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The war of skirmish and symbolism

The plain pulverizing fact is that our war is religious war. It matters not one lick how much our modern mind recoils from this; it matters not one lick that Liberalism barely even has the vocabulary to talk about it, and will react with blind fury against most anyone who does want to talk about it.

Looking over the modern world and all its proliferating works, one may note a strange fact: even when a cliché is easily recognized as such, the recognition only rarely issues in a vigilance against the lazy thinking behind the cliché. Men will chuckle at the folly indicated by the cliché, and then race off in unthinking confidence, impelled by that very thinking. So we find folks who pronounce solemnly that “you can’t legislate morality,” cheering in joyous triumphalism when a judge legislates a very strident sort of morality on the matter of gay marriage. Or we discover scholars whose minds are full of slogans about the dangers of concentrated power shrugging insouciantly about the extraordinary concentration of the power in finance capitalism. (In 1950, finance accounted for some 10% of American business profits; by 2005 that number had quadrupled. It would be difficult to locate a starker indication of concentration than that.)

So whenever you hear someone piously repeat a cliché, even a very wise cliché, there is probably good cause to suspect that his mind remains under the spell of error indicated by the cliché.

Modern men will say, with solemn faces, that generals are always “fighting the last war,” precisely as they go about thinking with ironclad consistency about . . . fighting the last war. Now the “last war” for almost all modern men is what has been called Total War: democratic army arrayed against democratic army, nation in arms against nation, whole societies mobilized and on the march in a clash to the bitter end, as in the war that still bulks biggest in our minds, the Second World War.

But our war today is not total war, it is not democratic war; it is not even, for the most part, a war of army against army; and my informed guess is that we may never again see a total war of that sort. Our enemy certainly does not think in terms of Western Total War, and it is high time that we heeded our own cliché and started thinking about the war we’re in.

The plain pulverizing fact is that our war is religious war. It matters not one lick how much our modern mind recoils from this; it matters not one lick that Liberalism barely even has the vocabulary to talk about it, and will react with blind fury against most anyone who does want to talk about it. Nor, indeed, does it matter how fervently we might wish things were otherwise: the simple fact is that when an organized force of cunning men is making religious war against you, you are in a religious war. The impetus of our enemy lies neither in his skill at arms, nor even in his anger at us, but in the details of his religious doctrine. He fights because he believes divine instruction compels it.

Total war hurls whole armies of galvanized nations against each other in horrifying calamities. Ours is not that sort of war. We are not likely to see great clashes of uniformed men, much less whole societies organized by command economy to wartime fervor. Our war lacks that kind of centralized organization, or at least it lacks that on the part of the aggressor side of the war, which must always be the side with the initiative.

But there is a secondary characteristic of our war that is very much unlike the sort of war that our age still recalls most vividly as the last war. Our war is one of skirmish and symbolism. Because the doctrine is permanent, the discharge of the duty it enjoins is undertaken languidly, irregularly, circumstantially. Our enemy’s planning does not contemplate set-piece battles but rather shocking raids that baffle and demoralize. He will give us (if he can help it) no opportunity for a Gettysburg, much less an Appomattox.

The appeal to the Jihadist is not usually for one gigantic clash of men and materiel that decides the thing. The symbolic raid figures far more prominently in this appeal. It is an appeal designed to attract the pirate or brigand, not the formal soldier. If you are inspired against the imposture of the infidel, or more likely embittered against him — sure, go ahead learn your purity at war. Adventurism and conquest, naked plunder and rapine: the bloody work of the gangster is blessed by way of the romance of throwing off the infidel oppression. The mercenary is empowered. As a result the aggressor is opportunistic, uncoordinated, and predatory. He combines patience and pragmatism with anarchic decentralization.

He also thinks according to a far longer time horizon than any total war can contemplate. The 21st century American has little history that he cares much about; the 21st century Jihadist has abundant history that he cares about, even unto death and mayhem. His mind is simply more historically grounded, and (for example) he thinks it a fact of no small significance that, absent some intervening event of great consequence, Europe will be, in a couple generations, more Muslim than Christian. (At which point, ominously for us, his raids may make use of a much richer storehouse of capital and machinery. This we have seen before, for instance when the Turks made abundant use, in the most ruthless manner imaginable, of all the rich capital, both human and inanimate, of the Greek Near East, to harass and reduce the Latin West.)

