Violence fascinates me. It intrigues and excites me. Violence is thrilling, and mortifying. It’s shocking, and it can be fun to watch shit explode. In the navy I stood in awe of our jets. I ran my palm along their textures on patrols, spent months on end wiping grease and sand out of their panels and wheel wells, buttoned down their hatches and helped them launch. The thrill of a flight schedule on an aircraft carrier can be summed up in a rush of sounds, like two trains speeding past each other, smells of fuel and hydraulic fluid, and sparks and steel and non-skid, and blinding light, and heat, and the glow of cigarette butts floating around in the smoke pit after. Night-check sometimes felt like Christmas with yellow, green and red flashing lights.
There’s this bizarre experience around veterans, of sizing each other up, and of sizing ourselves up. We find our place in a hierarchy of experiences and titles. We share our branch, rank, rate, whatever, and whether or not we deployed (where and how). There’s this process of breaking down defenses and of testing lies. When a veteran tells a story, it’s hard to know what to believe.
War is cliche, and people do invent memories. Tim O’Brien called The Things They Carried, his Vietnam war memoir, fiction. Memories are difficult to convey honestly. Sometimes you want to take a different perspective, to imagine a story someone told you. Maybe you were near by, but you didn’t have the experience. O’Brian’s book is structured as a series of short stories, with the first one functioning almost like a forward. He wrote, “For all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry” (15). Some of the things that Vietnam veterans carried home were stories, true and false.
The truth, in fiction, is subliminal. It’s the truth that we learn about ourselves and others by identifying common experiences, and by appreciating familiar patterns in our narratives. Fiction is all about the probability of what happens, tempered by the improbable and ironic. Stories are attempts to make sense of the actions and reactions we observe. Telling my stories, I don’t like to be judged for accuracy, and I could innocently (to get attention or whatever) steal another person’s memories, and elaborate. Our military traditions tap into our base impulse for blood, revenge, and hierarchy, resulting in boxing matches next to the barracks and so forth.
The atmosphere in the military is absurdly close. You don’t hang out with anyone outside of your sphere when you’re in. Our LPOs and Chiefs sometimes called the U.S. Navy the biggest gang in the world to get us pumped for supply onloads. We have dominion of the oceans and seas, they said. We can go anywhere, and be in charge. China in the South Pacific? No. We beat the Philippines for dominion over the entire Pacific Region more than 100 years ago. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was in part a response to that behavior. Actions have reactions, and we can’t wish away explosions. Each war arrives with an array of narratives, some of which include lies. Our stories develop around those narratives, and give emotional context to our national and individual actions.
Stories about events we cannot experience can be admirable simply because of their distance from our capacity to imagine. Someone dies on a machine gun, fighting as trained, following orders, suppressing fire from an advancing enemy who would kill or capture him and his friends. He is so clearly right, doing exactly what he is supposed to do, what he is paid to do, what he must do to survive, that we don’t have to think about what is going on on the other side of that machine gun, or why. This guy died as a soldier. We admire his bravery, his willingness to stand up and continue shooting after getting hit in the helmet by a bullet, and other specifics of his last moments fade in importance. As long as he wears our flag, we appreciate his sacrifice.
Warfare offers purpose. It gives us an enemy and reasons to organize destruction. I experienced war from afar, from a boat in the Persian Gulf, as part of a support team. Our war was against our own mistakes. Our Air Wing had more casualties in training than in actual fighting. You don’t have to participate in a war to experience an extreme fuck up. You can know what a deadly mistake is like if you run over a bicyclist when you’re drunk, for example. Military experiences sound remarkable until you’re there, in your shop, waiting for news about your DivO, who’s in the water because two jets got the exact same formation coordinates. Everyone has stories, but the ones that stick in our minds are often not our own.
Ryan Pitts is the embodiment of everything a veteran should be in bearing and conversation. He has actual war stories, and his patriotism is infectious. “We are a team,” He said at the WUMB studios in the spring. “It doesn’t matter where you came from or what color your skin is, we are all here for the same reason. We’re all Americans. I love that about this country. You could have been Nigerian yesterday, or Chinese, or Indian, you come to America, you want to be an American, guess what, today you’re an American. I love that.” He sat generally erect, and spoke directly into the pop screen over his mic.
