Iraq, ISIS, and the Legacy of American Redemptive Violence

Some angry dude from ISIS shows off a missle that is in no way compensating for anything else.

Some angry dude from ISIS shows off a missile that is in no way compensating for anything else.

Iraq. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, amiright?! You’d think that after America flexed its collective freedom muscles and bombed the shit out of liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein — the dictator that America once supported — that all of the Fertile Crescent would rejoice at the chance to bow before the benevolent, freedom-extolling Yankee occupying forces. Because, after all; freedom! But nooooooo, Iraq had to go ahead and turn itself into one of the biggest American foreign policy blunders ever — maybe even out-porking the Bay of Pigs. And so, the current American President, Barack Obama, has been forced to deal with the latest Mesopotamian morass known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — or ISIS, for short.

I discussed ISIS in a previous post about the dangers of American nation-building, but let’s briefly recap who these jolly jihadists actually are. ISIS is essentially a group of über pissed off Sunni Muslim extremists, and they trace their origins to the Al Qaeda faction that emerged in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Conservatives in particular are making ISIS out to be the scariest group of foreign brown people since the last scary group of foreign brown people. But the group’s military gains in Iraq aren’t particularly impressive when you consider that the U.S.-trained-and-equipped Iraqi army decided to run without even cutting, thereby allowing ISIS to capture several Iraqi cities and seize plenty of military goodies to further their goals.

And their goals are quite lofty. As the BBC reports, not only does ISIS want to control Iraq and Syria (you know, that OTHER Middle-Eastern country that’s in total chaos right now) but it also wants to “create a broader Islamic caliphate.” Hey, give them credit for thinking big.

And so, facing increasing pressure from American conservatives (who have soooo much credibility when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East) to stop being “passive” about ISIS’ reign of terror, president Obama gave a speech on  September 10, 2014 in which he outlined his plans for dealing with the latest Iraq sh*tstorm. Obama’s speech was actually well-thought-out. He reiterated that ISIS doesn’t represent Islam as a whole — since most of the group’s victims have been Muslims — and noted that the U.S. had already been conducting air-strikes against ISIS. But the president also noted that U.S. forces alone can’t — and shouldn’t — destroy ISIS, so he outlined a multi-pronged strategy based on a combination of continued air-strikes, collaboration with anti-ISIS forces and the Iraqi government, and general anti-terrorism strategies that will, with luck, help put a stop to the cock-sure caliphatin’ conquerors. But above all else, Obama emphatically reassured Americans that the fight against ISIS “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”

This was about as reassuring as any American president, regardless of his political party, could be in this type of situation. What Obama is wrestling with, nay, what America is wrestling with, is the world’s continued refusal to accept the supposedly superiority of U.S. freedom-by-gunpoint. Violence has always been an essential part of American identity, and throughout its history, the U.S. has embraced the redemptive power of violence in order to influence people inside and outside of its borders into embracing the supposed righteousness and beneficence of freedom, American-style.

Now, let’s be clear: I certainly don’t mean to condone ISIS, or any other of the Middle East’s Islamic terrorist clubs. These guys are downright barbaric; the worst type of religious fundamentalist scum, and every single one of them deserves to get a missile up his ass and lice in his beard. But the problem in Iraq goes beyond ISIS or any other single group. The real problem is the United States’ history of embracing a providential mission to violently spread its own vision of freedom in the world. The history of American violence is bolstered by a potent mix of secular and sacred beliefs, and America’s vision of making the world embrace its own brand of freedom has too often been a vision that mistakes strength for wisdom, substitutes forethought with vengeance, and creates wrathful enemies instead of passive subjects.

President Obama is aware of the need to maintain an extremely delicate balance between appeasing national calls to reign down Hell on the ISIS insurgency while also trying to make sure that the U.S. isn’t stuck playing terrorist whack-a-mole in Iraq for the next hundred years. A key moment in his speech came when Obama tried to embrace the long-held belief that America must use violence to redeem the world in the name of freedom while acknowledging that, quite often, this type of violence only begets more violence and chaos. “American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world,” he said, “it is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists.” But the president also admitted that, “America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead.”

In trying to prevent the violence caused by the ISIS nutcases, the U.S. is likely creating conditions for even more violence. Photo from Reuters.

In trying to prevent the violence caused by the ISIS nutcases, the U.S. is likely creating conditions for even more violence. Photo from Reuters.

Therein lies the problem: America has always welcomed the responsibility to lead, but sometimes it doesn’t realize that its leadership might be misguided. The U.S. has too often demonstrated its “endless blessings” through religiously motivated, redemptive violence, and the results have been the “enduring burden” of unintended — and often violent — consequences.

