Friday, May 29, 2015

Is ISIS Post-Modernism's Latest Avatar?

On Memorial weekend, Meet the Press was replaced by sports, TCM’s movie line-up is devoted to war movies, and Face the Nation devoted half its time to a discussion of the Vietnam War - the one the US military needed to get over by invading Afghanistan, then Iraq.
But that was before ISIS, the army that is creating a country, and whether and how it can be defeated. Will the US have to put boots on the ground, as Senator McCain believes, or will it suffice for the Iraqi Shia’ dominated government to give Sunnis a bigger voice so they don’t join the fanatic Islamists?  The desertion of Ramadi by Iraqi troops showed how poorly organized the army is, and certainly the US must be held in part responsible. 
But one thing that is never mentioned is the fact that in the space of a year, ‘ISIS’ has taken over half of Syria and half of Iraq, without an established government and bureaucracy behind it: their blitzkrieg will go down in military history as a new form of guerrilla warfare. And yet, the press is mainly concerned with how many troops the organization has, how they sell oil to Turkey, and — currently — whether they will destroy a magnificent UNESCO heritage site, the ancient ruins of Palmyra. (In that regard, perhaps our only hope is that ISIS will prefer to use its troops to take more land than to dynamite what they consider to be objects of idolatry.) 
At the end of the day, ISIS shows what determined fighters can do without a cumbersome system behind them. It would be interesting to find out how much it spends keeping its forces clothed, fed and mobile. (We already know that they capture a lot of weapons dropped by the US for what it hopes are forces fighting them….) We know they have relatively easy access to money through the sale of energy from conquered oil and gas fields, but their use of modern tools of communication and control has apparently enabled them to eliminate the institutions that have always overseen the conduct of war and often lead to contradictory messages. 
It’s axiomatic in military discussions that the army with the best morale usually wins, and with ISIS morale is on steroids. But the motivation of its fighters cannot be attributed solely to the predations of Empire across the Muslim world. This is not a you-exploited-us-and-now-we’re-booting-you-out campaign. Fighters would not come from the world’s most developed countries to schlep across the desert fully clothed (in those picturesque uniforms consisting of lose trousers, jumpers and face masks that one can recognize from afar on the news) just to fight a modern-day war of liberation. Its tit for tat is about morality. aWhile Europeans are increasingly determined to resist the austerity mandated by Brussels under orders from Washington,- Spain’s Podemos Party just chalked up similar wins to those of Greece’s early Syriza Party - superimposed on the age-old fight for equity is a new fault-line that goes under the name of morality but is more complicated than any morality play.
Broadly speaking, it is a revolt against the type of society that has evolved from an overemphasis on consumption. Labelled ‘moral degeneracy’, behaviors previously considered depraved have become the norm (as in ‘anything goes’). Although Western societies have, since the Second World War, been characterized by ever looser standards of sexual behavior, what is remarkable is the fact that increasingly, the classical labels of left and right are muddied, as people belonging to the two groups find themselves agreeing on a growing range of subjects, giving rise to what is called ‘post-modernism’. Vladimir Putin, for example, is endorsed by the president of France’s neo-fascist National Front, Marine Le Pen, because both pay tribute to their respective religious institutions, (organized religion having always backed authori-tarianism, whether as monarchy, fascism or the Stars and Stripes) and because the Russian president, while retaining the trappings of a welfare state, uses ‘managed democracy’ to bring back nationalism, a hallmark of right-wing parties. 
Opprobrium against ‘loose morals’ is prominent among believers of all faiths, but it increasingly involves non-believers, many of whom espouse hedonism while condemning vulgarity. The fact that young women - and even teenagers - respond to on-line invitations to travel to a war zone to marry Islamic fighters is as much about a dawning awareness that life shouldn’t be all about the latest shade of lipstick or the newest rock song, as a revolt against being treated as an object by boys and men. While ‘liberated’ women resent being blamed for sexual assaults because of their short skirts and make-up, others choose to protect themselves from harassment by hiding their shape under long skirts and loose, long-sleeved tops. To be told you will be put on a pedestal rather than whistled at plays to the princess lurking beneath the bikini. 
For young men, the equivalent attraction is the image of themselves as not only heroic fighters, but paladins of propriety.   ‘Submission’ too is a powerful attractor, as history has shown from earliest times: today, Americans ‘submit’ to monitoring by a government that tells them they are ‘free’; they ‘submit’ to nine-to-five jobs in order to pay the mortgage, and to the pharma-ceutical industry that conjures up dangers to their health, having been trained by tv - mom’s free baby sitter - to demand the newest of everything. One doesn’t necessarily have to believe in God to welcome an obligation to behave in ways that humans are programmed to judge positively, including those that allow societies to occasionally blow off steam, as opposed to a permanent permissiveness that leads to boredom.
The Western alliance claims to bring democracy by the sword, while ISIS claims to bring propriety, both believing their actions justified by the superiority/sanctity of their cause.  

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