Thoughts on the Long War

My recent post on the importance of clear-sighted understanding of Islam in the turbulence of our present world provided an opportunity to contemplate a number of issues regarding our current long war against those driven by this ideology. It is one thing to say that this is a war of ideas more than military might, or a war of absolutes; it is quite another to create clear understanding and strategy for fighting and winning such war. So I hope here–and perhaps in some subsequent posts–to provide a few thoughts about the current progress of our struggle and some ways which we as a culture must begin to address it.

1. This is a religious war. One cannot effectively fight a war without understanding the enemy–his motivation, his goals, the forces which drive his actions. We need to get serious about calling this war exactly what it is: a war driven entirely by religious ideology and absolutes.

The West is at war with Islam. It matters not one whit whether we call this Islamofascism, militant Islam, radical Islam, or any other term; arguing about words is unimportant, clarity about motivation is critical. The fact that millions of Muslims do not appear to be actively engaged in this war is utterly irrelevant. Some–hopefully many–Muslims are horrified by the brutal and evil behavior of some adherents of their religion; nevertheless, whether by fear, acquiescence, or wishful thinking, they have failed to speak up against it–almost to a man. Many others, we may assume, quietly support these behaviors, while denying such support if challenged. There seems no other way to explain the deafening silence from Muslims worldwide about the horrors being promulgated under their religious banner.

The West, on the other hand, is largely post-religious, post-Christian. As a result, it has a strong tendency to deny the religious nature of this war, and a widespread confusion about what motivates its enemies. This is not about poverty; this is not about oppression of Arabs by the West; this is not even about Israel and Palestine: this is about jihad. If you are–as large swaths of the West have become–utterly unfamiliar with the power of religious conviction to transform a life, you will utterly misunderstand the power of Islam to persist in violence, destruction, and murder in the name of God. Religion has an enormous, almost unlimited potential for power: this power may be subsumed for the good, or for the evil. Religion can create a Mother Theresa or an Inquisition; it can create a monastery to preserve civilization or judges to burn witches. It can transform a bitter, evil and broken individual into a person who is profoundly kind, generous, and humble–or can create a monster beyond our most fearful imaginations. Religion can destroy civilizations–or can resurrect them from the dead, as modern Europe arose from the ashes of the Roman Empire in the Dark Ages through the power and influence of the Church. The secular West, ironically, is now utterly unprepared in experience, education, and spiritual insight to grasp this fact: the West has become intolerably “tolerant”, immersed in postmodern relativism and materialism, and understands only raw power, selfish entitlement, and victimhood. This places Western civilization at an enormous disadvantage in this struggle; despite its extraordinary advantages in technology, military power, information access, and education, it has no grasp of the motivation or power of its enemy. Hence there are repeated attempts to negotiate, placate, or ignore as a purely cultural phenomena the behavior of the Islamist. Those who are fighting for God will never negotiate, never coexist, never compromise — whether their understanding of God is a corrupt, evil and destructive one, or a good, beneficial, and redemptive one.

The confusion of the secular West about religion is both profound and internally contradictory. To the secular mind, religion is nothing more than foolish, ignorant superstition, of no relevance to modern life–or is always a force of fanaticism, hatred, destructiveness, and bigotry. But it cannot be both at the same time. Yet the postmodern mind bundles both of these inconsistencies into a single neat package, and places it on a shelf–blissfully unaware that neither view is correct, and that the two views are incompatible. It does not recognize that religion can be its most powerful friend or its most vicious enemy.

The power of religion is compounded exponentially–virtually always detrimentally–when it is fused with the secular power and authority of government. The worst abuses of Christianity occurred in the toxic milieu of theocracy or church-state fusion: the Spanish Inquisition, the religious wars of Europe; the corruption and persecution in Europe brought about by the divine right of kings. Wiser, maturing societies in the West have therefore separated church and state–both to preserve the church, and to preserve the state. Islam, on the other hand, pathologically couples secular authority with religious zealotry: the two are inseparable. One cannot have a faith whose mission is conquest, forced conversion, destruction or subjugation of the unbeliever without utilizing secular power, military might, and the authority and coercion of the state. Islam is a top-down religion: it enforces its dictates from above, ignoring, or at the very least minimizing, the importance of individual transformation. If all that is required is adherence to the dictates of faith without transformation of the heart, then forced conversion makes perfect sense. By contrast, Judaism, and even more so Christianity, are bottom-up faiths: the transformation occurs first in the human heart, then percolates outward and upward through the individual, to his or her family, circle of influence, and community, and finally–at least ideally–transforming the government of society. Thus democracy works in such an environment because the individual has been changed; democracy cannot function purely in a top-down manner, for the end result will always be autocracy at best, tyranny at worst.

The salient point is this: you cannot remove Islamofascism from Islam without changing Islam–and to change Islam is to destroy it. To remove the warrior from Islam is to remove the Prophet from Islam; one might as well try to remove Christ from Christianity or Moses from Judaism.

