Tag Archives: nature of war

War What is it Good For? Sometimes Something: The Context of War

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today something different. Yesterday I did a post about the Gettysburg Address and the importance of the proposition that of democracy that all men are created equal. It is a radical proposition that since the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments, the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and Civil Rights Act of 1965, as well as Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education and Obergfell v. Hodges, has grown in or country to encompass civil rights for African Americans and other racial minorities, Women, and Gays. But those liberties had to be fought for, and would most likely never happened had not Abraham Lincoln and others in the North understood that neither liberty or Union could survive if the South succeeded. In fact, all of us owe our continued freedom to that understanding and the necessity of total war to achieve it.

However, yesterday I had a Twitter troll snipe at me, this time a left-wing troll who claimed to be a “liberal progressive.” However, his remarks were so ignorant of history and reality that I am sure the the had no clue how his words betrayed his alleged beliefs. So in a few words I told him that he was basically ignorant and blocked him. Most of the time when this happens to me it comes from supposed “conservatives,” or “white nationalists” of various flavors, to include the KKK and Neo-Nazi types. But the fact that this came from a self-proclaimed “liberal and progressive” proves that ignorance is not confined to any ideology. That is a sad commentary on our time.

So what I am posting today is an updated and slightly edited portion of the first chapter of my Civil War and Gettysburg text. The entire chapter is close to 150 pages and is probably going to become a book in its own right, but I think it is important for my readers to understand, that sometimes liberty only comes with great sacrifice and the complete defeat of those who want to deny it. That does not matter if it was the Confederacy, Nazi Germany, or even the so-called Islamic State.

As a man who came back changed by war I can only say that I hate it. That being said, though I am a progressive and liberal, I am a realist and understand that as evil as war is, that surrendering liberty to those who believe in “liberty for the few, and slavery for all others.” 

The section of the book may seem a bit wonkish, but it is important. I understand that some of my readers will disagree, but one cannot escape reality.

So anyway, that being said I wish you a good day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Richard Evans wrote something in the preface to his book The Third Reich in History and Memory that those who study military history often forget. He noted: “Military history, as this volume shows, can be illuminating in itself, but also needs to be situated in a larger economic and cultural context. Wherever we look, at decision making at the top, or at the inventiveness and enterprise of second rank figures, wider contextual factors remained vital.” [1] Thus while this work is an examination of the Gettysburg campaign it is important to understand the various issues that were formative for the men who directed and fought the battle. One cannot understand the determination the determination of Robert E. Lee to maintain the offensive, the dogged persistence of Joshua Chamberlain or Strong Vincent to hold Little Round Top, what brought John Buford to McPherson’s Ridge, what motivated Daniel Sickles to move Third Corps to the Peach Orchard, and what motivated the men of Pickett’s division to advance to their death on Cemetery Ridge, without understanding the broader perspective of culture, politics, economics, religion, sociology, and ideology that shaped these men.

The American Civil War was the first modern war. It was a watershed event in an era, which introduced changes in new types of weapons, more lethal versions of older weapons, tactics, army organization, logistics, intelligence and communications. Though the war did not change the essential nature of war, which Clausewitz says is “is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will” [2] it expanded the parameters of war and re-introduced the concept of “total war” to the world and “because its aim was all embracing, the war was to be absolute in character.” [3] In a sense it was a true revolution in military affairs.

The Civil War was truly a revolution in military affairs. The war changed the character of war, as it had been known for centuries, since the Peace of Westphalia and the end of the Thirty Years War. In the American Civil War, the character of war changed from a limited war waged between opposing armies into a war that at times bordered on Clausewitz’s understanding of absolute or total war. This conflict was waged between two people who shared much in common but were divided by an ideology which encompassed politics, economics, society, law, and even religion.

