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Warfare – instrumental vs archaic

In ‘The Reign of Quantity & the Signs of the Times’ Rene Guenon says, “To see what is meant by the ‘sacred’ character of the whole of human activity, even only from an exterior or, if preferred, exoteric point of view, it is only necessary to consider a civilization like the Islamic, or the Christian civilization of the Middle Ages; it is easy to see that in them the most ordinary actions of life have something ‘religious’ in them. In such civilizations religion is not something restricted, narrowly bounded and occupying a place apart, without effective influence on anything else, as it is for modern Westerners (at least for those who still consent to admit religion at all); on the contrary it penetrates the whole existence of the human being, or better, it embraces within its domain everything which constitutes that existence, and particularly social life properly so called, so much so that there is really nothing left that is ‘profane, except in the case of those who for one reason or another are outside the tradition, but any such case then represents no more than a mere anomaly.”

In discussing the tactics of revolution and guerrilla warfare Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara advised against terrorism. Set out in ‘On Guerrilla Warfare’ his 1961 manual for would-be freedom fighters, his reasons were these, that; “terrorism (is) a measure that is generally ineffective and indiscriminate in its results, since it often makes victims of innocent people and destroys many lives” and “the killing of persons of small importance is never advisable, since it brings on an increase of reprisals”

It is easy to see the purely ‘instrumental’ character of Guevara’s advice. Terrorism is deprecated because it would not be effective in achieving desired aims. In the circumstances found in Cuba at the time the, at least tacit, support of peasant farmers was needed for a food supply for the guerrillas and to avoid discovery of the guerrilla band to the Batista military. Certainly, he would not have achieved any of this by killing those whose support he needed. The long-term aim was perhaps the expectation of being something better than the Batista regime – ‘the Revolution’.

Unexplained features of Islamic terrorism

There are many curious features with what is called, ‘Islamic terrorism’ in western countries which makes one wonder about just how instrumental its aims are at the bottom.

  • many attacks seem high cost and low yield
  • there is no real attempt to escalate terrorism via sabotage, dirty radioactive bombs, cyber warfare, local organisation into irregular guerrilla activities or regular warfare
  • they don’t seem directed at any special military objectives
  • no important political or military figures are targeted
  • the attacks don’t attract support from non-Islamic populations
  • non-Islamic populations have not responded with reprisals that might provoke support from more moderate Islamic populations
  • The morale of attacked populations does not seem to be being undermined
  • no obvious political or international concessions appear to be within reach because of these attacks
  • attackers often allow themselves to be killed during the attacks with no attempts to escape to fight another day

So, what is going on? Why persist in these relatively ineffective, high-cost and low yield attacks? Why do they seem to be conducted almost for their own sake rather than in pursuit of definite military objectives, either tactical or strategic?

An archaic concept of warfare

Modern western warfare has become technological, bureaucratic, impersonal, systematic, almost industrialised. And always with clearly defined pragmatic objectives. Modern military strategy and tactics are not very much informed by conceptions of honour, respect, chivalry and self-sacrifice.

By contrast modern Islam, in some of its interpretations, holds to a very traditional world-view. This may well be the case for Islamic political and military sciences as well.

Underneath the news reports, there may be running a very archaic, even medieval concept of the way to conduct a war. The concern with honour and generosity to valorous opponents was coupled with acceptance of barbarity and atrocities. Despite the irony, one might call it a ‘pre-Enlightenment’ approach to warfare.

To get a flavour of this archaic worldview it is useful to look at this quote from Wikipedia on Saladin.

“In the nineteenth century, Saladin achieved a great reputation in Europe as a chivalrous knight, due to his fierce struggle against the crusaders and his generosity… …Despite the Crusaders’ slaughter when they originally conquered Jerusalem in 1099, Saladin granted amnesty and free passage to …the defeated Christian army… Notwithstanding the differences in beliefs, the Muslim Saladin was respected by Christian lords, Richard especially. Richard once praised Saladin as a great prince, saying that he was, without doubt, the greatest and most powerful leader in the Islamic world. Saladin, in turn, stated that there was not a more honourable Christian lord than Richard. After the treaty, Saladin and Richard sent each other many gifts as tokens of respect but never met face to face. In April 1191, a Frankish woman’s three-month-old baby had been stolen from her camp and sold on the market. The Franks urged her to approach Saladin herself with her grievance. According to Bahā’ al-Dīn, Saladin used his own money to buy the child back:

He gave it to the mother and she took it; with tears streaming down her face, and hugged the baby to her chest. The people were watching her and weeping and I (Ibn Shaddad) was standing amongst them. She suckled it for some time and then Saladin ordered a horse to be fetched for her and she went back to camp.”

