“This war differs from other wars, in this particular: We are not fighting armies but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.” William Tecumseh Sherman
Note: Please know, I have been to war, I have seen its devastation and heartache and I came back changed from the experience. I hate it. That being said, despite being a progressive who hates war, I am also a realist. I am not one that finds any romance or glory in war, but I know that sometimes it becomes unavoidable. In the past few articles I have written about the nature of war, the kind of war we are now engaged in with ISIL and some of the ethical and moral compromises that could easily be made in such a war. Thus what I write here is a continuation of those thoughts and I encourage you to look at those articles.
President Obama came into office as a President determined to end the wars that the United States was engaged in and usher in an era of peace. That did not happen. The genie of war and chaos that was unleashed when President Bush stopped pursuing Al Qaeda and attacked Saddam Hussein’s Iraq refused to go back into its bottle. The new and more violent terrorist groups spawned from the loins of Al Qaeda in Iraq are now the dogs of war that have been unleashed on the region, threatening all of the peoples there.
This menace to the people of the region as well as to the West, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is different than Al Qaeda. It is a terrorist group to be sure, but it is also an embryonic state which is conquering territory, subduing people, butchering its enemies and murdering innocents in cold blood. They boast in their atrocities and believe what they are doing is blessed by their God. They have grown up and been nurtured by a culture of victimhood which they believe that past or present oppression justifies their actions. Eric Hoffer wrote something that is quite poignant if we are to understand the mindset of ISIL:
“It is doubtful if the oppressed ever fight for freedom. They fight for pride and power — power to oppress others. The oppressed want above all to imitate their oppressors; they want to retaliate.”
The leaders and fighters of ISIL are people of the 12th Century living in the 21st Century. Prisoners of their doctrine they are incapable of negotiation, seeing it as only weakness and a way to impose their will on those unable to, or unwilling to resist them. Hoffer described their mindset well in his book The True Believer:
“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”
Thus this war will be something different, something that we in the West do not want to comprehend. We want any war to be neat, fast and comparatively bloodless, but this will not be the case in the war against ISIL. Such wars may be possible against traditional nation states with weak militaries. But to believe that it can be with ISIL is wrong headed and dangerous because it ignores the nature of that group. Carl Von Clausewitz noted that:
“Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat the enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst.”
Ultimately, despite the fact that I almost always counsel that war should be avoided and peaceful solutions found to resolve conflict, there are times that wars must be fought. If ISIL was a true nation-state with a conventional understanding of diplomacy and the relationship between nations it would be conceivable that the United Nations or perhaps the Arab League could help broker a deal. But ISIL is neither your father’s terrorist organization, nor a real nation-state. It is a hybrid which is not driven by realpolitik but rather a fanatical religious belief in their cause. This allows them to dispense with diplomatic niceties and allows them no compromise with those they believe are the enemies of their God; including other Moslems.
Their war has been raging for some time in both Syria and Iraq. What they are doing is further destroying the mosaic of peoples who are part of the Arab heritage in both countries. The atrocities committed by ISIL against Shi’ite Moslems, secular Sunnis, Yidazi and Christians have been displayed around the world. Mass executions, beheadings and the destruction of historic sites which are important parts of the Christian, Moslem and Jewish heritage are only part of their crimes.
Some of those images inflamed people in the West, but it was the images of American and British hostages being beheaded amid dire threats to kill others and bring vengeance on the Western Infidels that finally got our attention. The only condition for peace given by ISIL to those it considers the enemy is “convert or die.” Whether we like it or not, war is now unavoidable. President Obama, the “peace President,” and some of his peers in Western Europe have reluctantly decided to fight ISIL and are now gaining international support for their efforts, even in the Arab world.
Some politicians and pundits seem to think that this will be easy, simply destroy ISIL where they stand. But that belief is illusory. ISIL and its sympathizers may seem to be concentrated in Iraq and Syria, which is enough of a problem for us, but their supporters, financial supporters and sympathizers are world wide. Interestingly Pope Francis noted that:“Even today, after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction….”
That being said there is a warning that all must remember about this war. It is at its heart ideological, and it will be long and brutal and very importantly, the Islamic State believes that it can and will win it.
Winston Churchill said:
“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events…. Always remember, however sure you are that you could easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance.”
Thus in this war we cannot waver, and we must believe in our ideals of freedom, justice, equality and the value of a single human life. We must do this even though our practice of them often makes a mockery of them. But they are still ideals that are worth fighting for, because without them we lose something of our already flawed humanity. Carl Clausewitz recognized this and wrote:
“If the mind is to emerge unscathed from this relentless struggle with the unforeseen, two qualities are indispensable: first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead.”
It was said by Barbara Tuchman that “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.” For over a century the leaders of the West as well as Arab leaders throughout the region have miscalculated far too many times, and what is going on now is the tragic and bloody result of all of those miscalculations. The suffering and the human cost will be great.
Pray my friends for peace, but remember reality, peace is not possible when the kind of religious extremism that motivates ISIL is the driving force. That kind of ideology cannot be negotiated with, it has to be defeated.
It has been a long time since we in the West have had to wage that kind of war and it will come at some cost to our psyche and it will take some getting used to, if you can ever get used to the evil, the carnage, the suffering and the devastation that is the essence of war. As William Tecumseh Sherman said “War is Hell.”