[This book review was published in the Fall 2016 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 106-112.]
The Field of Fight: How to Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies
Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn and Michael Ledeen
St. Martin’s Press, 2016
As director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn was the United States’ top military intelligence officer until he was fired in 2014 for not putting the desired gloss on his testimony before a Congressional committee. Offense was taken when he opined that “we were not as safe as we had been a few years back.” Flynn is now more appreciated by presidential candidate Donald Trump, for whom he is said to be the chief military adviser. Indeed, he was prominently mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate. We can surmise that in addition to assigning value to Flynn’s experience in intelligence, Trump – himself quite a renegade – has seen in Flynn characteristics he finds appealing: independence and a desire to “tell it like it is,” a rejection of “political correctness” as an ideological straitjacket, and a skeptical attitude toward the elites that constitute the de facto government of the United States. In these things, Flynn and Trump are cut from the same cloth.
Readers are in for a surprise, however. What most cries out about this book is how much it reveals a sharp difference between how the two men would have the United States act toward other countries. Although their views may converge over time, Flynn and Trump voice two very different strategies. A great deal rides on which one is chosen.
In The Field of Fight, Flynn accepts the worldwide democratizing mission that has so long been central to the thinking of each side of the political spectrum in the United States. (This has been basic to both the Right’s “neo-conservatism” and the Left’s “foreign policy neo-liberalism.”) He writes that he “fervently believes” that “advancing freedom… is in our American national interest,” and goes on to say that “part of our national mission is to support democratic revolutionaries against their oppressors.” In common with the neos of both schools, he advocates sponsoring “regime change” in several countries. The preferred method has been through “color” or “velvet” revolutions that bring down regimes through “popular uprisings” such as the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine that overthrew the elected government there. As one example, Flynn favors American “ideological and information warfare” to “bring down the Iranian regime.” Other targets would presumably include “the tyrannical regime of… Assad” (in Syria), and the government of Vladimir Putin in Russia. He points to Russia’s “many aggressive actions” and refers several times to its membership in “the enemy alliance” that “hates the West.” (1)
This contrasts sharply with Trump’s views. Trump runs counter to the United States’ long-standing consensus when he holds that America should refrain from seeking to democratize the world or to cleanse it from its countless injustices. (2) He is at odds with it, too, when he argues that “regime change” has produced not democracy, but chaos, in the Middle East. (3) Trump would oppose Radical Islam with an energetic but nevertheless much more constrained strategy. (4) This would leave the other peoples of the world to run their own affairs, undertaking no crusade that would militate for an about-face in their religions or cultures. (This does not preclude “speaking out” against such a thing as “the horrible practice of honor killings, where women are murdered by their relatives for dressing, marrying or acting in a way that violates fundamentalist teachings.” From this, we can conclude that “letting other people run their own affairs” does not go so far as to command American silence.)
Far from seeing Russia as an inveterate enemy, he welcomes a friendly relationship with it. (5) The United States, he says, should vigorously punish and prevent attacks upon itself and its allies, but this is not the same thing as straining to rid the world of its monsters. (6) In addition, it is important to Trump that the United States strengthen itself and preserve its borders and national identity (just as he supposes Europe and all other non-Islamic peoples should).
It is worth pausing to think about the fateful direction world affairs may be taking. Much of the twentieth century was occupied by massive, existential struggles. If now the United States continues to throw down a gauntlet toward much of the rest of the world, another such struggle will grow and become increasingly virulent. In part, this can’t be escaped, since widespread jihadi terrorism will pose a major, long-term problem even if the United States takes Trump’s more non-interventionist course. The question is whether the struggle can be contained by essentially letting the other peoples be themselves, for good or for bad, except for such conflict as is made necessary to meet the jihadis’ own aggressions.
The differences in world strategy highlighted by this book are major, not minor. A number of thoughtful commentators have held, rightly in this reviewer’s opinion, that a global effort to remake an enormously complex world is presumptuous, dangerous, impossibly quixotic, and unspeakably expensive. Domestically, the effects of World War I, World War II, and the decades-long Cold War (including the hot wars in Korea and Vietnam) would have dismayed the American Founding Fathers, whose vision of a Republic of limited government has long since gone up in smoke. If now we add another decades-long existential conflict to those, the process will continue, exacerbated by the fact that the necessary internal surveillance will inescapably jeopardize everyone’s privacy and personal freedom. Jihadism, launching a series of attacks and in all likelihood building an internal fifth column, will inevitably go far toward making that internal surveillance imperative even if Trump’s more constrained strategy is pursued. The intimate surveillance will likely become a permanent feature of American society, though, if the United States continues on its path as an interventionist overseer of the world. One would be hard pressed to find any advocate of “liberty,” going back over the centuries, who would not have cringed at the prospect.
