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ISIS: Paganism with an Islamic Face?

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

“And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.”

– Leviticus 18:21 

“They rejected the commandments of the Lord … and served Baal. They consigned their sons and daughters to the fire”

– 2 Kings 17:16–17

“And do not kill your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you. Indeed, their killing is ever a great sin”

  – Qur’an 17:31

In a recent comment section conversation with Charles Cameron and RAND scholar David Ronfeldt on the character of Fascism and its resurgence, I remarked that ISIS adopting a Fascist style in its propaganda and governance may be drawing upon a ghastly and ancient lineage:

ISIS is really embracing Fascism. It’s ceremonial public executions actually supercede what the Nazis and Fascists did only symbolically with blood flags and heroic cenotaphs and so on. It is reaching back to something very dark and protean, human sacrifice, as a political symbol. I think [ Moshe] Halbertal’s book On Sacrifice, is a useful reference here on how deep this goes culturally, to the bronze age or earlier.

ISIS has for some time been making quite a perverse spectacle of its executions of prisoners, combatant and non-combatant alike, releasing videos to international fanfare and glorying in the resultant horror and global infamy. The precedent for this macabre “propaganda of the deed“was initially set by the forefather of ISIS, the Jordanian jailbird upjumped to “terrorist mastermind”, the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who originally led al Qaida in Iraq during the American occupation of Iraq. Prior to expiring after U.S. forces dropped a 500 lb bomb on his head, al-Zarqawi pioneered the use of  beheading videos, usually featuring himself being filmed incompetently and gruesomely sawing off an orange jumpsuit-clad captive’s head with a large knife, blood spraying everywhere.

Zarqawi’s ghoulish innovation in terrorist messaging admittedly held a certain fascination for the psychopathic segment of Sunni Islamist extremists and it attracted foreign fighters of this nature to Iraq who in turn lionized Zarqawi as “the Sheikh of Slaughterers”; but the beheading videos also generally horrified public opinion in the Muslim world and repelled even hardened jihadis, earning Zarqawi a rebuke from al Qaida number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri:

….Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable – also- are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God.

….However, despite all of this, I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma. And that however far our capabilities reach, they will never be equal to one thousandth of the capabilities of the kingdom of Satan that is waging war on us. And we can kill the captives by bullet. That would achieve that which is sought after without exposing ourselves to the questions and answering to doubts. We don’t need this. 

Zarqawi’s Iraqi bloodlust ended only because it was interrupted by the American military, but the leaders of ISIS have carried on. Far from accepting Zawahiri’s advice, they have doubled down, greatly upgrading the marketing of ritualistic murder from Zarqawi’s crude snuff films to slick videos with professional editing and high production values that have become central to the online “brand” of the ISIS “caliphate”. Like the hosts of a sinister game show, ISIS spokesmen have found the time to murder creatively in order to keep their audience of Islamist terrorist wannabes in the West tuned in and captivate the attention of the global media (though sometimes, things do not work  out as planned).


However effective this circus of horrors has been at daunting their enemies and attracting the allegiance of “zealous young men” to ISIS, it reveals an atavistic impulse at play that no amount of Quranic hand-waving can paper over and conceal. Jurisprudence is absent here; not even the grim and rough Islamic “justice” of the Taliban is given to prisoners of ISIS, which violates the customary protections given under Islamic law or historical Muslim judicial practices. These choreographed and sensationalized executions by ISIS are really a cryptic revival of the ancient and terrible practice of human sacrifice, that in most cultures and religions had long been replaced by symbolic ritual, but once reigned supreme during the Bronze Age, not least in ancient Iraq, which if new findings are to be believed was like Aztec Mexico, a charnel-house of slaughter.

Originating in the Stone Age, human sacrifice in the religious sense of an offering to the gods or God, lasted a surprisingly long time. Setting aside the preColumbian cultures of the New World, the ancient Romans, for example, did not formally outlaw human sacrifice until the first century BC, though the practice had become archaic and Rome vigorously sought to stamp it out among the Gauls and Britons, among whom human sacrifice was an accepted part of Druidic religion. Nor was human sacifice entirely unknown among the ancient Greeks of the classical period while child sacrifice was probably central to Carthaginian state rites to such a degree that other peoples of the time, including the Romans, found abhorrent.

What occurred in many cases is that as civilizations evolved in social complexity, substitutionary practices for human sacrifice developed that served the same impulse, to propitiate and honor their God(s) and create powerful emotional bonds among the participants:  animal sacrifice, burial ceremoniesmysteries, religious ritual, necromancy, symbolism in theater and political matters of state religion. The Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac is itself a scriptural admonition to the ancient Hebrews to adopt animal sacrifice as most pleasing to God, a practice the Israelites and Jews of the classical period continued until the destruction of the second temple by the Roman general Titus. From that point on, from the close of the first century AD, Jews and the early, still Judaic, Christians moved away from the practice of animal sacrifice and substituted prayer and theology of salvation, respectively. Sacrifice, especially human sacrifice, became a distinguishing mark of paganism and the subject of Christian crusades in the middle-ages, like the brutal war waged by the Teutonic Knights against the human sacrificing Old Prussians and Lithuanian barbarian tribes.

The Binding of Isaac

The end of late medieval European religious warfare and the rise of the Westphalian system after the Thirty Year’s War slowly shifted the symbolic moral center of sacrifice from God to the State, with divine right monarchy serving as a waystation for the incubation of modern nationalism. There was an epistemic shift, as Halbertal argues in On Sacrifice from a sacred and mystical “sacrificing to” the sovereign God borrowed from the examples of Jewish martyrdom by early Christians who shared in the Romans the same persecutors. This shift opened the gates of permissible sacrifices, legitimating a new secular and political “sacrificing for” the glory of the State.