I met Pitts as a part of the group interviewing him for a class, Oral History and the Veteran Experience at UMass Boston. All of us students had military experience. We broke into five groups to interview Medal of Honor recipients, three from Vietnam, one from Korea, and Ryan Pitts from Afghanistan. We mapped their stories into a 60 minute walk through South Boston. It starts at the Massachusetts Fallen Heroes War Memorial, still under construction near the Institute of Contemporary Art. Using a smartphone, you can walk about three miles from there, past the Vietnam Memorial at the M Street Park, to Castle Island while listening to the stories we recorded (Voice Map). I was one of three in the group that interviewed Pitts, and meeting him was like meeting a celebrity. He wore his Medal of Honor from Afghanistan around his neck, on request, above the collar of his blue shirt, shook every hand firmly, and smiled for pictures. He spoke with us in a little studio in the basement of the Healey Library for an hour and forty minutes, thoughtfully answering all five pages of our questions. We had a celebratory lunch with the Veterans Center afterward, and it was all quite patriotic.
We celebrate veterans in America, almost gleefully, with great emotion, twice a year in particular, on Armistice Day and on Memorial Day. We get free meals with our VA cards and so forth, and are lucky to be so vocally supported. Our government makes jobs for people to be weaponry, and we need human weapons. People do attack us. Memories of 9/11 inspired Ryan Pitts while he was fighting in Afghanistan. “Any time I would see those towers, or anything with that day. I never lost sight of that was why we were fighting for me.” He said he joined the military to do something meaningful. “I was 17 years old. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and I felt like going to college, and picking a major was making a decision that’s going to set up the rest of my life . . . 9/11 had happened, and we were getting ready to go into Iraq, and I couldn’t think of any better use of my time than to join.” Pitts boarded a plane for the first time in his life on his flight to boot camp. After training, he flew to Italy, and then to Afghanistan, where he deployed twice as a Forward Observer.
He would have continued in the military, maybe gone on to Ranger school, but he was injured during a battle, and medically discharged. Now he looks back fondly on his time in the service, claiming that he will never do anything as great. “You can’t be told about it,” He said. “You can’t read about it. You can read all you want, watch all the movies you want, there’s nothing that compares to going through it.” The fact may be off putting, and sometimes it makes us feel inferior to realize that we can never know certain things, but the experience of being in a team is exciting. Having a common goal can feel great, and every team is unique. “We were a team,” he said. “We did everything together, and the guy to our left or right was more important than ourselves. That’s what helped us carry the day.”
Specialist Sergio Abad
Corporal Jonathan Ayers
Corporal Jason Bogar
First Lieutenant Jonathan Brostrom
Corporal Jason Hovater
Sargent Israel Garcia
Corporal Matthew Phillips
Corporal Pruitt Rainey
and Corporal Gunnar Zwilling
I’m never going to forget those names. Those are the most important names, because the rest of us, we can tell stories. They can’t.
People call us heroes and I think heroes are the people who don’t come home. It was 90 minutes of my life. That’s all. I was there for 90 minutes of my life, and there’s nothing special about me, but I was a part of something special.
We had a vehicle that had identified some people moving in the mountains, looked like they had weapons, and so we were preparing a fire mission. While we were doing that, heard a burst of machine gun fire, sounded like it came from the North, and then after that it was just a volley of RPGs and hand grenades that came in and just the whole valley erupted. You could taste the smoke, the RPGs, from them exploding, and it was very disorienting.
I was wounded right off the bat. I took shrapnel to both legs and my left arm, couldn’t use my legs. Phillips was killed shortly after the onset of the fight and we knew that this is serious. We’re taking casualties. This is a significant fight. They’re not just coming to fire a few rounds and leave. They want to try and take us out. I’m looking around at all these guys who are just fighting, and some of them are wounded. It was chaos, and they’re not stopping.
