Iron and blood

Rosa Brooks writes on the Islamic State, riffing on Von Bismarck’s view that “not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided, … but by iron and blood.”

I’ve been following news on the Islamic State since their dramatic appearance on the world stage. So much about the Islamic State and its strategy and brutality have baffled us. It just seems incomprehensible that a regime could appear in the way they have, murder Christians and enemy fighters in the way they have, usher in the return of slavery and sexual violence in the way they have, and essentially get away with it. Brooks contributes to this conversation by pointing out that if the Islamic State survives the next few years, their presence as a member of the international community could become normalized after a certain point. It’s a terrible scenario, and it’s a reminder that the stakes of statecraft are higher than most of those living have experienced firsthand in most cases.

The appearance and survival of the Islamic State reveals two things I’d like to comment on. First, their existence rebuts the nonsense phrase people often trot out about being on “the right side of history” on some social or political issue. As Jay Nordlinger pointed out a few years ago, “history doesn’t have sides, though historians do.” To talk about history having “sides” is to imply that history is some personified thing, apparently with Western liberal values that inexorably march on. That’s patently false. If the Islamic State wins, their historians will tell a story of their rise and authority that’s much different from what any surviving Iraqi Christians might remember. 

Second, and to Brooks’s larger point, their potential for long term existence is a reminder that while we’re familiar within living memory with a world where there are clear winners and losers (for instance, the unconditional surrender in World War II of Axis forces, a type of surrender the West demanded that I think was unprecedented in modern warfare), the future may end up looking less black and white, and a lot more grey.