Making life more promising than death
The Islamic State (ISIS) has at least one huge advantage over the array of forces aligned against it. It has succeeded in recruiting fighters who are willing to die for its cause; the creation of a 21st-century caliphate.
Writing in the Washington Post after the fall of Ramadi, John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA, said: “People don’t fight because they’ve been trained; they fight because they believe in something. At present, the biggest believers in the region are with the Islamic State.”
From the dawn of warfare, the challenge for all fighting forces has been to convince men — mostly young men in the prime of life — that their lives are worth sacrificing for a greater cause, be it a tribe, a religion, a nation-state or an ideology. This, indeed, is the great secret of war: Leaders (mostly older men) persuading soldiers (mostly younger men) to put their lives at risk for the glory of something greater than themselves.
This is what martyrdom is all about, whether it takes the form of ISIS suicide bombers, World War II Japanese pilots who flew their planes into Allied warships or outnumbered American GI’s ordered to charge a German position during the Battle of the Bulge.
It is no secret that humans are willing to kill — people kill for all kinds of reasons and motivations — but putting yourself in a position in which you may die (or, in the case of suicide missions, in which you definitely will die) requires a more powerful motivation.
The Iraqi Army soldiers who fled Ramadi as ISIS fighters approached were unwilling to die. But what, after all, were they being asked to die for? To preserve the glory of the motherland, the Iraqi nation? There is no longer an Iraqi nation. To advance the cause of democracy and tolerance and progress? (“Martyrs for tolerance” is not a great motivational line.)
It is no surprise that those who have fought most effectively against ISIS are the ones who have a clear idea of what they are fighting for: The Kurds, the Shia militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. They are fighting for their people, their sect, their nation. These are things they are willing to die for.
The United States and most other Western states have ruled out putting “boots on the ground” to fight ISIS. Put simply, Western leaders do not want their young people dying for unclear causes; a lesson the Americans learned after Vietnam and then relearned after the Bush-era invasion of Iraq. Even non-democracies, like the Soviet Union, learned this lesson in Afghanistan.
So the West’s involvement against ISIS will be limited to air strikes (modern US aircraft with their stealth technology are virtually certain to survive every mission) and drone attacks in which the human element may be, literally, thousands of miles from the battlefield.
Technology has allowed the West to fight martyr-free wars, wars in which Western fighters can kill with little risk of being killed themselves.
This fact is not lost on people in the region, who see this kind of war as a declaration that Western lives are more precious than Arab lives.
Moreover, military analysts agree that to defeat ISIS, there must be a ground campaign. Air wars alone do not succeed alone. The United States and other coalition forces have been bombing ISIS positions since last summer but that did not prevent recent ISIS victories in Ramadi and Palmyra.
So we are left with two routes to defeating ISIS, two routes that, in fact, merge: First, anti-ISIS governments must come up with a way to motivate their people to understand the need to resist ISIS and everything it stands for. But second — and in order to do the first — anti-ISIS governments must counter ISIS’s appeal by giving their young people, their marginalised communities, something to live for so that they are not attracted to ISIS, which only offers something to die for.
Tragically, the reason ISIS’s appeals are succeeding is because so many young people in the region (as well as outside the region) see more promise in dying to achieve future glory than in living to achieve a fulfilling life in “real time”.
The fight against ISIS has served to distract many regional states from the difficult task of building societies and economies that engender hope, that offer young people prospects to explore their potential and that vest citizens in the political process.
Societies that give people something to live for.
The West has been equally negligent, by focusing on military and security assistance to the exclusion of economic aid, trade promotion, educational scholarships, research and development partnerships and the myriad other ways to help lift Arab societies out of their despair.
Put simply, the way to stop ISIS is to make life more promising than death.