It is a profound difference but occurring within the same phenomena, as illustrated by two quotes:

…And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

And the Lord said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

                                                                              – Genesis 22:2


….But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow, this ground – The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

     – Abraham Lincoln

Gettysburg and Antietam were not Mount Moriah. Neither were the Somme or Stalingrad the same as the Tophet. From time of the Patriarch Abraham to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, nations of men ceased to sacrifice usually helpless others but moved to sacrifice themselves in what they reckoned as the highest cause. Movement away from human sacrifice as practiced by ancient Carthaginian or animal sacrifice as practiced by most peoples of antiquity, including the Jews, to gentler substitutionary practices, Moshe Halbertal has called the “cataclysmic shift” in the history of civilization.

If so, it is a shift that ISIS has begun to reverse.

In their outstanding ISIS: The State of Terror, counterterrorism scholars Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger analyze the dark obsession ISIS has demonstrated in its propaganda messaging with exquisitely orchestrated executions:

….As we have noted, ISIS’s psychological warfare is directed at its potential victims. But it is also directed at those it aims to control. It is deliberately attempting to blunt its follower’s empathy by forcing them to participate in or observe acts of brutality. Over time, this can lead to secondary psychopathy, or a desire to harm others, and contagion of violence. Beheadings are one such tool for blunting empathy.

Berger and Stern are likely correct that the methodical character of ISIS demonstrations of brutality are intended to desensitize the participants and (as they further explained) a tendency to cultivate secondary psychopathology in ISIS recruits, especially the young. A similar process occurred during the Holocaust with Nazi Einsatzgruppen and reserve unit police battalions detailed to assist the SS mobile killing squads on the Eastern front. Many serving in these units, already fanatical National Socialists, became inured to the suffering of women, children and the old who were shot and dumped still alive into mass graves, though some SS men showed signs of PTSD, depression and higher rates of severe alcoholism, desertion and suicide.

The comparison between the genocidal cruelty of the SS and ISIS, while natural, is limited by a very important distinction. However zealous their ideological fanaticism and dedicated in their murderous mission to exterminate European Jewry, the SS lacked the context of moral certainty and the psychological reinforcement effects of religious exaltation enjoyed by ISIS killers. Even the malevolent Heinrich Himmler, in his secret speech to Nazi gauleiters and SS leaders, regarded the Final Solution as a terrible burden that the SS shouldered on behalf of the Fuhrer to assure Germany’s future; a “glorious” crime that Himmler believed must be kept forever hidden from history and the German people.

Not so ISIS, which revels in its bloody terror. Worse, the repetition of garish executions as public celebrations by ISIS, with a vague but constant religious context, devoid of any shred of Islamic legality, inevitably acquire over time the theological characteristics of Halbertal’s “sacrificing to”  – what began as harsh jihadi jurisprudence and psychological warfare mutated under conditions of lazy, sociopathic brutality and totemic invocations of Islam into ritual “offering” by ISIS of its prisoners of war as human sacrifices in the manner of the ancient pagans. A perverse blasphemy, but one that draws on a powerful archetype deeply buried in the human psyche.

ISIS leaders have not only looked into the Abyss, they have descended into and become one with it.

The Freikorps Revival

Monday, September 14th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen”]

One of the signs that the Westphalian state system was approaching its zenith was the gradual extinction of legal private warfare in Europe (and in America , east of the frontier). While this trend predated the French Revolution with divine right absolutism monarchs taxing and regulating their nobles once formidable feudal armies into harmless personal bodyguards and ceremonial companies, it was enforced in earnest after the Napoleonic wars by now bureaucratic nation-states. To the sovereign power of the state jealously guarding its monopoly on the legal use of force, in the late 19th century were added the weight of international law.

While once it was commonplace for heavily armed “Free Companies” to roam Europe’s battlefields, hiring themselves out or pillaging on their own, neither the Lieber Code nor the Hague Convention took an indulgent view of the professional mercenary or the provincial partisan, proscribing their historic role in warfare and condemning them along with spies and saboteurs to death. By the time of the First World War with the exception of Tsarist Russia, which still had vestiges of pre-modern feudalism in their Cossack hosts that supplemented the Russian Army, all of the great and middle powers entered WWI with national armies based upon mass conscription, run by a professional officer corps. Even America saw its long established military tradition of locally raised volunteer units of the States abolished by President Wilson, who instituted a draft. Wilson it seems, feared the political effects of an aging Teddy Roosevelt leading a new band of Rough Riders on the Western Front.

This situation shifted dramatically in the aftermath of the Great War. Communist revolution and civil war in Russia, Hungary and Bavaria spawned a rebirth of private militarism; right-wing and nationalist “white” paramilitaries composed of ex-soldiers  battled anarchist and Bolshevik “Red guards” made up of factory workers and party militants. In defeated Germany, a vigorous and heavily armed “Freikorps” movement of embittered veterans led by charismatic officers arose and fought engagements in the Baltic states, in Polish and Czech borderlands, in the Ruhr and in Bavaria, where they crushed a short-lived Soviet republic.

Partially suppressed by the weak Weimar state, partially covertly subsidized and organized by the leadership of the German Army which saw the Friekorps as a “Black Reichswehr” strategic reserve against French attack, the Freikorps degenerated, pillaged, mutated into terrorist  organizations and gradually merged with and militarized Germany’s extreme nationalist and volkisch (racialist) political factions, including the nascent National Socialist German Workers Party. Ex-Freikorps fighters became the backbone of the Nazi SA and nationalist Stahlhelm armies of brawlers, thugs and hooligans. They even had their own newspapers, sports clubs, artists and writers, among whom Ernst Junger was a favorite of that generation.

