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A nation must think before it acts.
Michael Flynn and Michael Ledeen. The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and its Allies. New York: St. Martin’s, 2016. Hardback 208pp. $26.99
When Michael Flynn (with Michael Ledeen assisting) published The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam some months before the November 2016 election, hardly anyone noticed or cared. No mainstream publication reviewed the book, and media depiction of Flynn focused on his being relieved of his duties as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) about a year short of normal tenure, and of his afterward cavorting around with RT and accepting money for varying unspecified services rendered. After Donald Trump’s securing of the Republican nomination, with Flynn noted as a close associate, media reports indicated that Flynn was not much liked at DIA, that he invented so-called Flynn Facts and pressured staff to validate them, and that he otherwise behaved in a highhanded and narrow-minded manner with peers.
It could be, too, that sooner rather than later no one will care what The Field of Fight says because Flynn’s tenure as National Security Advisor (NSA) may end even sooner than did his DIA tenure. Secretary of Defense James Mattis appears not to care for Flynn’s manner, various reports from a leaky ship of state have indicated that Flynn’s non-collegial and military-heavy manner of assembling the National Security Council staff is displeasing other senior White House aides, and his pre-inauguration discussions with the Russian Ambassador, Sergei Kislayak, about sanctions (and who knows what else) seem a clear violation of the Logan Act and may invite legal clouds that this Administration, perhaps above all others, hardly lacks in excess already. The Kislayak business, many believe, also suggests that Flynn may be a security risk. And this is not to speak of the embarrassment Flynn’s son caused by claiming that a rather good pizza joint here in Washington was the site of an undercover child porn ring masterminded by none other than Hillary Clinton.
In normal times, this kind of thing would get someone sacked in a few dozen seconds, but these are not normal times. Besides, other cases of fairly short-tenured NSAs at the start of an Administration exist: think Richard Allen in 1981, or Jim Jones in 2009. Allen and Jones lasted a bit less than and a bit more than a year, respectively; Flynn looks to set a new record—perhaps less than three months. After reading Field of Fight—a book we have to care about as long as Flynn is NSA—I certainly hope so.
The Field of Fight is structured as four fairly short chapters, each one revealing of the man and his thoughts. The former two, “The Making of an Intel Officer” and “War Fighting,” show us the origins of Flynn’s thinking, and latter two, “The Enemy Alliance” and “How to Win,” show us the results of his thinking. (Insofar as Michael Ledeen shaped the book, he did so most probably in the latter part.)
“The Making of an Intel Officer” takes us from cradle to criminality to reform school to prodigal son to college dropout to the U.S. Army. The essence of Flynn’s storytelling here is critical for understanding his self-image: He is the maverick, the out-of-the-box guy, the guy whose reprobate past allows him like no other to penetrate the sick and immoral mind of Radical Islam (always capitalized). Flynn is keenly proud of his loner heroism, always bucking the hidebound military brass, rising to the rank of three-star general by breaking rather than following rules. We are regaled with Flynn’s lifesaving heroism in Grenada, and enough additional self-puffery to choke a water buffalo.
Is what he says in these stories actually true? It’s impossible for me to know; there may well be a core of truth in all these stories. But the impression left is that of the making of a megalomaniacal fabulist—someone whose deep and deserved insecurities lead him to daydreams of revenge, victory, and adulation that ultimately displace his grounded sense of reality. If so, it’s easy to see why Donald Trump took to Flynn: Given the nature of the condition, it takes one to (not) know another one.
“War Fighting” picks up the chronological narrative, setting itself mainly in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan. Reading a book like The Field of Fight one struggles, if one is fair-minded, to seek out insight and analytical accuracy; there is little of former to be found, but there is some of the latter. The fact is that back in the autumn of 2001, the Big Army had yet to climb very high along the learning curve from the Fulda Gap to counterinsurgency, and the discouraging consequences were there for anyone pretty much to see. Flynn noticed, such that there are sentences here and there in chapter two that bear no errors. The problem is that, his intimations notwithstanding, the content of these sentences are not unique to Flynn.
