Why Culture Cannot Be Coerced

The battle for Baghdad (which may or may not be underway by the time this blog is posted) is not only a human tragedy, but a painful reminder of how culture can never be coerced.  Because this is so, the thousands of American lives and $1 trillion invested there since the 2003 Iraq War seems like a terrible price to pay for using the wrong weapons to achieve a worthy goal.

In the Winter and Spring of 2003, as the US government was preparing to launch the invasion of Iraq to overthrow the vicious dictator Saddam Hussein, I often spoke to my sons about the probable successes and risks.  Like many, I forecasted a military romp in the park, as was indeed the case.  But, I warned my sons over and over that the people of Iraq, owing first to the lack of democratic government under the long reign of Hussein and, secondly, to the similarly troubling relationship between democracy and most Islamic societies, would be a different matter altogether.  I naively beloved that our military planners were fully aware of the giant risk of anarchy following Saddam’s fall and that they would somehow prepare for it. 

Notwithstanding American claims about weapons of mass destruction, the US government saw its mission as liberation.  And, yes, if you take the view that politics and power are the primary force in a society, then America surely succeeded.  Using the coercive power of American military, the political situation in Iraq changed almost overnight.

But societies are far more than the sum of their politics, or, for that matter, their economics.  They are, at their heart, driven by deep cultural forces that include religion, worldview, rituals, symbols, language, and customary practices.  US military planners and national leadership were blind, for all appearances, to this fundamental reality, thinking merely that Iraqis would break out the champagne of democracy and elegantly manage their own affairs.  How very naïve we were.

Cultures, obliquely masked behind the forces mentioned in the previous paragraph, simply do not respond to coercion, first because there is no way that military or political power can break the back of “religion, worldview, rituals, symbols, language, and customary practices.”  They follow a complicated logic that varies between the rational and the nonrational, the wise and the foolish.   For reasons too complicated to discuss here, they do create unique “cultural logics” that, to some degree, make sense to those governed by them. 

Secondly, cultures are a function of deeply-held beliefs that are located in what we call the human conscience.  Most of America’s founders clearly knew that conscience could not and should not be coerced, and thus the US was bequeathed a constitutional tradition of religious freedom.  The inviolate human conscience deserves its own freedom, in part because without it humans could never love the God who had created them in his image.  Military planners can never change the hearts and minds of a population, no matter how easily they may change their political leadership.  To have suggested otherwise may be one of the reasons that US Iraq War veterans feel so grieved at the current turn of events.  They were assured that military power could get the job done, when, in fact, it could only change surface political realities (and these only as long as American guns and military discipline were visibly present).

The humbling truth that brings the finest military planners to their knees is that cultures cannot be changed by military force.  We do know, thanks to sociologists like the University of Virginia’s James Davison Hunter, that cultural change is usually led by networks of elitist cultural influencers who work in elite culture institutions (professors in universities, journalists, and pop culture entertainers).  We also know that mass education movements to change a people’s worldview can be very successful.  We also know that leaders who demonstrate remarkable courage and integrity can help move the cultural dial.  There is evidence that cultures respond positively or negatively to the state of Christian churches in their midst.  But, the only thing that offers the single biggest bang for the buck is Christian conversion.  Those converted and then successfully discipled come under the gentle and masterful sovereignty of Jesus Christ who teaches them to use their newfound freedom not indulge themselves but to love their neighbors (Galatians 5:13). 

Not a single one of the five elements of successful cultural change mentioned in the paragraph above involves coercion or htreats.*  Thus the blitzkrieg of the Sunni-led ISIS can never do anything but fan the flames of Shia hatred in Iraq.  Because coercion is their stock in trade, we can guarantee endless tragedy and bloodshed in Iraq and the region.   Tragically, terribly. 

Only the five steps alluded to above, centered in particular on the converting and transforming power of Jesus Christ, give hope to our poor friends in Iraq and beyond.  Show them mercy, O Father.

*I don’t discount the argument that laws, which are inherently coercive at some level. can have a secondary and minor effect on cultural change.  Americans, for example, have become more orderly in their driving habits, one may presume, in part because of the traffic laws.  However, note that Americans were from the beginning somewhat disposed to obey traffic laws, and that tendency was reinforced by the threat of a traffic ticket which would be administered by a court that generally could not be bribed.  To me the case is clear that a cultural predisposition for orderly obedience to just laws precedes the laws themselves, and only very secondarily do the laws reinforce and strengthen that cultural predisposition.  I think this interpretation also nicely fits with the idea of law as “schoolmaster” or “tutor” (Galatians 3:24).