Why Are 'Our Kids' Drawn to Battles Abroad?

From Bolshevik Revolution to present-day war in Syria, the young have flocked to epic ideological struggles.

By Crawford Kilian 5 Mar 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor at The Tyee.

We can't even agree on a name for the entity we're currently bombing in Iraq and Syria: ISIS? ISIL? Islamic State? Jihadis? Daesh? That's how quickly it's emerged from the chaos in Syria and Iraq, and its success has alarmed us as much as its violence.

The Islamic State (as I prefer to call it) seems like a new breed of bad guys, and we're not sure quite how to deal with them. But they pose a challenge to the West that we've faced before -- almost exactly a century ago, when the Russian Empire fell and the Bolsheviks seized power.

The parallels are striking, and a little creepy. Both movements seemed to spring out of nowhere, though they were splinter factions of larger, better-known groups. Each emerged as an unpopular war staggered to a close, and the West was fed up with fighting. And each was viewed by the West as an existential threat, all the more dangerous because it seemed to have strong supporters in our own ranks.

The Bolsheviks were just a handful of extreme socialists; the Islamic State began as a handful of extreme Islamists. Each group had its own reading of a great authority: Marx, endorsed by history, and Mohammed, endorsed by God. Both proposed a violent, radical restructuring of human society, bringing all humanity under its rule.

"What's the point of a revolution if you can't shoot anyone?" Lenin is supposed to have said. And what's the point of an Islamic State if you can't behead people and put the video online?

Another parallel: Socialism in the 19th century came to North America along with millions of immigrants. It was viewed by "right-thinking" people as an alien creed, with Germans and Jews among its loudest advocates. Anti-semitism had always been around, and the First World War triggered a wave of anti-German feelings. At war's end, some socialists in Canada supported the Bolsheviks' unexpected rise to power; that led to a riot by army veterans in Winnipeg, who wrecked the Socialist Party's office and the businesses of several known socialists.

Undercover Mounties

The cops just watched and let it happen, according to historian Daniel Francis in his book Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-19, Canada's First War on Terror. The Mounties (then the Royal North West Mounted Police) were also undercover at Socialist Party rallies, taking notes as they would for the next century. Like the American FBI, today's RCMP owes its existence to the Red Menace.

Meanwhile, troops were ordered to board ship in Victoria to join the new Canadian Expeditionary Force (Siberia), that sailed to Vladivostok, Russia, our contribution to stamping out Bolshevism abroad. They were largely French-Canadian conscripts who didn't like Anglo wars in general. In particular they disliked being sent off to a brand-new war just as the old one had ended. Some conscripts mutinied on the march and were whipped aboard by their fellow-soldiers.

Sound familiar? Secret police agents scrutinizing dissenters; violence against "aliens" preaching an alien creed; the sense of a foreign threat with dangerous domestic support; troops shipped off for unclear reasons. It was a recipe for North American political success throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

In the U.S., young J. Edgar Hoover helped Attorney General Palmer deport untold numbers of radical immigrants. Then Hoover created the FBI as his personal espionage service. Having just disposed of the Huns as Evildoers Number One, the Americans happily adopted the Reds for the next 20 years, then made an alliance with them against Hitler, and restored them to Evildoer status when the war was over.

Radical Islam as Evildoers

Only during the lost decade of the 1990s did the Americans (and the West) try to function without a major foreign threat. It wasn't easy. Even the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein was just an exercise in disciplining a misbehaving client, like the removal of Manuel Noriega in Panama. The 9/11 attacks were a godsend, introducing radical Islam as Evildoers Number Three and the prospect of war without end.

Canada wisely kept out of Iraq, though not out of Afghanistan, and we are now well and truly retracing our steps of a century ago.

We have new non-Christian immigrants, Muslims -- the youngest sibling of the Abrahamic religions, and therefore a replacement for the stubborn, xenophobic anti-semitism few now dare express.

