I am a realist when it comes to human nature and the reality of the evil that human beings can do. I have been to war, and personally I can think of nothing worse than more war. For me war is part of the reality that I live with, and which I am reminded of every time I try to sleep. That being said, a new war is gaining in intensity and threatening to blow away what is left of the old world order.
For most modern Americans and others living in the West, war is an often abstract concept regulated to small bodies of professionals fighting actions far away, of which we only catch occasional glimpses of on television or the internet. For most Americans and others in the West, modern war has become a spectator sport, and one far less interesting to most than either American or European football matches.
We in the West have been protected from the savage nature of war for the better part of six decades, with the sole possible exception being Vietnam, when the press had nearly unfettered access to the battlefields and the troops fighting the war. That war was a staple of the six o’clock news on a daily basis for a decade, bringing the war home in almost real time, and that coverage as well as the large numbers of Americans killed and wounded coming home from the war triggered a public backlash against it that helped bring the American involvement to an end.
The government and the military changed the way that war has been covered since, now reporters are vetted and closely supervised, even when they are imbedded with the troops. When the war in Iraq began to go bad, even the return of those killed in action was largely off limits. During the Iraq War many news programs took on the character of cheerleaders as Saddam was toppled. The media only slowly adjusted to the reverses brought about by the failed strategy of the Bush administration in Iraq as the falsehoods that brought about the invasion were revealed and the Iraq Civil War and insurgency spread like wildfire.
As such most people, including political, business, media elites, and even military theorists fail to understand the essential and unchanging, character, nature and complexity of war. As British theorist Colon S. Gray so bluntly points out: “Some confused theorists would have us believe that war can change its nature. Let us stamp on such nonsense immediately. War is organized violence threatened or waged for political purposes.” 1 If we fail to understand that we cannot understand the ongoing wars, to include that being waged by the Islamic State, or Caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
This war that the Islamic State is waging is bigger than most of us understand or want to believe. It is not simply about toppling the Assad regime, nor even taking Baghdad, or even about gaining control of the oil of the Middle East, though each is a goal for the Islamic State.
The larger and much more ambitious goal of the ISIS leadership; that of toppling the Saudi monarchy, which ISIS feels is corrupt and heretical, and the occupation of Mecca, Medina and ultimately Jerusalem, the three most holy sites in Islam. The Puritanical and violent Wahhabi Islam practiced by ISIS rightly understands as so many other Wahhabi fundamentalists have throughout the years; that the possession of these sites, especially Mecca and Medina, give them both legitimacy and standing as the preeminent Islamic government in the World.
The House of Saud allied itself with the founder of Wahhabi Islam in the 1700s, but it was not until the 1920s when the British Indian Office backed the Saudi against the other tribes of the Arabian Peninsula that Wahhabi Islam had a stable base to reach out and touch the rest of the world. As the Saudis became more affluent and connected to the world through oil and the global economy some leading Saudis have tried to moderate their Wahhabi beliefs, modernize the Kingdom, even allowing women a few rights, and to accommodate more progressive beliefs. In the 1970s this brought about the assassination of King Faisal in March 1975 and the seizure of the holy sites of Mecca by extremists in November of 1979. That, coupled with their military alliance with the United States after the Gulf War brought about more opposition from the more radical Wahhabi including Osama Bin Laden whose Al Qaeda network spawned ISIS.
ISIS has found its greatest success in exploiting failures of many of the despotic and totalitarian leaders of Arab states, divisions in Islam, foreign influences and the seemingly hopeless plight of Arabs to overcome poverty and oppression in those countries to advance their cause and promote their ideology. Their brand of Islam which teaches that almost anything is an idol enables them to destroy historical sites, cemeteries, houses of worship and archeological treasures belonging to Christians, Jews, Buddhists and even to other Moslems.
Terrorism and terrorist groups have not generally been non-state actors in the world wide political drama, however, that being said, even non-state actors have strategic, ideological and political goals to which their violence is directed. The unique nature of ISIS is that what most of us assumed to be yet another non-state terrorist group is becoming an embryonic state with its own economic assets, media arm coupled with defined military and political-religious goals, both against other Moslems and the West. Is is morphing before our very eyes from a non-state entity to a hybrid entity with character traits of a non-state and a state actor, especially as it takes control of more and more territory in the Tigris-Euphrates basin of Syria and Iraq.
