Fighting ′Islamic State′: Ideology vs rationalism | #readytofight | Life Links | DW | 30.05.2015
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Fighting 'Islamic State': Ideology vs rationalism

Many countries have abolished the draft and rely instead on professional, volunteer armies. But how can western, more rational armies fare against "Islamic State's" approach of using ideology to attract fighters?

Photo: Soldiers standing in several rows during muster

In joining military service many young people for the first time face the question of whether they'd be willing to fight and possibly even die for their country.

Would you be willing to die for your country? This is a question that first might occur to a young person facing the possibility of being conscripted into the army of the country where they live. Like those young people in Lithuania, for example, where the country's parliament recently voted overwhelmingly in favor of reintroducing the draft.

The move means that thousands of young men between the ages of 19 and 26 could soon be forced into national service for a period of up to nine months and could therefore be swapping their university lectures for military drills, their text books for guns.

A Baltic state bordering part of Russia, Lithuania is bolstering its army due to "today's geopolitical environment" (read, the Ukraine crisis), the government argues.

"If there is a threat, then a country will review its commitment to things like conscription. It's not about the nation, but the sense of security," says Peter Quentin, a research fellow specializing in land warfare studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. "A key determinant [in how people feel about conscription] is not nationality, but a sign of the times."

Poster with Uncle Sam reading 'We want you poster'

During the World War I the US army was advertising using this iconic poster for joining the armed forces. Many countries have now abolished mandatory military service. However, the US has mainly relied on soldiers joining voluntarily during its history.

Since the end of the Cold War at the beginning of the 1990s, the need for conscription, particularly in the US and Europe, has all but disappeared. While the draft may have a place in protecting a nation's territory, in a modern context where conflict for western armies is occurring in foreign lands, they are of no use, say some experts.

That's why many governments in Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have instead turned towards smaller, highly professional volunteer forces.

Soldiers as hired guns without ideals?

However, there's a downside to that shift, say some. "Due to the end of conscription, the democratic public seem to be less involved in debates about war. It doesn't seem to affect them. They don’t have to pay with their lives, they just have to pay taxes," says Sibylle Scheipers, an expert on international relations and the changing character of war.

Scheipers says abolishing conscription can lead to a disconnect between societies and their soldiers: "The obituaries of soldiers nowadays don't say 'he died for his fatherland or his political ideals' but that 'he died doing a job he loved'," she says, quoting a colleague from the Changing Character of War Programme. "Are soldiers now just hired guns? Where are the ideals in all this?"

In moving towards professionalisation, the West has inadvertently muddied the link between military combat and ideals - and that presents it with several problems when tackling terrorist organizations like the Sunni militant group "Islamic State", says Mansoor Moaddel, a professor of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism at the Response to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

Professionalism as strong a driver as ideology

"Western armies operate according to the principle of rational calculation. The 'Islamic State's' fighters are driven by ideology - it dictates their politics and everything else," he says. Moaddel is keen to emphasise the complex nature of the conflict. Nonetheless, he signals that the West's "rationality" does seem to be holding it back in some ways by provoking a rise in nationalist ideology.

Political scientist Aleksandra Dier, an expert on military capabilities and counterterrorism disagrees. She doesn't see the lack of a distinct ideology as a problem and says one should not underestimate the power of professional motivation.

"Patriotic ideals are not the overriding factor and a very strong professional ideal has always been there in the armed forces," she says. "There is team support and professional ideas… I don't think the effectiveness of the armed forces on the battlefield can be measured by comparison with ideology over motivation."

No heroic template for the West

Nonetheless, western governments are increasingly reluctant to put boots on the ground. Budget cuts, as well as the abolishment of conscription in some cases, that have cut back troop numbers, combined with a public that is increasingly averse to military casualties is leading the West to look for different ways to fight.

Photo: A F-22 jet fighter

Shifting to distance warfare by utilizing fighter jets like this F-22, for example, instead of fighting of the ground.

One way is by supporting irregular auxiliary fighters in the region: channelling funds, weapons and intelligence to groups like the Free Syrian Army, the peshmerga and various Shiite factions fighting in southern Iraq.

Furthermore, governments are using technology-supported distance warfare: An international coalition of nations including the United States, Britain, France, and the Netherlands, among others, are dropping bombs on "Islamic State" targets from the air and launching targeted drone attacks from the safety of offices thousands of kilometers away.

"What do I actually do? I fly an F-22 and I'm definitely not risking my life," Scheipers recalls that one of her students, who was about to join the US air force, once told her.

Photo: Kurdish peshmerga fighters

Sibylle Scheipers sees supporting peshmerga fighters as problematic: "[They] will want to have their own state at some point. What that could mean is a total reordering and a break up of major states in the Middle East. I don’t think that is the price worth paying for containing 'Islamic State'. I think the most worrying thing is that people in the West don’t think it through."

This kind of distance fighting is creating an 'identity crisis' for the West and could inadvertently be contributing to the allure of "Islamic State", Scheipers suggests. "If 'Islamic State' has to offer something, then it's that kind of revolutionary ideal of 'put a gun in your hand and fight for the society that you want to live in'. That's something that the West doesn't have to offer any more; they have taken down that heroic template that the general public could identify with."

Not just weapons in the fight against 'Islamic State'

Still, while ideology may be something drawing tens of thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq to fight with "IS", many of those within its ranks are battling as a result of forced conscription.

And while "IS" has been making gains in the recent past, it may be this policy of making those who are untrained fight that eventually brings it down in the face of the professionalised and technologically-advanced armies of the West.

However: weapons are not the only successful means of fighting against "Islamic State":

Watch video 31:36

#readytofight: Don't let them win - full episode

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