In their essay collection From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America, scholars John Carlson and Jonathan Ebel emphasize how the sacred embracing of violence has colored American identity since the colonial era — with alternately beneficial and catastrophic results. Religion, they write, “has been operative in the background culture of American violence” for a very long time. The most famous of American wars: The Revolutionary War, the Mexican War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq — all “have been infused with religious rhetoric and faith-based ‘othering.'”*

This “othering” has almost always employed religious justification for violence. Consider the case of the Civil War, when both Union and Confederate clergy spouted spiritually sanctioned rhetoric to urge their respective sides to violent victory over the enemy “other.” In his book Upon the Alter of a Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, historian Harry Stout observes that violence North and South had to be “augmented by moral and spiritual arguments that could steel millions of men to the bloody business of killing one another.” Indeed, Stout notes that, “both sides needed to enlist God in their cause as both justifier and absolute guarantor of their deliverance,” and the result was that “thousands of clergymen in thousands of churches North and South” became “especially meaningful as critics or cheerleaders of the war’s conduct.”*

But quite often, Civil War-era clergymen were cheerleaders for violence in the name of a higher, providential purpose. Thus, at the outbreak of the conflict, men like the northern Universalist minister J.G. Bartholomew proclaimed that, “‘Never before since the days of the Revolutionary memory and fame has there been a call to arms that has so thrilled the great heart of our people…and set the pulse of patriotic feeling beating.'”* Similarly, James H. Elliot, an Episcopal minister in South Carolina, warned that the outbreak of war constituted “‘instinctive warnings of great importance in God’s government of the world,'” and claimed that, after the fall of Fort Sumter, the South had “‘a signal display in the powerful providence of God.'”* For both sides, the message was clear: violence should be used to annihilate enemies and enshrine American greatness because the head honcho of heaven willed it.

In the 1860s, this ‘signal display’ justified bloody war against the “other” in the name of national redemption and the promotion of earthly freedom. But the idea that God has granted America the authority to wage redemptive violence still rings loudly in the twenty-first century — a continued “enduring burden.”

Both sides in the American Civil War claimed that God sanctioned their redemptive violence. Over 600,000 died for that redemption.

Both sides in the American Civil War claimed that God sanctioned their redemptive violence. Over 600,000 died for that redemption.

Indeed, who exactly constitutes the “other” is relative and always changing. Moreover, regardless of whether the “other” deserves to be vanquished, plenty of people will die. In some cases, the foes that America has identified as “others” to fight, reform, and/or vanquish have been true villains; the Nazis, for example. In other cases, these “others,” such as Native Americans, Mexicans, and Iraqi civilians, have been unfortunate casualties who died in the name of American imperialism. By there’s an additional process to the violence that complicates America’s tendency to “other-ize” different groups: some foes, like Saddam Hussein and ISIS, might deserve a good beating, but the question remains: should America actually administer that beating?

This is the question vexing America in 2014 as it deals with yet more violent strife in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. In its willingness to use violence as a redemptive force, America has transcended its former position of supposedly speaking for a higher power and, instead, has acted the role of a small “g” secular god in itself; one that deems itself worthy of righting perceived worldly wrongs. The U.S. is willing to use violence not only to protect its own interests, but also to make sure that non-Americans get a lesson in U.S.-style freedom. President George W. Bush embarked on just such a sacredly secular adventure in Iraq in 2003, and the U.S. is still dealing with the fallout. After all, if the history of religiously motivated violence tells us nothing else, it’s that you can’t bask in the glory of the angels without encountering a few demons. And for the U.S., some of the worst demons, from Confederate rebels to ISIS, have been self-created.

Although a generic Christianity has historically justified American redemptive violence (largely because Christianity has been the majority American religion since the beginning), in 2014, American violence represents no particular denomination and is waged in the name of a civic religion that retains its Christian flavor but extols the virtue of a more general American Exceptionalism.

It’s tragically fitting that America now finds itself waging redemptive violence against Islamic foes. Islam is, after all, Christianity’s historical antagonist. And while Barack Obama, unlike past presidents (cough, cough, Dubya) tends to not wear his faith on his sleeve, he can’t help but succumb to historically established spiritual precedents for American redemptive violence. Even as the President admitted that America’s “endless blessings bestow an enduring burden,” he nonetheless concluded his speech with the refrain, “May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America.” There’s no doubt that ISIS is making similar pleas for Allah to bless their own cause, and the results will no doubt be burdens that endure for many years to come.

* See John Carlson and Jonathan Ebel, eds., From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 15.

* See Harry M. Stout, Upon the Altar of a Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006),  xvii, 37, 44.

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2 Comments

  1. Osama bin Laden figured something out about America. Something that I still don’t fully understand. He found a weakness in our unity. It was our emotional unity that drew us into a trap, and our lack of unity that held us there to be bled, drop by drop. When the two Trade Towers went down, America went down with them. The towers went down, and we found ourselves in the Middle East with our heads up our asses. We were carried there by national anger and shared outrage. We were kept there and further entangled there, this time in Iraq, by the devious schemes of our own leaders, who had us acting against our own national interests, for the sake of a few opportunists. Disunity sets in, and extremists at home, further weaken a bleeding America.

    For those who can only evaluate things in religious terms, I hope your vision is clear. God has set this nightmare scene before your eyes – Monsters engaged in the murder of innocents. Some of you yearn to slay the ISIS monsters – to participate in the dispensing of holy justice. But maybe the scene is set forth not for you to vent your rage, but for your instruction. Do you see some understanding to be gained here? Can the behavior of Mankind be properly guided, or shall we wait for time and evolution?

    • Well said, sir. I’m obviously deeply sceptical of violence that claims sanction from celestial authority, and as you rightly point out, taking a step back and looking at violence as a chance to learn, rather than to respond with more violence, would be a refreshing change from recent habits. The jihadists of this world seem to revel in America’s use of violence, which is why the more of them we bomb and kill, the more pop up. Rinse. Wash. Repeat. It has to stop at some point.

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