The message of ISIS to all, including other Moslems, is to convert to their understanding of Islam or die. It is the same kind of message that other religious extremists at the helm of governments have used for millennia, sadly including many Christians.
The fact that the Islamic State is aspiring to become not just a non-state actor, but to place itself as a dominant power on the world stage makes it different. It has the capability of operating in the open where it physically controls cities or regions, as well as in the shadows in countries viewed by them as the enemy. It will most likely adapt its tactics as the situation dictates. Against weaker, or politically unstable neighbors, it will use more conventional means and asymmetrical warfare. However, against enemies who have the power to strike them from afar such as the United States, they will use the asymmetrical means of various types of terrorism; traditional bombings, kidnappings, hijackings and assassinations, the use of any kind of WMD that they can obtain and even cyber-terrorism to attack financial institutions or critical infrastructure.
The war that the Islamic State is preparing for is a throwback to the heady days of Moslem conquest from the 7th to the 15th Centuries. But unlike those days where early Moslems were interested in such things as classical Greek learning, the preservation of historic sites or advances scientific or mathematical learning, the Islamic State is bent on destroying all vestiges of other peoples, groups or religions. Because their absolutist and apocalyptic beliefs allow no compromise, they can and will ruthlessly pursue their religious, ideological and political goals using terror as a tool.
We in the West have not faced something like this in a very long time. War is not just a military and political endeavor, “it is social and cultural… and must reflect the characteristics f the communities that wage it.” 2 The leaders of the Islamic State understand this fact all too well, that is a major reason why they are attracting new Jihadists around the world. However, we in the United States in Europe are on the whole, so detached from such matters that we do not understand the savage nature of war, or the motivations groups like the Islamic State. To us they are barbarous and a throwback to times where our ancestors waged wars of religion and ideology to conquer, convert and enslave unbelievers.
There are many politicians that seem to believe that the Islamic State can be crushed quickly by US and allied forces. However, history shows that such religious-political-ideological movements do not die easily, even when mercilessly attacked by superior military forces.
Those that think a series of surgical strikes by aircraft, cruise missiles or drones; or attacks by Special Forces will eliminate ISIS as a threat do not understand the nature of that beast. We have become enamored of the technology that we use to make war, and we often forget the preeminence of the human dimension. Technology changes rapidly, the nature of the people that employ it seldom changes.
The West must, for human rights and freedom and not for imperialist, economic or even the mission of spreading democracy, we must be prepared for a long and difficult war that will be waged in the most brutal of manners by all sides. We must realize that there will be a terrible cost such a war, economic and human to be sure, people will die and economies will suffer, but worse there will be a cost to our individual and corporate psyche. This war will eventually have a profound effect on all us.
We must realize as Helmuth Von Molkte told Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1906 that the next war “will be a national war which will not be settled by a decisive battle but by a long wearisome struggle with a country that will not be overcome until its whole national force is broken, and a war which will utterly exhaust our own people, even if we are victorious.” Von Molkte’s tragic mistake was that he did nothing to “follow through the logic of his prophecy” 3 and allowed his country to enter a war that it was not prepared to wage, and which caused its collapse.
Ultimately, despite our protestations this war, which has already started will become a war without mercy to use the words of John Dower. The West will be slow to move, and half measures will provoke more attacks and a further spread of the Islamic State. Alliances will have to be made with nations that we may despise, but who are also threatened by the Islamic State. Such is nothing new, the United States and Great Britain allied themselves with the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler.
However, when ISIS successfully attacks a major European or American city causing great loss of life, which they very probably will do, the gloves will finally come off. Then the only words to describe how the West will wage the war will be those of William Tecumseh Sherman who said: “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out….” 4 The Islamic State is sowing the wind, and they will reap the whirlwind.
We must look to history, our own as well as Islamic and Arab to understand the new era we are entering, for in truth, despite all the technological advances and changes in strategy and tactics, the fact is that as Colin Gray writes “what changes about war and warfare, although it can be very obvious and can even seem dramatic, is actually overmatched by the eternal features of war’s nature.” 5
T.E. Lawrence wrote a memorandum to the British Foreign Office warning of what we are seeing today: “A Wahabi-like Moslem edition of Bolshevism is possible, and would harm us almost as much in Mesopotamia as in Persia…” T.E. Lawrence, Memorandum to Foreign Office 15 September 1919
Well, that vision is upon us, and with that I will close for today.