Katzevich ’16: The Islamic State: conceived by American hubris

Opinions Columnist
Friday, September 19, 2014

The Islamic State has been declared. The first caliphate since the fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago, claiming to represent all Muslims worldwide, has been established. The speed with which the Islamic State — formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — spread from Syria back to its birthplace in Iraq was matched only by its military successes along the way, prompting the collective jaws of Western commentators to drop. If one watches American news media, an ill-advised endeavor, the only thing heard more often than a bellicose call to arms against the new old enemy is the purported ignorance as to its origins. However, we must not be fooled into thinking the Islamic State somehow emerged from the depths of hell or is a product of spontaneous generation, like rats in the holds of pre-scientific ships. Rather, the ever-unfolding story of the Islamic State can clearly be traced back to American military and economic policy over the last several decades and most sharply to American bombs, bullets and arrogance unleashed in our deluded assaults on the people of Iraq.

The Islamic State was conceived in a river of blood, which first began flowing over two decades ago when the first George Bush, under the pretext of humanitarian aid to the oil fields of Kuwait, formed an international coalition to liberate the invaded Kuwaiti monarchy and punish Saddam’s dictatorship in what became known as the Gulf War. With a highly disproportional death count,  this war could more accurately be described as an act of industrial slaughter, complete with an aerial assault on Iraqi soldiers retreating from Kuwait on the infamous Highway of Death and the live burial of scores of Iraqis by armored American bulldozers. While the vast majority of Americans have probably forgotten or never heard of these events, the atrocities of this war live on in the cultural memory of the jihadists. Although one cannot say it with absolute confidence, it is certainly conceivable that many of those killed by our bombs were the fathers and grandfathers of those now waving the black flag of the Islamic State.

However, as difficult as it may be to imagine, these senseless and needless massacres were merciful compared to the slow and brutal economic strangulation that ensued for the beleaguered citizens of Iraq. With minimal military justification, crucial civilian infrastructure was purposely bombed and destroyed, including the vast majority of Iraq’s electrical power stations and oil refineries, as well as many of its water purification plants, roads, bridges and other necessities of industrial civilization. To compound this misery, sanctions leveled against Iraq, once one of the most advanced and prosperous nations in the region, effectively wiped out its economy and all but brought the country back to the Stone Age with terrifying results. Iraq’s GDP fell to about a fifth of what it was before the war. Illiteracy and child labor skyrocketed. Rates of malnutrition shot up, medical supplies became precariously scarce and diseases from lack of clean water became the norm. Estimates of excess childhood deaths as a result range from over half a million to a lower estimate of 100,000,  figures which would make the Islamic State blush and were described by the former United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Baghdad Denis Halliday, as “genocidal sanctions on the innocent of Iraq.” In light of the illiteracy, poverty and destitution created by our actions, questions such as “why are they so violent?” and “why do they hate us?” would be almost comical if they were not so tragic.

While many of these events have gone down the Orwellian memory hole in this country, the next part of the story should certainly still be familiar. For a variety of pretexts, ranging from nonexistent weapons of mass destruction to nonexistent ties to al-Qaeda to our certainly existent modern manifest destiny of democracy promotion — but, of course, in no way related to oil, petrodollars, defense contractors, Dick Cheney’s Halliburton and the imperial Project for the New American Century — the second George Bush decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and once again invade Iraq. However, this time the goal was not merely to punish Saddam but to transform Iraq, which is what ironically occurred, although not along the lines envisioned.

What was meant to be a quick and efficient demonstration of American military omnipotence devolved into an all-too-predictable, all-too-costly and all-too-gruesome counterinsurgency against the newly liberated but less-than-thankful people of Iraq. Improvised explosive devices and roadside bombs against American military vehicles and private military contractors were answered by wholly indiscriminate fire against an unseen and elusive enemy and often against entirely innocent civilians, as documented by American soldiers and independent journalists on the scene and verified by disclosed Wikileaks documents. Military and private armed forces apparently began to suspect everyone with brown skin and a fluency in Arabic, a rather substantial portion of the Iraqi population, of being affiliated with the insurgency, as reflected in the civilian death toll and reports of human rights abuses by American forces. Overall, the inferno we ignited, into which the Iraqi insurgents poured their own gasoline, consumed around 130,000 innocent human lives, as reported by the Iraq Body Count project, with a high-end estimate of over 1 million deaths — three percent of the country’s population — due to all the effects of the war, including destruction of sanitation and health-related infrastructure, according to ORB International. Although these inconvenient facts are rarely mentioned in the American media, we are living — and others are dying — with these results today.

