I think that, in general, militants and revolutionaries come in three types:
- Idealistic, intelligent men (no theoretical bar to women, but typically men), usually educated and from the middle or upper classes, dedicated to the achievement of their ideals, with some idea how to achieve them, and willing to sacrifice for them. The ideals are not always good–think Mao–but these folks know what they’re doing.
- Mercenary types clever enough to attain power, but not interested in any higher principle. Saddam Hussein comes to mind. The revolution ends when the leader is able to use tax money to build himself an art collection, or some palaces. The best you can say is that this type knows not to kill the goose who’s laying the golden eggs. They’ll keep their country together enough to continue sucking the lifeblood out of it.
- Violent, desperate men who have no particular skill beyond sudden, spastic outbursts of cruelty. At this they may be very skilled–they live from murder to murder, gaining momentum from the chaos they make–but, when and if they win, they have no idea what to do with their victory.
It’s safe to say that the men of the Islamic State are largely of the third type, though they’d say they’re the first. It’s quite clear that they’re a fierce military opponent, battle-hardened and audacious. It’s much less clear how exactly they intend to rule whatever blood-soaked wasteland remains after they have finished wiping out all the undesirables from their turf. Presumptively oil money would be involved, but who would they sell to? They’ve made enemies of every surrounding state, if not most of the world. And by the time they stabilize and gain control over the region, there’s no telling where the oil market will be. Alternative energy is expanding even more aggressively than they are, and they’re not going to put the Mesopotamian Humpty-Dumpty back together any time soon. Certainly not while we’re dropping bombs on them.
And yet, I hear they’re confidently tweeting about raising the black flag of jihad over the White House.
It’s tempting to laugh at their hubris; I don’t believe these men could successfully manage an Applebee’s, let alone a modern nation-state recovering from years of brutal war. But they’re far from unique. It’s every revolutionary’s privilege not to bother over the peace until he’s won the war. Or, to put it another way, you don’t have to trouble about what you’re for, provided you’re clear enough about who you’re against. Either way, if the war keeps going, and going, and going, why, you’ll never have to stop and think!
That’s how we got our current mess in Iraq, after all, though W. and company were never revolutionaries. They simply didn’t think to acquaint themselves with the country and society they were supposed to reassemble after the shooting stopped. Which was inconvenient, since the shooting stopped rather quickly (before starting again).
It’s how the communists got millions of people to fight for years for a beautiful future they never quite got around to laying out clearly; Marx and Engels were too busy damning capitalism to bother over a coherent alternative. There’s this lovely bit where they describe, with a straight face, how a man could change his profession from day to day, as he pleased, and still have a functional society. With a goal like that, is it any wonder that the reality was so horrible?
It’s how our own American revolutionaries beat back the British for their right to self-governance, under the guidance of a profoundly dysfunctional government that couldn’t even levy taxes. We didn’t have to make our principles workable until we were done fighting for them. Though it would have helped; the war lasted far longer than it needed to because the Continental Congress was reluctant to form a standing army, and its habit of endlessly printing money caused terrible inflation.
I’m not sure if this is something Americans, or moderns, are especially vulnerable to, but I know we all do it, albeit on a more conceptual level. We’ve been raised to fight for our dreams. But fighting is the easy part.