Military Orientalism

Journal of Strategic Studies, 33: 5, p. 784-787.
Review of Patrick Porter’s, Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, 256 pages.

The ‘orient’ is a diffuse idea. Oriental was what lurked beyond the boundaries of civilised Europe, unknown and fascinating. It stood for the East, sometimes for the South, always for the unknown other. Ideas of the oriental other have not just influenced, and sometimes dominated, Western perspectives toward the East. As Patrick Porter’s fine new book shows, orientalism has also affected Western views of its battles and wars.

On the face of it, the scene is predictable: Western armies are made for industrial battles, decisive plots of organised force, and orchestrated manoeuvres. They are rational, orderly, calculated bureaucracies with a sophisticated division of labour, high-tech weapons systems and clear lines of authority from civilian politicians. They develop plans in institutionalised general staffs, and their strategic and operational thinking guided by post-Enlightenment intellectual craftsmen like Antoine de Jomini or Carl von Clausewitz.

Easterners, so the popular stereotype goes, fight altogether differently – as martyrs and kamikazes. They are deceitful, cunning, irrational, emotional, chaotic, and spiritual, their raw violence seemingly triggered by primordial ethnic or tribal hatred, vendettas, and blood feuds. Some of these juxtapositions are very much alive today. Patrick Porter sees the orientalist world view come to the fore in popular culture, for instance in films like 300, Black Hawk Down, Rambo II and III, and The Last Samurai. But such an argument would be trite. Military Orientalism is shrewder.

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