Similarly, during the decade or so between Flynn’s experience in war and his elevation to be DIA Director, a confluence of sorts between battlefield need and technological developments enabled a veritable tactical revolution in counterinsurgency practice. The loop between acquiring actionable intelligence, evaluating it, and spraying it out to warfighters, got tighter and faster by orders of magnitude. Flynn, however, seems to think, or imply, that he alone was responsible for making this happen, along with his hero Stanley McChrystal. If asked about this, he would surely back off that claim; this is what fabulists who have yet to descend all the way down the rabbit hole usually do when reality intrudes. But that’s not how the chapter reads.
This tightening and accelerating of the intel-warfighting loop represent an important development, to be sure. But Flynn seems to think that this is all we needed to win these wars, especially in Afghanistan (he claims to have been against the Iraq War…. just like Donald Trump). Even within the confines of counterinsurgency, however, that’s not the case. Flynn gives some evidence that he understands this; he knows that it’s not enough to kill bad guys, but that we also need to stabilize the broader social situation to enable the development of local government functionality and legitimacy. But the level just above that—the strategic or structural level—seems a total stranger to Flynn. So in the case of Afghanistan, for example, he never addresses the fit between the highly centralized structure of the Afghan political system ordained by the Bonn conference on the one hand and the realities of Afghan tribalism and geography on the other. He gives no indication that he, unlike Secretary Mattis, knows how to think about strategic issues at that level, making him, again, a perfect fit for President Trump’s White House. So he thinks that the problem is that we did not stay long enough in large enough numbers to see the fight through to victory, and he blames that (and much else) on Barack Obama.
It’s from chapter 3, however, “The Enemy Alliance,” that the “nightmare” of this review essay’s title derives. Flynn’s inability to think conceptually beyond a certain rudimentary level inclines him to become a conflationist—and so he is. He tells the reader that Salafi-jihadi groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are part of “a working coalition that extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.” (76) (Congratulations, Bolivia, for finally being taken seriously by someone!)
He knows that there is a difference between Sunni and Shi’i Islam, he knows that most of the members of his enemy alliance are not Muslim countries, and he even knows that some members of the enemy alliance—Russia and China—have radical Muslim problems of their own inside their borders. But he nevertheless finds ways to explain away these differences in order to preserve his conflationary threat. One way he does this is to claim that all totalitarian regimes have an elemental anti-democratic ethos so strongly in common, aimed ineluctably against the United States, that this aspect of ideology overrides all else. So “it was only to be expected that their [ISIS’] Sharia-based Caliphate would resemble the Soviet bloc. Thus, religious fanatics and secular tyrants work quite well together.” (100)
Of course we’ve seen this sort of thing before, when an ideology-dominated mode of thought (a variety of the Enlightenment-abetted rationalist fallacy) drives all nuance, all consideration of social and political complexity, to the margins. And sometimes this mode has affected not just sketchy characters like Flynn but nearly a whole-of-government approach: the monolithic Communism delusion of the early post-World War II era that gave us Joseph McCarthy, led James Forrestal to jump from a very high floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, and, more important, blinded us for years to Yugoslav autonomy and Sino-Soviet enmity and, thereby, helped get the United States stuck in the Big Muddy of Vietnam. The basic rule abides: the less one knows about a given situation, or the greater the emotional drive to preserve foundational convictions voids considerations of complexity and discrepant evidence, the greater the impulse to conflation; conversely, the more one knows, and the more rational deliberation trumps emotional indulgence, the greater the impulse to seek out distinctions.
Flynn’s insistence on the monadic nature of the enemy alliance forces him into all sorts of analytical weirdness. Some of this weirdness is interpretive in nature; some of it depends on the aforementioned Flynn Facts. It’s true, for example, that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi spent time plotting in Iran, and that senior al-Qaeda figures ended up there after 9/11, too. U.S. intelligence never dismissed the likelihood that Iran saw some tactical utility in pointing these fanatics against a common enemy: U.S. forces in the region. But U.S. intelligence concluded that the facts pointed to a limited liaison that amounted, in most cases, to house arrest. Flynn instead sees collusion and alliance at the highest level.