Hovater had been killed up there, and we were at a point in the battle where they were having to check guys for ammo. They needed ammo, so they were going to take it off the dead guys. Hovater was Denton’s best friend. Denton searched his best friend Hovater for ammo, told him he loved him, and then turned around and went back to the fight. Then Denton got wounded, bones sticking out of his right hand. He’s right hand dominant. He’s got a machine gun. He’s got shrapnel in his back, in his leg, he still stands up. He switches hands, and he uses this hand with the shrapnel and the bone sticking out of it to hold up the weapon while he stands up and shoots back. I didn’t do anything more heroic than that. I know Soans and Myer, there’s a point in the battle. The gun trucks are being heavily targeted, and they can’t reload from inside the turret, so they get up on the front of the vehicle, where they’re a target, on a heavily targeted vehicle and reload the ammo. There was never, for any of use, the thought of we’re going to give up. They initiated it. They gained fire superiority, but we fought back, and we continued to fight and then that tide turned. We had more guys come up from our first platoon. Appachies started coming in. We were able to readjust and react. Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s being able to move forward in the face of it, and I think about Jason Hovater. He was brave, because he could say to our platoon, he’s like, I’m scared, he’s like, I don’t want to die, on other patrols, but every time we’d go out there and every time we’d get shot at he’d be right there doing his job, and that meant something. It was more courageous that he could manage that fear, that he could still do what needed to be done, now that’s courage.
I think you gotta do everything for the people that you’re with. When you put them first, and you’re willing to make sacrifices, you’re willing to die for they, they will do that for you, and that happened. Ayers stayed on a machine gun. He got hit in the helmet, and then got back on it probably knowing it was going to kill him, and it did. Later Israel Garcia and Soans and Denton and Samaru came up to save me. Garcia ended up dying. It’s my life for his. It will be reciprocated. So valor was everywhere.
The OP was a little bit separate from the vehicle patrol base, and I remember them saying, hey can you pop smoke, can somebody pop smoke up there, throw a smoke grenade to mark where you’re at, not ever thinking that the aircraft’s actually going to come land there. The aircraft did, landed on a terrace between us and the enemy, and the crew chiefs got off the helicopter. Those med evac guys were unbelievable that they came in and landed and then the guys got off to help people get on, knowing that they might not get back on, and when I had, when the awards ceremony happened, I invited those guys because it was important. They were a part of the team. They helped save my life and some of my friends lives. What they did was pretty incredible.
So they read the narration, and it’s like I’m reliving it. The Gold Star families are sitting in front of me, and I’m just thinking about those guys that we didn’t bring home, and how I wish that they could have been there. It represents the sacrifices of all service members, and it’s a memorial to the guys in that it’s not mine it’s ours.
We think civilian life is going to be easy. Civilian life isn’t easy. It’s just a different type of hard. Of the things that happened to us, they’re very natural reactions to a very unnatural set of circumstances. I don’t think that I’ll ever be, I don’t know, I’ll never look at myself as transitioned. I will spend a lifetime transitioning, learning how to deal with what happened. Initially it was just that loss of those guys when I first got back. That was really hard for a long time, and even just the award. I didn’t do anything more than anyone else that day. Right? It’s hard to be recognized when we didn’t bring nine guys home. Eight of them were at my position. That’s eight guys I felt like I lost, but then, and it changes. You deal with that, and then it’s I miss the military. I miss that brotherhood. I miss that camaraderie that family, and I’ll always miss it, and I know, what’s challenging is I’ll probably never find it again, but that’s also what makes it special. If I could roll right into another team and find something like that again, it wouldn’t be special. I think I’ll always be kind of dealing with that. I’m never going to be over that day, or what we lost or any of the guys that we lost, but you learn how to manage it, or you hope to. They don’t have their life anymore. Right? They gave up all their tomorrows so we could have today. How would they want me to carry on? How would I want them to carry on, if I were gone? Life’s meant to be lived, and enjoyed, and I’d want that for them, and I honestly believe they’d want that for me. So it’s my job to be a good person, to have a wife and a family, and enjoy all the things that I’ll get to experience with them, that they won’t, but appreciate and know that when I get to greet my son when he comes home from daycare and he runs up to me and gives me a hug. i have that because of them. They gave it up for me, and I kind of treasure that even more because I know that I was that close to not having it.
Cassandra Najdul took the lead in our group. She put the first draft of Pitts’ oral history together, which became the first leg of the South Boston Medal of Honor Walk, and found some somber ukulele music to play through the transitions. I helped her and Shelita Daniels edit it down from 11 minutes. Pitts hardly placed himself in his stories. He focused on the soldiers around him when he talked to us about the battle of Wanat, where he earned the Medal of Honor. The best way to understand what he did in that battle is to read someone else’s account (U.S. Army). Looking back on the tragedies he experienced, Pitts said if he had to do it all over, he would. “Being in the Army, I got so much more out of it than I gave, and I wish I could give more,” he said. Now he he enjoys a slower paced life, making a home with his wife, two year old son, and baby daughter.
