Death & Glory – ISIS & US

Guest Author Devon Simons;
Martial Artist, Terrorism and Communications Scholar, Wine Drinker

Professor Chris Brown (LSE) presented his work concerning revisionists’ concepts of Jus in Bello and Jus ad Bellum to the International Politics Department of Aberystwyth University some time ago now. While the presentation was fascinating, there was a strand of thought that caused me some worry back then; and still itches at my brain and moral compass from time to time. That said; I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey – with absolutely no promises of political correctness, or solutions offered for the problems herein.

The prompt for this discussion: The detaching of theological significance from conflict; while a product of The Enlightenment, alters the ability for the individual soldier to justify their sacrifices. That stand-alone concept is relatively simple. Now, add to this the further ripples of The Enlightenment concerning increased access to education, booming literacy rates and Internet access; and now the individual (then come the soldier), has become increasingly disenchanted with the elite (the ones who were and will ever be the instigators and beneficiaries of war). This means, if Enlightenment had truly had effect, that there is no universal God to determine righteousness through victory in battle, and there is no virtue in fighting for one’s King and Country. So my question is this: What happens to the soldiers’ will to fight, when the old notions of a Glorious Death are no longer valid?

Minding that many academics detest the idea of ‘a good death’ on the battlefield; it stands a fact of Western history that a Glorious Death was not only a source of dignity and legitimacy for the soldier stranded in the bloodied mud of battle. Additionally, the social construct gave families of the fallen a sense of pride and comfort and the ability to share a recognized appreciation of sacrifice for the greater good. Even in death, the integrity of a family could be preserved through this construct of a Glorious Death. Now, while there is a lot of romanticizing occurring around this notion (provided by historical compilations and compressions of memory via story telling, and notions such as ‘never speaking ill of the dead’), there is a factual component of this shift in the attitude towards death in battle that is, arguably, unresolved. We might be able to better recognize the differences in death between yesteryear and today, by comparing a soldier’s death on D-Day, versus a soldier’s death in the Middle East today. The key difference? The ‘Official Inquiry’.


For your consideration: the official inquiries, which are staged now that deaths in war are more sporadic than in historical battlefields, are not only an indicator of increasingly efficient methods of attack and defense; but, are a rhetorical necessity which is proof of the absence of the Glorious Death in modern war. Rhetorical necessity meaning within the construction of war and conflict occurring in real time and globally communicated, there is a necessity for the contemporary elite to strategically compose the narratives of conflict (see O’Loughlin, 2013), because war is now lacking in the inherent legitimacy of conflicts in the past. This is intensified by the decrease in a government’s ability to control information about a war, brought on by the public’s ability to access varying accounts of a conflict which will be outside of the government’s control. We are now lost to our previously inherent and culturally unified understanding of conflict; and therefore, we are inherently lost to the understandings of conflict’s effects and personal value.

So is this simply a case wherein we have over-educated ourselves beyond the level of ignorance that actually produces a completely devoted and loyal soldier? Or, is this a case where contemporary conflicts are actually bad wars that have failed to be conducted on the principals of Jus in Bello and Jus ad Bellum? Or (even more frightening) have we forgotten to fortify the notions of JIB and JAB before entering into an era of ‘new’ war? The Revisionists studying conflict efficacy certainly have their work set out for them – Not to restore the institution of the Glorious Death, but to restore fortitude to our ability to perceive war in such a manner that the soldier never has to doubt their convictions or appreciation, regardless of their level of personal or herd Enlightenment.

HOWEVER! Madness takes its toll on the academic researcher and context becomes so fleeting! This concept of a Glorious Death is NOT dead everywhere!


My personal thoughts on death are this: I would much rather have a death earned than a life tolerated. I would much prefer a death of my own agency, than to live a life completely out of my own hands – but hear my reasoning out on this before you get worried. The ONLY thing that we leave this world when we die is what some would call legacy – But I see, in my capacity and social standing as an ‘academic’, that a lesson of some sort for some one else to do something good with, IS the greatest thing I could hope to leave behind. Ideally, I would want to send/leave a message that reflects my ideological position. That is: find happiness, but never at the expense of others…and if you have the capacity to do good, then you have the responsibility to see that good done: no matter what.

