What our wars create: ISIS and the persistence of terrorism

ISIS soldiers celebrate. Credit: AFP/Getty
ISIS soldiers celebrate. Credit: AFP/Getty

A conservative Facebook friend posted a story from the YoungCons website (you know it’s a great right-wing website when one of the top results is “is this site satire?”) about the battle of civilizations- America vs. Islamic fundamentalism. It suggested that the US take after Jefferson and his war against the pirates in Tripoli- use force against these Islamic powers, and don’t back down, surrender, or be held for ransom. Those three things being what the Obama administration is currently doing re: ISIS. Apparently.

Here was my reply, and a reply against the US policy in the Middle East since 9/11:

Islamic fundamentalism post-dates Jefferson. It is a creation in response to colonialism and perpetuated by Western anti-terror actions that lead to far more civilian casualties than militant ones.

We’ve been actively killing people in the Middle East for thirteen years and radical fundamentalism is stronger than ever. A secular leader in Iraq was overthrown, the armed forces disbanded, and a Sunni insurgency created by former officers let loose with their training and weapons. The strongest terror-backed entity is using American weapons to massacre civilians.

So when is America going to bomb the Islamic world into prosperity and peace? Or perhaps basic history shows that’s not the case, and we’re actually fighting a war against groups that would not exist without the weapons and instability from Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, the United States of America.

Now please note that I am not a Hussein apologist, but we need to be honest and see what the early-stage plan in Iraq was, and how in toppling one dictator we sowed the seeds for others to come.

ISIS with captured tank
ISIS with captured tank

With ISIS, we must stop the ongoing nationwide amnesia about the two main wars fought with 9/11 as justification, and confront the new, post-Coalition Iraq. Any additional use of force in the region has to be weighed against what has happened with past uses of force. ISIS may not be a direct creation of the United States (with an assist from early 20th century France and Britain), but its current structure and power is related to US actions, and the War on Terror philosophy that terrorism must be stomped out using overwhelming force.

This is a terror group which is now confirmed to have access to chemical weapons. Just this week another Iraqi Army base was overrun, giving ISIS access to huge amounts of US-provided weapons and transportation.

The biggest discussion since 9/11 that nobody in the government or national media doesn’t want to have is a huge one: what it terrorism, and how is it persisting despite sanctions and military action? Central to this indefinite War is the justification of force without the analysis of its consequences. The Sunni insurgency comes from how the initial invasion of Iraq was manage, and how the Shi’ite and Sunni constituencies have their own paramilitary groups that can act independently of governmental authority. ISIS is a product of dysfunction, and there is no way to remove Coalition action from that dynamic.

Patriotism is a cheap word these days. Only brash, simple action can be patriotic, and dissent is met with ambivalence, if not outright hostility. No matter what ideology you subscribe to, what the United States does or does not do in the Middle East has a body count attached to it. Its size is important, as well as how we take responsibility for collateral damage, if at all.

War brings people together. War gets dissenters thrown in prison.


Eugene V. Debs- socialist, labor organizers, snappy dresser, jailed for opposing World War I.
Eugene V. Debs- socialist, labor organizers, snappy dresser, jailed for opposing World War I.

Hopefully this will be part of a trend towards a more critical approach to how World War I affected the United States: The Atlantic published “Why Wars Always End Up Hurting the Most Vulnerable Americans” yesterday. A choice quote:

Most Americans have forgotten how repressive a period World War I was. “You can’t even collect your thoughts without getting arrested for unlawful assemblage,” quipped the writer Max Eastman. “They give you ninety days for quoting the Declaration of Independence, six months for quoting the Bible.” Walter Lippmann said Woodrow Wilson’s administration had “done more to endanger fundamental American liberties than any group of men for a hundred years.”