Pitts kept a few small things besides his medals, a wooden punisher skull, the company mascot from their barracks in Afghanistan, a chewed up KIA bracelet that kept shrapnel from going into his wrist. Those were the more important things to him. He said he’d probably give his medal of honor to his unit when he dies. “We’re all just one team,” he said. “It didn’t matter what color your skin was or what religion you had. We had one mission, and that’s all that mattered, and we were a team, and we were going to get there together, or we weren’t going to get there at all. Maybe it’s a little naive or idealistic, but I kind of hope that for our country, that we can all get there, maybe someday we’ll realize that it doesn’t matter where you came from or what brought you here, but we’re all Americans, and we all want the same things. We want America to be great.”
Soon after Pitts shipped out to boot camp, al Salim’s 39 Ways went to print as a PDF, and circulated through internet forums for Islamic teachings and study. Mehanna started a blog where he was translating ancient Islamic texts from Arabic, and he apparently delved into Wahhabi literature. His mom described a time when she came home to find him crying. “He told her that U.S. soldiers had raped a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killed her family. “And Tarek hardly cried,” she said” (Latitude News). People tend to get religious when considing mortality (Pub Med). Death is a scary reality, so being around people who have been close to death, or reading about death can offer a sort of thrill. The rush of adrenaline that you get in stress can be addictive, and attractive as well (de Canonville). Think about military marketing, the dramatic music, intense imagery, and aggrandizing language. Navy videos promote, “A global force for good,” and it could be. We do fight pirates, and rescue people adrift. Adrenaline junkies are everywhere, and we line up to join. Violence draws us like moths to a beacon. Danger can be exciting, and even meaningful.
The first way in Mehanna’s translation of 39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad challenges the fighter: make war your intention. The writer, al Salim quotes from hadith, an anecdote about two men who cried “tears of grief” because there were not enough horses for them to join a fight. This is the spirit of the mujahidin. Salam invokes the memory of ancient fighters of the Islamic Empire with the idea of an international war, and cunningly hints that there might not be enough horses. In the next anecdote a man who says, “Praise be to Allah who has saved me from possessing the necessities for Jihad.” The book presents itself as a messenger, “The believer would never ask the Messenger to exempt him.” Salim then attributes words to Islamic scholars, like Ibn Taymiyyah, without citing texts, and follows with authoritative hadith about hypocrites “dying on a branch of hypocrisy.” God knows what men conceal. The ad hoc reasoning follows: we are fighting for God; God is calling you to violence; “So be warned and be warned, my Muslim brother.”
39 Ways cites a small in group of scholars from the golden ages of the Islamic Empire who the reader is expected to both know and not question. Even with a computer it is hard to verify quotes like, “Whoever prepares a fighter going on in the Path of Allah has, in fact, fought,” when cited, “Narrated by Ibn Majah, and it is authentic.” Whatever authentic means, the real text was written on paper, in Arabic, and it is not accessible online. In order to find it you’d have to ask an authority, and expose your apostasy. We know the Biblical law for apostates, “All who would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, were to be put to death, whether small or great, man or woman” (2 Chronicles 15:13). As with any religious writing, we might relax such a law by considering the context and dismissing it along with Yahweh’s frequent commands for genocidal warfare.
We could play the apologetics game. Fundamentalists prefer absolutes. In the same way as Abraham was willing to kill his son, we are supposed to take their words on Yahweh’s, aka Allah’s authority. Sourcing can be time consuming, and I continue to be lazy with my sourcing. Please comment on any far reaching or vague claims in this document, if you care to help me connect my dots, and do not want this text to hang on a branch of hypocrisy. Authority is a tricky thing, because when you give parents the authority to kill their children (as in Deuteronomy 21:18 – 21), you’re legitimizing our more evil impulses. Stoning is an effective way to rid a society of the malingerers and the mentally ill.
