Do U.S. Civil War guerrillas have something to teach us about ISIS?
Do US Civil War guerrillas have something to teach us about ISIS today? I think they do, especially the means through which ISIS “soldiers” become radicalized. There are a few patterns that have emerged among violent radical Islamists that resemble the path through which young men in Civil War Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee became violent bushwhackers who violated every contemporary notion of civilized warfare.
First are the “declining status” fighters coming from the families of the fragile elites. Slaveholders’ sons who feared the loss of their livelihood took to the bush to destroy all vestiges of the new post-emancipation order. Frustrated ambitions were central to the rise of Al Qaeda, especially among those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia who found their own careers as professionals (often engineers) blocked by pro-US autocratic governments for one reason or another. Their manhood undercut and financial well-being undermined, they took to a radical and destructive movement that vowed total war on the system that humiliated them. Like many of Quantrill’s raiders, they often witnessed their own fathers (and other family members) being emasculated by either the forces of secular autocracy or klepto-global-capitalism.
With ISIS, however, we see a second kind of guerrilla that showed up quite commonly in Civil War Missouri and Tennessee- the petty criminal who desperately sought a sense of purpose in the destruction of all that corrupted him and his society.
These were the mostly nameless followers and toadies who rode with Bloody Bill Anderson and Quantrill. Champ Ferguson certainly fit the bill, though with a peculiarly sociopathic zeal. He was wanted for murder before the Civil War and joined a Confederate guerrilla band on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau despite his Unionist kinfolk. Why? So the charges against him in Fentress County (TN) court would eventually be dropped – or so he imagined. His list of potential tormentors and persecutors grew endlessly large, and he carried out his acts of murder with the sort of savagery we have seen from ISIS.
The latest ISIS terrorist who attacked the Berlin Christmas market, the Nice truck attacker, and many others who carry out solo acts of terrorism in the name of ISIS begin as similar standard (though often violent) criminals. Instead of accepting their just chastisement in prison, they seek revenge or a way to destroy the society that they feel is keeping them down. Descending into a nihilistic spiral of rage they find in the rhetoric of ISIS a cause with which to make themselves immortal. Who knows if they really believe in the ideology of ISIS or even Islam itself? What matters is that they want a vehicle of destruction through which they can avenge all of the “wrongs” and enact their apocalyptic rage.
What makes this phenomenon so troubling today is the connection to a global Islamist radical discourse, which is more powerful than any financial or military support from the so-called Islamic State. Hijacking a truck and crashing into a crowded market doesn’t take a lot of money or logistical support to pull off. Also vexing to modern counter-insurgents is the fractured nature of modern social media where the alienated and disillusioned can easily construct their own avatars of vengeance. To the petty gangster looking to destroy the social network from which he arose, social media provides all the “harboring” and “political support” he needs.
How can governments or even concerned citizens possibly keep tabs on the terrorist who seems, on the surface, to be a quiet and respectful fellow, but who is actually planning to kill all in his path? A blanket crackdown against all Muslims or refugees or foreigners is likely to miss the intended target, all the while humiliating thousands of others and creating new sources of alienated and emasculated young men for ISIS’s “war.”
There are myriad other lessons to learn along these lines. But we can start by viewing ISIS as a global guerrilla conflict and finding some lessons in earlier struggles against guerrillas.
Graphic by Yo (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons