Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Glory of Battle

The Atlantic has an amazing piece in its current issue, one which I recommend everyone take the time to read. It's a long piece about the ideology of ISIS, one that is deeply researched and revelatory. I consider myself pretty well-informed about the Middle East and Political Islam, but I was unaware of the big ideological differences between ISIS and Al-Qaida, and how those differences might (should) effect US strategy in the region.

What I want to talk about here is a quote that jumped out at me from the end of the piece, and which has been rattling around in my head since. It was written in 1940 by George Orwell, explaining the strange draw that Nazism (and violent nationalism generally) had on many people.
[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flag and loyalty-parades ... Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.
Graeme Wood, the author of the Atlantic piece, used this quote to illustrate the allure of ISIS. People from all over the world are joining its barbaric cause. Not many of them, but enough that the rest of us look at them and wonder, what the hell are you thinking? What could possibly be appealing about this? The recruits give up relatively cushy lives in Australia, Germany, Britain, and the United States, fly to Syria, burn their passports, and shoulder rifles. “They believe that they are personally involved in struggles beyond their own lives, and that merely to be swept up in the drama, on the side of righteousness, is a privilege and a pleasure—especially when it is also a burden,” writes Wood. It reminds me in a strange way of the practice of cutting, or self-harm. Some people seem to need to hurt, to fling themselves headlong into trouble, to feel alive.

Robert "Musa" Cerantonio, preacher and ISIS supporter
As an individual quirk this is merely odd, but when strife-seeking becomes a nationalistic philosophy, we're all in trouble. The push-pull between the comforts of the modern world and the supposed charms of revolution and battle was no more apparent than the fascist movements of the 20th century. These were rooted deeply in the Romantic tradition, itself a reaction against the calm rationalism of the Enlightenment. (The Enlightenment, for those who don't know, is a philosophical movement that arose right around the time of the American Revolution, and most of the American founders considered themselves part of the movement.)

Steven Pinker, who wrote the groundbreaking book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, also noted a strong correlation between Romanticism and an uptick in militarism and bloodlust.
The counter-Enlightenment also rejected the assumption that violence was a problem to be solved. Struggle and bloodshed are inherent in the natural order, and cannot be eliminated without draining life of its vitality and subverting the destiny of mankind. As Herder put it, “Men desire harmony, but nature knows better what is good for the species: it desires strife.” The glorification of the struggle in “nature red in tooth and claw” (as Tennyson had put it) was a pervasive theme in 19th-century art and writing. Later it would be retrofitted with a scientific patina in the form of “social Darwinism,” though the connection with Darwin is anachronistic and unjust: The Origin of Species was published in 1859, long after romantic struggleism had become a popular philosophy, and Darwin himself was a thoroughgoing liberal humanist. 
The counter-Enlightenment was the wellspring of a family of romantic movements that gained strength during the 19th century. Some of them influenced the arts and gave us sublime music and poetry. Others became political ideologies and led to horrendous reversals in the trend of declining violence. One of these ideologies was a form of militant nationalism that came to be known as “blood and soil”—the notion that an ethnic group and the land from which it originated form an organic whole with unique moral qualities, and that its grandeur and glory are more precious than the lives and happiness of its individual members. Another was romantic militarism, the idea that (as Mueller has summarized it) “war is noble, uplifting, virtuous, glorious, heroic, exciting, beautiful, holy, thrilling.” A third was Marxist socialism, in which history is a glorious struggle between classes, culminating in the subjugation of the bourgeoisie and the supremacy of the proletariat. And a fourth was National Socialism, in which history is a glorious struggle between races, culminating in the subjugation of inferior races and the supremacy of the Aryans.
The rise of ISIS has more than one root cause, of course, and the fighters for the most part are not leaving comfort in order to seek strife: most of them were raised in strife. They've grown up oppressed and abused by secular dictators supported by foreign powers, and they are throwing that off in as dramatic a fashion as possible. But for those of us who see images of westerners boarding planes to Syria, anxious to join the cause, or hear barbaric executioners speaking in a British accent, the weird allure becomes somewhat more understandable when you connect some historical dots. Once those dots begin to connect, you may see them everywhere. Nazism, ISIS, Abu Ghraib ... even a certain strain of militant libertarianism at home. I know a man who is building a fortress in the mountains, right here in our local mountains, complete with sniper tower. He is ready for the Final Battle between himself the US government. Does he fear it? Look into his eyes and ask. He does not fear it. He can't wait for it. 

Add to the many other dichotomies of modern life the continuing struggle between the scientific, rational, humanistic principles of the Enlightenment, and the violent, passionate, thrilling desires of Romanticism. The Romantic believes we are only truly alive when we are wielding a sword ... or an AR-15.


  1. It's been quite some time since I had a subscription to The Atlantic, but many articles, stories, and poems I read in it have stayed in my mind.


    1. I love the Atlantic! I enjoyed so many of their stories on social media that we got a print subscription. Now Husband and I fight over the paper copy the day it arrives. :)

    2. That sounds like fun. X and I used to fight over The Washington Post on Sundays.

  2. Interesting analysis, and a commendable one. There is, I agree, a conflict between rationalism and romanticism at work in the mix. Surely it defines the difference between government by discussion and government by tantrum. But there is another very important element undergirding the conflict, greed. An enlightened, humanistic government is considered weak and the social justice of tolerance, vulnerable, to delinquent sects of various religions and to international belligerents. That describes the offense. The motive is easier to isolate. Consider the Middle-Eastern prize for secession from enlightened society. OIL. Wealth is at stake here and that, from Hitler --whose tanks could be heard miles from engagement because they didn't lube their treads-- to N. Korea which never carries out its threats because only 2 months reserve of oil, to Isis, Al-Qaida etc. which seems to find its most strategic vantage points over oil fields. All rule by tantrum --all aspire to wealth. These are people who discard their humanity in favor of agitating toward prosperous brutality, advertisement and violent crime for the same reason any street thug does.

    1. They do remind me of a criminal street gang. One big difference, though: street gangs are absolutely about money and power. Their concerns are worldly. If Graeme Wood is to be believed, and I think he is, ISIS is scarier. Because what they want is not money and power. They want the apocalypse.


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