At least half of the text in 39 Ways is quoted from elsewhere, mostly hadith. This book is deeply steeped in a tradition of guerrilla warfare, stretching back to conflicts between the Islamic and Roman Empires, requiring some special vocabulary. Consider three words from this first chapter — hadith, ummah, and mujahideen — and how their meanings have evolved through our medieval past, over the course of political clashes between the Roman Empire and the Islamic Empire. In a sentence, one might say, the hadith inspired the ummah to supply and support the mujahideen, which created the Islamic Empire of the 8th century.
The hadith are medieval sayings, “collected Islamic tradition, the body of traditions relating to Muhammad” (Etymology), collected from writings on paper, wood and bone that passed through “finely-tuned scientific gauntlets for the verification of hadith authenticity” (Ummah.com), by Imam Malik among other authorities. The canonization of the hadith, like the canonization of the Bible, is still hotly disputed. The Qu’ran is the collection of hadith attributed to Muhammad, first narrated by the Angel Gabriel in the desert, and like many old books, it was written to be read aloud (NY Times). Hadith are poetic phrases and stories, manifestations of an oral tradition in the Levant that stretches back millennia. These early Arabic texts establish the meanings of many words in the Arabic language, and are the basis of the Islamic ummah.
An ummah could be an insular group of people with a divine plan for salvation, which is what Frederick Mathewson Denny wrote about 35 years ago in his article in History of Religions, “The Meaning of Ummah in the Qur’an.” In more recent online texts, such as Islamic-dictionary.tumblr.com, Muslims describe an ummah as the greater Islamic community: “God is said to have sent to each ummah its own messenger. The messengers given special prominence as recipients of scripture and founders of an ummah are Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Jews are an ummah based on the Torah which God gave to Moses, Christians an ummah based on the Injil (gospel) which God gave to Jesus, and Muslims an ummah based on the Qur’an, which God “sent down” to Muhammad” (Islamic Dictionary). In the same way that Christians refer to themselves as a body (often to the exclusion of other Christian sects), Muslims use the word ummah. In Arabic, ummah refers to a supra-national community, and it could also refer to those of us with a desire to make the world better.
The mujahidin are those who engage in jihad. They are those who struggle. Mujahidin is a participle drawn from jihad (mu-jihid). Guerrilla groups, like the Afghan Mujahidin, use the term in reference to their faith and Islamic identity, like some Christian militia cults call themselves the Lord’s Army. It is a euphemism that gives their fight spiritual resonance. ISIL members refer to themselves as mujahidin in their recruitment materials (Defense One). In the Qur’an, the mujahidin are those who leave home to jihad, implicitly in the context of warfare. “Allah has preferred the mujahideen through their wealth and their lives over those who remain [behind], by degrees” (Qur’an 4:95). I am told jihad can be an internal struggle, and that we can read the Islamic scriptures figuratively, the way most Christians read the Bible. If the goal is a peaceful Middle East, I think there are peaceful ways to make that happen. Jihad does not have to be violent. The mujahideen could be on the front lines of social justice, like the Peace Corps. What if the kingdom of heaven is now, and we struggle to make our future moments better? What if Sharia Law is a mile marker on the path to civilization, like the Talmudic Law that it subsumed, and the Hammurabi Code before that? Projecting ‘jihad’ through a secular prism, we can struggle for the happiness of future generations, like that anonymous Greek who said a great society is one in which old men plant trees. Meanwhile, the youth jihad for social justice.
We may stand on the shoulders of giants, but some of those giants were assholes. American wealth grew out of an economy with an extremely cheap workforce, slavery, and a rigid class system. We hope to evolve past the tyranny of class, to a time when common decency and good will prevail, when everyone shares equally. Utopian fantasies can make fantastic markers for society to strive toward, but right now inequality is everywhere. Our violence is making it worse. If we continue to look at our past, examine the stories we tell each other for truth, and trace our roots, if we chart the bits we know about the vast dramas that unfolded before we existed, and if we catalogue what we want separately from our esthetic disagreements about faith and community, we might continue to find ways to make the present time more habitable than the past.