The war was revolutionary in other ways, and brought about a host of social, philosophical, economic, and political changes which continue to impact the lives of people in the United States and around the world even today. Some of these, especially those regarding the abolition of slavery and emancipation, as well as the beginnings of the Women’s Rights movement have had a ripple effect in matters of political and social equality for other previously disenfranchised groups of citizens. One writer noted in regard to the social impacts that “The Civil War uprooted institutions, transformed our politics, influenced social relationships of half a continent, and wrought changes that echo down the generations.” [4] Mark Twain wrote in 1873 that the war “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people …and wrought so profoundly upon the national character that cannot be measured short of two or three generations.” [5]

In a sense, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed “a new birth of freedom” in his Gettysburg address it served as a watershed moment in American history because it brought to the forefront the understanding of Jefferson and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. That statement, flowing from the Declaration was key to Lincoln’s understanding of human rights and dignity, and from it came the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. Those would be followed by the Republican Congresses’ passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which overturned the Dred Scott Decision, which denied all citizenship to blacks across the country, and by Ulysses S. Grant’s Fifteenth Amendment, which gave African American men to right to vote. That is the human and political context by which we have to understand the American Civil War.

Thus it is important to study the Gettysburg campaign in the context of the Civil War because the campaign of 1863 in the east cannot be divorced from what was happening in the west at Vicksburg, nor the Union blockade, nor the diplomatic, economic and informational aspects of the war. Likewise the Gettysburg campaign cannot be separated from its relationship to the broader understanding of the nature and character of war. To do this one must examine the connection between them and policies made by political leaders; to include the relationship of political to military leaders, diplomats, the leaders of business and industry and not to be forgotten, the press and the people. Likewise we must understand the various contexts of war, to include the social, political, ideological and even the religious components of war, how they impacted Civil War leaders and why civilian policy makers and military leaders must understand them today.

While the essential nature of war remains constant, wars and the manner in which they are fought have changed in their character throughout history, and this distinction matters not only for military professionals, but also policy makers. The changing character of war was something that military leaders as well as policy makers struggled with during the American Civil War much as today’s military leaders and policy makers seek to understand the character of warfare today. British military theorist Colin Gray writes “Since the character of every war is unique in the details of its contexts (political, social-cultural, economic, technological, military strategic, geographical, and historical), the policymaker most probably will struggle of the warfare that is unleashed.” [6] That was not just an issue for Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, both of whom struggled with the nature of the war which had been unleashed, but it is one for our present political leaders, who as civilian politicians are “likely to be challenged by a deficient grasp of both the nature of war as well as its contemporary context-specific character.” [7]

In addition to being the first modern war, or maybe I should say, the first war of the Industrial Age, the Civil War prefigured the idea of total war written about by Clausewitz that occurred in the World Wars of the Twentieth Century. The war combined a massive number of technological advances, which both preceded and occurred during it, in which the philosophical nature of the Industrial Revolution came to the fore.

Likewise, the enmity of the two sides for one another had been fostered by a half century of relentless and violent propaganda that ushered from the mouths of politicians, the press and even from the pulpit brought the element of hatred to the fore of the conflict. A Confederate Captain wrote his wife to teach his children “a bitter and unrelenting hatred of the Yankee race” that had “invaded our country and devastated it…[and] murdered our best citizens…. If any luckless Yank should unfortunately come my way he need not petition for mercy. If he does I will give him lead.” A soldier from a Wisconsin regiment wrote to his fiancée after the assault on Resaca, Georgia that his unit had captured twenty-three Confederates and “or boys asked if they remembered Fort Pillow and killed them all. Where there is no officer with us, we take no prisoners…. We want revenge for our brother soldiers and will have it…. Some of the [rebels] say they will fight as long as there is one of them left. We tell them that is what we want. We want to kill them all off and cleanse the country.” [8]

As such there were many times the American Civil War came close to Clausewitz’s understanding of absolute war in its in character, and it prefigured the great ideological wars of the twentieth century. J.F.C. Fuller noted “for the first time in modern history the aim of war became not only the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces, but also of their foundations- his entire political, social and economic order.” [9] It was the first war where at least some of the commanders, especially Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman were men of the Industrial Age, in their thought and in the way that they waged war, in strategy, tactics even more importantly, psychologically. Fuller wrote:

