Stupid Stuff on Steroids – Syria and Comic Book Thinking

“This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed.”

American hysteria is a wondrous thing to behold.

Our hysteria is usually obvious in retrospect, whether the freak-out is over witches, labor unions, or communists. Hysteria is not always so easy to perceive as it happens or, in this case, as it is happening right now with ISIS-centric Islamophobia running rampant around the nation’s terror-drenched reptilian brain.

The collective rush to do “stupid stuff” kicked in with the mass-pavlovian response to cleverly-marketed, ISIS-produced infomercials featuring the beheading of two Americans (earlier beheadings of non-Americans failed to have the same effect). But killing Americans in the collective mind’s imaginary Islamistan hits the reflexively violent smack in the patriot-plexus and has them screaming for blood vengeance over an horrific but strategically meaningless bit of savagery. [Funny how the equally savage killing of other Americans with a chokehold in New York or a hail of bullets in Ferguson has so much less impact on rampant public moral outrage.]

That psychic selectivity over what savagery is objectionable and what is tolerable has a long American history, as illustrated by natives receiving blankets full of smallpox and all the other gifts of manifest destiny. Given the American pre-disposition for morally selective high dudgeon, the media manipulation of the mindset of the United States by slick snuff films begins to look savvy, strategic, and morbidly effective. From the perspective of ISIS, this bit of theatrical propaganda has succeeded beyond reasonable expectation: it has inflated the threatening image of ISIS from the reality a relatively small, regionally contained, regional band of pathological fundamentalists and their more numerous allies of convenience (which, from time to time, have included the U.S. and other NATO members).

In little more than a month, ISIS (aka ISIL, or IS, or Islamic State, or Islamic Caliphate) has changed little on the ground, while its image in American minds has morphed into a ginormous, imaginary monster capable of throwing a terrifying shadow of fear across the American continent thousands of miles away. This is not a rational perception, even though the president feeds into it (even if he knows better). This is panic, deeply rooted in comic book thinking.

Comic book thinking: never hard to find, but not always dominant

The Governor of Texas and other fear mongers, like Judicial Watch and Fox News, would have you believe there are agents of ISIS, the Islamic Caliphate, crossing the Rio Grande and making themselves at home in the American homeland undetected – except by these fearless watchdogs. They also cite a right wing provocateur who crossed the Texas border in terrorist costume and may have gone undetected. Republican Senator John McCain fulminated in comic book style about this imaginary security breach.  The Homeland Security people say they detected him and knew he was a buffoon.

The Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee had hear more than enough by mid September. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon of California used the 9/11 anniversary to imagine a worst case scenario: “I would much rather fight ISIL in Iraq and Syria today than fight them in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Kurdistan tomorrow.” With considerably bloodier clarity and recklessness, the 76-year-old showed his tough willingness to send young soldiers to die in Iraq yet again, urging “our coalition to go all-in now, so that we do not risk having to use enormously more blood and treasure later.”

In an article about ISIS, the National Review published some articles of faith with headings like: “the growth of the Islamic State,” “the Success of the Islamic State,” and “the ascendancy of the Islamic State.” The writer made an intellectually dishonest anti-Obama/pro-Bush argument rooted in unreality in which he characterized President Obama as an Islamist apologist and an unreliable war maker. That may be just as well in a world where “the success of the Islamic State” and, even more so, “the ascendancy of the Islamic State” are hobgoblin projections of comic book fear with no objective reality.

The success of Fox News is built on comic book thinking. For example, on September 17, Fox touted an “intelligence bulletin from the Central Florida Intelligence Exchange” warning, somewhat incoherently:

… that Islamic State fighters have increased calls for “lone wolves” to attack U.S. soldiers in America in recent months, citing one tweet that called for jihadists to find service members’ addresses online and then “show up and slaughter them.

Reportedly Fox News coverage of the ISIS crisis has achieved ratings higher than CNN and MSNBC combined, where comic book thinking can sometimes be more nuanced. CNN resorts to unprovable fear-mongering to characterize ISIS as “the terror group that is striking fear into the hearts of leaders around the world,” which if true would say more about world leaders than about ISIS. In contrast, the BBC accurately describes ISIS as “the small but fanatical jihadist army now controlling large tracts of Syria and Iraq” ­– and then wonders, quite rationally, whether ISIS has the capability to govern an area roughly the size of Pennsylvania.

