America’s Reckless War Against Evil
Why It’s Self-Defeating and Has No End
By Ira Chernus
Oh, no! Not another American war against evil!
This time, it’s the Islamic State (IS). After the
attacks in Paris, Barack Obama, spokesman-in-chief for the United
States of America, called that crew “the face of evil.” Shades of
George W. Bush. The “evildoers” are back. And from every
mountaintop, it seems, America now rings with calls to ramp up its
By the way, George W., how did that last war
against the “evildoers” work out for you? Not quite the way you
expected, right? I bet you didn’t imagine that your Global War on
Terror would plant the seeds of an Islamic State and turn
significant stretches of Iraq (and Syria) into fertile soil in which
IS would grow into a brand new, even more frightening enemy.
But that’s the way wars against evil always seem
Pardon me if I vent my exasperation with all the
Washington policymakers, past and present, surrounded by their
so-called experts and those war-drum-beating pundits in the media. I
know I shouldn’t be shocked anymore. I’ve seen it often enough as a
historian studying wars against evil in the past -- ever since
biblical times, in fact -- and as a citizen watching wars in my own
lifetime, ever since the one that tore Vietnam (and, incidentally,
Still, it drives me crazy to watch policymakers
and experts making the same dumb mistakes time after time, several
mistakes, actually, which synergistically add up to one
self-defeating blunder after another.
What’s worse, the dominant trend in public opinion
is so often on the side of just those mistakes. You’d think someone
would learn something. And in that someone I include “we, the
people,” the nation as a whole.
Yet now, facing the Islamic State, you guessed it:
we’re doing it all over again.
Let me try to lay out our repetitive mistakes, all
six of them, one by one, starting with...
Mistake Number One:
Treating the enemy as absolute evil, not even human.
called the Paris tragedy “an attack on all of humanity,” which
means that, even for the president, IS fighters stand outside that
category. They are evidently some other species and merely appear to
be human. And this was the mildest of descriptions in this
overheated political season of ours. “The face of evil” sounds
modest indeed compared to the vivid images offered by the
Republicans vying to replace him. For Ben Carson, IS are a bunch of
dogs”; for Ted Cruz, “scorpions.”
Donald Trump calls them "insane,"
All point to the same dangerous conclusion: Since
we are human and they are not, we are their opposite in every way.
If they are absolute evil, we must be the absolute opposite. It’s
apocalyptic tale: God’s people versus Satan’s. It ensures that
we never have to admit to any meaningful connection with the enemy.
By this logic, it couldn’t be more obvious that the nation our
leaders endlessly call “exceptional” and “indispensable,” the only
nation capable of leading the rest of the world in the war against
evil, bears no relationship to that evil.
That leads to...
Mistake Number Two:
Buried in the assumption that the enemy is not in any sense
human like us is absolution for whatever hand we may have had in
sparking or contributing to evil’s rise and spread. How could we
have fertilized the soil of absolute evil or bear any responsibility
for its successes? It’s a basic postulate of wars against evil:
God’s people must be innocent.
As a result, we don’t need to look at all the ways
in which the U.S., even in battle mode, continues to contribute to
the successes of Islamic State fighters in Sunni Arab lands by, for
instance, supporting an Iraqi Shi’ite regime in Baghdad that has a
grim history of
oppressing Sunnis, a history that drives many of them to
tolerate, or even actively support IS.
By refusing a future role of any sort for Syria’s
president Bashar al-Assad, we have
hindered the diplomatic process that might heal the civil war in
that country. Instead we let the Syrian chaos continue as a breeding
ground for IS expansion (though perhaps this policy is
just beginning to change). Our long-term alliance with
Saudi Arabia is equally counterproductive, protecting funding
networks that feed a
Just as we don’t look at all this in the present,
so we blind ourselves to what the U.S. has done in the past.
Mistake Number Three:
Call it blotting out history. We lose the ability to really
understand the enemy because we ignore the actual history of how
that enemy came to be, of how a network of relationships grew up in
which we played, and continue to play, a central role.
The historical record is clear for all who care to
look: The U.S. (the CIA in particular) was a
key to the creation, funding, and arming of the mujahidin,
the rebel fighters in Afghanistan who took on the Soviet army there
in the 1980s, the men (often extreme Islamists) whom President
compared to our founding fathers. From that situation came
George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq cracked the
region open and
paved the way for the Islamic State. The Bush administration
tore Iraq to shreds and then
demobilized Saddam Hussein’s army and dispatched its members to
the unemployment lines of a wrecked country.
