In a few days it will be 16 years since the world-changing events of 9/11. The terrible toll from the subsequent succession of new wars and terrors has certainly not made us more secure. Indeed it has done the opposite, as argued by Paul Rogers, professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University and international security editor for www.opendemocracy.net, in his latest book, Irregular War. The “War on Terror” has manifestly failed to deliver peace, democracy, or prosperity in the most affected regions. Over 250,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, the great majority civilians; even more have perished in Syria’s civil war. This year has been the deadliest for Afghan civilians since 2001 and they make up the second largest source of refugees after Syrians.
Rogers’ analysis is deeper and broader than the focus on Islamist extremism, although he takes into account its eschatological dimension that seems likely to persist. Rather than a “clash of civilizations,” he observes that we are moving into an “age of insurgencies” arising from the wider phenomenon he calls “revolts from the margins.” Unless the causes of these revolts are addressed, a conventional “control paradigm” relying on military force, which Rogers associates with the “military-industrial-academic-bureaucratic complex,” will have limited effect or be counterproductive. The so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS) may be defeated on the battlefield. But that will prove a pyrrhic victory if nothing is done about the fundamental drivers of conflict and global insecurity: “deepening socio-economic divisions, which lead to the relative marginalization of most people across the world, and the prospect of profound and lasting environmental constraints, caused by climate change.”
Former president George Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” speech presaged a global expansion of the war on terror leading to the disastrous invasion of Iraq and its unintended consequences — violent insurgencies and suicide terrorism, murderous sectarian strife (between Sunnis and Shi’as, Arabs and Kurds) — with the result that al-Qaida in Iraq gained traction and morphed into the more virulent ISIS even after its leader, Abu al-Zarqawi, was killed by a U.S. air strike in 2006. The ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi came from one of the prison camps that had become schools for extremist proselytizing and terrorist recruitment. The 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden was followed by the emergence of ISIS with stronger paramilitary capabilities and sophisticated social media propaganda tools.
Although the “Arab Spring” awakening of 2011 raised hopes, the savage repression of non-violent protests in Syria was a trigger for radicalization and militarization. It was in this context that ISIS was able to seize territory in Syria (abetted by the Assad regime’s deliberate release of Islamist prisoners), setting up its capital there. The relative ease with which ISIS was able in 2014 to take control of six million people in a territory the size of Britain underscores the extent of the debacle.
It won’t be “mission accomplished” if ISIS loses that ground without making progress on the harder challenges of counteracting extremist ideologies and anti-western attitudes linked to longer-term trends. Among those identified by Rogers are: the perception that Islam is under attack, anti-Muslim discrimination, and Saudi Arabia’s export of its fundamentalist “Wahhabist” version of Islam; anger over socio-economic marginalization, especially among unemployed youth; environmental pressures, resource conflicts and dislocations.
The legacy of the global war on terror can be measured in its appalling costs — trillions of dollars, millions of refugees, hundreds of thousands killed and many more maimed — yet the advocates for military responses (increasingly relying on aerial bombardment and drone warfare rather than boots on the ground) and for an expanding national security state keep demanding more resources, while cynical politicians exploit popular fears for their own power. An atmosphere of permanent war and surveillance is inimical to liberal democracy.
Calling this a “century on the edge,” Rogers makes a powerfully cogent case for a radically different socially and environmentally responsible approach to the challenges arising from terrorism and irregular war.
Despite a reputation for being box office poison, American Iraq war films continue to be made. Alexandre Moors’ The Yellow Birds, which won a cinematography award at Sundance, follows two soldiers, Daniel Murphy, nicknamed “Murph” (Tye Sheridan), and Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich), whose wartime experience has fateful results. With a screenplay adapted from a novel by Kevin Powers and co-written by David Lowery (A Ghost Story), the story unfolds, often in flashback, through episodes of deployment, homecoming, retreat, and surrender. The older Bartle has promised Murph’s mother, Maureen (Jennifer Aniston), to look out for his buddy Murph. But when terrible things happen in the field (the time period is during the worst years of the Iraqi insurgency against the occupation), much goes awry in ways that traumatize Murph to tragic effect.
Murph goes missing and never comes home. Bartle returns to Virginia carrying a heavy burden, sinking into a depressive haze while concealing what really happened from an agonized Maureen who is determined to get the truth. Another figure in this casualties-of-war drama is aggressive Texan Sergeant Sterling (Jack Huston), who embodies the worst instincts of his kind. Humanity and truth both take a hit.
Scheduled for release next month is Thank You for Your Service, about a group of young Iraq veterans struggling with PTSD as they try to return to civilian life.
As much as American and other western soldiers have paid a price in Iraq, by far the greatest death, destruction and suffering has been borne by the Iraqi people. The recent liberation of Mosul from ISIS has involved massive casualties and devastation.