Peak hysteria so far comes from the Senator from South Carolina

“This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home,” Republican Lindsey Graham claimed on September 14 on Fox News Sunday. This raw, politically-pointed hysteria was not new for Graham, who said more than a month earlier on the same Fox program: “If he does not go on the offensive against ISIS, ISIL, whatever you guys want to call it, they are coming here…. This is just not about Baghdad. This is just not about Syria. And if we do get attacked, then he will have committed a blunder for the ages.”

In the interim, the president announced from the Oval Office on September 10 that the country was going against ISIS [ISIL] with a limited offensive, as well as  unlimited and contradictory rhetoric:

While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies…. Our objective is clear:  We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy…. we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are.  That means I will not hesitate to take action…. If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven…. we will send an additional 475 servicemembers to Iraq… [but] we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq…. [emphasis added]

Extreme as it is in parts, the president’s declaration is nowhere near enough for Graham and his fellow warriors whose goal seems to include a large American occupation of uncertain duration in the Middle East. Graham said that ISIS [ISIL] is:

… intending to come here…. There is no way in hell you can form an army on the ground to go into Syria, to destroy ISIL without a substantial American component. And to destroy ISIL, you have to kill or capture their leaders, take the territory they hold back, cut off their financing and destroy their capability to regenerate. This is a war we’re fighting…. This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home.

Both the president and the senator offer up comic book thinking. Hunting down terrorists wherever they are is a Bush-like boast detached from reality. Imaging an enemy powerful enough to kill 320 million Americans is silly even in a Hollywood apocalypse movie.

Delusional thinking isn’t really a good basis to build a war on

One of the benefits of delusional thinking is that it relieves the mind of the stress of contemplating an unpleasant and intractable reality. One of the drawbacks of delusional thinking is that it’s not likely to make that reality any better, and may well make it worse.

Take, for example, the truly comical bi-partisan vote in the House in favor of arming and training Syrian rebels, and it’s equally bi-partisan opposition. The 273 votes in favor included 114 Democrats, while the 156 in opposition included 71 Republicans (with three Republicans not voting). Only five states voted unanimously, all in favor (Alaska, Montana, Arkansas, and both Dakotas). This vote was to add an amendment of six micro-managing pages to the Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2015 that would allow, but provide no funding for, the build-up of a Syrian opposition army from “appropriately vetted Syrian groups and individuals.”

The amendment ends with this admonition:

Nothing in this section shall be construed to constitute a specific statutory authorization for the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situations wherein hostilities are clearly indicated by the circumstances. [emphasis added]

On September 17, President Obama told a military audience:

The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission. I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq. [emphasis added]

That congressional admonition, like the presidential assertion, is delusional to the extent that the United States is already at war in Iraq, where U.S. pilots are flying combat mission and an unknown number of special forces are engaged in hostilities and another 1,500 or so soldiers are guarding the embassy and carrying out other missions “wherein hostilities are clearly indicated by circumstances.” Iraq is a war zone and has been for more than eleven years. The ground war that started with the U.S. invasion of 2003 has not ended. “Another ground war in Iraq” is delusional or dishonest. Even though the U.S. has mostly withdrawn its military forces, the war in Iraq never ended in any meaningful sense.

By Congressional logic, the president has no statutory to send armed forces there, even though they are already there. The president has said he has all the authority he needs under the AUMFs, the Authorizations for the Use of Military Force passed in 2001 and 2002, open-ended war making authority Congress has chosen not to review. “We’re travelling on vapors,” said Illinois Senator Dick Durbin of the aging AUMFs on September 18. Then, like all his colleagues, he made no effort to change the situation.

Senator Manchin notices the empire’s lack of a wardrobe

Nothing the collective leadership of the United States – or its harshest critics – propose to do will likely change the political situation. Their comic book thinking based on false perceptions of reality makes the likelihood of a sensible course of action virtually nil.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin was reportedly prepared to shut down the government to prevent adoption of the House plan to arm Syrian rebels. In the end, he caved and the Senate supported the amendment to the continuing resolution 78-22, with bi-partisan votes for and against. Despite his opposition, even Manchin did not challenge the core perception dominating government and media. On the Senate floor, he solemnly affirmed that “we must defeat and destroy ISIS….  ISIS are barbaric terrorists with no respect for humanity and they deserve to die.”

He expressed support for airstrikes in Iraq, for humanitarian aid, for cutting off funding to ISIS, adding somewhat preposterously: “Doing these things has already helped prevent genocide….”

And then he questioned the conventional wisdom that it was up to the U.S. to take on ISIS and save the world: “this should be an Arab ground war and a U.S. air war…. important as it is to know your enemy, it is equally important to know our allies. And I am not confident that we know who are (sic) allies are…. As of today, we have only hints of military support from Arab countries, who themselves face a greater threat from ISIS than anyone else.”