From all this it follows that any analysis of the Jihad that takes its bearings from Total War of the 20th century is mistaken from the get-go. It is not pleasant to reflect on how profoundly our thinking on these matters has been fettered by the legacy of the last war.

* * *

Take a moment to watch this rather riveting interview of a radical Islamic cleric in the UK:

For those unable to watch video, in it Anjem Choudary dilates at length on various subjects dear to his Jihadist heart. He is so brazen that Eliot Spitzer ends up declaring that, based on the conversation which just unfolded, Choudary should be arrested and imprisoned on terrorism charges.

Now here is a man who understands the business of the war he’s waging. He treats the interview as another skirmish in this war. His brazenness is simply a function of his supreme confidence in (a) the justice of his cause and (b) the bewilderment and discontent of his enemy.

Now supreme confidence can be a magnetic thing. The amiable and engaging fanatic, in the teeth of rational expectations, often manages to acquire power and influence. This is in part because we cannot help but be drawn to the man who knows what he is about and is prepared to face the consequences of it; a fortiori when what he is about is the ruin and suppression of an aging, rickety system like ours.

Because most of the elites of the West are so relentlessly secular, they are blind to the real appeal of any religious faith that demands more than mere Kumbaya squishiness. They do not comprehend the joy and liberty to be found in willing submission to truth and justice. The basic narcissism of the late modern West is a crippling handicap to our understanding.

A truly disciplined faith — one that takes its bearings not from sentiment or sensuous desire but from obligations we cannot but owe to God — is therefore utterly alien to the bulk of Western leadership. This blindness is all the more debilitating in a commercial society that has come to imagine that self-interest directs the affairs of men.

In a word, much of the structure of modern Western thinking prevents us from understanding our enemy; and more perilously, prevents us from understanding that his evangel is an old and insidious one, proven in its effectiveness over the centuries at producing both converts to its cause and cowering sycophants among its opponents.

Fortunately, there are some simple means of reformation. One is to take the enemy seriously and learn what he is about. This is more difficult than it appears, given that we live in a society where few things are taken seriously, least of all religion. Imagine someone appearing on Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert’s show to explain the details of the Jihad. The whole thing would be a joke. Now, I am not averse to jeering at our enemies now and then; but when that displaces the more vital work of understanding, we have shirked a high responsibility.

Another means of reformation is to learn your history from writers not debased by modernity. Modern writing on Islam (with some honorable exceptions) is sunk in self-loathing and the allure of Otherness; more debilitating still is its misunderstanding of the religious impulse in man. You need not bury yourself in ancient texts and translations (though some of that is necessary); Belloc and Chesterton will do nicely. Even Churchill wrote incisively on the Jihad. John Quincy Adams set down some lines of shrewd analysis, comparing Christian to Islamic dogma, that possess the power to open many eyes. There are passages in Burckhardt, brilliant little asides concerning, say, the treachery of Italian princes who sold their people into Islamic despotism, which will illumine the subject more effectively than a whole bookshelf of today’s proto-dhimmis. Andy Bostom has compiled two volumes of original documents that are indispensible.

Yet another means of mental reformation is to get over your incorrigible bias against Eastern Orthodoxy. That you are probably not even aware of this bias is no excuse. The hatred and contempt that that old heathen Gibbon insinuated into the West against Byzantium is really a thing to behold. Rarely has one man accomplished so thorough a calumny of an entire civilization. The drama of the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, mostly abandoned by West, is a story that should ring down with searing emotion to us today. I have written about this elsewhere. The late historian Steven Runciman’s short book on the fall of Constantinople can be read in one sitting; he was no blind apologist for Orthodoxy, but he tells his tale with power and grace.

Finally, probably nothing is more important than to set aside Liberalism. It is no exaggeration to say that Liberalism makes idiots of us all on this subject. Nor should we have any illusions about how thoroughly Liberalism has penetrated the American Right, especially on matters of economics. Capitalism will not save us. It is much more likely that Capitalism will simply arm our enemies with more fearsome weapons. Islamic money is as good as any other. The Saudis have used their wealth to fund countless Jihadists propaganda organs. General Electric recently began pricing Islamic bonds. The early modern picture of man as moved primarily by self-interest in the economic sense is no less sightless about religious motives than the late modern one.

There is much more than could be said, but I will leave it at that, lest I try the reader’s patience. The hour is late and our thinking is thoroughly muddled. The only remedy is to work hard to gain clarity. Once armed with clarity, we can properly formulate our response to the Jihad.

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