The Imagined Caliphate of ISIL
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Please know this is a difficult article to write. 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 and sometimes necessary. 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. That being said, I do intend on adding some more thoughts to this in the coming days.
I do not expect that all of my readers will agree with me. In fact I had a reader who took exception to yesterday’s article because he could not agree with the fact that the Bush administration’s criminal war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a major cause of today’s problem. He proceeded to lecture me that I was wrong, despite all of the evidence from Congressional hearings, the CIA, and other analysts that disproved his point. That is disheartening, but I expect that now.
That being said I know that there are people on the political right and the political left who will disagree with what I write today. All I ask is that people, regardless of their ideology actually read and take the time to think about what I write before they write me off.
I will be writing more on this subject in the coming days, including about the moral and ethical dangers, as well as the potential threat to our own civil liberties.
Over the past two weeks elements of ISIL have brutally slaughtered nearly 400 civilians outside of areas that they control. The attacks on the Russian airliner, Beirut, and Paris were committed against innocent civilians going about their daily lives. In the areas that they control in Iraq and Syria, where their brutality is unmatched in modern times. This is disconcerting for those of us that would prefer a peaceful solution to the current conflict. But it is the truth.
Despite having served in the military for over thirty-four years, I am not a warmonger, and I am not enamored with the supposed glory of war, or American military superiority. I hate war, but I am a realist. I am a historian with a considerable background in ethics, philosophy, sociology, and political science. I have experience serving with American advisers in Iraq’s Al Anbar province.
Since 2012 ISIL has invoked a reign of terror in the areas of Syria and Iraq that they control. Massacres of opponents, videotaped executions of captives, including humanitarian aid workers and journalists, ethnic and religious cleansing, the forced conversion of female captives with the added element of rape, before and after their capture and enslavement, the execution of homosexuals, and the destruction or religious, cultural, and historic treasures. ISIL is not seeking peace, but rather to destroy everything that they find abhorrent. They are no different than Christians, Jews, Hindus, and even Buddhists that use the police and military power of the state to persecute those who do not believe just like they do.
We must recognize the significance of the attacks of the Islamic State in the past two weeks. These attacks have killed nearly 400 civilians and wounded close to 400 more. ISIL is not targeting military targets, but innocent people; as such their actions are nothing short of criminal. If they were a real nation state, their leaders would be war criminals.
Islamic scholar Reza Aslan understands ISIL better than many people. Aslan told CNN last year:
“Number one, you do have to respond militarily to ISIS soldiers and fighters. These guys are fighting a war of the imagination, a war that they think is happening between the forces of good and evil. There is no negotiation. There’s no diplomacy. There’s nothing to talk about with these guys. They have to be destroyed.”
Let that set in for a moment.
That is not the opinion of an American or Eurocentric scholar; it is not the ranting of an Islamophobic pundit or preacher, but it is the opinion of a learned, moderate, Moslem scholar. As such it needs to be given a lot of credibility. Aslan’s comment takes me back to the words of General William Tecumseh Sherman during the American Civil War. Sherman, who had to deal with insurgents and other Confederate sympathizers who attacked his supply lines and isolated garrisons noted, “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.”
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. Obama, dealt with the situation with quiet diplomacy and soft power. One cannot blame him. He was hamstrung by the financial crisis of 2008 which blew up just as he became President, as well as the consequences of the Bush foreign policy, and the deal that the Bush administration made with the Shia Moslem regime of Maliki in Iraq for the withdraw of U.S. troops. Since Obama took office, new and more violent terrorist groups have been spawned from the loins of Al Qaeda Iraq. Now, the dogs of war that have been unleashed on the region, which threaten all of the peoples who live there, and now have reached out to other regions.
I know that many of my readers are liberals, and progressives who lean toward pacifism. I am okay with that, because at my heart I am a pacifist, I have been to war, and I hate it. Even the must just war, waged for the best of reasons, and with right motives, still can bring about evil. The well-respected ethicist and philosopher Michael Walzer understands the moral, ethical, and legal aspects of war. He 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 Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is different than Al Qaeda. It is a hybrid that will not be defeated by traditional means. ISIL 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. The leaders of ISIL boast in their atrocities and honestly 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 12th Century people living in the 21st Century. They make use of 21st Century communications technology to further their crusade against all opponents. As Reza Aslan noted, 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 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 war with ISIL will be neat, fast, and bloodless 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 were 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 that 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.
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, the attacks on the Russian airliner, the citizens of Beirut, and the people of Paris show that.
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 worldwide. Interestingly Pope Francis noted: “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 for ISIL is driven by a perversion of religion. The war will be long, brutal and most 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 own practice 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.”
Barbara Tuchman said, “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. 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…
The young Union hero of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, Colonel Strong Vincent wrote his wife about how he believed the Union had to defeat the Confederacy. His words were much like Sherman’s and in dealing with ISIL I would hope that the American, Iraqi and coalition forces will take them to heart in combating ISIL: Vincent wrote:
“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…”
Sherman and Vincent’s words may sound unduly harsh, but ISIL knows no other kind of war.
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.”
To be continued…