One of those shreds, al-Qaeda in Iraq,
populated by disaffected officers from that disbanded army,
transform itself into the nucleus of the new Islamic State
movement. Indeed the U.S.
nurtured the present leadership of that movement in American
military prisons in Iraq, where we introduced them to each other, so
to speak. The process was at least hastened, and perhaps ultimately
caused, by the vehement
anti-Sunni bias of the Shi’ite Iraqi government, which the U.S.
installed in power and also nurtured.
To sustain our image of ourselves as innocents in
the whole affair, we have to blot out this empirical history and
replace it with a myth (not so surprising, given that any war
against evil is a mythic enterprise). That’s not to say that we deny
all the facts. We just pick and choose the ones that fit our myth
In that tale, the enemy is simply what Christians
for centuries have called the devil, which brings us to...
Mistake Number Four:
We assume that the enemy, like Lucifer himself, does evil just for
the sake of doing it. Even the most liberal parts of the media often
can’t see IS
fighters as more than “lunatics” bent on “slaughter for its own
Under such circumstances, what a foolish task it
obviously is even to think about the enemy’s actual motives. After
all, to do so would be to treat them as humans, with human purposes
arising out of history. It would smack of sympathy for the devil.
Of course, this means that, whatever we might
think of their actions, we generally ignore a wealth of evidence
that the Islamic State’s fighters couldn’t be more human or have
more comprehensible motivations. In fact, if you look hard enough,
you can find evidence of just that.
The Atlantic, for instance, gained some
attention for publishing an article by Graeme Wood
that explored the complex religious ideas of the IS movement. In
the New York Review of Books, Scott Atran and Nafes Hamid offered
insights from people who had taken the time to actually talk
with IS fighters or former fighters about its strategy and their own
motives in becoming part of it. In this manner, Atran and Hamid
helped explain the great mystery of IS (if you believe it is an
inhuman organization): How can it attract so many young followers,
especially from the U.S. and Europe? Why do some disaffected young
men and women find the movement “profoundly alluring”?
Olivier Roy, a leading
scholar of political Islam, has answered that many of these youth,
full of “frustration and resentment against society,” are lured by
the fantasy of joining a “small brotherhood of super-heroes.” But a
recent study by the Program in Extremism at George Washington
University, full of rich details on American IS supporters,
concluded that “their motivations are diverse and defy easy
Add up this sort of evidence and you’re likely to
come to a startling and, in our present context, deeply unsettling
conclusion. It’s not just that IS fighters are distinctly human, but
that in some ways they are eerily like us. After all, we, too, have
a military that uses an ideological narrative to recruit young
people and prepare them to be willing to die for it. Our military,
too, is savvy in using social media and various forms of advertising
and publicity to deploy its narrative effectively. Like IS recruits,
youngsters join our military for all sorts of reasons, but some
because they are rootless, disaffected, and in search of a belief
system, or at least an exciting adventure (even one that may put
them in danger of losing their lives). And don’t forget that those
young recruits, like the IS fighters, often have only the sketchiest
grasp of what exactly they are signing up to die for or of the
nature of the conflicts they may be involved in.
Our state ideology is, of course, secular. But
most of us are certainly familiar personally (or at one remove) with
American religious fundamentalists whose beliefs share much with the
IS narrative. On both sides, people want to turn back the clock of
history and live according to a sacred plan supposedly etched in
stone many centuries ago.
There are, in fact,
striking parallels -- and I say this as a professor of religious
studies -- between the evangelical mood and methods of our
fundamentalists and those of the Islamic State. Both agree that one
must choose between God’s truth (derived from an ancient text) and
the devil’s. Both offer the psycho-social comfort of a community
supposedly living by immutable laws. Some of our fundamentalists,
Christian Reconstructionists, would be happy to see this nation
governed under religious law, as long as it’s their religion we’re
Whatever any of us think of our homegrown
fundamentalists, we would hardly deny them their humanity, even if
we often wonder what leads them to such (to many of us) strange
beliefs. So here’s the question: Why shouldn’t we be just as curious
about the believers of the Islamic State, even if they are our
Remember, to understand is not to justify. Quite
the opposite, understanding often opens up ways of thinking more
constructively and creatively about how to respond to such a
challenge. It’s clear that Islamic State strategists understand
American and European political cultures well indeed and, as they’ve
repeatedly shown, they use that understanding to their grim
advantage. They know just how to provoke us into anti-Muslim
rhetoric and belligerent policies, which they find most useful to
their project and their movement. Like classic judo warriors, they
employ our immense strength remarkably effectively against us.