Let’s not bank on living an ethereal afterlife. If there is a forever to experience, we have plenty of time, and apparently God does not need us at the moment. We live now and here, so let’s make this time and place better, and not be greedy. Eternity and nothing are conceptual markers, aka infinity and zero. They help us measure circles and make decimals. Life dissatisfies us because it is not perfect, and we want it to be perfect. Consciousness is fascinating. Our existence is awesome to contemplate, even when you’re crippled. Steven Hawking wrote, “One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist . . . Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist” (Astronomy Trek). God is perfect, we are told. Nothing else. In this case, perfection is a conceptual marker for a future that cannot physically exist. Life cannot be perfect, because we must all die. Even the universe will die eventually. Eternity exists in our imaginations, and we cannot live to see it. Death is the height of frustration. Our desire for perfection is the source of our impulse to jihad. We want to fight to make things right. The question becomes what is the goal of our jihad?
There is a compelling idea that precisely aimed violence — arrests, assassinations, and airstrikes — can end or at least contain the ideology of the Caliphate. The Islamic State exists, thanks to hoards of religiously impassioned people brandishing weaponry, and we can acknowledge its evil capacity before destroying it. ISIL has the weaponry and willpower to control cities, if badly, perhaps like the cartels in Mexico (al Jazeera). Their ideas are old, selfish, and rude, but they have power. We know that insular communities, like the Branch Davidians (NPR), shrug off criticism by viewing any negative comments about them as persecution. But if I tell you your fly is down, I’m not trying to harm you. Sometimes a corrective voice helps. These terrorists are people who attack us for reasons, so let’s treat them like people, and consider their reasons. Let’s identify their viral meme and destroy it. The idea is the problem. The people that hold it are generally reasonable, and they have lives, and families, and the capacity to make the earth better.
The concept of jihad is confused in literature, especially online. Muslims feel about jihad the way Christians feel about baptism. The word means different things in different contexts to different people, is contentious, and some congregations hardly talk about it at all. The problematic idea is not Islam. Muhammad’s story is meaningful to people, and he did do some pretty unbelievable things, if he existed. The history of the religion is irrelevant to the fact that plenty of good and moral people have a faith in Allah. When we kill or imprison apocalyptic preachers, the Henny Pennys of Islam, like Tarek Mehanna or more recently Anjem Choudary in Britain (First Look), we add resonance to their words. Our violence enables martyrs, and maintains a precedent for further violence. The 9/11 attacks were designed to provoke an American military retaliation (Geltzer), and successfully popularized this idea that the West is at war with Islam, as though either one of those collectivized identities (The West or Islam) is monolithic. Shooting off rockets, and the imprisonment of people like Mehanna continues to inspire recruits with this idea of defending a Muslim homeland, as though the whole earth could not be Muslim land as well.
ISIL is only one manifestation of an Islamic imperialist fantasy, which a whole variety of Islamic denominations have in various forms. Thirty three percent of Brittish Muslims support the idea of an international Islamic theocracy (The Independent). We know by reading political histories, or observing North Korea and Iran, that governments based on personalities with divine rights are often retrogressive. Theocracies have been around since long before ancient Egyptian priests laid that golden mask on King Tut. History is full of despotic theocrats who fail at governing, yet the idea that monarchs are appointed by gods still compels conservative imaginations everywhere. Christians imagine benefitting from a celestial dictatorship as well, even in life. If you believe polsters, 51% of Protestants think that Jesus will ride to the earth on a white horse to set everything right within their lifetimes (The Daily Beast), and that he will destroy the earth, kill and torture disbelievers, and create a celestial dictatorship for them to enjoy.
An omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent deity might make a perfect dictator, but that hypothesis is impossible within the laws of our universe. Omnipotence, for one, is physically impossible. Ibn Rushd addressed the paradox 800 years ago in his book The Incoherence of Incoherence, “Even the omnipotent cannot bring it about that existence should become identical with nonexistence” (134). If a god is all powerful, can s/he make her/himself not exist? Apologists love these word games, and they rarely admit that omnipotence is just a compelling concept, like eternity. Our understanding of the supernatural is an imperialist mind fuck that evolved under the Roman and the Islamic Empires. Their religions cowed people and forced conversions. Submission to a god is like submission to arm buoys. Religion is the preference to float in place, to weather war, sickness and famine, and to not think critically about our morality, mortality, and the authority of our leaders.