We have thought it best to start this review by pointing to the differences between Flynn and Trump about long-term strategies. In many ways, however, confronting Radical Islamic attacks will require the same operational features under either strategy. Although the book is not specific on many aspects, there is nevertheless a lot in The Field of Fight that speaks to what must be done quite separately from remaking the world. Among them: “Destroying the jihadi armies… Discrediting their ideology… Creating a new set of global alliances… (and) Challenging the regimes that support our enemies.” He calls for denying the jihadis safe havens, and writes that the United States must give countries that would house them a “brutal choice: either eliminate the Radical Islamists or you risk direct attack yourselves.” Flynn would have the United States assist those that cannot do that themselves.
Flynn’s background is in intelligence, so it isn’t surprising that he believes that operationalizing intelligence is “a critical component of how to destroy Radical Islam today.” We can readily understand why this is so in a conflict that is even more asymmetrical (often against lone-wolf individuals and sleeper cells) than it is a fight against conventional massed forces. Flynn is highly critical of those in the intelligence community who bend their reports to tell policy makers what they want to hear, stressing that a total commitment to truth is essential. (7) The intelligence operations in Iraq were excellent, he says, as are Israel’s.
There has been much controversy in the United States over what sort of interrogation is permissible, and Flynn doesn’t reveal his thoughts about that. We know, though, that Trump has said he will approve “waterboarding” and has hinted that more extreme measures may be used, pointing to how those measures, whatever they would be, would fall far short of the Islamic State’s beheadings and burnings-alive. (8)
There is much that The Field of Fight, a short book of just 193 pages, doesn’t discuss. Trump has said that as president he will destroy ISIS immediately, but when asked how he would do this consistently with his position that he will not use ground troops, he has answered that it is foolish to reveal military plans in advance. Flynn casts no further light on this, as we might expect he wouldn’t. Larger questions have to do with what sort of end-game the United States is to pursue in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do the demographics and sectarian differences allow Humpty-Dumpty to be put together in either country? Trump opposed invading Iraq in the first place, but has criticized the much later withdrawal that left a vacuum that was filled by ISIS. How can the United States get out of Iraq and Afghanistan without leaving precisely such a vacuum? Flynn writes as though “we could prevail” in those countries, but never says what “prevailing” would look like. If he has nation-building as the objective, he has a difficult argument to make that it is even possible. This reviewer had hoped the book would provide a clear-sighted analysis, which it doesn’t. This is not to say that anyone can expect simple answers.
A major subject that runs through the book has to do with the nature of Islam. Is Radical Islam something distinct from Islam in general? Flynn’s background at the top of military intelligence makes him an ideal person to address this question. From the totality of what he says, it would seem that jihadist militancy predominates within the Islamic swath, running from northwest Africa to the Philippines, but with a significant number of Islamic leaders who want co-existence with the non-Islamic world and with the mass of the population not definitely committed to one side or the other until it becomes clear which side is winning.
Why are we to think jihadist militancy predominates? Flynn observes that “Muslims want to apply Sharia law” and that “they want to impose a worldwide system based on their version of Sharia law.” He quotes from Laurent Murawiec’s The Mind of Jihad, where Murawiec writes about “the veneration of savagery, the cult of killing, the worship of death” and says “the highest religious authorities sanction or condone it, government authorities approve and organize it, intellectuals and the media praise them. From one end of the Muslim world to the other.” (9) Pointing to Islam’s historic fall from intellectual and cultural heights by a centuries-long “decline in Islamic culture,” Flynn asks “What went wrong?” and answers by saying “they banned the search for truth, proclaiming that it had been fully and finally revealed in the Koran.” He says it will require for Islam the equivalent of what the West went through with the Reformation: “a complete reformation of the Islamic religion.” He sees realistically that if this is to occur it “must start inside the Muslim community.” If this is so, it would be well for him to realize that no amount of “regime change,” “nation building” and proselytizing for democracy, imposed from outside Islam itself, will suffice.
Moderate Muslims do exist, Flynn says. “There were numerous Iraqi imams who rejected the revolutionary doctrines of the insurgents. Chief among them was the most important Shi’ite religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.” Further: “There are plenty of Islamic religious leaders who, like Sistani, detest the radical jihadis.” He mentions “a global Muslim Reform Movement.” We find there is a significant opening within Islam’s doctrinal history when Flynn tells us that “traditional Shi’ite doctrine” held that “civil society must not be governed by clerics until the return of the ‘Vanished Imam,’ whose reappearance would usher in the millennium.” Governments in some Islamic countries have pressed for moderation: In Singapore, “the government’s goal is to get the Muslim community on record that it’s quite all right for pious Muslims to live in a secular state….” He says Indonesia is following a similar course, and that “half a dozen countries have banned headscarves.” In the United States, “there are many American Muslims who have spoken out against the advance of Radical Islam,” but they “are predictably singled out by the Islamic radicals.”
