A War of Symbols

The headline of a story in The Washington Post on Saturday, May 23, read, “The Islamic State’s Disturbingly Successful Week.” The accompanying article detailed the remarkable strides made by that faction across Iraq and Syria in recent days, including the takings of Ramadi, Iraq, and Palmyra, Syria—significant cities that will provide it with considerable resources, probably furnish it a fair number of new recruits, and further solidify its grasp over the region. Sadly, as its strength and stature continue to rise, the United States has yet to learn the lessons of the last fourteen years and persists in fighting the battle along symbolic lines not directed toward any ultimate victory. As a result, it seems that either the international community will continue to allow the Islamic State’s advance until it reaches a critical mass and we come to fight a new, full-fledged war against an established state or we must depend upon the strength and abilities of local powers, from the Iraqi government and Assad regime to Kurdish and other small resistance groups, to keep it in check. The chances of their defeating it outright appear slim. In the meantime, the US’s approach to combating the Islamic State’s advance is plagued by a love of symbolism that mirrors the approach of our enemy but can never hope to defeat it.

For a Westerner, it is difficult to relate to—and often even to discern—Arab culture’s love of symbolism. It is an intellectual and political environment in which words are often seen as an ample substitute for action, arguments are frequently won not by reason but by whoever makes the fieriest case, and threats or declarations of intent can be taken as equivalent to having won a great victory—regardless of whether or not the speaker ever follows through. On top of all of this, there is a persistent externalization of blame for unfavorable outcomes that goes largely unquestioned. The result of all of this is a sense of false pride that has stirred in the Arab world since Europe surpassed the Ottoman Empire in the late Middle Ages. Rather than driving it to progress ever further, it festered as a stubborn ludditism that rejected anything foreign as barbaric and walled off the Arab world from the progress that continued all around it in politics, economics, the arts, and technology.

Westerners have often looked on with confusion at the bold claims of Arab leaders such as Saddam Hussein, who once declared that he would give the United States the “mother of all wars”—a claim that, on its best day, Iraq could never have backed up and that only made the ensuing blows to his regime and its ultimate fall all the more humiliating. Similarly bewildering are the exuberant celebrations of Arabs celebrating in the streets when attacks are carried out against Western targets, no matter how large or small, significant or insignificant, occupied or unoccupied. What would be considered a tactical blunder or failed mission by an advanced, tactically precise military like that of the US or UK is celebrated as a coup by anti-Western demonstrators in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or the West Bank. The attempt alone—the thought alone—suffices as a point of pride.

Add to all of this the utter detachment from reality, the mysticism, and the barbarity of Islamic totalitarian groups like the Islamic State and you have a faction that should be no match for a determined, focused, rational, scientific, modern culture like that of the United States… in 1945. Unfortunately, America’s profound advances in technology and military power over the last seventy years have been counterbalanced by a changing conception of war, a refusal to truly embrace its own power when it matters most, and a lack of confidence in Western civilization.

Today, Just War Theory—the idea, descended from St. Augustine, that the moral justification for war rested in the claim that you were saving or ultimately bettering your enemy—underlies much of the instruction given to our military leaders and has been advanced by some of the most prominent ones such as Colin Powell. War has ceased to be about defeating the enemy for the United States and now consists of armed welfare missions to democratize and develop the world whether or not it succeeds in eliminating the threats to our national security.

To compensate for the prolonged, deadly, and ineffective wars that this new approach has engendered, Americans are now told by our political leaders in both parties that the old conception of war is done for, a relic of the past. This, they tell us, is a new kind of conflict and a new kind of enemy that can’t be beaten by the old methods. The strategies that ended fascism in Europe and the Empire of Japan are no match for poor, semi-trained militias armed with thrown away Russian weapons often dating back to the 1940s and 50s. A power great enough to oppose the Soviet Union for two generations, they say, can only hope to defeat a few ragtag militants through a years-long process of transforming the country and undermining the social dislocations that produce an unending stream of alienated recruits seeking an identity in conflict. The only alternatives, we are told, are ineffective arms shipments to factions that frequently turn on us and rarely make a long-term difference or to involve ourselves in yet another fifteen-year process of nation-building and development. Gone is any belief in our ability to simply defeat an enemy outright, neutralize a nihilistic ideology, and make the world safer tomorrow than it was yesterday.

The result of this is a middling, drifting state between victory and loss that carries on until American leaders possess the will to eliminate dangers to our national security without contributing the wealth and progress of a generation to bettering the powers that threaten us. In the meantime, the American people are provided a series of symbolic victories—drone strikes, assassinations (let’s call a spade a spade), intelligence grabs, and the like. The White House has come to baffle other executive branch offices, the Department of Defense, and military leaders with its eagerness to release information on secret, special forces operations at the expense of our long-term interests and strategic maneuverability. In the interest of being self-aggrandizing and claiming victories, the current administration seems incapable of keeping the lid on our numerous raids and operations.

After the Obama administration’s one significant military success in its first term, the killing of Osama bin Laden, it now races to take credit for any and every accomplishment without regard for discretion. This obviously has significant implications for future covert operations, but an accompanying concern should be what such an approach says about how the United States under this administration is growing to define and conceive of military victory. As the Islamic State executes Western journalists, takes sex slaves across the region to procreate and solidify its future, defenestrates homosexuals, beheads Christians, conquers major sites such as Ramadi and Palmyra, eyes Baghdad and Karbalah, and marches unobstructed down long highways in plain sight without fear of the US’s much-talked-about bombing campaigns, America claims a victory for having killed one (albeit high-ranking) IS figure.

There is a very good reason why for years we have looked with confusion at Islamic militants’ tendency to derive great symbolic value from the slightest accomplishments: we know that by any rational standard their so-called victory has far from tipped the balance. When Hamas makes a historic event out of one rocket out of thousands getting through Israel’s Iron Dome only to hit an empty building, it is appropriately seen by any reasonable observer as absurd. However, we must now ask, amidst American leaders’ unwillingness to seriously oppose the rise of Islamic totalitarianism in the Middle East, whether we are not similarly being offered hollow symbols of victory and encouraged to accept them as substitute. If the history of the desolate countries from which our enemies have emerged teaches us anything, it should be that no amount of rhetoric, proud words, and bold pronunciations can compensate for real victory and the security it provides.

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