In my serial quest to find a good mashup to describe in cultural shorthand what is happening in MENA today…I’m going to revisit the US experience in VietNam. Amazingly, in this excellent 11k word essay by Dr. Atran, where he compares the Islamic State to Bolsheviks, French revolutionaries, and Nazis, there’s not a single mention of the VietNamese revolt against French colonialism (analogous to the “Arab Spring” revolt against Assad) and resultant US failwar with the VietCong. In both cases the collapse of a quasi-stable western-friendly government leads to (not a vacuum, as the political “scientists” claim) a chaos field, where the bottom-up emergent substrate trumps any attempts at externally imposed topdown control. The parallels are gobsmackingly obvious– Mosul 2014 to Da Nang 1975, the 350k ARVN, (also equipped and trained by US) to the 300k Iraqi army– both collapsed in routs. The VietCong even captured large quantities of Made-in-the-USA mecha, much like IS has equipped itself with ghanima from the arms-race saturated ME. The long deep enduring scars the US sustained (60k US troops dead, 100’s of thousands with what we now call PTSD) perhaps casts a dark shadow across history– obscuring the lessons that we failed to learn back then. The US is haunted by VietNam– where as Kissinger unequivocably states, the US lost.
We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win. The North Vietnamese used their armed forces the way a bull-fighter uses his cape — to keep us lunging in areas of marginal political importance.
“The Vietnam Negotiations”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 48, No. 2 (January 1969), p. 214; also quoted as “A conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerilla army wins if he does not lose.”
In this astonishingly bizarre article from my hero Dr. Bar-Yam he amazingly advocates using SOF as an immune system style response in MENA– totally ignoring the fact that IS and shariah as Rule of Law are local emergent processes– the mujahiddeen are obviously the T-cells and leucocytes fighting off a regional secular democracy infection in the body of MENA. Dr. BarYam says:
The immune system most naturally corresponds to special operations forces that have the expectation of being embedded in local contexts and serving highly complex, (i.e., diverse) roles. The existence of high fine-scale complexity forces, including special operations forces and integrating diplomatic, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies, and the extensive engagement with non-combatants, training of local forces, non-lethal force, psychological warfare, economic incentives, and economic support, reflects the natural extension of the complex fine-scale actions that are needed for achieving local and global objectives of complex warfare.
This made me laugh. Its pretty clear that SOF forces are still an attempt to impose topdown external controls on an indigenous emergent process– salafi-jihadism, which is basically encoded in the Quran, which is read by (soon to be) billions of humans. Complex warfare being analogous to homo sap. nervous system, I get that, I even like that– but there is no way to pretend SOF forces are an emergent process, or that they can win against an emergent process with a bottomless pool of youth recruits. There is no way SOF forces can win at all in the Age of Internet connectivity– Bush’s folly and the disastrous COIN policy prove that emphatically.
Doesn’t an emergent complex system always beat an imposed/installed complex system?
Like Dr. Atran eloquently explains in his essay, western-style “liberal democracy” cant work–
As history and empirical studies show, what matters in revolutionary success is commitment to cause and comrades. Even in the face of initial failures and often devastating defeats, this can trump overwhelming material disadvantages. In 1776, American colonists were frustrated not over economics but over a perceived denial of truths ‘sacred and undeniable’ (Thomas Jefferson’s original words for the Declaration of Independence). They were willing to sacrifice ‘our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honour’ against the world’s mightiest empire. Britain sent a naval force of 30,000 men against the fledgling revolution in New York, home to 20,000 inhabitants, and at first almost crushed George Washington’s army. Haggard remnants of the colonial army were heading for home when Washington addressed them with an inspired appeal: ‘You will render that service to the cause of liberty… which you can probably never do under any other circumstances.’ The army fused together in the harsh winter at Valley Forge, henceforth able to withstand any adversity.