Every one of Washington’s words and acts of war,
every ally like
Great Britain that joins the bombing campaign against IS, only
confirms the Islamic State’s message that Muslims are under attack
by the West. All of it only plays into the IS’s own apocalyptic
worldview. Every step in the process makes the IS more attractive
to Muslims who feel oppressed and marginalized by the West. So think
of every threat uttered in the presidential campaign here and every
bomb now being dropped as yet more global recruitment posters
manna from heaven” for that movement. Each is an invitation to
launch yet more Paris-style attacks.
Our blindness to them as human beings, and to all
the ways we have influenced them, increases their power and
undermines our power to shape the outcome of events in Iraq, Syria,
and elsewhere in the Greater Middle East. Ironically, we accept this
loss of power willingly, even eagerly, because it allows us to hold
on to what seems to matter most to us: our vision of a war against
inhuman evildoers, which brings us to...
Mistake Number Five:
To convince ourselves that the Islamic State is evil incarnate, we
imagine that the enemy is as relentless, intractable, and implacable
as the devil himself. As a result, we also imagine that nothing we
could do might diminish their will to evil. Since, as we see it, we
had nothing to do with creating these monsters, no changes in our
policies or actions could possibly influence their behavior. And
since they are just crazy -- not capable of normal rationality --
there is no point in trying to talk with them.
By this route we finally, inevitably, arrive at...
Mistake Number Six:
The belief that we have only one option: annihilation. Or if that
proves impossible, despite the military forces at our disposal, then
at least containing them forever.
In fact, the presidential candidates of this
moment all demand annihilation and nothing less. In Donald Trump’s
words, “bomb the shit out of ‘em.” In Hillary Clinton’s
more demure formulation, “crush ISIS... break the group’s
momentum and then its back.” Even Bernie Sanders
agrees: “Our priority must be... to destroy the brutal and
barbaric ISIS regime.”
The dream of a war of annihilation against evil
has a long, long history in white America. It began in 1636 when
Puritans in New England wiped out the Pequot tribe, promising that
such a lesson would prevent further attacks by other tribes. In
fact, it created a spiral of violence and counter-violence, and a
war-against-evil template that the country
still follows nearly four centuries later in its “war on
terror.” The current conflict in Iraq and Syria seems only to be
locking us into that template and its guaranteed cycle of violence
ever more firmly.
Why do we as a nation keep on playing into the
same dismal scenario and committing the same mistakes? Why this
seemingly irresistible urge to fight yet another war against evil?
I worry that the answer to such questions may lie
in what I’ve called an American
myth of national insecurity. It tells us that we will always be
at war with evildoers bent on destroying us; that this war
(whichever the latest one may be) is the mission and the meaning of
our nation; and that the only way to feel like a real American is to
enlist permanently in permanent war.
In other words, even as we stoke the Islamic
State, we stoke ourselves as well. The longer we fight, the more
deeply we are seized by fear. The more we fear, the more fiercely we
are determined to fight. Perhaps the point is not to win the war but
to remain trapped in this vicious circle, which feels perversely
comforting because it offers a sense of unified national identity as
nothing else can in our otherwise deeply divided nation.
National myths are, however, invented by human
beings, and we are always capable of changing our minds. Who knows?
Maybe someday the Islamic State will figure out that brutal killing
and other acts of horror in the name of the caliphate are not such a
good idea after all. And maybe the United States will figure out
that depending on an eternal, self-defeating war against evil for
our national identity is a huge mistake after all. Maybe.
Ira Chernus, a TomDispatch
regular, is professor of religious studies at the
University of Colorado Boulder and author of the online "MythicAmerica:
Essays." He blogs at MythicAmerica.us.
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Copyright 2015 Ira Chernus