There is much that Flynn does not address about all this. Readers are given no information about the relative weight of these forces. Are the “moderates,” say, a major segment within countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, or are they just a “cry in the wilderness” in a milieu awash in Sharia and brutal militancy? Is there a form of Sharia that is compatible with non-Islamic values? And other than what we have just quoted about American Muslims, readers come away with no real feel for what the situation is within the growing American Muslim population. What, for example, is the tone within the mosques that are popping up throughout the United States? To most Americans, the mosques are as impervious as black holes are to astronomers. The same questions must be asked about the years-long Muslim influx into Europe. They are vitally important questions for the future of Western civilization. So we see that The Field of Fight is far from a complete analysis of Islam and of what must be done to combat its encroachments.
What about the Muslim “masses”? Flynn quotes an observation about “hundreds of millions of Muslims, the ocean in which jihadists comfortably swim.” But he leaves the door open about their current alignment, and to the possibility of their casting their lot with the moderates, when he writes that “if the Muslim masses can’t get any support from the United States, they will eventually throw in with the jihadis” [our emphasis]. This is a generalized application of his view that in Iraq and Afghanistan most people just want to live their lives in a way least touched by the conflict, and will “choose their side once they decide who the winners-to-be are.” The decision, he says, is made locally “by tribes, clans, and networks.” In conducting wars where the indigenous population is the ultimately deciding factor, it is essential to “immerse ourselves in the society.” Although this may be essential in more localized contexts such as Iraq and Afghanistan, it is questionable how much it can be applied to the vast reaches of the Islamic swath. And it is fair to ask how ready large numbers of people will be to give up such culturally and religiously engrained practices as, say, fatwas and honor killings. It can’t be imagined that there will be anything other than great reluctance to swing to a more secular, virtually Westernized, form of Islam.
Michael Ledeen is a co-author with Gen. Flynn, and is himself the author (or in one case co-author) of four other books on Iran and Radical Islam. The Field of Fight is, however, written in the first person, with Flynn as the speaker. The book’s title is said to come from Homer, but no quote from Homer is given. A Google search tells us it comes from Book XX of The Iliad, where the line appears “Cease then: our bus’ness in the Field of Fight is not to question, but to prove our might.”
Dwight D. Murphey
1. Flynn may think that it is self-evident that Russia remains an enemy of the United States just as the Soviet Union was, but readers who don’t assume this as a given would find some elaboration by him helpful. He doesn’t give it.
2. In his foreign policy speech in Youngstown, Ohio, on August 15, 2016, Trump said that “President Obama and Hillary Clinton should never have attempted to build Democracy in Libya, to push for immediate regime change in Syria or to support the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt.”
3. Also in the Youngstown address: “Our current strategy of nation-building and regime change is a proven failure. We have created vacuums that allow terrorists to grow and thrive.”
4. “Our new approach… must be to halt the spread of Radical Islam.”
5. “I believe that we could find common ground with Russia in the fight against ISIS. They too have much at stake in the outcome in Syria, and have had their own battles with Islamic terrorism.”
6. The statement by President John Quincy Adams in 1826 that America should be an example to the world but should not go abroad in search of “monsters to destroy” has recently been recounted many times. Adams’ principle was the mainstream of American policy until 1898. Trump would recur to that tradition.
7. It isn’t just a matter of intelligence professionals bending the truth. Flynn sees it as a broader, long-term political problem. “Our political leaders insist that the war is going well, and the scores of professional analysts who know better are being censored… The censorship isn’t new; it has been going on for years.”
8. It will surprise many Americans to know that the American army made frequent use of waterboarding in its war in the Philippines at the beginning of the twentieth century. See Gregg Jones, Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream (New York: New American Library, 2012), p. 2. Waterboarding was then called “the water cure,” was used by both the Americans and the Filipinos, and had its origins in the Spanish Inquisition.
9. Lest this reviewer thinks any of this is an overstatement, he reminds himself that one of his friends, a brilliant student from Bangladesh, has long been under a fatwa sentencing him to death for having converted from Islam to Episcopalianism, and of how two very likeable young business professors from Iran calmly told him over lunch that it was all right to kill a Baha’i on the street.