What it comes down to is that there are two sides to any event, like a war or a terrorist attack, which rallies people together. There is union, but also violence and repression to those that are in the wrong place (or of the wrong race, or nationality) at the wrong time. Triumph over Nazi Germany and imperial Japan gets so much romanticism, but for 100,000+ Japanese-Americans who were herded into camps, they suffered because of the drive to war. Intellectuals of both liberal and conservative background have often welcomed war as an engine for social good, but as Randolph Bourne thought, “using war powers to achieve domestic reform is like using a firehose to fill a water glass”. Social solidarity in wartime comes with special symptoms: jingoism, inflexibility, and mob sanction.

1917 wasn’t just about giving the Kaiser a good licking, it was about government-led oppression against trade unionists, socialists, and anyone who opposed the war. That legacy remains with us- Edward Snowden, should he end up in US custody, would face charges under the Espionage Act of 1917, which doesn’t even allow him any kind of legal defense. Any justification, no matter how good, is irrelevant. That was the dark mentality of America at the time. You’re with us, or against us. No extenuating circumstances, no middle ground.

It is not our blood being shed. But we are responsible.

“Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land…

There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.” -George S. McGovern, September 1970

Emphasis mine.

This is from his short speech prior to the vote on the original McGovern-Hatfield Amendment, which would have required complete American removal from Vietnam by the end of 1971. It failed.

McGovern died last year. He would have been 91 today.

Dead people’s baggage

Louis Michael Seidman, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown, wrote earlier this year a book entitled On Constitutional Disobedience. His idea- that the Constitution is a lead weight for present society- was summed up when NPR asked him to give an  elevator pitch outlining his thesis:

“There’s no good reason why we should be bound by decisions made hundreds of years ago by people who are long dead, knew nothing about modern America, and had moral and political views that no sensible person would hold today.”

The appeal to tradition logical fallacy emphasizes that tradition and history proves certain arguments and practices correct. Arguments against same-sex marriage, or for school prayer stress the long cultural opposition to the former, and cultural favor of the latter. But this appeal doesn’t use reason or modern relevance, leading to broken and unfair societies. The above link urges  “until people question the logic and reasoning behind such traditions, people who are negatively affected by such traditions will continue to suffer.  Just because it was acceptable in past cultures and times, does not mean it is acceptable today.”

Doug Stanhope, a foul-mouthed political comedian, once opened a bit by declaring ideas like patriotism and heritage “dead people’s baggage.” Due to social inertia, present society is unlikely to radically change its institutions. The question then arises- what can be learnt from the past, and what is merely that lead weight, the baggage of long-dead people.

Therefore, the past is divided into what is presently useful, and what is archaic and without use as a guiding principle. Here are some possible dividing lines

  • Wisdom consists of teachings that have universal insight, and do not age as society moves forward. The wise writings of Lao Tzu, the Stoic philosophers’ appeal to moderation and virtue, and history books that warn of excess, tyranny, or catastrophe. Wisdom can be very short- perhaps a short poem- and perhaps many books are a mix of wisdom and 
  • The Archaic are teachings that have been broken or only rarely have present use. They can be combined into good, modern ideas- but only with an appreciation of the context and the language used.
  • Baggage are things dragged along which lack relevance and clarity. They may inhibit justice without bias, or contribute to discrimination and bigotry.

The Constitution is a mix of all three. The wisdom of the First Amendment, or the lack of a religious test for office, or the parts making sure that states cooperate and recognize each other’s laws all bleed into the present. The unusual and archaic language in the Second Amendment has led to a present culture deeply confused about the role of guns. And the baggage of a contingent of white men, many slaveholders, is there. And why do we give them more deference than a modern day believer in racial inferiority? At some point, “of their era” is no longer an appropriate excuse.

Thomas Jefferson is one of the founders of American political philosophy, and his words are frequently true. But why follow his ideas on economics and taxes? He could barely keep his massive slave estate  from default and didn’t understand why he had such massive debt.

One should be careful with relying on the thinking of people born before the Rights Revolution, or the Industrial Revolution. It can only be so relevant, and to bring it into the present is just being a bellhop for dead people with antiquated ideas.