Monday, May 10, 2010

Worlds Meet

Know Your Enemy

The lines from Peter O’Toole, at the closing of the 1981 mini-series Masada from the world of fiction, could be used in today’s world of reality. As the Roman commander Lucius Flavius Silva, O’Toole leaned over the fallen body of Peter Strauss’ character Elazar ben Yair, the Jewish leader. Silva bemoaned the suicide of all the Jewish defenders, but most of the tragedy struck from two sides only superficially knowing the other. Silva called the suicide a “waste” because he never intended to kill or torture the defenders. After a “public demonstration” a system could have been set up that pleased Elazar.

Masada shows the conflict between the Romans and Jewish fighters who positioned themselves on the cliffs of Masada, Israel, during 73 CE. When the Romans breached the walls, the defenders committed suicide because they feared imprisonment.

Silva regretted not knowing his enemy beyond the surface. He said his timing was off. He had pushed Elazar into a corner and forced the Jewish leader to convince his people that the Romans would kill them. He said Elazar failed to know Silva — that Silva was not the same enemy as a former Roman leader. Silva had failed to know Elazar would react by opting for suicide. Silva pointed to the need to placate the Roman Senate with a semblance of a victory that would have aided the peace talks in the future. But, the Jewish people believed they could not trust that situation. Neither side fully knew the enemy.

Silva failed to gain support from the Emperor for a peace deal that could have worked with Elazar. He failed to realize local commanders would incite the frail truce. And he miscalculated the way Elazar needed to control his people.

Such a scene opens up on today’s world of disputes between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders or the factional leaders in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Examples of only knowing the enemy superficially abound. Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad needs to strengthen his position against reformers. He blasts the United States. U.S. Hawks fear Ahmadinejad. Those Hawks then threaten to corner him with restrictions. The reality of the situation? Iran fears being surrounded by foreign powers and needs to flex muscles. Note that U.S. troops lie on Iran’s Western border in Iraq and on the East in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another example? Israeli leaders hear Palestinian threats. They set up more settlements. Palestinian leaders lose more support within their factions. Palestinian leaders become more vocal to gain support. Israeli leaders hear the language and increase the settlements. Whether as a sense of entitlement or a wedge in bargaining, the increase mushrooms as a result of the perception that the other side has been gaining ground.

Messages are meant for various audiences. When leaders speak, they address some issues at times because of a propaganda need. At other times, they might reach out to enemies. To misinterpret the driving force for the message means that the enemy will not be understood. Despite the background of being in a former war, people like Sen. McCain only see the surface. People who speak about negotiation or understanding a culture have often been called weak and naive. But like the Roman Silva, they fail to go deeper in seeing why conflicts arise. They have to dare to ask why the language of a message is made. Otherwise, like Elazar, they are committing suicide and wasting their efforts.

- Tom Pope

Masada image courtesy of

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