The reason for this long historical prologue is that it is happening again. The fascinating article below from VICE gives evidence of what should be called a Freikorps Revival. Note the connection to the French Foreign Legion veterans with the Azov Regiment; the Legion once welcomed almost as many German Freikorps men as did the Nazi Party.

Meet the European Fighters Who Have Gone to War in Ukraine

….”I spent all day with a pistol in one hand and a grenade in the other, wondering how I was going to kill myself and how many [separatists] I could take with me,” said Chris “Swampy” Garrett, a British citizen and a member of the squad of Europeans fighting in Eastern Ukraine for Azov Regiment.

Garrett had just returned to Kiev after a failed mission behind enemy lines in the small village of Shyrokyne. His team had been surrounded and cut off from Ukrainian positions before the men fled. He spent over 14 hours trapped behind an enemy advance, fighting in close quarters and taking shelter from friendly artillery fire, before sneaking out of the village under the cover of darkness.

For Garrett, who has served in the British army and done humanitarian de-mining work in the Karen State on the Thai/Myanmar border, the decision to join the Azov Battalion was a simple one: “One day they posted up on the [Azov Battalion] Facebook site, asking, ‘We need people who have any kind of knowledge with first aid, volunteering, with basic military skills, de-mining, anything. If you have any skills at all, to any level, can you come and help?’ So I kind of saw that as my route in, even if I didn’t stay with the [Azov] Battalion. [It was] my surest way to get into the country—get into the east and then be able to see the bigger picture from there.”

….Garrett is not the only member of the group of European soldiers who came to defend Ukrainian sovereignty. But while some came to protect Ukraine, others here came to fight for conservative and nationalist politics in Ukraine’s relatively open political space. For Harley, a 42-year-old from France who served in the French navy and later in the private security industry, involvement was two-sided: he came “to help Ukraine against Russia” and wears a “Fuck U Putin” bracelet on his wrist, but joined Azov because its politics were similar to his own: “Azov,” he said, propagated a political agenda that “was closer to my idea.” 

Azov’s politics have drawn fire for being far-right to the point of neo-Nazism; “If you want to find Nazis, [Azov] is the place to come,” one soldier told me on the way to the frontline. And yet, the political reality of Azov is much more complicated than that. One soldier in the European group told me he estimates that around 20 percent of the battalion could be considered neo-Nazis, while David Eriksson—a 48-year-old Swede who owns real estate and marketing businesses—said: “I think almost 100 percent of foreigners—it used to be maybe 90 percent of foreigners—are not Nazis. They are here to fight.”

Read the rest here.

This may be a meta-trend. Everywhere, rootless young (and some not so young) men are turning their backs on civilized existence and seeking out answers to life or a quick death in lawless conflict zones. Third generation European Muslims who leave families and communities to join ISIS in Syria while American and Dutch motorcycle gang members show up to fight with the Kurdish Peshmerga. Russian outlaw bikers by contrast are Putin’s Cossacks in the Crimea and Donbass while in Pakistan the ISI has made funneling angry young men into terrorist groups and militias something of a cottage industry

Some of these men will never return, but most will. If the lessons of history are to be reckoned, this bodes poorly for the future. They will bring a Darwinian outlook and a politics of the gun.

Intellectuals and their Romance with Political Barbarism

Saturday, July 4th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Martin Heidegger, Eric Hobsbawm and Ezra Pound

A  meandering post inspired by Reason Magazine and Charles Cameron.

Reason.com is best known for giving a scrappy libertarian take on current events, crime, technology and pop culture, but recently, an article by Charles Paul Freund touched a deeper, darker vein of twentieth century history and, in my view, a problematic recurring pattern in intellectual life:

Hunger for Fascism

Al Pacino has withdrawn from a Danish stage version of Knut Hamsun’s novel, Hunger, after learning that the Norwegian Nobel prize-winning author had been an ardent supporter of Nazi Germany. The move dismayed some of Hamsun’s defenders, but it’s also a reminder of the appalling state of intellectual life during the rise of fascism. So many writers and thinkers embraced fascism in those years that they constituted what came to be called a “fascist foreign legion.”

Hunger (1890) is considered a classic of psychological literature, and Hamsun himself is regarded by many critics and writers as one of the fathers of literary Modernism, and an important influence on such writers as Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, and many others. In a 1987 introduction to Hunger, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote that “The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.”

[….] Hamsun’s fascism was hardly a byproduct of hardening of the arteries. He lived for a time in the 1880s in the U.S., and came to dislike the country for its egalitarian principles, and because it had a large black population (even though that population wasn’t benefitting much from the egalitarianism). His 1918 novel, Growth of the Soil, is a pretty good example of “blood and soil” lit. John Carey, a British critic, cites a passage from Hamsun’s Kareno trilogy of dramas, written in the 1890s, as indicative of his outlook:

“I believe in the born leader, the natural despot, the master, not the man who is chosen but the man who elects himself to be ruler over the masses. I believe in and hope for one thing, and that is the return of the great terrorist, the living essence of human power, the Caesar.”

Hamsun, who gave his Nobel to Hitler as a mark of his esteem, remained faithful to the fascist cause to the bitter end. Hamsun’s most-often quoted words come from the brief eulogy for Hitler that he published in a collaborationist newspaper in May 1945, a week after the Fuehrer died.

[….] George Orwell wrote in 1946 that, “The relationship between fascism and the literary intelligentsia badly needs investigating, and [William Butler] Yeats might well be the starting point.” Such investigations have since been written, of course, and they include the expected chapters on Yeats as well as others on D.H. Lawrence (The Plumed Serpent may be the clearest example of Lawrence’s fascism), T.S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis (who at this point is probably as well known for his fascism as for anything else he did).

