The following is an op-ed I recently published in the Otago Daily Times about the barbarism of ISIS and how we might put it in context:
The latest atrocity by Islamic State forces in Iraq in which a captured Jordanian pilot was burned to death has provoked an understandable wave of commentary from around the world. The horrific spectacle created by the killing raises a number of crucial questions for us to consider. Is Islamic State (IS) a new, more brutal kind of rebel group? What purpose can such brutality serve? How should the world respond to the increasing brutality of the war in Iraq, and what does this latest development tell us about Western strategy in the region?
Sadly, this atrocity, and those previously committed by IS, are actually fairly banal in the history of warfare. Depraved cruelty and inhumanity is part and parcel of the very nature of war. To see the truth of this we need only recall what American GIs did to captured prisoners in Vietnam, what British troops did to communist insurgents in Malaya or to suspected Mau Mau in Kenya, or what the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the RUF in Sierra Leone, and the Interahamwe in Rwanda did to countless civilians in their conflicts. Or, consider the activities of the Latin American death squads during the cold war, the actions of Russian forces in Chechnya, or how state security officials in Uzbekistan boiled people to death in vats of oil. In South Africa, during the anti-apartheid struggle, it was commonplace for angry township residents to put a tire filled with petrol around the neck of a suspected informer and burn them to death. The truth is that history records innumerable atrocities by rebels and soldiers alike that in fact make the actions of IS pale into relative insignificance. In some respects, IS are still amateurs in the arts of violent cruelty during war.
In addition, we should also keep in mind that what counts as cruelty and barbarism in war is shaped by our cultural values and historical context. Objectively, it is perverse to insist that burning a man to death with petrol is a greater moral evil than using munitions like phosphorous bombs in military operations which we know will burn a great many innocent people to death, including children. It is the nature of every society however, to point out the cruelty of the enemy while obscuring the cruelty of one’s own actions.
From this perspective, and especially considering that this incident is part of a vicious war that has been going since 2003, the actions of IS should not really surprise us at all. The only difference is, that unlike the case of Rwanda in the 1990s, or Boko Haram in Nigeria right now, Western societies seem to be more aware of, and sensitised to, this particular conflict. We seem to care a great deal more about the handful of hostages in Iraq than we do about the hundreds currently dying in Nigeria. In part, this is also due to the successful use of social media by IS who have discovered how to effectively create maximum shock among Western publics.
So what gain does IS get from using such shocking methods?
Read the rest of the article here…