LESSONS OF WAR
After the last remnants of Daesh were mopped up at Baghuz, there remained the question of what to do about the surviving foreign fighters who had travelled to join them in such overwhelming numbers. The following essay, which I wrote as the 2nd Gulf War was getting under way in 2003, was designed to draw parallels between this and another conflict from 65 years earlier. Its main interest now is in that it ends with a prediction about foreign volunteers, one that was to come to fruition – and how! – in the phenomenon of Daesh.
Once, not so long ago, a well-equipped and highly trained army invaded a certain country from the south. Its leaders’ aim was loudly trumpeted. They sought the alleviation of tyranny through summary regime-change, and their initial strategy was to sweep away the courage of the defenders with a shock of violence. At first things went well. They met patchy resistance from scattered and ill-armed government militia, and made rapid progress northward towards the capital, which lies near the geographical centre of the country. They were disappointed not to be greeted by very many flowers and flags and cheering crowds, but this did not deter them. They blamed it on government intimidation and said they would be vindicated once they were masters of the capital. But the capital proved unexpectedly difficult to take. After fourteen days of murderous suburban fighting, the invaders called off the assault. The war, which they had confidently expected to be over in a few weeks, ground bitterly on for two and a half years and, though the invaders were ultimately victorious, it was an infamous victory that has forever stuck in the gullet of history.
Those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it. However often I hear George Santayana’s aphorism, it always rings with the inescapable truth of a cage door closing. But in considering the present Iraqi adventure, what old wars are the most instructive? Working back we might consider Afghanistan, Kosovo, the Gulf War 1, Afghanistan again (remember the Russians?), Angola, Vietnam, Suez, Korea and even World War 2. But go just one war further back, go to 1936 and Franco’s incursion at the head of his Spanish Foreign Legion, supported by the fascist coalition of Mussolini and Hitler, and you have the chain of military events sketched out in the paragraph above. It is these that have been reverberating most strongly in my mind over the last week or two.
At first sight parallels between on the one hand the Bush-Blair Coalition and Franco, and on the other between the Spanish Republic and Saddam Hussein, look far-fetched. In political morality, we tend to identify the bad guys with groups as different as possible from ourselves, while we easily find the good by looking in the bathroom mirror. In the context of recent European history, Franco seems a deeply alien and minatory figure, not at all “one of us”. Concentrating power in his own hands ruthlessly, and with not the slightest regard for human rights, his political methods had more in common with Saddam than with Bush or Blair. At the same time, the Republican administration that Franco sought to bring down – bickering, dithering and in some ways disarmingly naïve – was hardly in Saddam’s league of Machiavellian nastiness.
But take another angle of view. The Bush-Blair coalition stands on the proposition that this war is a fight between our familiar traditions of government and an alien political system of terror and tyranny. So, of course, did the fascists when confronting Marxism in Spain, and in both cases these positions were contradicted by their opponents. In fact on both sides, in both conflicts, the ideologies involved were mutually incomprehensible. In the 1930s, authoritarian fascism, an idea which occupied the imagination of half the world, stood implacably opposed to International Marxism, which had seized the other half. Neither grasped that its antagonist was, in fact, its own raison d’etre. Now we see the glitter and techno-power of Coca-Cola democracy taking on an irrational, ascetic, trans-national Islamism. They seem light years apart. But both are proving capable of acting illegally, and violently, to defeat the other.
In the 1930s, until Spain exploded, the Left had been alarmingly divided, ragged and diffuse. Stalin and his people worked hard to be accepted as the vanguard of the future, but their violence and dictatorial repression repelled many and an array of competing progressive models thrived. This diffusion was pulled together by Spain, when a frightening and easily identified fascist enemy appeared in the field. The Left could never quite forget its internal rifts and, as Orwell found in Catalonia, these re-opened catastrophically from time to time. But in the Autumn of 1936, with Franco’s coalition of Catholics, falangists, fascists and monarchists closing on Madrid, the overriding incentive of political and personal survival cast all differences aside. Now Stalinists, anarchists, syndicalists, Trotskyites, progressive socialists and a variety of fellow-travellers and left-leaners, coalesced and fought shoulder to shoulder, while outside the country the entire fractured edifice of the Left agreed at least that fascism must be stopped in Spain. It was Franco who made Popular Front politics seem, for a time, a feasible reality.
Osama Bin Laden regards himself as the arch-Islamist, just as Stalin was the arch-Communist, yet in 2001 the bloody and dramatic actions of his organisation deeply divided the world’s Muslims, who were already far from thinking with one mind. As in civil war Spain, however, there is nothing like the stimulus of a common foe to put disputes on hold. At street level, as the invasion of Iraq proceeds, the entire Middle East has become a seething cauldron of hatred for the Coalition and few governments, however much they despise Saddam, have been brave enough openly to flout popular opinion by supporting the war. Non-Arab countries with powerful Muslim populations, from the Philippines to West Africa, have shuddered at what is going on, whilst smaller Muslim communities around the world have been praying for this “crusade” to end without harm to Islam.
Others from outside the theatre of war have been trying to get into it, to get involved in the fighting. As is very well known, Spain provides the precedent for this. In November 1936, when Franco finally launched his assault on Madrid, there were 1,900 foreign fighters in the successful defence of the city, of whom 600 were killed. In all, some 35,000 non-Spanish leftists of all persuasions, including up to 6,000 Americans and British, fought against Franco. What leftists did then, Muslims are doing now in Iraq. The heroism and passion of the international brigadistas in Spain quickly became legendary through newspapers, books and films and it is safe to assume the volunteer Islamist fighters are being similarly touted as heroes by the Muslim counterparts of Ernest Hemingway.
By focussing on atrocities, the Arab media play an important role in encouraging foreigners to cast in their lot with the Iraqi people, and this, too, happened in Spain. With his own exceptionally brutal Foreign Legion, and planes of the German Kondor Legion, and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria, Franco considered it easy as well as necessary to blitz and bomb population centres such as Bajadoz, Malaga and Guernica. The contemporary reporting of these atrocious events was sensational and of great importance in marshalling the will to resist, and so it is now in Baghdad. Much of the Arab media has openly embraced a style of reportage that is as emotional as possible, with every reporter a Fisk or a Pilger. Throughout middle England readers of Fisk’s dispatches from Baghdad must be bristling with anger. How much angrier, and how much more motivated, must be the readers of Al-Ahrar in Cairo or Al-Safir in Beirut, and the viewers of Al-Jazeera, when they learn the bloody details of a Baghdad marketplace bomb or the destruction of a carload of women and children by Coalition bullets at Najaf.
If, of all the tactics employed by Muslim fighters, the suicide bomb seems to us the most incomprehensible, it might be as well finally to remember words spoken to Stephen Spender, prior to his departure for Spain, by a senior English Communist Party official. Go out there and get killed, he was told, because every movement needs its martyrs.
The great, so easily missed lesson is how exciting, how glowingly fervent was the hatred, and the solidarity, that Franco stirred in the bosom of the European Left; and how it is the same now in that of the Arab nation. “Madrid is the heart,” wrote Auden in his poem ‘Spain’:
Our moments of tenderness blossom
As the ambulance and the sandbag;
Our hours of friendship into a people’s army.
Footnote. In December 2015 the international intelligence and security consultants the Saufan Group estimated that between 27,000 and 31,000 people, from 86 different countries, had travelled to fight for or support Daesh's "caliphate".