What was the appeal of fascism to such people? It wasn’t just that many of them were racists and/or anti-Semites (though that didn’t hurt); plenty of authors have been racists without embracing totalitarian systems. The underlying issue for many of these figures, according to investigations by John R. Harrison and by John Carey, was an antipathy to democracy.

“Many twentieth-century writers,” wrote John R. Harrison in The Reactionaries: A study of the anti-democratic intelligentsia (1966), “have decided that culture has been sacrificed to democracy; the spread of culture has meant that the level of the masses is raised, but that the level of the elite is lowered.” As for writers like Pound, Yeats, and others, “they realized there was no hope of a return to an earlier form of civilization, so they hoped for a stability provided by totalitarian regimes.”[….]

Read the whole thing here.

The dark romance of intellectuals with Fascism died in 1945. Their bloody affair with Communism has dwindled significantly, but lingers in some quarters still.

Why though was 20th century totalitarianism so attractive to the West’s leading thinkers, artists and writers? After all, once you got past the snazzy uniforms, the trains running on time and land for the peasants, the overt reveling in barbarism and cruelty by Fascists and Communists was hard to miss – and if you missed it, the Nazis gave choreographed tours of concentration camps and the Soviets held show trials right in the face of world media. Very little of the bloodbath was hidden, except to the willingly blind, who tended to most often be well educated and otherwise thoughtful people yet found ways to morally rationalize collaboration and fellow traveling.

There are, in my view, a number of reasons. These tended to differ somewhat depending on whether the intellectual in question gravitated more to fascism or communism, but even here there is a significant, muddling, psychological, overlap between the two. So much so, that Fascism’s creator cut his political teeth as a firey socialist agitator and as thuggish a Nazi leader as Ernst Rohm could boast of his admiration for his Communist enemies’ “idealism” and street fighting courage. Indeed, in training his stormtroopers, Rohm remarked that ex-communists made the best SA men.

The first person to offer a coherent explanation of the individuals drawn to fascism was the German-Jewish journalist Konrad Heiden. In Der Fuehrer,  Heiden’s groundbreaking 1944 political biography of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement, referred to two categories of potential adherents : “Armed Bohemians” and the “Armed Intellectuals”.  The former were the freebooting roughnecks and men of habitual violence who were always restless and ill at ease in civilized society. Men like Ernst Rohm, who found in totalitarian movements a political cause to justify themselves. These men do not concern us here.

The latter group are also ill at ease in established society. The armed intellectuals are the born critics, gadflies, dreamers, autodidacts, bar-room philosophers, self-styled poets and no small number of crackpots and cranks; what these quarrelsome eccentrics lacked in muscle or raw courage, they more than made up for in the blizzard of half-baked ideas and skill at words which they employed with maniacal zeal.  Heiden’s taxonomy was mirrored a few years later by Eric Hoffer in the groups Hoffer called “practical men of action” and the “fanatics” in his classic, The True Believer The armed intellectuals were seldom noteworthy as intellectual heavyweights – men like Alfred Rosenberg and Grigory Zinoviev were third-rate minds, or worse – but they excelled at propagating ideas and simplifying them in the fashion required to build and sustain a mass movement; ideas as war banners or flags of political tribalism rather than as part of a coherent system of thought.  Or as Ortega y Gasset wrote at the time of the fascists and radicals “….ideas are in effect, nothing more than appetites in words, something like musical romanzas.”

Yet, as Charles Paul Freund indicates, totalitarianism attracted as supporters and admirers not just intellectual crackpots like Gottfried Feder, Dietrich Eckhart or Trofim Lysenko, but genuinely substantive men of letters, art and science. Many of these did not officially become “party comrades”, though some like philosophers Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt did, most were content to wield their pens as admirers, fellow travelers, enthusiastic supporters and public apologists. Being intellectuals, they were of course entranced by ideas – on the Right, the totemic, mythic, reactionary idolatry and the volkisch ur-narratives of messianic nationalism (much of which was the mummery of fools). Neither Hitler nor Mussolini were innovators here; the bombastic poet Gabriele D’Annunzio’s grandiose adventurism in Fiume, for example, presaged much of Fascist Italy’s swaggering Il Duce and his bullying blackshirts. On the left, by the intoxicating prospect of revolutionary “justice” and being on the “right side of history”, which could allegedly be explained with “scientific laws” of dialectical materialism. It was all rubbish but it was politically potent rubbish.

There were also material rewards – the Third Reich and the Soviet Union liked to lavish medals, Stalin Prizes and various emoluments on its foreign sycophants, while intellectuals who were particularly active minions, like Heidegger and Maxim Gorky, were given public honors by their respective regimes. This did not always work out well, however. Unlike Heidegger, who outlived the destruction of his Reich in 1945 to embrace and be embraced by the deconstructionist and postmodernist European left, Gorky was likely murdered by his master, an age-old risk for courtiers of tyrants. While the rewards and awards were highly esteemed, see Paul Robeson’s  pathetic, groveling, gratitude for his Stalin Prize, the primary driver of slavish loyalty was always political. Too many intellectuals in that era were fascinated with totalitarian power, accepted cruelty as strength and despised liberal democracy and individualism, unless if it was individualism as heroic symbolism for some kind of impending vanguard  – square-jawed, blond SS men, muscular Stakhanovite workers brandishing sledgehammers and so on. The barbarism of these regimes the intellectuals either ignored, explained away or embraced.