In one of his post-9/11 videos, bin Laden said; “Where as they (American Forces) love life, we love death.” What he meant by this was that in accepting the inevitable (we all die after all) and in fighting to inject it with as much meaning and symbolism as possible, one could achieve a more noble and holy existence (during life) that one who fought to simply stay alive for the sake of avoiding death out of fear. In part, I understand this; and in another part, I appreciate that it is culturally unacceptable for me to admit it.

I think that I can see one of the desirable traits that bin Laden infused into al Qaeda’s ideology, that was then assimilated into ISIS/ISIL. In a world that so many describe and feel is descending towards chaos, rather than ascending towards clarity and ‘good’, the only thing we can do for ourselves is to not only accept the limits of our humanity, but embellish and inject that inevitability (death) with meaning, symbolism and other gratifying derivatives of power and control. Isn’t it always about control?

ISIS/ISIL has made killing and the theater of death such a powerful arena that it is completely understandable that those who are disenfranchised, disenchanted, detached or just lost, would be mad not to gravitate towards such a franchise that could give them purpose, meaning, a definition, and a pathway towards achieving power and control. In a world where you have nothing (perceived or legitimately nothing), and you see a group that can give you moral substance (and they do, regardless as to if the West deems this substance ‘evil’), you gravitate towards them out of self-preservation.

So what can be done to combat this? Is it a simple case of a hearts and minds campaign to win back some ‘lost boys’ from waging a war? I argue no, that there is a more complex issue at hand. If people do not see and value a/any power in their lives and in their actions, then they are susceptible to such influence from ‘evil’ forces forever. In a sense, ISIS/ISIL and previously al Qaeda have filled a moral void which the West’s technological capabilities have made irrelevant: they have given their people the 21st centuries’ version of the Glorious Death.

Until the there is a ‘counter-offer’ on the table for the current and future fighters of ISIS/ISIL, then they will continue to gather, rally, kill, and celebrate death. These are individuals seeking purpose, power and a place amongst peers who recognize them for who they WANT to be – overlooking other issues in the process for the sake of unity, camaraderie, and belonging. But I refuse to believe that the West cannot collaborate, or is unable to work towards the creation of, some type of solution. Can hearts and minds campaigns counter the contender of the Noble Death on the table today? But then again, the US offers ONLY ‘prisons for punishment’, not ‘prisons for reform and reintegration’– And this mentality is very clearly reflected in the policies constructed concerning the ISIS/ISIL ‘threat’.

So this is where I see ISIS/ISIL ‘winning’ part of this conflict. They have given thousands of men purpose and meaning in their lives, where formerly, there was none. And the real kicker here is that this is most evident when Western men run off to join ISIS/ISIL because they are not getting something from their homeland which could arguably be considered a human right: purpose. The West’s failure to look after its citizens culturally, mentally and socially might just be the weakness that ISIS/ISIL has picked up on, and will exploit further as the conflict continues.

Insane Proposal: Mandatory military time for citizens of western nations for two years before college. Impose a social safety net via mandatory service because even grievances create camaraderie (let them complain about it, but as a group). This would possibly assist in the creation of social cohesion through establishing teamwork and communal values, strengthening the military and boosting the economy all in one go. In short: give people something that unites them – because the social functioning of the West is one where isolation is acceptable, a lack of cooperation and non-communally based behavior is rabid, and there are so many approved of standards of hyper-individualism that there are NO checks and balances to moderate extremism before it becomes dangerous. ISIS/ISIL is very much a Western caused problem, made more so because it has successfully exploited the growing issues of a lack of uniformity in our own society. At least, that is my opinion, which is not associated with any of my professional or personal affiliations.

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