This is the same Saladin “who ordered the captives to be beheaded for ‘plundering and laying waste the lands of the Faithful’.”

Another event; “Saladin was resting in one of his captain’s tents, an assassin rushed forward at him and struck at his head with a knife. The cap of his head armour was not penetrated and he managed to grip the assassin’s hand—the dagger only slashing his gambeson—and the assailant was soon killed.”

In the archaic world, combat was something celebrated and valued for its own sake and not just as a means to an end. An individual’s military prowess, courage, and ability to transcend the fear of death are tested and honoured.

A measured Qur’anic response to drone attacks

Another possible explanation for some of the curious features of these attacks is that military practice is being driven from Qur’anic injunctions rather than from textbooks of military tactics.

One translation has this – “Qur’an (3:140) – If a wound (and killing) has touched you, be sure a similar wound (and killing) has touched the others. And so are the days (good and not so good), We give to men by turns, that Allah may test those who believe, and that He may take martyrs from among you. And Allah likes not the Zalimun (polytheists and wrong-doers).”

It is possible to read this as a junction to ‘do exactly as you have been done by’.

It might be that these small-scale acts of terrorism are intended only as restrained retribution for drone strikes. The two modes of attack share many common features. They are instigated and directed from remote bases. Sudden unanticipated explosions occur in civilian populations killing civilians and women and children. Both are remotely directed using computer and internet type technologies. Both sides have difficulties in locating, accessing and targeting key people, so often there is considerable ‘collateral damage’. Both types place moderate difficulties in pursuing everyday civilian life.

Possibly these terrorist attacks are just designed to give the west ‘a taste of their own medicine’. Some similarities with the practice of the Weather Underground Organisation in the US during the Vietnam war – ‘bringing the war home’ – illustrating to Americans the effect that the war was having on the Vietnamese – appear on this interpretation.

Possibly ‘jihadi’ strategists want to make civilian populations understand drone strikes as parallel in barbarity with terrorist bombings.

Memetic warfare

Yet another interpretation might be that small-scale acts of terrorism are something quite new – a component of what has been called memetic warfare. Something situated in a new territory half-way between a real on-the-ground war and social media or a computer game and combining elements of each.

The curious nature of the attacks may just reflect the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of memetic warfare.

The strengths are perhaps these:

  • they exploit the terroristic ‘force multiplier’ effect of internet and news media coverage
  • reports of attacks encourage emulation by others
  • the internet provides access to support and encouragement and direction from instigators
  • they encourage the fear that ‘lone-wolf’ attackers exist and can strike anywhere
  • they express, by suicide attacks, the dedication of the attackers to their cause
  • they exploit the ability to increase the ‘kill-ratio’ by proposing readily available civil technology such as aeroplanes and trucks and knives
  • the portrayal of gruesome executions on the internet increases their effect

Arguably, this mode of warfare somewhat advertises the weakness of the participants rather than their strength but it is hard to anticipate how successful it may be in either direction or even what would count as success. Possibly the intended audience is really the ‘moderate’ Islamic populations in the countries affected.

The fight for recognition

To quote (loosely) from the ‘Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy’ entry on Recognition:

“By fighting against the other the subject wants to affirm his own freedom by proving that his normative status is of more importance to him than any of his desires, including—at an extreme—his desire to live. However, such fighting, expressive of autonomy, must lead to an impasse as it cannot achieve mutual recognition: either one of the subjects dies or subjects himself as a slave to the other, the superior master, and thus fails to express his autonomy. Furthermore, in this case, the master does not receive adequate recognition either, because the recognizer has proven to be a “mere” slave who does not count as an autonomous and competent judge. Thus, adequate recognition can only be achieved within an institutionalized order of rights that secures genuinely mutual recognition.”

Possibly the small-scale acts of terrorism are at heart the fight for the recognition described in Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology’ rather than just a fight for military advantage.


I have proposed four ways to account for the anomalous nature of these attacks.

  • an archaic concept of warfare
  • a restrained response to drone attacks
  • a modern concept of warfare
  • a Hegelian fight for recognition

No doubt there are more and that they overlap and contradict and reinforce one another in the usual way. But if any of them are valid, they may at least point to some better ways of resolving differences – involving respect and mutual restraint.

By Ron Ellis

















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