There exists within the study of philosophy something René Descartes identified as “mind-body dualism” where the body is consigned to physical space and the mind — with all of its complexities and imponderables — to the incorporeal, to the intangible. The “ghost in the machine” is British philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s description of this dichotomy.
This dualism, both physical and non-physical, can be logically extended to war and warring masses. William James’ “The Moral Equivalency of War” (originally titled “The Psychology of the War Spirit”) delivered in 1910 hints at the existence of a ghost that drives the war machine. James, a pacifist, recognized that war brings with it undeniable positive psychological effects on a culture including cohesion, unity, commonality. This is the mind (or ghost) of war. It exists in the non-physical. It is not only concerned with concrete goals such as gaining territory or protecting the security of one’s homeland; it derives satisfaction from the act of going to war itself, from the feeling of being united in a community in struggle.
In this sense the machines of war, the tangible aspects like the economies, the technologies and the warrior’s bodies serve the collective spirit. Breaking the back of the machine — alone — does not a war end or victory deliver. The spirit must be quashed or war ever rages on.
In the decades after William James wrote “The Moral Equivalency of War” in 1910, the world learned somber lessons about the dark side of that psychological attachment to war. The first half of the 20th Century demonstrated that militarism and the will to wage total war – regardless of the consequences, regardless of any conventional morality, and regardless of any rational calculation of costs and benefits, correlations of forces, or international politics – can take hold in a group of people in a way inconceivable to the rest of the world. Intelligent and well informed people failed to understand the nature of the threat and its malevolence until it had achieved its first successes and devastated the first victims of its conquests. Nazi Germany was one, emerging from the ashes of the First World War to rebuild German military power and lead the German people into waging war and committing genocide that no one in Europe could have imagined in 1914 or even in 1939. Imperial Japan was another, dragging the people of Japan into a war of conquest in Asia whose brutality is remembered bitterly in China and Korea 70 years later. Each had a concept of the unity created by war, which it viewed as a fundamental virtue – in Nazi Germany, volksgemeinschaft (“people’s community”); in Imperial Japan, bushido (“the way of the warrior”).
The Islamic State presents complications similar to those of the world wars from 1914 to 1945, with the possibility of becoming the center of a Thirty Years War of the modern world.
The weak spirit of war within the Western powers left them unable to meet the initial challenge of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in the 1930s. The experience of the First World War had broken their will to go to war, making the avoidance of war an almost universally accepted goal. It not only discouraged them from going to war, but also made it difficult for them to conceive that for their opponents, war was not something to be avoided or a necessary evil, but was rather what they sought and an exalted calling. This mindset propelled Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan from one conquest to the next, until stopped by force, and made them bizarre, suicidal death cults in defeat.
The Islamic State presents complications similar to those of the world wars from 1914 to 1945, with the possibility of becoming the center of a Thirty Years War of the modern world. It emerged resurgent in Syria and in Sunni-inhabited regions of Iraq, from the remnants of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq that had been shattered during the U.S. war in Iraq from 2003–11, not unlike Nazi Germany rebuilding the military machine of defeated Imperial Germany. Like Nazi Germany, it faces western powers weary from the previous war, who after witnessing the early advance of an enemy that has lost none of its will to fight, are finally trying to assemble their response to the threat.
To be sure, there are significant differences – the spirit of war is driven by a twisted vision of Islam as the underlying ideology, not ultra-racist nationalism; the Islamic State is a trans-national, sub-state actor and not a conventional state; and the resources available to the Islamic State are people on the fringes of society and loot, not the population and economy of a major world power. The underlying problem is similar, though: how to defeat a movement with a millennial ideology that is likely to have the will to fight regardless of any rational idea of the odds against it, appears to have the resources to wage a prolonged war, and treats its enemies with no concern for conventional morality, even that of the Islamic faith that it claims to be fighting for.
Shifting Focus from the Machine
Ending the threat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan required the complete destruction of both as states and societies: defeating their armies and navies on the battlefields and on the oceans; destroying their cities from the air; invading their homelands and imposing unconditional surrender; and purging their political systems and societies of militarists and militarism. It was done so thoroughly and successfully during and after the Second World War that both countries are now known for their pacifism and unwillingness to wage war.
The Islamic State and the conditions that gave rise to it, not being contained within borders or in any one particular society, will require a fundamentally different approach. The Islamic State has exploited weak states and civil wars in Iraq and Syria to establish a territory for itself, but its appeal and recruitment extend into friendly states in the Middle East and North Africa and into Europe and the United States as well. Eliminating it, or at least reducing it to a level where it is no more than a minor problem that states in the Middle East and North Africa can handle internally, will require a far subtler approach than waging a world war 75 years ago. U.S. leadership and military power will be important factors, but fighting the Islamic State fundamentally relies on governments, religious authorities and societies in the Middle East and North Africa addressing the problems that have allowed the Islamic State to emerge.
Making the task especially difficult is that the Islamic State has successfully exploited societies devastated by war and sectarian divides that will continue for many years to come. Syria, after several years of civil war between a largely Sunni rebellion and a Shia-led regime, was the first country where the Islamic State took hold. Iraq, once a state with a strong urban and secular culture and an emerging economy, experienced its own thirty years war from the Saddam Hussein regime’s invasion of Iran in 1980 to the end of the U.S. war in Iraq in 2011, which left it impoverished and deeply divided between the majority Shia and minority Sunni communities. Other countries in the Middle East and North Africa may be vulnerable to the emergence of groups adopting the Islamic State banner. Even Europe and North America have experienced disaffected individuals on the fringes of society, from Muslim immigrant communities but also from the non-Muslim native population, inspired by Islamic State propaganda, traveling to the Middle East to join the Islamic State or conducting terrorist attacks in their home countries.
The response to the challenge will be partly military, but it must be political and ideological as well, and those essential elements can come only from the Muslim world. Governments, Sunni and Shia religious authorities, and civil society in Iraq and other countries must work to resolve the sectarian divide and the political problems that have allowed the Islamic State to appear to offer an alternative to many Sunnis in Iraq and Syria.
It will be a different type of war for a different type of enemy, with the Second World War, the Cold War, and even the wars of the previous decade offering few useful examples from which to draw.
What the United States and other western powers can provide are military support to the front-line combatants – Iraq and the moderate Syrian opposition – that will enable them to defeat the Islamic State on the battlefield, and leadership of a coalition of Middle Eastern states that will work on the difficult task of working through seemingly intractable political and sectarian problems, in the common interest of preventing a larger conflagration in the region. It will be a long-term task, requiring a degree of patience that the American political process is not known for possessing, and far more complicated than a “war on terror.” It will demand the work of diplomats as much as – or more than – it requires the use of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. It will be a different type of war for a different type of enemy, with the Second World War, the Cold War, and even the wars of the previous decade offering few useful examples from which to draw.
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.” In 1862, Abraham Lincoln spoke these words to Congress just before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which changed the terms of the Civil War and the course of American history. In 2014, similarly inspiring and memorable words have not come from the top, but the war is equally new and difficult in nature, and it demands equally new thinking.
Robert Kim, a lawyer who served as the Deputy Attache in Iraq for the US Department of the Treasury in 2009–10, and Stephanie Chenault, the COO of Venio Inc. She was assigned to both Multinational Corps — Iraq and Multinational Forces— Iraq in the Operations Directorate from 2003–05. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.
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