This longwinded preface brings me to a question that Charles Cameron asked me in regard to the article in Reason:

“I notice that quote about how many early 20C intellectuals “realized there was no hope of a return to an earlier form of civilization, so they hoped for a stability provided by totalitarian regimes” and wonder how you see it corresponding with current thoughts which view the dismantling of the Gaddafi, Hussein, and Mubarak regimes as enabling the rise of AQI > ISIS > IS?”

This is a great question.

The regimes of Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi shared some similarities, notably official secularism and modernization, but they also had some important ideological and structural differences. Saddam’s regime and Mubrak’s Egypt were rooted in pan-Arab nationalism, a regional anti-imperialist movement the built in fervor from the 20’s and peaked in the late fifties with the personality cult of Nasserism and a characteristic that was shared initially in the early years of Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, who idolized Nasser and for a time, hoped to inherit his mantle. All of the regimes were secular, modernizing, anti-monarchical, anti-imperialist and “socialist” in a nationalist style more suggestive of Hitler and Mussolini than Marx and Lenin. Saddam’s Iraq, furthermore, was like Syria,  Baathist in its pan-Arabism and its founding generation of activists like Michel Aflaq, were directly influenced in by the European totalitarian parties of the 1930’s Left and Right and the extremist movements of the French Third Republic .

Colonel Gaddafi, who came to power in a coup in 1969, was somewhat different ideologically and probably psychologically. Initially a pan-Arab Nasserite, Gaddafi soon went his own way, drifting toward Third World revolutionary terrorism, a muddled Islamic Libyan utopianism based on a personality cult and finally as a pan-African interventionist given to bizarre and unpredictable behavior. Fearing coups, Gaddafi deliberately weakened and hollowed out the Libyan state, including the military, weakening them institutionally, relying upon competing revolutionary committees, militias, secret police agencies and the like run by members of his extended family until the entire structure was more or less entirely dependent upon Gaddafi’s personal whims. By contrast, Nasser, Mubarak and Saddam Hussein were centralizers who built states centered on the military and security services and a government dominated economy that did not tolerate political rivals. Saddam in particular, took this tendency to an extreme in a conscious imitation of Stalin and Iraq had up until the first Gulf War, a complex bureaucratic state, albeit one dominated by a Baath Party run by the al-Tikriti clan (Saddam’s rule slid more toward Gaddafi’s in practice as postwar decay and sanctions eroded the efficiency of Iraq’s government and arbitrary terror and corruption increasingly were used to prop up the regime)

These dictators, whether hostile to the West (Saddam, Gaddafi) or friendly (Mubarak) lacked the advantage of having a western, fellow-traveling, amen chorus of influential intellectuals as the Fascist and Communist tyrants once enjoyed.  Serious intellectuals and public figures had made pilgrimages to Moscow, Berlin and Rome; no one was going to play John Reed to Muammar Gadaffi’s Lenin or Saddam and say their ramshackle future “worked”. So, when Western leaders, especially the American President, decided it might be good for these regimes to go, the only westerners to defend them in the court of public opinion were those already regarded as minor nuisances, political cranks and buffoons. Furthermore, rather than being viewed as linchpins of stability against radical Islamism, many western politicians and intellectuals of the neoconservative and liberal internationalist variety saw these dictatorships as a cause of radical Islam’s growth at best, or complicit with groups like al Qaida in promoting international terrorism at worst.  Unfortunately, while both Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi had a long and bloody history of funding terrorism, mainly of the radical Palestinian nationalist variety, neither were much interested in helping al Qaida or radical Salafis; Gaddafi  in fact, was fairly busy imprisoning and torturing them on a regular basis, as did the more restrained military backed dictatorship of the Egyptians during most of its existence (the brief period of tolerating Islamism, under Anwar Sadat, resulted in Sadat being assassinated by Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which later merged with al Qaida. The Egyptian military did not tolerate them again until coerced into it by the Arab Spring and pressure from the Obama administration).

These police state regimes of the Arab world also played an indirect role in the rise of AQIISIS in the sense that their savage repression of all other political alternatives, especially democratic and liberal ones, created a vacuum in civil society that radical Islamism in all its manifestations could fill. This was not unlike the dynamic of Indochina where Ho’s  Communists were greatly helped by the French first brutally suppressing the right wing Vietnamese nationalists in the 1930’s and then Diem’s regime wiping out all the other potential rivals to the Viet Cong in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, leaving the Communists as the voice of political opposition.  The security services of most Arab states, not just Saddam’s or Gaddafi’s, were efficient enough that no real political opposition existed anywhere outside of the mosque from Oman to Morocco, except on sufferance.  These states also played a passive theological role as foils in shaping decades of jihadi discourse at home, in prison, in exile and online regarding the ruler’s “apostasy”, their strategic priority as ” the Near Enemy” and the Islamic legitimacy of supporting or rejecting peaceful, democratic politics as a tool of struggle. During the course of the years of debates, as in secular revolutionary movements, there was a “ratcheting effect” in Islamist discourse towards progressively more radical, more militant and ever more takfirikhawairijte mythologizing tendencies that glorified barbaric violence, all of which was seen clearly in early 1990’s Algeria even before the rise of the Taliban [An important caveat: it is dubious that  liberal or democratic regimes would have changed the radicalization curve for Islamists much as these too would have been regarded as apostasy by Salafi militants, though there might have possibly been fewer of them, at least outside of Egypt].