And yes, North Korea and Iran (and Syria) have cooperated over the years sub rosa on missile developments and even tunneling technology. The fact that such cooperation ran against U.S. interests may have competed with the raw commercial incentives involved in these transactions. But Flynn sees all this as evidence of what amounts to a tightly knit conspiracy to oppose and ultimately destroy American power.
The selectively of Flynn’s “facts” shows in sins of commission and omission alike. So, for example, he claims that in 1979, after the Iranian Revolution, “Iranian-supported ‘pilgrims’ on the Hajj in Mecca occupied the Grand Mosque.” He adds that the incident was important because this incident marked “the first appearance of the name Bin Laden in conjunction with a terrorist attack.” (80) Of course, the attack and temporary occupation of the Grand Mosque had nothing to do with Iranian pilgrims, and the attackers were not Shi’a.
Another example: Flynn writes that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards “were trained and organized in the early 1970s by Yasser Arafat’s (Sunni) Fatah.” (82) How to even begin to parse this nonsense? There was no IRGC in the early 1970s. Some Iranians did train with PLO fighters in the mid-1970s amid the terrorist international training camps in Lebanon, including some people important in revolutionary circles. But that had nothing to do with the IRGC when it formed later, and no Iranian expert knows of any hint that those Iranians acquired serious military skills or even saw combat. Might Khomeini’s personal guard have included some such people? Maybe: Early revolutionary days in Iran were deep into paranoia and anyone with PLO experience would have carried some prestige. But there is no evidence one way or another, and if Flynn has some he chose not to share it.
At one point, too, Flynn claims that not all Kurds are Muslims. (138) This is true as spoken but wrong as intended. Before the advent of Islam, some Kurds were attracted by Christian doctrines as they understood them, and Yazidi syncretism seems to derive in part from that episode. And there has been some very recent Christian evangelism among the Kurds that has created a community of around 500 people. A vast majority of Kurds are Muslims; so what Flynn thinks he is talking about has to remain a mystery.
Later, he writes, “Jordan has long been the one Arab country to really make peace with Israel, and Egypt has joined their ranks.” (178) But the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty came in 1979, the Israeli-Jordanian treaty in 1984.
A sin of commission? It’s about the size of the proverbial 600-pound gorilla in the living room. Sectarian bloodletting and intrigue abound in the region, from Yemen to Bahrain by way of al-Hasa province in Saudi Arabia, not to speak of Syria and Iraq. How does Flynn square these realities with his mega-conflation of enemy alliance at war against the United States? He doesn’t; he never mentions it.
How many of Flynn’s sins of commission and omission are there in chapter 3? I counted to forty before I gave up on the idea of mentioning them all. But one more deserves note.
Flynn admits that Islam and Islamism are not the same, and even that Muslim-majority societies have suffered most from Islamist enormities. But then, as with the sectarian divide, he proceeds to write as if he cannot keep the distinction in mind any longer than it takes him to start writing his next sentence. The examples are legion, even in a short chapter, viz.:
People need to grasp that Radical Islam is not primarily about religion—it is about politics. Sharia is the basic legal system derived from the religious precepts of Islam, mainly the Koran and the hadiths. . . . [I]n its strictest definition, Sharia is considered the infallible law of God. They want to impose a worldwide system of Sharia law (sic) that denies freedom of conscience, choices, and liberties. . . . I firmly believe Radical Islam is a tribal cult and must be crushed. . . . Sharia is a violent law that is buried in barbaric convictions. (109-10)
Of course, this is wild: to claim that “Radical Islam” is about politics and then immediately segue into a (dubious) discussion of religion that is common to all traditional and pious Muslims; and, if that were not enough, to toss in a reference to something “tribal,” which is a social-anthropological category term. The inability of secular Westerners to distinguish ideology from theology is a separate problem, but Flynn’s approach mashes theology and social structure together to get what he calls ideology. This is very strange.