This semi-dissent is important, but it only begins to explore the absurdity of the present American impulse to defend itself against an imaginary threat by saving countries unwilling to save themselves. Or maybe they don’t feel the need to be “saved.”  The coalition’s main partners now are the U.S., Australia, Germany, and those old colonial favorites in the Middle East, France and the United Kingdom. That’s one reality.

Consider the host of other realities our comic book thinkers avoid for the sake of a simplistic solution to a problem they’re unable to explain realistically:

  • IRAQ has a weak government that is unable to choose a defense minister or an internal security minister. Iraq has been in a multi-faceted state of civil war for about a decade, primarily Shia/Sunni. As a result Sunni Iraq has allied with ISIS to hold about a third of the country. Kurdistan is a quasi-independent state in another third of Iraq. And this fragmented Iraq is the base of American operations.
  • KURDS in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran comprise a wild card that has the potential for coalescing into its own disruptive state.
  • SYRIA’s multifaceted civil war has divided the country into a minimum of three mutually hostile, ill-defined areas: the government territory is the most stable, followed by the ISIS sector. Rebel territory is scattered and no one knows just how many militia-governments are in control of or disputing different areas. These represent the “Syrian rebels” the U.S. thinks will fight ISIS even though their rebellion is against the Assad government.
  • SYRIAN REBELS, appropriately vetted, may turn out to be as rare as unicorns. So far, Syrian rebels have been a reliable source of arms for ISIS. And Syrian rebels reportedly sold one of the beheaded American reporters to ISIS for cash. Like ISIS, Syrian rebels are predominantly Sunni.
  • TURKEY is supposed to be part of the burgeoning U.S. coalition, but so far Turkish commitment is limited to allowing the use of a NATO air base. Turkey has contributed to the rise of ISIS. Turkey doesn’t want to fight ISIS on the same side as the Kurds who want a piece of Turkey. Turkey doesn’t want to disrupt its economic ties to the ISIS region. Predominantly Sunni Turkey doesn’t want to fight the predominantly Sunni ISIS coalition, nor does it want to fight on the side of predominantly Shia Iraq or its predominantly Shia ally, Iran.
  • SAUDI ARABIA’s commitment to the coalition is a promise to offer bases for training. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are widely credited with years of sponsoring and building up ISIS. Both countries are predominantly Wahhabi, a stricter-than-Sunni version of Islam.  Saudi Arabia has little incentive to contribute significantly to any anti-ISIS coalition.
  • JORDAN is predominantly Sunni and is an advanced, humane nation, especially in comparison to most of its neighbors. Presently it is home for millions of refugees: from Palestine since 1948; from Iraq since the U.S. war of 2003; and from Syria, since the civil war began. Jordan provides some 50,000 peacekeeping troops to the United Nations. It has trained Iraqi security forces.
  • GULF COUNTRIES such as Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Oman have offered the use of their air bases and air spaces, but little more. These Islamic states are all predominantly Sunni except Oman, which is Ibadi (predating Sunni and Shia).

The first step on the road to doing stupid stuff is framing the question in a way that allows for only one possible answer. For example, “This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed.” If we’re all going to get killed if we don’t do something, how can we not do something?

But “before we all get killed” is entry level stupid stuff. And who is going to kill us? The standard estimate for ISIS strengths is 10,000 fighters or so, an unknown portion of whom are Iraqi Sunnis more interested in their homes in Iraq than some invented Islamic caliphate. For ISIS to approach being even a slightly credible threat, one needs to apply serious threat-inflation. Threat inflation happened recently when the Pentagon tripled the size of ISIS from maybe 10,000 fighters to maybe 30,000 fighters, with no basis offered for any estimate.  Even at 30,000, ISIS would be only a tenth the size of the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, which some see as a greater threat.

If ISIS were any sort of genuine threat, or if our political and pontifical public figures were any sort of genuine leaders, wouldn’t someone have thought to make a point of it when ISIS took control of Fallujah, just 43 miles from Baghdad, in January 2014? Why did they wait till June to be surprised by ISIS taking Mosul from a fleeing Iraqi army?

No matter what perspective one takes considering ISIS, there’s none that escapes stupid stuff. And what stupid stuff could create millions more Islamic enemies of the United States? Plunging into the middle of the centuries-old, international  Sunni/Shia religious civil war should work.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll (2019) is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.