We know that theocracies work in favor of the powerful, like King Henry the VIII, father of the church of England, and that they impose death and evil on commoners through wars followed by famine. ISIL offers a physical example of how theocratic delusions are a means for centralizing power around personalities, not good will or governance. We helped to create ISIL by biting that 9/11 bait, and by invading Iraq without planning to stay, but we are not responsible for their ideology.
Al Qaeda had been trying to set off an international war that would bring back the Islamic Empire, as they imagine it. They bombed the Cole in 2000. Bush won the presidential election a month later, and in the summer of 2001 we saw Al Qaeda recruits singing, “We thank God for giving us victory the day we destroyed the Cole in the sea” (CNN) in their training videos on TV. 9/11 was a recruiting technique, and we reacted as they hoped. Maybe ISIL jumped the gun in establishing an Islamic State (Business Insider), maybe their excessive violence will isolate them, but our violence makes Iraqi civilians susceptible to the judgemental Wahhabi narrative. The American Empire provides a perfect foil for Al Qaeda’s attempt to initiate the end times, as described by Noam Chomsky in one of the books that Bin Laden had on his bookshelf when Navy SEALs raided his home in Pakistan, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (The Guardian). It is a sweeping account of American foreign policy, and skeptical of the American efforts to impose a democracy on Iraq. “Violence is a powerful instrument of control, as history demonstrates. But the dilemmas of dominance are not slight” (168). Chompsky explains that Israel’s aggressive foreign policy is destructive to U.S. interests in the region, and especially Iraq. Maybe he is right that there’s a better concoction than violence for dealing with these guys. We can isolate their ideas, and divide them by pointing out their fallacies. But we cannot have an open dialogue when we’re locking people away for the things that they say.
Hanging out with Veterans for Peace from time to time at their peace rallies, and reading anti-war literature, I’m developing a more nuanced view on our invasion of Iraq. I participated with gusto to rid Iraq of Saddam and WMDs, but my idealism is checked as I watch all the gains we made get highlighted in red on maps of the region in the news. These conflicts we get into every few decades grow out of long term policies, and the behavior of American citizens, companies, and allies in the Middle East. As much as we are individuals, we also collectivise, no more so than in war time. I never felt so close to the people around me, or been so vulnerable to fear mongering from our government, as I was after 9/11. Saddam Hussein had no nuclear program, and the WMDs they found were mustard gas munitions abandoned in the desert (NY Times). Those chemical warheads are about as destructive, and more unwieldy, than the cluster bombs we used (Human Rights Watch). Dissolving the secular Baathist Party according to Frontline’s Documentary Losing Iraq, enabled Al Qaeda in Iraq to recruit and lead an insurgency. Without American violence, maybe peaceful Middle Eastern voices can gain a purchase in politics and calm the apocalyptic hysteria among conservative Muslims.
We are approaching a crossroads in 2016. Remember where we stood seven years ago, at America’s 2008 presidential elections. We were 5 years into our invitation of Iraq. The surge had just ended, and we had two choices. McCain planned to occupy Iraq for 100 years if necessary (CNN). His argument was that occupation worked in Germany, Japan and South Korea. We could try that strategy now, invade Iraq again, scare ISIL into hiding, and give an Iraqi democracy the chance to blossom under American security forces. It is an expensive prospect, which could make Iran our mortal enemy. Iranian soldiers were fighting U.S. troops during the Iraq insurgency (Iraq Report), and some Iranians are itching to fight us again. American presence in the Middle East feeds a Wahhabi imperialist narrative, and some of our friends — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel in particular — are just as bad on social justice issues as Iran, considering Israel’s treatment of Palestinians living in Gaza, Morsi’s death sentence, and the public flogging of bloggers in Saudi Arabia, which is the stronghold of Wahhbism (Human Rights Watch), and home nation to 15 of the 19 hijackers that caused 9/11. If we send troops to take over Iraqi security, best case scenario, suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks would continue for years targeting Americans and anyone perceived to be our allies, primarily in the Middle East and North Africa. At worst our aggression could set of World War 3. Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Russia and even China could ally against us to reshape the Middle East to their interests. If we invade again, we need a more tangable purpose than Yahway ever expressed to Bush II in their private prayer meetings (The Guardian), and we would also syphon more Iraqi oil revenue to pay our expenses (Pro/Con). We chose Obama’s course, retreated, cut our losses, and let Al Qaeda think they won while picking off their leaders one by one. The Iran deal sets a precedent for diplomacy, and we could be on the cusp of a new world order, not the conspiracy theory, but a dynamic change in Middle Eastern politics with the clear and ultimate goal of peace and prosperity.
