“I can’t imagine that this video will be of any help in recruiting.”
These are the words (as best I could record while listening on 04 Feb 2015) of a media commentator concerning the ISIS propaganda video showing the murder by immolation of a Jordanian prisoner of war. But this was not just any talking head – this was a member of the US national security community for three presidents. This person has been an interpreter of our enemy’s behavior; a drafter of policy and response. And their response stands as a shining example of why the strategic elite in this country just cannot get its act together in the fight against people who insist on going to war against us.
Our enemy makes a propaganda and recruiting film. We say it could not possibly work. And yet it does, pulling money and fighters from around the world. Burned again. How could we be so wrong so consistently?
There are lots of overlapping answers, starting with our mistaken academic views of how the world works. But for this brief article let’s focus on just one giant mistake in our thinking.
The torture, rape and horrific murder of captive men, women and children by ISIS is not, as our leaders apparently believe, unique behavior by a lunatic “death cult,” reviled by everyone everywhere. Instead, it is a current manifestation of the way war has been waged throughout recorded history, with the small exception of the last three centuries or so in the Western world, under the influence of Christian ideology and then Humanist philosophy. People wage war this way because they like it – they enjoy the savagery – especially when loosed from tenuous moral constraints by religious assurances that they are serving god by feeding their inner monster. Many are attracted to the power and the spectacle and the cruelty, and they want to join. Believing otherwise makes it harder to fight ISIS, and confuses us about what we need to do to win.
History is littered with examples of combatants who not only treated captives horribly, but saw such action as the privilege – even the reward – due those who won the battle. This behavior was not restricted to one religion (Islam) or one area (the Middle East). The Hawaiians did it. So did the Incas, the Mayans, and Native Americans in the US, from the Iroquois and Seminole in the east, to the Apache and Comanche in the west. The Vikings, Celts, and other “barbarians” based their personal reputations on their viciousness toward enemies. In southern Europe, the “civilized” Romans murdered captured Carthaginian soldiers, sold the women into slavery and threw the children from the city walls. Crucifixion was the Roman solution for local rebellion. The Assyrians, Babylonians, and later Persians made their reputations by similar behavior. ISIS attitude toward captives is the same model earlier Islamic armies adopted as they expanded west, and Crusaders copied as they pushed back to the east. The Ottoman navy that terrorized southern Europe was crewed largely by Christian slaves chained to their oars. To the south, the Zulus were distinguished by their military effectiveness, not just their cruelty which was stock in trade for many African tribes and clans. In Central Europe, “Vlad the Impaler” (later recreated in fiction as Count Dracula) earned his name for his treatment of Muslim armies in the defense of Christian lands. Further east, the Tartar invaders, Genghis Kahn’s Mongols, the warlords of China, the various Rajas of India, and the warrior class of Japan creatively burned, boiled, flayed and disemboweled their prisoners and their subjects. The lucky ones were simply beheaded.
Never in this whole long history of man’s inhumanity to man is there an example of an army that could not recruit because potential followers rejected the opportunity to inflict pain and suffering on others. Instead the opposite has consistently been the case. People rape, murder and torture because they like it. And when given moral permission to do so (by religious or political or ethnic ideology) they participate with enthusiasm. Ask the people of Bosnia and Rwanda what happened when the moral and legal barriers came down.
So why do our leaders misunderstand this, and what difference does it make?
Our strategic leaders think that recruits will be repelled by violence against innocents because after 1500 years of effort by Christian, then Humanist, and now Human Rights philosophers, we have achieved a social standard that rejects such behavior. And that’s good. I am glad that both national and international laws (primarily generated in the West) covering the conduct of war exist, and I am happy to see them enforced – even when that occasionally means prosecuting US personnel who violate the norms.
The danger comes when we convince ourselves that people have evolved past their old nature, and actually embrace these artificial norms worldwide. That kind of thinking leads to the conclusion that violence is abhorrent to everyone, old religious beliefs are irrelevant, and differences can always be bridged by rational discussion. This mindset then becomes the basis of our approach to ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, etc. “Violence doesn’t solve anything,” the mantra goes. Except it seems to be solving problems quite handily for ISIS. Their recruiting is up and their funding is up, while we reassure ourselves that if we just find the right words, or share the right shocking image, or bomb precisely the right target, logic will be restored, and the beast that is the human heart will retreat back into the cage we designed for it.
The challenge posed by ISIS is a complicated one. No single magic bullet will solve this problem, be it economic improvements, boots on the ground, or religious reconciliation between traditionally hostile tribes. But by now we at least ought to know one thing that WON’T work – depending on an innate human revulsion to violence to rob the perpetrators of power and support.