With the Arab police states having cleared a space internally for Islamism to dominate underground political discourse the removal of the regimes themselves by American invasion, popular uprising abetted by foreign air support or foreign pressure did eventually enable the rise of ISIS. As much as the cruelty and corruption of the dictators drove their dissatisfied countrymen toward political Islam, they also had means to intimidate, contain or punish those who stepped too far out of line with great severity. No one doubted the ruthlessness of the Assads, Saddam’s willingness to employ terror or the Mad Colonel’s paranoid vindictiveness and when the surety of coercion and retribution disappeared, so too did the restraints on the freedom of action of Islamist radicals. American power was not a substitute for a fearsome native strongman. In the eyes of our enemies we were erratic and soft; capable of miraculous  military feats of devastation if sufficiently provoked, but usually culturally clueless where or when to use our power or against whom, often leaving allies in the lurch or ignoring them spitting in our faces. Instead of fearing the Americans the way they had feared Saddam, the worst jihadis like Zarqawi were emboldened to unleash the kind of medieval barbarism in Iraq that foreshadowed ISIS.

What alarms me regarding ISIS is that it is theologically a radical-apocalyptic Islamist movement blending insurgency, terrorism and conventional warfare that is also reviving the secular pageantry of Fascism with its grandiose mythmaking, blood rituals, compelling uniforms, Fuhrerprinzip and war-worship. It is an unholy combination that exudes a dark romanticism, a glamour of evil that rootless young Muslim men – a new generation of “armed bohemians” and “armed intellectuals” – find mesmerizing the way young Germans, Italians, Spaniards and Japanese did decades ago. Worse, while we may rightly laugh at the mummery of a dime store “Caliphate” and Islamists cribbing their P.R. style from Triumph of the Will, their success in manipulating deep cultural avatars as the key to power will inspire imitators in barbarism elsewhere that we can ill afford.

Fascism is dead – but it may not stay that way.


Moral Degeneration in the Crucible of War

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013


The recent post on Is 4GW Dead? stirred a great deal of interest, so I would like to extend the discussion on a point that that is critical not only for those who have responsibility for conducting military campaigns, but for statecraft and policy as well.

One of more important tenets of 4GW was the importance of “the moral level of war”, drawn from Colonel John Boyd’s thinking on the strategic impact of a combatant’s behavior, immoral  or exemplary, on all observers – belligerents, civilian noncombatants, neutral third parties, the media, the combatant’s own soldiers and citizens back home. Here is Boyd:

Morally our adversaries isolate themselves when they visibly improve their well being to the detriment of others (allies, the uncommitted), by violating codes of conduct or behavior patterns that they profess to uphold or others expect them to uphold.

· Morally we interact with others by avoiding mismatches between what we say we are what we are and the world we have to deal with, as well as by abiding by those other cultural codes or standards we are expected to uphold.

In a Reader’s Digest version of Boyd,  heroic, noble and magnanimous  behavior is admirable and attractive while hypocrisy, cruelty and cowardice are repulsive and antagonizing characteristics. While the former won’t guarantee your victory and the latter, unfortunately, won’t ensure your defeat, they will be a significant factor in ameliorating or generating friction.  The impression given by an army impacts the will of the enemy to fight, the morale and discipline of the soldiers, the restiveness of the civilians, the loyalty of allies and the goodwill of neighbors.

Boyd developed his thinking about the moral level of war in Patterns of Conflict  all the way up to grand strategy and above. The rub about the moral level  is that war is a crucible that puts every “cultural code” or “standard” to the test, as well as the character of the men fighting it and their leaders upon whom great responsibility rests.  Even with the best of intentions in policy and careful generalship in the field, the horrors of war can erode moral fiber and military discipline in an army, in a company or in the heart of one man. Nor does every army begin with good intentions and effective discipline – some fighting forces are scarcely to be regarded as “armies” at all while others embrace the darkness as a matter of policy.

In terms of warfare, let us define “moral degeneration” as a degraded state of moral decline where a belligerent has effectively abandoned the operational and tactical restraints on conduct mandated by the Laws of War (i.e. war crimes are SOP) and in some instances, the vestiges of civilization.

A textbook example of this kind of moral degeneration came to light a few weeks ago when a jihadi lunatic in Syria, a rebel commander Khalid al-Hamad, who goes by the name of “Abu Sakkar”, cut out the heart of a (presumably) dead government soldier and ate it on video. Charles Cameron expounded at length upon this minor atrocity here. I am not, to say the least, a fan of radical, revolutionary, transnational Sunni Islamism but I cannot honestly say that its proponents like Abul Mawdudi , Sayid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden and their ilk ever openly advocated cannibalism. It is much more likely that Mr. al-Hamad’s behavior is explained by the ferocity of the civil war in Syria eroding customary norms of the combatants than  it is by Islamist ideology.

Moral degeneration in war seems to spring from two directions:

a) As a calculated act of Policy, from the top down, enforced by the leadership by military discipline and bureaucratic control.

b) As a spontaneous reaction by soldiers or fighters, appearing from the bottom up, without orders and frequently, in spite of them, possibly due to a breakdown in the chain of command, an erosion of discipline or sheer mutiny for the age-old purpose of reprisal, pillage and rapine.

The first category often occur with war as a convenient cover rather than a cause of grave crimes against humanity that leaders and  ideologues had long wished to carry out. The Armenian Genocide, as John Keegan wrote, belongs properly to the history of Ottoman imperial policy than it did WWI; in truth, the Genocide was the greatest and worst in a long succession of vicious pogroms that the Ottomans had launched against their Armenian Christian subjects during the reign of Abdul Hamid and the Young Turks. The Holocaust (which had some inspiration in Hitler’s mind, from the fate of the Armenians) was more closely tied to the evolution of  Nazi war policy but once Operation Barbarossa opened up the vast spaces of Soviet Eurasia, “the East” in Nazi parlance, the war itself increasingly took a backseat to expediting Hitler and Himmler’s ghastly and murderous racial priorities. This is a pattern of a priori planning, an escalating ideological radicalization of society that tends to be present with most of the large scale democides and genocides. It is the organizational powers of  coercion utilized by the state, or a mobilized faction of , it that makes the enormous scale of death possible, not the war.

