Very Special Forces

American political journalists tends to pooh-pooh generals on the way out and coo over them on the way in, much the same way business journalists persuade themselves that one Harvard MBA at the head of a company will somehow be different than the last Harvard MBA. So it’s gone with Obama’s new “Afpak” commander, Lt. General Stanley McChrystal, as the media celebrates the “stealth warrior” and his “new methods.” New, indeed — whereas the old general tried to kill the Taliban, McChrystal plans to — kill the Taliban.

Ah, but how will he kill them? According to the NYT’s James Dao, he’ll do it on one meal a day. The new general avoids food on the principle that it causes sluggishness, eschews sleep, runs to work. He is, in short, an ascetic. Which may explain the media’s affection for him — the American upper middle class — the media class — admires ascetism. It’s a spirituality of self-discipline, the religion of the runner, an implicit faith that doing without gives one moral license to consume more of society’s resources. (Consider the hybrid SUV, $100 an hour hot yoga, half-size organic bananas at twice the price.)

It’s also, Dao points out, a great way to prepare for killing people.

The word asceticism comes from the Greek word for exercise. And while Buddhists and early Christians made world-denying behavior a foundation of their spirituality, the Greeks as often as not viewed asceticism as a source of physical, emotional, even political power.

“The Christians grafted notions of piety and reverence onto asceticism, but the Greeks saw it as about power,” said William R. Pinch, a history professor at Wesleyan University. “They believed you could create power by disciplining the body.”

The Greeks, not surprisingly, were deeply impressed by the asceticism of yogi warriors on the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, yoga, what we view today as a low-impact exercise regime for overweight men and decreasingly lithe women, was once the daily discipline of a Hindu military culture, Professor Pinch said. Through excruciating postures, controlled breathing and tongue manipulation, the yogis believed they could push a snake-like energy from the pelvis to the head, making them all but invincible.

“It was less about self-denial and more about the cultivation of power,” said Professor Pinch, the author of “Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires” (2006, Cambridge). “The whole point of this is to turn yourself into a god, a supernormal being. There was a clear tactical advantage of believing, and having your enemy believe, that you were immortal.”

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).