Streetwise Professor

October 23, 2014

The Cultural Context of the War on ISIS: Playing Whac-a-Flag in Kobane

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 6:49 pm

There is no better illustration of the wildly different cultural perspectives of the combatants in Kobane than what occurred today on a barren hill two miles from the city. The hill of Tel Shair, 2 miles from the town, has changed hands several times in the past weeks. In the morning, ISIS seized the hill from the Kurds. As soon as I read about it, I said to myself: The hill is barren and offers no cover, and is far from any civilians. ISIS might as well hold up huge “BOMB US” signs with arrows pointing to the top of the hill. There is no possible way that they could hold it. Once clear of Kurds, it was destined to be a bomb magnet.

And indeed, that was the case. A few hours after the seizure was reported, I saw a Vine video depicting events on the hill. An couple of ISIS fighters had just planted a flag on the summit, and were walking down the hill: the fact that they left the flag and were hotfooting down the hill ¬†tells you they knew what was coming. And sure enough, when they were about halfway down the hill, two bombs explode. I swear, one hit the f*cking flag: a high explosive hole-in-one. The shot is so accurate that I suspect it was laser guided. Apropos what Norman Schwarzkopf said when describing a video of a precision strike during Gulf War I, the two guys survived, and hence were the luckiest men in Syria at that minute. (Here’s another, somewhat longer, video.)

And ISIS could not hold the hill. Predictably so. Within a few hours, the WSJ reported that the Kurds/FSA had retaken it.

To my eyes-western eyes-this illustrates the absurdity of the battle in Kobane. From an objectively-or perhaps materialistic is the better word-military perspective, it was idiotic for ISIS to expend one fighter to take the hill. They could never hold it in the face of an American bombing, and would just suffer more casualties if they tried. So what was the point?

But as one unidentified American official said in a WSJ article yesterday (or the day before), this is a war of flags. For ISIS, planting its flag is a victory, even if the banner gets blown to smithereens within minutes. It is the Arab equivalent of a Sioux counting coup on an adversary. The Arabs are an honor/shame culture, and the planting of the flag, as militarily pointless as it is to western eyes, confers honor on ISIS, and shames the Kurds and the Islamic Front from whom they seized the hill. I am sure that ISIS will be circulating videos of the planting, if they haven’t already. Stories of the deed will spread around the world, at the speed of Internet. To ISIS eyes, and the eyes of their acolytes, each of these flag raisings is as pregnant with meaning as Suribachi was to Americans of earlier generations.

John Keegan, in his History of Warfare, emphasizes that war is a cultural endeavor, that every war has its cultural context, and different cultures wage war differently and account for victory in different ways. Intercultural conflicts are often particularly chaotic, because each side miscalculates the effects of its actions on its enemy, and actions cause unexpected reactions.

Defeating ISIS requires us to understand their cultural frames. Such an understanding will help us predict what they will try to do, and to design counters. Such an understanding is necessary for us to know how the adversary defines defeat, which in turn is necessary for us to determine how to defeat it, for no victory is truly complete unless the enemy believes, in his own mind, that he is vanquished.

ISIS believes that it’s banners make it terrible. Or, perhaps, that its banners strike terror in its adversaries, because they know what happens under those flying flags.

Kobane has become a matter of honor to ISIS. The absurdity (to western eyes) of the events on Tel Shair demonstrate that. As I noted yesterday, we can use ISIS’s honor against it by making it pay a high price whenever it attempts to achieve honor by engaging in an open fight. But as I also noted, this approach has its limits. ¬†Attrition limits ISIS’s capabilities, but does not defeat it psychologically.

The US needs to see things through ISIS’s eyes to determine how to defeat it. Perhaps the best way of doing so is to exploit the flip side of honor: shame. I can’t say that I know how to do that as I sit here, but that seems to be a more profitable “indirect approach” than playing whac-a-flag.

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