Now we wring our hands when bright Muslim kids grow up in Canada (or the U.S., or Britain, or Sweden) and then take off to join up with obvious psychopaths -- just as we did when young Reds went off to fight in Spain against Franco's fascists and his German and Italian backers.

Islamist shock and awe

As in the case of the Reds, the Islamic State succeeds by shock and awe. Between 1917 and 1949, the bizarre vision calling itself communism swept from St. Petersburg's Finland Station, where Lenin returned to Russia, to the balcony at Tiananmen Square where Mao announced that China had stood up. The world had seen nothing like it since Islam first exploded out of Arabia in the 7th century.

So bright, alienated young people identified with communism in the 1930s and went off to fight in Spain precisely because it scared the authorities in their homelands and it made them feel like the agents of their own lives. Bright, alienated young people like Osama bin Laden went off to fight communism in Afghanistan for the same reason.

Now other bright, alienated kids, who don't like the good life as Stephen Harper's Canada defines it, are seeking significance by going off to fight for an Islamic State that sweeps across national boundaries.

End class conflict

There is a difference between the young Canadian Reds of the 1930s and the would-be fighters for the Islamic State. The Reds looked forward to ending class conflict and thereby ending history with the establishment of a worldwide communist future. But with the rise of Stalin, they settled for "socialism in one country."

Not so with the Islamic State. As Graeme Wood explains in a recent article in The Atlantic, the Islamic State is consciously going back to a pristine 7th-century Islam to hasten the end of the world. Like Christian fundamentalists impatiently awaiting the Rapture, the Antichrist, and the Apocalypse, they want to help God bring down the curtain on us all.

Maybe some faction in the Islamic State will settle for a one-country solution, but at this point even hinting at it would cost its advocates their heads as "apostates." Meanwhile, Wood tells us, true believers should migrate to live under the Caliphate, not blow themselves up in pointless attacks against infidels here.

Surround and suffocate?

If the Islamic State is indeed analogous to the communism of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, then perhaps the wisdom of George Kennan is relevant.

As the U.S. State Department's Soviet expert, Kennan studied the Reds closely and on the ground. At the end of the Second World War, he sent a famous "long telegram" from Moscow to Washington, setting out the situation and proposing a solution that would avoid another catastrophic war: Surround the Soviets and their allies. Don't provoke them, but don't give them an inch. Let their own internal contradictions and stupidities finish them off.

Successive governments followed the Kennan Doctrine. It still resulted in countless deaths in proxy wars and coups (which Kennan repudiated), but the Soviets folded without a nuclear war. It also encouraged U.S. funding of extremists like bin Laden to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, with unexpected results we now know all too well.

Hama rules?

Alternatively, we could go by "Hama rules," defined by Syrian dictator Hafez Al-Assad in 1982. The Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist group, had taken over the city of Hama. He besieged it for a month, and then massacred perhaps as many as 40,000 of its inhabitants. That ended fundamentalism in Syria until the Arab Spring in 2011, and bought Al-Assad and his son three decades of power.

As for the Hama-rules solution, deliberately slaughtering the 8 million people now living under the Islamic State is certainly possible, giving modern nuclear weapons.

But just as fighting the Soviets with bin Laden gave us a new enemy, vaporizing the Islamic State under Hama rules would likely inspire still more enemies -- not just the Muslim world, but everyone living downwind of the radioactive fallout, and everyone else who understood our moral and strategic bankruptcy.

A third option might be simply to besiege the Islamic State as we did Saddam Hussein's Iraq after the first Gulf War. It would also require giving neighbour states (including Bashar Al-Assad's Syria and the Iranian theocrats) the political, economic and military support needed to prop them up and keep them on side. Cutting off the Islamic State's oil sales on the black market would also help.

That might at least buy us some time to invest in learning who these guys are, and why they're set on such a strange quest for significance -- a quest that still attracts some of our own kids, just as the Reds of a century ago attracted some of our great-grandparents.

*Correction, March 30 at 4:15 p.m. The caption for this story's photo previously misidentified the puppy-holding subject as George Orwell. The caption has been corrected.  [Tyee]

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