General Nagata and the Secret Sauce

 WASHINGTON — Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East, sought help this summer in solving an urgent problem for the American military: What makes the Islamic State so dangerous?
In the space of two short paragraphs, the NYT uses the words "decipher', "complex", "conundrum", "brain", "professors", "understand", and "idea" - in connection with a savage, sadistic enemy that rapes and tortures children.

This is the language of intellectuals whose only weapons are their intellects and their immense self-regard.

There is a time for intellect and reflection; and there is a time for courage and action. The sad irony here is that these geniuses are precisely the people who will NEVER understand the Islamic State. It is too simple for them to grasp.


I found the intellectualism of the Times' approach off-putting, but I want to focus here on what I take to be the substance of Gen. Nagata's comments.  I'll begin at the end: 

“When I watch Americans use words like cowardly, barbaric, murder, outrageous, shocking, etc., to describe a violent extremist organization’s actions, we are playing right into the enemy’s hands,” General Nagata added. “They want us to become emotional. They revel in being called murderers when the words are coming from an apostate.”

There are three components to this quote:  (1) "playing into the enemy's hands" i.e. the assumption that if the enemy wants us to do something, it is in our interest to do the opposite; (2) "they want us to become emotional" and therefore respond with rash, ill-considered action; and (3) "they revel in being called murderers [by] an apostate" because this is an indication that they're fighting an effective war against an an enemy they hold in contempt.

In general, you want to do the opposite of what the enemy wants you to do; but if you have reason to believe you can win a confrontation and that the enemy underestimates your capabilities, then you and the enemy want the same thing:  you both want a confrontation.  If you have capabilities that the enemy doesn't know about or underestimates, then it's in your interest to do what the enemy wants, and it would be just as logical to speak of the enemy playing into your hands.  That Gen. Nagata presents this scenario in purely reactive terms is, I think, unfortunate.

Clearly a calculated decision is more likely to represent sound judgment than an emotional one.  But an emotional - or I would say gut-level - response to a threat is basically one of two things:  fight or flight.  The enemy prefers the latter because it makes their job easier:  they can then enslave and butcher us at their leisure with minimal cost or risk to themselves.  The enemy "want us to become emotional" precisely to the extent that they assume this will be our response, and their early experience with the Iraqi Army no doubt confirmed this assumption.  We gain the advantage precisely to the extent that we defy the assumption.

It is perfectly reasonable for any army to value a reputation for toughness.  Combat involves killing and soldiers are not babysitters.  When the enemy embraces an ethic (for want of a better word) utterly different from our own, we should not be surprised that they take pride in being called murderers, as it signifies both their effectiveness and their indifference to our cultural standards.  Yet all of this seems to be a conundrum for Gen. Nagata.

Returning to the question of "playing into the enemy's hands", I would say that the enemy's interests are served just as well when we busy ourselves with endless hairsplitting and deliberation.  By Nagata's own admission, he does not understand the movement, or even its "idea", and therefore is not even close to defeating the enemy.

A general who wants to "engage in a long-term conversation" does not fill me with confidence.  This is an admirable trait for a debating society, less so for an army.


It looks to me like Gen. Nagata - along with a lot of other smart people - is trying to find the "secret sauce" of Islamic State's success.  There is nothing wrong with that, I just don't think it is all that complicated.  You can control people pretty easily if you terrorize them enough. 

I think a more interesting and more productive approach would be to find the secret of those who have successfully resisted - notably the Kurds.  It seems that a strong cultural identity is a key ingredient.

"The enemy's will is strong because his identity is strong.  And we must match his strength of purpose with strong identities of our own."  This is Natan Sharansky's thesis in 'Defending Identity' (preface, p. x), and I think it's an important idea for us now.

Sharansky explores the perceived conflict between identity and liberty, and refutes the liberal fallacy that "nationalism leads to oppression, so we must erase all forms of national or group identity".  On the contrary, Sharansky asserts:  "Despite our profound differences, we recognized that to successfully defend the values most dear to us, we had to make sure that others were strong enough to defend theirs."  (Sharansky, p.41.)  Among Sharansky's closest allies in the Soviet prison camp were evangelical Christians.

Michael J. Totten observed - back in 2006 - that "the Kurdistan Regional Government actually provides money and housing for Arab Christians who want to pick up and resettle in the north."  ('In the Wake of the Surge', p. 31.)  This suggests to me that the Kurds as a culture have internalized Sharansky's insight. 

I don't know if there is a "secret sauce" for Kurdish success, but if there is, I think its ingredients include a sense of identity.  I think Americans have a long-established sense of national identity that incorporates this insight.  Perhaps Iraqis, as a nation, have yet to develop it.  Perhaps they can learn it from the Kurds.