Our invasion of Iraq in 2003 successfully deposed Saddam Hussein, and Bush II might also take credit for the Arab Spring (NY Times), which reshaped Tunisia’s government, destabilized Egypt’s military dictatorship, and sent Libya into a civil war. We plowed into Iraq without an exit strategy, or a coherent a long term plan for fashioning a democracy. Donald Rumsfeld wrote a memo to that effect a few weeks after the Mission Accomplished speech, “Democracy is dangerous in the sense that if you have a group of people who have spiritual values but not material values and have not practiced the art of compromise, if they go too fast to an election by majority rule, it would end up with a permanent mistake–one vote, one time–and another Iran-like theocracy” (Rumsfeld Library). Put aside the idea that Iraqis have no material values, there is strong support for a theocracy in Iraq. ISIL has tapped into it, and despite our muted efforts to stop them, we see another Iran-like theocracy emerging, only this one will violently oppose the existence of Israel under Abu Akbar Baghdadi, and it includes a large swath of Syria. Our invasion aggravated a clusterfuck.
One pivotal element of American Middle Eastern policy is our access to the Suez Canal. That channel between the Mediterranean and Red Seas allows our navy to project awe and intimidation of America along all the coasts of Europe, Africa and Asia from both our east and west coast fleets. We maintain that access at some cost to our reputation among Egyptians sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, because of our tacit support for their secular dictatorship and the expansion of Israel. We painted ourselves into a corner, as Steven Kull points out in his book about religious sentiment in the Middle East, Feeling Betrayed, “Engaging moderate nationalist Islamists is the best way to isolate and weaken radical Islamists such as al Qaeda” (213). As the British empire crumbled after WW2, America took up the gauntlet. We swept up in the wake of British imperial policies. Framing our attacks on the region as “ this crusade, this war on terrorism,” as Bush II did a few days after 9/11, on the south lawn of the White House (Archive), also framed al Qaeda’s rehtoric, and 14 years later, we find ourselves opposing a growing number of religious zealots with no respect for the finality of death who think that America is at war with Islam.
Making your intention to jihad is the first of the 39 Ways. This first step asks you subtly for everything you have: “So, Allāh clarified in this chapter the situation of the hypocrites and described them in it with cowardliness and abandonment of Jihād, and He described them as being stingy to spend in the Path of Allāh and coveting their wealth, and these are two dangerous diseases: cowardliness and stinginess.” You must give everything to Jihad. The text goes on to quote the Qur’an to suggest that those that “struggled with their wealth and lives in the Path of Allāh” are the only true believers. They make a rule implying that jihad is warfare, and the fighters or their supporters are the only people worthy of heaven. We see similar ideas in the American culture’s blind reverence for veterans. By celebrating military service, we maintain an army of passionate workers willing to give their lives for our international political interests, heros like Ryan Pitts who knowingly face death, and who cultivate faith in their government to make sure that their countrymen thrive.
The intention is the first step to recruitment, the first hurdle. Are you going to sign up? Once you sign on the dotted line, the paper holds you accountable. It is enough to put you in prison if you screw up or act stupid. Once you clarify your intention, the voices of dissent fade around you. You’ve made a choice.
This first chapter ends with a poetic rebuke to any Muslim “admonishing” an aspiring fighter, “one time saying he is too impatient, and another time blaming him for not seeking advice.” The poem that follows might be an excerpt from something else, or written at another time by an uncited author. It uses a slightly different voice, and rhythm than the narrator, who appears between quotes with a sentence or two to tie them conceptually.
The poem is recognizable in its form, using couplets and italics to convey gravity. Whatever its origin, the poem at the end of this chapter chips the moral authority of Muslims who speak against those who sacrifice life and limb in violence, “Seeking with it the Firdaws [7th Heaven] – the best of destinations.” ‘Jihad’ expresses our deep desire to see things made whole, and it would be nice to make our jihad a struggle for peace, a suppression of our combative instincts. That is the opposite of what Al Qaeda wants.