What is different and also dangerous about moral degeneration from the bottom-up, is that it is cultural evolution driven by the psychological effects of extreme violence at work and, unlike an act of policy, more likely to be diffused widely across society as a permanent change for the worse. Too many German soldiers in WWI, former peasants and artisans and boys from middle-class families, returned from the Western Front morally coarsened and addicted to the adrenalin rush of combat and became in succession Freikorps paramilitaries, Communist streetfighters, Nazi Stormtroopers and SS men. The World War also gave Russia the men of the Cheka, the Red terror and the first Gulags on the Bolshevik Left and brutal and mad warlords on the White Right.

In more recent two decades, the break-up of Yugoslavia unleashed atavistic passions of ethnic hatred and atrocity, while organized society in Western African states and central Africa broke down entirely in transnational regional civil wars with unrestrained massacres and mass rape. As a result, there is little that is political but much that is primeval, at this juncture, to explain Joseph Kony’s motivations; he resembles nothing so much as a 21st century Kurtz. Mexico too is degenerating from the escalating violence of cartel insurgency and narco-cultas – there is not much tactical or strategic value in pagan death cults or human sacrifice but it is spreading:

…Our impression is that what is now taking place in Mexico has for some time gone way beyond secular and criminal (economic) activities as defined by traditional organized crime studies.3 In fact, the intensity of change may indeed be increasing. Not only have de facto politicalelements come to the fore-i.e., when a cartel takes over an entire city or town, they have no choice but to take over political functions formerly administered by the local government- but social (narcocultura) and religious/spiritual (narcocultos) characteristics are now making themselves more pronounced. What we are likely witnessing is Mexican society starting to not only unravel but to go to war with itself. The bonds and relationships that hold that society together are fraying, unraveling, and, in some instances, the polarity is reversing itself with trust being replaced by mistrust and suspicion. Traditional Mexican values and competing criminal value systems are engaged in a brutal contest over the ?hearts, minds, and souls‘ of its citizens in a street-by-street, block-by-block, and city-by-city war over the future social and political organization of Mexico. Environmental modification is taking place in some urban centers and rural outposts as deviant norms replace traditional ones and the younger generation fully accepts a criminal value system as their baseline of behavior because they have known no other. The continuing incidents of ever increasing barbarism-some would call this a manifestation of evil even if secularly motivated-and the growing popularity of a death cult are but two examples of this clash of values. Additionally, the early rise of what appears to be cartel holy warriors may now also be taking place. While extreme barbarism, death cults, and possibly now holy warriors found in the Mexican cartel wars are still somewhat the exception rather than the rule, each of these trends is extremely alarming, and will be touched upon in turn.

The crucible of war either tempers a people or it breaks them.

Is 4GW Dead?: Point-Counterpoint and Commentary

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

4GW theory has always attracted overenthusiasts and  raging haters ever since the concept emerged way back in 1989, so debates about the merit of 4GW are nothing new; in fact, the arguments became so routine that they had largely gone sterile years ago.  After T.X. Hammes published his excellent  The Sling and the Stone and John Robb  went to the next level with Brave New War , it seemed that  little new was left to be said. In the late 2000’s, intellectual energies shifted to arguing the nuances and flaws of Pop-centric COINwhich proved in time to be even more bitter than those about 4GW.

Generations of War Theory Visualized by Chet Richards

What is different recently is that the person taking the affirmative on the question “Is 4GW dead?” was Dr. Chet Richards, who for years ran the premier but now defunct 4GW site, D-N-I.net, now archived here by the Project on Government Oversight.  Richards is no Clausewitzian true-believer or Big Army MBA with stars, but a former collaborator with John Boyd and a leading thinker of the 4GW school who had written several books with that strategic theme.

Therefore, not a critic to be dismissed lightly. Here’s Chet:

Is 4GW Dead? 

….The first thing to note is that 4GW is an evolution from 3GW, which they equate to maneuver warfare and the blitzkrieg as defined in MCDP 1 and Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict. These are styles of warfare conducted by state armies against other state armies, although the paper does invoke the notion of transnational terrorists near the end.

At some point in the late 1990s, the theory bifurcated. Bill Lind and Martin van Creveld began to emphasize the decline of the state and focus on transnational guerrilla organizations like al-Qa’ida. Tom Barnett called this the “road warrior” model. T. X. Hammes, on the other hand, characterized 4GW as “evolved insurgency” and envisioned the techniques described in the paragraphs above as also useful for state-vs-state conflicts.

….The 9/11 attacks, by a transnational guerrilla movement, seemed to confirm 4GW in both of its forms. In the last few years, however, everything has gone quiet. Transnational insurgencies, “global guerrillas” as John Robb terms them, have not become a significant factor in geopolitics. “Continuing irritation” might best describe them, whose primary function seems to be upholding national security budgets in frightened western democracies. The state system has not noticeably weakened. So it might be fair at this point to conclude that although 4GW was a legitimate theory, well supported by logic and data, the world simply didn’t develop along the lines it proposed.

A prominent critic of 4GW, Antulio J. Echevarria, may have been correct:

What we are really seeing in the war on terror, and the campaign in Iraq and elsewhere, is that the increased “dispersion and democratization of technology, information, and finance” brought about by globalization has given terrorist groups greater mobility and access worldwide. At this point, globalization seems to aid the nonstate actor more than the state, but states still play a central role in the support or defeat of terrorist groups or insurgencies.

Why? I’ll offer this hypothesis, that the primary reason warfare did not evolve a fourth generation is that it didn’t live long enough. The opening of Sir Rupert Smith’s 2005 treatise, The Utility of Force, states the case….