But the sort of liberal democracy initiated by the American Revolution has never been very good at adjudicating across religious and ethnic boundaries, especially when, as in much of the Middle East and Central Asia, such boundaries are tribally based. Democracy took root in Britain’s American colonies, which had the world’s highest standard of living at the time and unprecedented opportunities for people other than Native Americans and African slaves to strike out on their own into virtually limitless territory, relatively free to realise their aspirations.
Liberal democracy is simply never going to take hold in majority muslim populations.
I think I have a better model than Dr. Bar-Yam’s immune system analogy. Growing up, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars was a part of the family DVD collection…one of the alltime kid favorites– scifi, gorror and Ice Cube! Peak. In the movie Mars is 80% terraformed when a scientific expedition opens a door to an underground structure of the dead martian civilization. This releases a windbourne possession plague that turns the local miners into headchopping martian-language-raving maniacs, bent on eradicating earth invader presence on Mars. The possession plague seems to be a planetary auto-immune response to Earths mining/terraforming of Mars– and what Earthers thought was a dead civilzation comes roaring back with a vengence. Much like the Islamic State.
So the question I really wanted to ask Dr. Atran is this– what is the counternarrative to revolution?
[Atran] cited the Deash terrorist group as one of the most dynamic and effective fighting forces since World War II, because its followers are spiritually committed to its religious narrative, not lured by financial incentives.
However, the group may be hindered or defeated by a spiritual counternarrative that is of an equal force to theirs, Atran argued.
The problem is… there’s no space to create a “spiritual counternarrative ” in the same space occupied by Assad and Israel. This Sarah Helm excellent reporting on IS in Gaza should terrify anyone hoping for peace or even bare stability in the ME.
Moreover, if Hamas fails to crush the Gaza jihadists, ISIS
would have a foothold in the Holy Land, posing new and unpredictable dangers, not only for Gazans themselves, but for Israel, the region, and for the West’s wider war on the Islamic State. In such a sequence, Israel will be expected to find the “solution” and will almost certainly bombard Gaza yet again and with perhaps greater ferocity.
Except that Israel is already demographically underwater itself– and as the last round of “grass mowing” proves, bombing just isn’t effective anymore. And the most polarizing event that could occur– is Israel openly allying with the US Coalition to defeat IS.
Atran himself despairs of crafting that “spiritual counternarrative” even among western youth.
The Islamic state dominates discourse now among youth throughout the Muslim world. The overwhelmingly majority are opposed but with so many fragmented voices, and nothing to compete by a long shot.
And there is also a weakening in the fabric of open societies. It has been undermined by an unrelenting attack on its values as hegemonic, rendering them relative in the minds of our own young, even relative to those of a murderous sort. This is especially evident in Europe, where there is a much deeper and wider “understanding” for the Islamic State than you might imagine among educated youth, tired of the staleness and corruption of their political elites (in France the same power players have been around for 40 years, with little variation in change of gov’t). There is also a restlessness after 70 years of peace that is palpable to me.
It is a much deeper problem in our open societies that IS is exploiting, and which I see no one in power addressing. Of course, there are the problems of the middle east, africa, and the revivalist movements in the Muslim world at large. But it is the total confusion in the West that scares me much more.
As my daughter told me while she was listening to the gunfire at the Bataclan around corner from her apartment and from the cafe just below, and her friends texting her “we’re still alive but don’t go out,” – “we have no answer to this,” she said, “and our culture, the one of the cafe and the rock concerts that are so much a part of our life in the neighborhood, in a weird way was saying to me, as some my friends in fact did, that they could understand why young Muslims would want to go out and shoot people, only they were shooting mostly those who would probably have said yesterday, before our other friends were being killed, that they understood. Yes, they now condemn the killings, but not really what was behind them or what they were aiming at. There is no wall of resistance to this, there is only paralysis, confusion, and everyone reacting with disbelief and rationalization in their own way.”
The clarity, certainty and inner spiritual strength of the Islamic State cuts through this like butter.
Perhaps in the end the equation comes down to either a viable counternarrative, or the VietCong Ghosts of Mars.