“Spiritually and morally they belonged to the age of the Industrial Revolution. Their guiding principle was that of the machine which was fashioning them, namely, efficiency. And as efficiency is governed by a single end- that every means is justified- no moral or spiritual conceptions of traditional behavior must stand in its way.” [10]

Both men realized in early 1864 that “the South was indeed a nation in arms and that the common European practice of having standing armies engaged each other in set-piece battles to determine the outcome of a war was not enough to win this struggle.” [11] Though neither man was a student of Clausewitz, their method of waging war was in agreement with the Prussian who wrote that “the fighting forces must be destroyed; that is, they must be put in such a position that they can no longer carry on the fight” but also that “the animosity and the reciprocal effects of hostile elements, cannot be considered to have ended so long as the enemy’s will has not been broken.” [12]

William Tecumseh Sherman told the mayor of Atlanta after ordering the civilian population expelled that “we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make the old and young, the rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.” [13] Sherman was one of the first American military leaders to understand that a civil war could not be waged according to the limited war doctrines most American officers had been taught. He not only “carried on war against the enemy’s resources more extensively and systematically than anyone else had done, but he developed also a deliberate strategy of terror directed against the enemy’s minds.” [14] While some might find this troubling, the fact remains that it was Sherman’s Southern sweep of all that lay before him that broke the back of the Confederacy.

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Strong Vincent

But Sherman and Grant were not alone in understanding the problem of fighting a limited war against the Confederacy. In the fall of 1862 a twenty-five year volunteer Colonel serving with McClellan’s army in Virginia who would be instrumental in throwing back Hood’s assault on Little Round Top, and die leading the defense of that edifice, by the name of Strong Vincent, understood what had to happen if the Union were to overcome the rebellion of the Confederacy.

“We must fight them more vindictively, or we shall be foiled at every step.  We must desolate the country as we pass through it, and not leave a trace of a doubtful friend or foe behind us; make them believe that we are in earnest, terribly in earnest; that to break this band in twain is monstrous and impossible; that the life of every man, yea, of every weak woman or child in the entire South, is of no value whatever compared with the integrity of the Union.” [15]

To most modern Americans who have no experience of war other than seeing it as a video spectator, the words of Vincent and Sherman seem monstrous and even inhuman. However, those who persist in such thinking fail to understand the nature and context of war. While some wars may be fought in a limited manner, others, especially ones driven by militant and uncompromising ideologies, often backed by fanatical religious beliefs cannot be limited, and those that fight such wars must, to paraphrase the words of Strong Vincent, “must fight them more vindictively, or be foiled at every step.” It would have been interesting to see what Vincent might have achieved had he not been cut down by Confederate bullets on Little Round Top.

Abraham Lincoln came to embrace the eternal nature of war as well as the change in the character of the war over time. Lincoln had gone to war for the preservation of the Union, and initially pursued the war in a limited way, seeking to defeat Confederate armies in the field while sparing the people of the Confederacy from total destruction.

But in his quest to preserve the Union, something that for him was almost spiritual in nature, as is evidenced by the language he used in both of his inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg Address, he found that Confederacy would only return to the Union if conquered, and he became convinced that the South’s peculiar institution, that of slavery, must be destroyed in the process. Thus, instead of a war to simply re-unite the Union and let bygones be bygones, Lincoln changed the narrative of the war when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When this happened the war not only became a war to restore the Union, but the a war for the liberation of enslaved African Americans, After January 1st 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Lincoln “told an official of the Interior Department, “the character of the war will be changed. It will be one of subjugation…The [old] South is to be destroyed and replaced by new propositions and ideas.” [16] That too was a modern understanding of war.