The toll of the post-invasion years on ordinary citizens is brought home with personal eye-witness intensity in Kurdish-Norwegian director Zaradasht Ahmed’s Nowhere to Hide (http://www.tenthousandimages.no/portfolio-item/nowhere_to_hide/), awarded top prize at the 2016 Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, the world’s biggest. At its centre is the remarkable Nori Sharif, a dedicated medic working in the small town of Jalawla in central Iraq, and devoted father to four young children, two boys and two girls. While the pullout of occupying U.S. troops in 2011 was initially welcomed, it did not end the epidemic of violence in a region that had become known as the “triangle of death.” As a frontline emergency nurse, Sharif had to deal with the carnage caused by murderous attacks and suicide terrorism.
NOWHERE TO HIDE — As a frontline emergency nurse, Nori Sharif had to deal with the carnage caused by murderous attacks and suicide terrorism in Jalawla in central Iraq. The personal eye-witness intensity in Kurdish-Norwegian director Zaradasht Ahmed’s Nowhere to Hide was awarded top prize at the 2016 Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, the world’s biggest.
In 2011 Ahmed gave Sharif a small camera with which he could record what was happening around him. It’s not all hellish. There’s even family fun and a wedding celebration. But what impacts most is the graphic recording of turmoil, terror and trauma as an everyday occurrence — which went from bad to worse when Jalawla was seized by ISIS in 2014, forcing the Sharif family to flee into the desert. They moved 16 times in search of safety, ending up in a camp for internally displaced persons. Sharif offers this sobering reflection: “There is an expression saying: wars are planned by the elite, the dumb will die in it, and the opportunists benefit from it. We see thousands of people killed, not only the dumb ones. And even the opportunists don’t benefit from it anymore.”
When Sharif was able to return to Jalawla he found the medical centre an empty ruin. In 2016 two of his brothers were killed. He has no home to return to and is supporting three families. Amazingly he stays optimistic, a compelling testament to the resilience of the human spirit in conditions we can scarcely imagine.
Thinking of graphic images and horrendous circumstances brings me to another documentary, a Tribeca festival premiere, Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS (http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/hell-on-earth/), co-directed by Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested. Observing that extremist ideologies thrive in conditions of state failure, Junger delves into the factors that produced the civil war. The non-violent protests against the regime in the spring of 2011, which Sarah Chayes notes were “explicitly an anti-corruption struggle,” were met with maximum force that included the torture and murder of schoolboys in Daraa. This was the initial spark for a cycle of violence. Defections from the military added to the growth of numerous armed “moderate” opposition militias. But it was the Assad regime that released jihadists from its prisons, which had become a “factory of terrorism.” The regime wanted a war in which it could tar all opposition as “terrorist” and claim to be fighting it. Such was its cynical survival strategy of state terror and to an extent it succeeded.
Western powers denounced Assad but dithered even when “red lines” (i.e. on the use of chemical weapons) were crossed. Meanwhile, support for opposing sides by other actors (Hezbollah, Iran, the Gulf states, Russia) intensified the destruction. When ISIS expanded from Iraq to seize territory, imposing a reign of terror, Assad in effect made “an undeclared non-aggression pact with it,” concentrating his fire instead on internal enemies. In the words of one of many experts interviewed, British writer Robin Yassin-Kassab: “It’s absolute hell on earth. Assad wants the middle to be eliminated so the choice is between him or ISIS.”
Hell on Earth isn’t just a history lesson. Woven into the narrative are the personal testimonies of Syrian families affected by the nightmare of escalating violence. We feel their terrifying circumstances. (The film carries a warning about graphic images, especially so when children are involved.) Moreover, the filmmakers to their credit do not absolve the West of responsibility. Indeed Junger comments that “all societies are blind to their own violence,” adding that “the U.S. has killed far more civilians than ISIS ever could.” He is primarily referring to the carnage caused by the mishandling of the Iraq invasion and occupation resulting in horrific levels of violence and directly contributing to the rise of ISIS and subsequent atrocities.
Junger and Quested made many trips to the region but, denied entry to Syria, they searched out frontline footage shot by Middle East news organizations, activists and citizen journalists. Especially effective and affecting is that recorded at grave risk by two brothers, Marwan and Radwan Mohamed, who eventually managed to escape besieged Aleppo with their young families. They made it to Turkey where they remain after being turned back from an attempt to sail to Greece. They are not optimistic about Syria’s fate.
Junger remains critical of western policy and is definitely no fan of Donald Trump’s bluster. Behind the exodus of Syrian refugees are the life-and-death decisions of families like those featured in the film. Junger decries the right-wing populist backlash that stokes fears of a Muslim “invasion.” The West is far from blameless, and as he says, “all violence and misery affect us.”
Hell on Earth first aired on the National Geographic channel in June.