noted – we can never be brothers to each other.
Also, I learned what Kipling meant when he wrote, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” He was pointing out to the western world that to Muslims, we Christians will always be infidels!