Of course, the revolution in military affairs that characterized the Civil War took time, but it was the political and military leaders of the North who better adapted themselves and their nation to the kind of war that was being fought. “Lincoln’s remarkable abilities gave him a wide edge over Davis as a war leader, while in Grant and Sherman the North acquired commanders with a concept of total war and the determination to make it succeed.” [17]

At the beginning of the war the leaders and populace of both sides still held a misguided and unrealistic romantic idea of war. Most people in the North and the South held on to the belief that the war would be over in a few months and that would be settled by a few decisive battles and that casualties would be comparatively light. This included most politicians as well as many military officers on both sides. There were some naysayers who believed that the war would be long and costly, like the venerable and rather corpulent General Winfield Scott, but politicians and the press mocked Scott and other doubters who even suggested that the war would be long, hard, and bloody. Of course those who predicted a short, easy, and relatively bloodless war were the ones proven wrong, though it would take the leaders and the people of both sides over a year to understand. When it was done the American Civil War became the bloodiest war ever waged by Americans, and it was against other Americans.

Notes

[1] Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich in History and Memory Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2015 p.ix

[2] Clausewitz, Carl von. On War Indexed edition, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1976 p.75

[3] Fuller, J.F.C. The Conduct of War 1789-1961 Da Capo Press, New York 1992. Originally published by Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick N.J p.99

[4] Lowry, Thomas P. The Stories the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA 1994 p.176

[5] McPherson, James The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2015 p.48

[6] Gray, Colin S. Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy Potomac Book, Dulles VA 2009 p.36

[7] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.36

[8] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation pp.49-50

[9] Fuller, J.F.C. A Military History of the Modern World, Volume Three: From the Seven Days Battle, 1862, to the Battle of Leyte Gulf, 1944 Minerva Press 1956 p.88

[10] Ibid. Fuller A Military History of the Modern World, Volume Three p.88

[11] Flood, Charles Bracelen, Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the War, Harper Perennial, New York 2005 p.238

[12] Ibid. Clausewitz p.90

[13] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.809

[14] Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military History and Policy University of Indiana Press, Bloomington IN, 1973 p.149

[15] Nevins, James H. and Styple, William B. What Death More Glorious: A Biography of General Strong Vincent Belle Grove Publishing Company, Kearney NJ 1997 p.57

[16] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.558

[17] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.857

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War is Cruelty

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Destroyed Tombstone at the British Cemetery: Habbinyah Iraq  

I am a career military officer, an Iraq veteran and an anti-war liberal, but I am also a realist in terms of the world. I have no illusions about the world. I do not believe that the United States always acts with honor and I know in my heart of hearts that much of the chaos that we are seeing in the world, particularly the Middle East comes from years of American intrigue and intervention. But I also know that once you have let the genie of war and chaos out of the bottle that it seldom returns to it without creating more chaos, death and destruction. Since I am a realist, I understand that whether I want it or not, and regardless of who is President that this war will remain part of our lives, maybe for a generation or more. Thus we have to understand that this war is not a movie, it is not a video game, and it has the potential to change all of our lives, and not for the better.

I fully agree with two time Medal of Honor Winner and Marine Corps Major General, Smedley Butler who wrote in his book War is a Racket:

“What is the cost of war? what is the bill?…This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

Today I am taking some time to write about the nature of war. It is something that the vast majority of Americans have only vicariously experienced in news accounts, movies, television shows and video games which desensitize people to the horror of war as they kill virtual enemies in often the most violent ways. Abraham Lincoln noted “There’s no honorable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war. Except its ending.”

This is amazing since we have been at war for over thirteen years now. This war has been extended indefinitely by the actions of the Islamic State and the announced intentions of President Obama to fight. Sadly, it will become much worse than people want to believe regardless of whether it is a long or a short war and believe me it will not be a short war. The Islamic State seems to up the ante every day with new atrocities against the peoples of the areas that they control, desecration of religious shrines and the destruction of irreparable historical sites and artifacts.

Americans have grown up for the past twenty years with hi-tech wars that with a few exceptions of terrorism inflicted on American civilians have been waged by a comparatively small professional military; a military that at any given time over the last 20 years has comprised less than one percent of the American population. As such war is a spectator sport for most Americans, we watch it on television, or on You Tube videos on the internet, but it is a distant thing, happening to others that doesn’t touch us too deeply because most of us think that we have no skin in the game. In fact people that bet on baseball have more skin in the game than most Americans do in the current war, but that will probably change.

