Child Psychology, Iraq, ISIS, Tipping Point, Holy Grail

The terrible army of ISIS is not composed of children, but, composed of criminals, teenagers, and sociopaths, shares some of the attributes of such.

When captured, the terroists of Al Qaeada, and by extension, ISIS, tend to talk. See the NY Times article, “Some Captured Terrorists Talk Willingly and Proudly, Investigators Say.” Contrast this with the behavior of the typical well-trained Soviet spy, with the Rosenbergs, the “atomic spies” as a particular example, who refused to confess to save their lives, or the song of Kevin Barry.

One could argue that that this willingness to talk is due to the lack of “resistance training”, but, quoting the Times,

“They want to boast, particularly if they have ever done something to harm ‘the infidel,’ ” said David Raskin, a former chief of the terrorism unit in the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan. “But just being an enemy of the United States is something they’re very proud of and anxious to talk about.”

So it has the elements of the taunt, which has a long history in warfare, going back to Homer. But the taunt of Homer’s warrior was a form of psychological warfare, intended to unhinge the opponent. The taunt of the captured terrorist is something else: lacking external efficacy, it is no more than a psychological prop to the prisoner.

Now let’s look at the behavior of Iraqi troops following the recapture of the town of (Reuters) Jurf al-Sakhar, in the account given in the Reuters article, “After victory in key Iraqi town, time for revenge.” Several behaviors are described:

  • Execution of prisoners, not unknown in well trained armies (See Commando Order.)
  • Noisy, demonstrative celebration.
  • At a point where, the battle concluded, the need for personal risk taking had abated, the militia continued with in risky behavior in their celebrations. Quoting, ““Run to the ditch. Mortars. Mortars,” yelled a militiaman. An army officer shouted at local militia leaders, berating them for advancing too fast, before helicopters had wiped out any pockets of resistance.

The celebration was paid for with lives.  One would think that at least some of the participants had some prior relevant experience. Had  none of them been warned, “Keep your head down”, or does something impel this noisy, dangerous outburst at the end of an event where success should be its own reward?

A CNN article, ISIS prisoners reveal life inside terror group, contains interviews of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurds. Although the statements of the prisoners cannot be taken as fact, they are valuable  even as creative lies. Creativity is not the mark of a terrorist mind, so the statements are a view of the mental landscape, constructed, at the very least, from what they were told by, or experienced by, others.

There is a classic question to put to a veteran: Why did you fight? What made you keep on?  It may be hard to just get up and leave, but there are many ways to shirk. As late as World War I, the French Army had a roving echelon to execute soldiers who attempted to leave the line. In World War 1, the British executed 304 men for desertion.  But in the 20th Century, just one U.S. Army soldier suffered this fate, Eddie Slovik.

The veteran answers, “You fight for your buddy.” The buddy system is explained to the soldier as to his advantage, because two heads are more than their sum. They are told to look out for each other. What they don’t know, but only experience, is that they become friends. If your buddy is a casualty, your fury becomes that of an animal, which makes you better at what was merely the business of killing.

After your buddy, you fight for your unit, your country, your flag, but these are increasingly abstract conceptions of “duty”. They are important nonetheless, because they comprise motivations that are contained totally within the self. They rely on a mental landscape hospitable to indoctrination by time proven techniques of military training.

Absent a sense of nationhood, the same techniques of military training applied to the Iraqi Army did not achieve the result of effective internal motivation. The buddy system, if applicable at all, failed to amplify the effectiveness of the individual soldier. The Iraqi Army is actually less effective than the militias and the terrorists, which employ a completely different motivational system.

Even though most of the combatants are not literally children, the concepts of child psychology are useful here, explaining much:

  • When battle interferes with the coherence of a unit, the absence of internal motivation results in cut-and-run behavior. In Western armies, where training has produced internal motivation, units are much less likely to cut and run.
  • The weakness of the abstractions of “duty” result in dereliction at the level of an army.
  • Motivation in these units is external, not internal, requiring constant reinforcement by group contact, celebration, and incentivization.
  • Emotion, the importance of which for an army cannot be underestimated, swings wildly between irrational exuberance and complete disintegration.

In sum,  the units of the combatants on both sides behave like the peer groups of child psychology. The stories from both sides are not identical, but congruent: imaginative, dependent on external reinforcement, crumbling either as the individual prisoner or the incoherent unit. Strictly for prediction, it may be useful to imagine the combatants as composed entirely of children with guns. The canny image of ISIS leaders is sharply undercut by the fantasy of an air force of three jet fighters abandoned by the Syrian Air Force.

Put into the fewest possible words, with an implied reference of Western culture, the combatants exhibit labile affect. This is a useful result. It implies that, when the tipping point occurs, the collapse of ISIS, as an organized entity, will be as rapid as their ascent.

The provision of force adequate to produce the tipping point may have occurred. Providing political insight,  movements tell more than battles. The arrival of 150 to 200 Iraqi Kurds in Kobani, previously sanctioned by Erdoğan, and also, “between 50 and 200 Free Syrian Army rebels“, seems to signal a relaxation of the former preconditions of the U.S. and Turkey on the application of force. In touching regard for the corpse of the Iraqi state, the U.S. had declined to arm the Kurds, with this notable reversal of the policy. Erdoğan has acquiesced to or achieved an abandonment of domestic policy towards the Kurds and the foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors.”

The aspect of child psychology called “peer rivalry” suggests that arming the Kurds will have a salutory effect on Iraqi military performance. It works like this. In the mind of the child, it is more acceptable to flee the bully than it is to allow a peer to excel. If you’re not convinced, then simply imagine the Iraqi Army as Gore Vidal, who said,Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

But this will not be the happy ending, as ISIS will continue as an insurgency, the ending of which would be the Holy Grail.