Chet’s post spurred a sharp rebuttal from William Lind, “the Father of Fourth Generation Warfare”:

4GW is Alive and Well 

So “the world simply didn’t develop along the lines it (4GW) proposed”? How do you say that in Syriac?

The basic error in Chet Richards’ piece of April 19, “Is 4GW dead?” is confusing the external and internal worlds. Internally, in the U.S. military and the larger defense and foreign policy establishment, 4GW is dead, as is maneuver warfare and increasingly any connection to the external world. The foreign policy types can only perceive a world of states, in which their job is to promote the Wilsonian nee Jacobin, follies of “democracy” and “universal human rights.” They are in fact, 4GW’s allies, in that their demand for “democracy” undermines states, opening the door for more 4GW.

In most of the world, democracy is not an option. The only real options are tyranny or anarchy, and when you work against tyranny, you are working for anarchy. The ghost of bin Laden sends his heartfelt thanks.

Third Generation doctrine has been abandoned, de facto, if not de jure, by the one service that embraced it, the U.S. Marine Corps. The others never gave it a glance. The U.S. military remains and will remain second generation until it disappears from sheer irrelevance coupled with high cost. That is coming much sooner than any of them think.

….In many of these cases, including Egypt and Pakistan, the only element strong enough to hold the state together is the army. But the “democracy” crowd in Washington immediately threatens aid cut-offs, sanctions, etc., if the army acts. Again, the children now running America’s foreign policy are 4GW’s best allies.

Fourth generation war includes far more than just Islamic “terrorism,” and we see it gaining strength in areas far from the Middle East. Gangs have grown so powerful in Mexico, right on our border, that I predict the state will soon have to make deals with them, as the PRI has done in the past. Invasion by immigrants who do not acculturate is a powerful form of 4GW, more powerful than any terrorism, and that is occurring on a north-south basis (except Australia) literally around the world. Remember, most of the barbarians did not invade the Roman Empire to destroy it. They just wanted to move in. In fact, most were invited in. Sound familiar?

What should concern us most is precisely the disconnect between the internal and external worlds. Externally, 4GW is flourishing, while internally, in the US government and military, it does not exist. This is the kind of chasm into which empires can disappear….

Fabius Maximus – who is a both a pseudonymous blogger and a group blog, also responded:

Update about one of the seldom-discussed trends shaping our world: 4GW 

One of the interesting aspects of recent history is the coincidence of

  1. the collapse of discussion about 4GW in US military and geopolitical circles,
  2. victories by insurgents using 4GW methods over foreign armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, &
  3. most important, the perhaps history-making victory by Bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

The second point is important to us, but the usual outcome since WW2 (after which 4GW became the dominate form of military conflict; see section C below).  The third point is the big one. Based on the available information, one of Bin Laden’s goals was to destabilize the US political regime. Massive increase in military spending (using borrowed funds). The bill of rights being shredded (note yesterday’s House vote to tear another strip from the 4th amendment). Our Courts holding show trials of terrorists — recruited, financed, supported by our security services. Torture and concentration camps.

….We — the Second American Republic — have engaged in a war with nationalistic, Islamic forces using 4GW.  So far we are losing.  For various reasons we are unable to even perceive the nature of the threat. In DoD the hot dot is again procurement of high-tech weapons — new ships, the F-35, the hypersonic cruise missile, etc.  All useless in the wars we’ve fought for the past 50 years, and probably in those of the next 50 years….. 

A few comments.

4GW has been heavily criticized – and accurately so – for making selective use of history, for unsupported maximal claims, for an excessively and ahistorically linear argument and for shifting or vaguely defined terms. Presented rigidly, it is relatively easy for critics to poke holes in it simply by playing “gotcha” (some of the criticism of 4GW did not get beyond ad hominem level garbage, but more intellectually serious detractors made very effective critiques of 4GW’s flaws).

That said, there were a number of useful elements or insights in the body of 4GW writings that retain their utility and I think are worth recalling:

  • Whatever one thinks of 4GW as a whole, the school drew attention to the threat of non-state irregular warfare, failed states and the decline of state vs. state warfare and did so long before it was Pentagon conventional wisdom or trendy Beltway talking head spiels on Sunday morning news programs.
  • While the state is not in decline everywhere in an absolute sense, it sure is failing in some places and has utterly collapsed elsewhere. Failed, failing and hollowed out states are nexus points for geopolitical problems and feature corruption, black globalization, insurgency, tribalism, terrorism, transnational criminal organizations and zones of humanitarian crisis. Whether we call these situations “irregular”, “hybrid”, “decentralized and polycentric”, “LIC”, “4GW” or everyone’s favorite, “complex” matters less than using force to achieve political aims becomes increasingly difficult as the interested parties and observers multiply. Some of the advice offered by the 4GW school regarding “the moral level of war”, de-escalation and the perils of fighting the weak in such a conflict environment are all to the good for reducing friction.
  • The emphasis of the 4GW school on the perspective of the irregular fighter and their motivations not always fitting neatly within state-centric realpolitik, Galula-ish “Maoist Model” insurgency, Clausewitzian best strategic practice or the Western intellectual tradition, were likewise ahead of their time and contrary to S.O.P. Even today, the effort to see the world through the eyes of our enemies is at best, anemic. Red teams are feared more than they are loved. Or utilized.
  • The bitter criticism the 4GW school lodged of the American political elite being allergic to strategic thinking and ignorant of strategy in general was apt; that American strategy since the end of the Cold War has been exceedingly inept in thought and execution is one of the few points on which the most rabid 4GW advocate and diehard Clausewitzian can find themselves in full agreement.

The lessons of 4GW will still be relevant wherever men fight in the rubble of broken societies, atomized communities and failed states.

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