Looking over the modern world and all its proliferating works, one may note a strange fact: even when a cliché is easily recognized as such, the recognition only rarely issues in a vigilance against the lazy thinking behind the cliché. Men will chuckle at the folly indicated by the cliché, and then race off in unthinking confidence, impelled by that very thinking.
Modern men will say, with solemn faces, that generals are always “fighting the last war,” precisely as they go about thinking with ironclad consistency about fighting the last war. Now the “last war” for almost all modern men is what has been called Total War: democratic army arrayed against democratic army, nation in arms against nation, whole societies mobilized and on the march in a clash to the bitter end, as in the war that still bulks biggest in our minds, the Second World War.
But our war today is not total war, it is not democratic war, it is not even, for the most part, a war of army against army; and my informed guess is that we may never again see a total war of that sort. Our enemy certainly does not think in terms of Western Total War, and it is high time that we heeded our own cliché and started thinking about the war we’re in.
The plain pulverizing fact is that our war is religious war. It matters not one lick how much our modern mind recoils from this; it matters not one lick that Liberalism barely even has the vocabulary to talk about it, and will react with blind fury against most anyone who does want to talk about it. Nor, indeed, does it matter how fervently we might wish things were otherwise: the simple fact is that when an organized force of cunning men is making religious war against you, you are in a religious war. The impetus of our enemy lies not in his skill at arms, nor even in his anger at us, but in the details of his doctrine. He fights because he believes divine instruction compels it.
Total war hurls whole armies of galvanized nations against each other in horrifying calamities. Ours is not that sort of war. We are not likely to see great clashes of uniformed men, much less whole societies organized by command economy to wartime fervor. Our war lacks that kind of centralized organization, or at least it lacks that on the part of the aggressor side of the war, which must always be the side with the initiative.
But there is a secondary characteristic of our war that is very much unlike the sort of war that our age still recalls most vividly as the last war. Our war is one of skirmish and symbolism. Because the doctrine is permanent, the discharge of the duty it enjoins is undertaken languidly. If you are inspired, or more likely embittered — sure, go ahead learn your purity at war. Adventurism and conquest, sheer self-interest, is blessed by way of the romance of throwing off the infidel oppression. The mercenary is empowered. As a result the aggressor is opportunistic, uncoordinated, and predatory. He combines patience and pragmatism with anarchic decentralization.
He also thinks according to a far longer time horizon than any total war can contemplate. His mind is more historically grounded, and (for example) he thinks it a fact of no small significance that, absent some intervening event of great consequence, Europe will be, in a couple generations, more Muslim than Christian. The 21st century American has little history that he cares much about; the 21st century Jihadist has abundant history that he cares about, even unto death and mayhem.
From all this it follows that any analysis of the Jihad that takes its bearings from Total War of the 20th century is mistaken from the get-go.