Empathy with Evil

Seth Brake here, again.  Before I begin, I want to apologize for not posting in quite some time.  My life was consumed with an internship, travel, and several other things that I ranked as more important than blogging.

With that said, this was meant to be a tiny portion of a larger post, but recent events have spurred me to write it now.

Just days ago, the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State released a video recording the agonizing, tortuous death of one of their hostages.  The world is justly outraged.  This is just one item in a long litany of horrors committed by the IS, and quite frankly it is about time the world stirred.  But my object in writing is not to join the obviously justified rush to condemn the clear evil that is the Islamic State, it is to give a word of warning that may alarm some of you:

No matter what else we do, we cannot forget to empathize with the Islamic State.  

Let me first be clear about what I am decidedly not saying:

I am not saying we should agree with the Islamic State.  I am not saying we should help the Islamic State.  I am not excusing their evils.  This is a message of pure pragmatism.  If you do not understand someone you cannot beat them.

Regardless of your opinion on the matter, it is rather uncontroversial to say that we lost the war in Vietnam.  There are many reasons why this happened, lack of home support, bad strategies, susceptibility to deception, but the most significant problem that we faced was that we did not understand our enemy.  The Communism of Vietnam did not turn out to be the same as the Communism of the Soviet Union or China.  China and the Soviet Union did not turn out to be allies.  The Vietnamese saw us as colonial forces, not the pro-freedom force we thought we were.

(For an example, watch this clip from the documentary “Two Days in October” and listen to the Vietnamese soldier try and guess as to the causes of the war)

(The intended clip is at 42:40, the automatic skipping feature isn’t always working, you may have to skip to it)
The point is that when we don’t understand our enemy we don’t win.

In The Art of War Sun Tzu said:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.  If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.  If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”

We have made this mistake time after time in our recent wars.  In Iraq we were unpleasantly surprised that the Iraqi people did not love us like the Germans did in WWII.  In the aftermath of the Arab Spring we have been shocked that democracy doesn’t always lead to liberal parties.  If we go into a conflict with the Islamic State, and we do not view them for what they are, we will suffer disastrous defeat.

So what are we thinking about the Islamic State militants?

This woman tells us to be afraid, and then says that the war will not end until all Islamic State militants are killed.  “Bomb them, keep bombing them, bomb them again and again” is her solution, and it is shared by talking heads all across the media.

The crucial error here is that there is no talk whatsoever about why the Islamic State exists and how it grew so quickly.  If you want to fight mold, you look for water in your drywall.  There is no discussion of the fact that the only reason the Islamic State was able to conquer half of Iraq was that a substantial portion of the Iraqi Sunnis in the region thought that the Islamic State would be preferable to the Shia-dominated government that the US set up.  This is significant.  Not because it excuses the evils of the Islamic State, but because it tells us something about who they are and why they fight.

If the angry news anchor above, well meaning though she may be, were in charge of US foreign policy, I guarantee that we would lose the war.  You cannot fight an enemy with whom you cannot empathize.

In the Second World War, MacArthur tried to become one of the world’s foremost experts on Japanese culture.  Because of this, he was able to correctly predict their movements several times.  We need that kind of thinking at the front of a war with the Islamic State.

Empathy is the missing element in our foreign policy.  We must be able to put ourselves in the shoes of our friends, our enemies, and the vast majority in between.  For if we do not understand what they want and why they want it, we will never be able to win war, peace, diplomacy, or anything else.

Seth Brake


4 thoughts on “Empathy with Evil

  1. It seems like the best course would be to do both–viz, bomb their armies into oblivion, then hammer out a peace that prevents the conditions from arising that caused the war in the first place.
    The empathy needs to be there during the fighting, but I’m not sure how much we need to show it before the war ends.

  2. The empathy must be there when we are planning and fighting, because there is no realistic scenario where everyone who could be recruited by the IS is killed. We must understand what they want, the historical significance of why they wanted it, and several other things if we want to have a realistic chance of taking action that makes this and isolated incident. You can’t bomb a problem like the Islamic State away the same way you could Nazi Germany. We must understand them to stop them.

  3. I’m not saying that we bomb the problem away. My contention is that a certain amount of bombing will be required to bring ISIS to the negotiating table, and that this certain amount is probably “lots.” Then, at the negotiating table, unleash the empathy.

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