Since I have written much about that military at its sacrifices in the war that began on September 11th 2001 I am not going to belabor that today. Instead I am going to go back to the nature of war, even wars that may be fought in self-defense and with just cause. It was General William Tecumseh Sherman who wrote:

“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms 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…

Chris Hedges wrote: “Violence is a disease, a disease that corrupts all who use it regardless of the cause,” and as Clausewitz noted of war’s nature, that it is: “a paradoxical trinity-composed of primordial violence, hatred and enmity…”

We try to use language to soften war; to make it more palatable, but to do so is an Orwellian charade that is deceptive and destructive to the soul. Dave Grossman, the army infantry officer who has spent his post military life writing about the psychology of war and killing wrote:

“Even the language of men at war is the full denial of the enormity of what they have done. Most solders do not “kill,” instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and mopped up. The enemy is hosed, zapped, probed, and fired on. The enemy’s humanity is denied, and he becomes a strange beast called a Jap, Reb, Yank, dink, slant, or slope. Even the weapons of war receive benign names- Puff the Magic Dragon, Walleye, TOW, Fat Boy, Thin Man- and the killing weapon of the individual soldier becomes a piece or a hog, and a bullet becomes a round.”

Likewise Thucydides wrote:

“Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal supporter; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question incapacity to act on any….”

Such language gives those who have never been to war but cannot live without it to bring it on, but as Sherman noted: “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”

President Obama in his address to the nation, and the world on the eve of September 11th talked of a war against the Islamic State, using far more diplomatic, restrained and less warlike language than did Vice President Biden who said:

“As a nation we are united and when people harm Americans we don’t retreat, we don’t forget. We take care of those who are grieving and when that’s finished, they should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice because hell is where they will reside. Hell is where they will reside.”

I commend the President for his humanity and desire to fight the Islamic State with a matter of restraint. That restraint will last so long as the Islamic State is unable or unwilling to strike at American civilians in the American homeland, or in a country that is not in the war zone, or an American ship or military installation at home or abroad. But once that happens, and it will the pretense of restraint will drop and what the Vice President said will become our goal, even if we do not officially say it. But once those restraints are passed, the war will get really messy. Michael Walzer wrote in his book Just and Unjust Wars:

“We don’t call war hell because it is fought without restraint. It is more nearly right to say that, when certain restraints are passed, the hellishness of war drives us to break with every remaining restraint in order to win. Here is the ultimate tyranny: those who resist aggression are forced to imitate, and perhaps even to exceed, the brutality of the aggressor.”

The problem with this war is that it has lasted so long already, and such long wars are detrimental to the nations and peoples that fight them, as Sun Tzu wrote: “There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare,” as such the longer we drag this war against the Islamic State and other similar groups out, the longer the war continues, the crueler it will become and the more damage it will do to our civil liberties, our economy and even more importantly to the spirit of our nation. One can only look at the Patriot Act and related measures undertaken in the name of national security after 9-11-2001 and recall the words of President John F Kennedy who said in respect to the epidemic of loyalty oaths and restrictions on civil liberties enacted in the 1950s:

“We have also seen a sharpening and refinement of abusive power. The legislative investigation, designed and often exercised for the achievement of high ends, has too frequently been used by the Nation and the States as a means for effecting the disgrace and degradation of private persons. Unscrupulous demagogues have used the power to investigate as tyrants of an earlier day used the bill of attainder.

The architects of fear have converted a wholesome law against conspiracy into an instrument for making association a crime. Pretending to fear government they have asked government to outlaw private protest. They glorify “togetherness” when it is theirs, and call it conspiracy when it is that of others.”

Thus the place that we now find ourselves is not good. On one hand by using restraint the war goes on and on, war without end, and if we embrace Sherman’s realism and admit that “War is cruelty. There’s no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over” is that we will imitate or exceed the brutality of the Islamic State. Either way, we lose something of ourselves.

My hope is that somehow, when this is war is done, maybe in our time or in another generation or two, that we will be able to establish peace by making our enemies our friends.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, national security, News and current events

The Islamic State and the New, Old Nature of War

bilad ash shaam

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.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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