2. The war in Iraq. The war in Iraq is in many ways historically unique. It has been conceptualized and executed as a preemptive war, embarked on to destroy a state sponsor of terrorism and a dangerous, intrusive influence in the Middle East. It is an attempt to undermine both state support for terrorism and to create a new, democratic state to undermine the toxic social and government state of affairs deemed to be a large breeding ground for terrorist activity throughout the Middle East. That the invasion of Iraq has toppled a vicious tyrant, who was a threat most of all to his own people, but also to his neighbors and quite plausibly to America and much of the West, is a given. That the invasion of Iraq will create a stable democracy which will undermine a culture of despots and theocrats in the Middle East, and thereby reduce the risk to Western civilization from Islamic terrorism, is still very much an open question. This was a policy pursued with considerable optimism: optimism not only in our military capabilities, which were a given; but optimism as well in the capacity of an Arab nation, largely Islamic, to become secular and democratic. That the situation in Iraq is substantially better than portrayed by the Left and their drumbeating megaphones in the media is unquestionably true; that the situation is worse and less optimistic than its strongest proponents seems also likely.

The largest question is whether a predominantly Islamic culture can create a stable democracy. Turkey has managed largely successfully to create such an environment–but to do so has required a very strong secular hand, embodied in the military, to keep the situation stable, given the simmering cauldron of Islam which seems always ready to boil over. Whether Iraq can achieve this sort of meta-stability remains to be seen. Insofar as cultural Muslims–those for whom faith takes second place to economic progress and social liberty and stability–can seize, maintain, and enforce their vision of society, over and against those more zealous about jihad, they may succeed. The jury is out. I for one remain moderately pessimistic that this can in fact be accomplished — especially since surrounding states such as Syria and Iran, and even Saudi Arabia, will likely do everything possible to undermine such a success, which would profoundly threatened their own autocracies.

But on this we must be clear: we cannot eliminate Islamic terror by eliminating nation-states alone. We talk about the Greatest Generation, and how they succeeded in destroying the threats of Nazi fascism and Japanese Imperialism with its emperor worship. But the social pathology which proved such a threat to the world in these states was largely a function of those very states. Were there one billion Nazis throughout the world, in many countries, the destruction and defeat of Germany would not have solved the problem of Nazi fascism.

We talk also about our endurance through the Cold War, in defeating Soviet communism over a period of 45 years. Yet communism is a state-wedded religion; its failed vision of human nature brought about its internal collapse as much, if not more, than the military might and endurance of the West. When the Soviet state collapsed, Soviet communism collapsed–although it is worth noting that communism is hardly dead, surviving and thriving in the socialist and leftist ideology everywhere present in the world. We may defang Islamic terrorism by militarily defeating its state sponsors–but we will not overcome the threat of Islam by military means. We have already seen the limits of this approach: despite being the most advanced and dreaded military in the history of the world, we struggle to overcome those who fight for God with car bombs and suicide vests. Our democracy–deeply divided on even clearcut moral issues–is quite simply incapable of sustaining a prolonged, full-bore military conflict against an enemy whose tactics change like a chameleon, who is fighting and dying for their salvation, and who understand all too well that our own moral absolutes and societal values are profoundly, if not fatally, corrupted. There will never be another Iraq–an invasion of Syria, Iran, or any other preemptive experiment in overthrowing a totalitarian government and attempting to institute democracy is no longer feasible given our lack of clarity and vision and moral self-confidence.

This raises the unsettling question of how we might respond to some further devastating attack on our own soil. Would we respond to an anthrax attack on a major city which kills 20, 000, with an invasion of Syria or Iran? Could we even sustain such an invasion, given our already overtaxed military capabilities? What would be our response, God forbid, to a nuclear eradication of an American city? It is far more likely that, in our rage, we would strike out in an enormously destructive act of revenge: the nuclear obliteration of one or more Middle East countries. We still struggle morally with great ambivalence about the nuclear attack on Japan which ended World War II — how would we as a culture survive the eradication of tens of millions?

This is not to say that military options are unnecessary or ineffective in this struggle; but it is to say that one cannot defeat the power religion with bullets or bombs. It is doubtless true that we need to sustain our efforts in Iraq to the endpoint of something resembling stability and victory; precipitous withdrawal, as appealing as it may seem, would be disastrous both for the Iraqi experiment and for our own society and culture. Iraq has taught us a useful lesson: though our military technology is extraordinary, and our military personnel both courageous and amazingly competent, we must nevertheless broaden our vision far beyond some simple military victory to more transcendent and sustainable transformation if we are to survive and triumph against the present darkness. Our task is far more difficult than that of the Islamic radical: it is far easier to destroy than to transform, far easier to promote evil than to sustain the good. The Roman Empire at the time of its fall was still the most feared military on the planet–yet its dissolution was precipitous and brought forth centuries of chaos and darkness. Ours is a task of supernatural magnitude. If we succeed we may well be the next Greatest Generation; if we fail, our darkness will be profound indeed.

I hope in one or more subsequent posts to explore some such avenues; the task is indeed daunting and solutions are not simple: transforming a culture to prepare and harden it for what is fundamentally a war of spiritual magnitude and moral clarity–a war of absolutes–is more than any one person can hope to accomplish. But collectively, with clarity of vision and character and moral endurance we may yet succeed.

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