They came from far and wide... by ship, train, automobile, on horseback... some even on foot. They were young, idealistic, and inspired by an idea... a movement... something that promised to change the world for the better. And when at last they arrived at their destination, they had guns thrust into their hands by the communists and Freemasons, and were sent out to fight Franco's army and the Catholic Church.
The event was the Spanish Civil War, and the individuals in question were part of a children's crusade – more-useful-than-average idiots who were seen, by the cynics rehearsing for World War II, as a propaganda medium as well as cannon fodder. And they had the enthusiastic support of the folks back home, wherever “home” happened to be. (Remember, this was in the 1930s when communism, especially of the Soviet variety, was seen by many in this country as the most promising model for the future of mankind. The New Deal was just the first step.)
But why bring up this dreary and depressing bit of history now? Because I was reminded of it by reading about the successful recruiting efforts of the Islamic State – soon to be known as ISISaFAWKUYB, or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and For All We Know Under Your Bed – the latest bogeyman in what appears to be an unending parade of “terrorist” organizations. (Our propaganda apparatus seems to be able to pop these outfits out like litters of puppies every few months. No one has ever heard of them until they show up on the evening news.)
But here's the point. They are a military organization, for certain – although how “terrorist” they are depends on what side you're on and where your interests lie. They have apparently managed to grab on to vast stretches of territory that were supposedly defended by the crack troops trained, armed, and funded by our own military and the American taxpayer. (I guess it worked about as well as any other government program.) And they are also, apparently, engaged in just a little of what we used to call “hearts and minds” work (before that term became synonymous with massacres). And, of course, they are energetic, bright-eyed, and absolutely certain of their beliefs and of the ways in which they act upon them. And thus, in these respects at least, they resemble pretty much any revolutionary movement down through history. Those movements tend to attract the young, who are idealistic and tend to see things in absolute, black-and-white terms (substituting politics and “ethics” for religion, in most cases).
But for ISIS, religion is an absolute, so you can't expect their movement to attract too many poli-sci majors from large American universities. (They're too busy worrying about “sell-outs” -- first Russia, then China, and now Cuba. Thank goodness North Korea is hanging tough!) What they do attract, though, are Moslems or those with Moslem aspirations who are looking for.... let's call it “purity”. Purity, lack of compromise, and militancy – combined with that great connective tissue of all successful revolutions, cohesion (or fellowship, companionship, “comrades in arms”, however you want to think of it -- “Those were the days, my friend”, etc.). That is, they are looking for something that most modern armies of conscripts and/or mercenaries don't have – a raison d'etre, a cause, something to believe in, something to make sacrifices for.
And are these motives bad? They are certainly common enough – maybe essential – in the history of religion; how many saints can you name who were “moral relativists”? And at some point after the Reformation these motives were shifted over to politics – the new religion to replace the old. Enough has been said about the “religious” nature of political movements, starting with the French Revolution and going up through Communism and Fascism. And now we again see religion as a prime motivator, violating all standards of political correctness. True belief is a force to be reckoned with – a “force multiplier” in military terms. And it's great when you agree, but scary and bad when you don't. But in any case, it does tend to unite people, at least at the early stages of a movement, until the pragmatists take over, followed by the cynics. You see this basic trajectory in the Soviet case; the Third Reich didn't last long enough to run through the entire cycle – it was born fanatical and died fanatical. In our own case, the pragmatists were in charge from the beginning; when the cynics started to take over is a good question, but I would put it, at the very latest, at the start of the Vietnam War era. Everything from then on has been politics – skillfully disguised, at times, as patriotism to make it more palatable to the unwary, but pure politics nonetheless.
But there's another point to be made. What ultimately appeals to youth, and to older people of a certain disposition, is not deep philosophy, or even ideas – it's revolution per se. It's the process – the stimulation – the excitement – the savor of storming the battlements (literal or political). People have been known to radically change their ideas and political points of view, but remain revolutionaries; one can call them shallow, but that would be like calling someone who enjoys driving but doesn't much care where he winds up shallow. There are people who are built for this sort of thing, and, quite frankly, even the most half-baked ideas can stimulate them to action if they're presented in the right way (with, ideally, the proper iconography – think media, film, TV, radio, posters, etc.). The most skilled promotion of revolution can be entirely content-free – all process, no product (or as Mao put it, “continuous revolution”).
And this, as in so many other instances having to do with world affairs in our time, catches the international elite totally off-guard. They are, if anything, the ultimate pragmatists – it's all about the bottom line, and anyone who argues differently is some kind of dreamer. The bottom line may be money, or power, or some combination of the two, but it's always about the material and never about ideas – to say nothing of religious ideals. To give the best example in our own society, we have the Neocons, who are self-styled patriots and “conservatives”, but who relish power above all. Or, to put it another way, can we really call the people who are turning this country into a monstrosity patriots? Our home-grown liberals, on the other hand, have never been patriotic; they see themselves as “citizens of the world”... but when you closely examine their motives and actions, you see a lust for power and control over others as their prime motivation. I would say that the main difference between liberals and “conservatives” in our time is that the former use money to gain power, whereas the latter use power to gain money. And I don't call that a radical difference in world view.
So what does the Establishment – any establishment, any regime – do when confronted with belief? What does it do when confronted with “fanatics”, “absolutists”, “dogmatists”... or, in the current lexicon, “haters” (which is what you call someone who has strong opinions that differ from your own)? The tools are varied, and are wielded with great skill by the propaganda apparatus, AKA the mainstream media. First you ignore them -- “just a bunch of nuts”... “a fringe element”... “kooks”... and so on. Then when they seem to be acquiring some small measure of power and influence, you start with the hard-core labeling: “Fascists”... “Nazis”... “fundamentalists”... “ultra-(whatevers)”. That, and some form of impugning their mental health, patriotism, suitability for public office, suitability for possessing weapons, etc. Then you start to allow for “strong measures” -- regrettable, but these people are dangerous! And this is a crisis! -- on the part of the police, FBI, CIA, military, etc. (But never the Border Patrol for some reason.) Oh, and – lest we forget – they are always accused of oppressing women, gays, and “minorities” in general; turn that up a notch and you get slavery, child molestation, drug dealing... wow, these are real baddies, and anything we do to stop them has to be OK. (To hell with “just war” theory.)
And yet, on the other side of this great reality divide, there are people who truly believe that a new world is being created, and they want to be part of it. And we might understand, if we had any vestige of principles or belief, but since we are all pragmatists and cynics now, we don't, and so we wade into conflicts without having the vaguest idea of what we are doing battle with.