As with all tragedies, this second War on Iraq is laced with its own cruel ironies, among which is the creation of what would later become the Islamic State. Under Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’ath Party, fundamentalist religious groups were heavily suppressed as challenges to his rule. With Hussein removed from power, such groups sprang up once again, either from the ether or from the underground, to fill the void and combat American forces. They were aided by the absurdly stupid policies enacted after the first phase of the war, the most inane of which was surely Coalition Provisional Authority Order 2, which disbanded the Iraqi military, security and intelligence infrastructure, putting 400,000 men knowledgeable in the arts of war out of work and gifting many of them into the hands and leadership roles of the insurgency.  Other deluded programs included setting up a spiteful and vengeful Shiite puppet government, as well as slashing the state sector and forcing neoliberal policies onto the Iraqi economy, embittering many and throwing countless people out of nonviolent work. Predictably, those idle hands soon picked up rifles, joining a variety of insurgency groups, one of which was the Islamic State of Iraq. If that name sounds familiar, it should: after countless refugees and fighters poured over the border to neighboring Syria and after crystallization in the cauldron of war against the government of Bashar Al-Assad, the Islamic State of Iraq now calls itself simply the Islamic State.

And thus, what are we left with? A new old enemy cutting through colonial borders as surely and brutally as it cuts through the heads of apostates, enemies and Western journalists. A new state flush with cash and intent, providing vitally needed infrastructure to the population it governs, as well as the opportunity for violent Jihad and Promethean state-making to would-be radicals throughout the world, including in the West.

And what have we learned? Judging from Obama’s recent remarks to “take out (the Islamic State) wherever they exist” — absolutely nothing. Nonmilitary options, particularly economic ones aimed at replacing extremists’ weapons with true tools of state-making, have not even entered into the thoughts of the president elected on his promise to get us out of Iraq. Although serious questions remain as to the actual threat the Islamic State poses to the United States, with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president’s top military adviser, going so far as to claim there is no sign of “active plotting against the American homeland” from the Islamic State, the war drums are already being beaten. Air and drone strikes, the propaganda poster children for Islamic radicals worldwide, are our first course of action, followed by the sort of training of local resistance fighters which turned the Mujahideen into the Taliban and in no small part assisted in the formation of the Islamic State in Syria by providing arms and instruction to those then fighting Bashar al-Assad. What new, more horrific entity emerges from this latest baptism of blood is as yet unknown, but one can safely bet on its inevitability and brutality. As we sow, so shall we reap.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do learn are doomed to watch idiots and simpletons with reflexively violent reactions repeat it for them. It may well not be hyperbolic to state that in due time — if we persist in our actions — we may be looking back at this moment with nostalgia, with society as we know it collapsing around us.

God save us all.


David Katzevich ’16 enjoys learning from history, raising his fist in righteous indignation and shaking his head in futility. He can be reached at


A previous version of this column incorrectly referred to Iraq as a majority-Sunni nation. In fact, it is a majority-Shiite nation. The column also previously misstated the change in Iraq’s per-capita GDP during the Gulf War. The country’s per-capita GDP fell to about a fifth of pre-war size, not an eighth. The Herald regrets the errors.


  1. Indeed. And if Politico is correct, it appears as though Obama is willing even to join hands with other unsavoury groups in Syria. Apparently funding unsavoury groups has not taught successive American administrations that such activities tend to backfire. However, while the said administrations seem to lack an ability to learn from their mistakes, Obama’s recent decision to back more of the Syrian opposition is even more bizarre. As has been reported, weapons provided by the West (at least some of which went to other groups but were appropriated, by force or by payment) are now with ISIS. Considering how relevant that causal link is, you’d think someone very smart in the administration would have realised…

    Ultimately… I think shaking one’s head in futility is indeed the only thing left to do!

    The Politico piece:

  2. David, it is all America’s fault…
    In the last five years Muslim jihadists have killed 5,000 Buddhists in southern Thailand and that’s America’s fault too.
    How many Russians have been killed by Muslims in the past decade? How many children tortured and murdered in Beslan, Russia thanks to American Hubris?
    How many Chinese have been killed in NW China thanks to American arrogance?
    How many millions of Africans – Animists, Christians, AND black Muslims – by Muslims due to American policies?
    It is said that up to 70 million Hindus have been killed by Muslims over the last 1,100 years. No doubt this is also America’s doing. 🙂
    How many gays have been killed, women killed, Bahia, Zoroastrians, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Copts, Chaldeans by Muslims due to America?
    Mohammed and his men beheaded over 700 men in the village of Qurayza in the 7th century. Did you know this was also America’s fault?
    The common denominator here is Islam and its core tenets of jihad, supremacism and the calling for a worldwide caliphate but let’s ignore all that and blame America.

  3. Nucking Futs says:

    You’re right David, we should just leave them be and hope for the best. It’s worked out so well in the past.

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