‘Big History’ is all the go at the moment. This is a relatively new way of attempting to explain what’s occurring today by searching for deeper trends that are shaping events. Its popularity’s understandable—particularly when we’re confronted by a world that we can’t explain using the old ways.
The rise of ISIL, for example, seems to be a classic instance of an almost elemental force. A century ago, we might have attempted to explain its rise using the ‘great man’ theory. However unlikely a candidate, we might have tried to suggest that al-Baghdadi, ISIL’s leader, possessed unique abilities and charisma. That’s the way some explained the rise of Hitler, although in that case the thesis was challenged—some say demolished—by others as different as the polymath Herbert Spencer and the novelist Leo Tolstoy. Spencer approached the idea from a biological perspective; Tolstoy by harnessing elemental ideas about the nature of people and ‘Mother Russia’. They would have pointed to the economic chaos of the Weimar republic, giving it a central role in interpreting how Hitler came to power. They effectively destroyed the idea that leaders are anything other than the products of their societies.
Nevertheless as individuals we love a story and, as every journalist knows, wrapping events around people allows a narrative structure to take over. It makes for a better story. It’s also the way most of us, unconsciously, perceive the world. Take John Howard, for instance. It’s so easy to attribute the coalition’s longevity in office to his remarkable political skills. After all, he became the second-longest prime minister and undoubtedly does have outstanding abilities. Nevertheless hagiography’s inevitable, and so we brush aside other realities—such as that Howard was lucky to form a government in 1998, even though he lost the popular vote; that six months before the 2001 election he was trailing badly in the polls; and that in 2004 he was fortunate his opponent was Mark Latham. It’s easy to imagine how minor changes might have re-written events. And how much was the 2007 result to do with Kevin Rudd’s genius, and how much simply because of the ‘it’s time’ factor?
Big History, on the other hand, focuses on broader themes, searching for patterns. That’s what makes Peter Leahy’s new ASPI study Another century, another long war so interesting. He erects a framework that allows us to isolate the real issues driving events and place them into perspective. This establishes a context that’ll be critical because it’s the way we understand the world. Importantly, he categorically states that any solution to the current situation ‘must come from within the Muslim world’. Even more importantly, Leahy emphasises that we need to re-conceive ‘victory’. ‘It might only be partial; we might only limit, but not eliminate, terror and radical Islamism and its damage to secular societies. The focus should be on…the commitment of resources over an extended period.’
That isn’t, of course, the sort of thing a journalist wants to hear. Once a problem has been identified we want it solved—at once. So do most people. Anything else seems lazy. When Tony Abbott declared we were getting involved in the struggle to degrade ISIL, news organisations immediately demanded action, preferably things that could be reported with TV cameras. The politicians gave every indication they’d accede to our expectations. Troops were dispatched from Australia and journalists hopped on planes eager to cover the clash. That’s why I’m in the Middle East now.
Except that we’ve been disappointed. That’s because we didn’t understand the nature of this campaign. We got two things wrong. Firstly, we in the media built ISIL up into a terrifying monolith. But that was because journalists didn’t really understand what sort of organisation it is. After all, it had kidnapped and killed any reporter who was captured and the organisation had emerged, seemingly unstoppable, from nowhere. It now turns out that ISIL may be far more fragile than first thought.
It seems, for example, that just a single, carefully-targeted US bomb was enough to effectively blunt the insurgency in the north. Although only a small number of insurgents in Kobane were killed in that specific attack, they included the most fanatical of the fighters, together with a number of their leaders. They had been meeting in a particular building that was targeted with the assistance of US special forces. This one attack seems to have changed the dynamic of the fight. ISIL brought up replacements, but those weren’t nearly as effective and, as a result, the insurgents have been forced to fall back.
Their big tactical advantage, vehicles equipped with heavy machine-guns can no longer move in the open. If they do, they’ll be destroyed from above. ISIL lacks the mobile firepower necessary to dominate the battlefield. In another area west of Bagdad about 500 Iraqi soldiers have been clinging to defensive positions for weeks. Their situation is dire, but the key point is they haven’t collapsed and now they’ve got support from the air.
The military’s actually meeting the demands of the battlefield well. The only thing it’s not doing is pandering to the media and political demands to put Aussie boots on the ground.
No matter how you frame the answer to the bigger problem of the Middle East, you need to begin with a tactical solution. The West is doing this—just not as quickly and decisively as some of us might like.
Nicholas Stuart is embedded with the Australian Forces in the Middle East Area of Operations. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.