We learn in the final chapter, “How to Win,” that we are in a very big war, that we are losing, and that the problem is fully existential. This follows from Flynn’s conflation as to who the enemy is. Again, he flails are a few distinctions, but he misses. So Radical Islam isn’t the same as normal Islam, but:
Not only have Muslim countries kept many of their citizens in a state of ignorance of the basic facts of the modern world, they have isolated half the population—the women—from real participation in society. This is not just a matter of social practice, by which women are kept from the educational system, forbidden to work in a mixed environment, forbidden to leave their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative, and subjected to unprecedented levels of sexual violence. Their inferiority is codified in the legal system. (128)
Flynn quotes Andy McCarthy, the lead prosecutor in the case against the “Blind Sheikh” who inspired and helped organize the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, saying: “Islamic supremacism is not merely the creed of outlier ‘violent extremists,’ but of hundreds of millions of Muslims, the ocean in which jihadists comfortably swim.” He then concludes: “We can’t win this war by treating Radical Islamist terrorists as a handful of crazies and dealing with them as a policing issue.” (131).
So here we have two massive conflations rolled into one. Flynn’s description of “Muslim countries” fits some but hardly most Muslim countries. One wonders, for example, if he knows anything about Tunisia, or even Jordan for that matter. And if our problem is really “hundreds of millions” of Islamic supremacists, then that seems to suggest that, indeed, nearly all Muslims are our enemies. Perhaps this is why he refers to the “ancient precepts of Radical Islam,” (164) a phrase that otherwise is difficult to parse unless one grasps the scale of Flynn’s focus. The Radical Islamists, “ he writes,
represent a failed civilization. . . . They banned the search for truth, proclaiming that it had been fully and finally revealed in the Koran. It’s impossible—in fact it’s heretical—to innovate when you are required to believe that all truth is embodied in a seventh-century text. . . . A full 20 percent of Arabs are illiterate, and many of those who can read have been taught in religious schools, the infamous madrassas, where their learning consists of repetition and memorization of the Koran. (128)
Never mind the speckles of truth in this statement, which takes something of an expert to find amid the garbled conflations here. The point is that this way of thinking presupposes that we are locked in a massive civilization war. Hence logically, Flynn concludes that what’s needed is a radical and thoroughgoing reformation of Islam and Islamic society worldwide. “It’s not just a matter of changing local leaders; we want to change the whole system as we used to do.” (139)
Can we do this? Here is Flynn’s answer: “Although it is a pipedream or a president’s ‘willful ignorance’ to believe we can bring full democracy to this region in the near future, we could certainly bring order.” (140) The idea that the United States can “certainly bring order” to the convulsive mayhem of the Arab world and beyond—Flynn insists several times over that Iran and Russia are at the heart of the enemy coalition—is truly a breathtaking assertion, one that suggests close to no understanding of the actual sources of the tumult the region now faces.
Let me close my description of The Field of Fight by conveying Flynn’s conception of what is really at stake in this “grave crisis.” His words do that better than mine ever could:
On November 28, 1971, the Jordanian prime minister was shot to death by PLO assassins in a Cairo hotel. As he lay dying, “one of his killers bent over and lapped the blood that poured from his wounds.” . . . Do you want to be ruled by men who eagerly drink the blood of their dying enemies? Such questions are almost never asked. Yet if you read the publicly available ISIS documents on their intentions, there’s no doubt that they are dead set on taking us over and drinking our blood. . . What will our lives be like if we lose this war? It’s actually a very easy question to answer: we’d live the way the unfortunate residents of the “caliphate” or the oppressed citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran live today, in a totalitarian state under the dictates of the most rigid version of Sharia. A Russian KGB or Nazi SS-like state where the citizens spy on one another, and the regime doles out death or lesser punishment to those judged insufficiently loyal.
Never mind that Wasfi al-Tal (not named by Flynn) was murdered by a Palestinian nationalist and not an Islamist, and never mind if this tale of blood drinking is actually true. Focus instead on the claim that radical Islamists could conquer the United States and impose Sharia law on a continental-scale nation of more than 325 million people. Exactly how they would manage to do that Flynn never addresses. But to stop them we have to “change the whole system as we used to do,” presumably in the course of “certainly” bringing order to the region.
Radical Islam is indeed a problem, and it is true that support for the way that radical Salafi Muslims think is not limited to a tiny number of extremists. But Michael Flynn, in wanting to launch a transformational civilizational struggle against hundreds of millions of Muslims, frightens me a lot more than the threat of radical Islam.
Only one matter is left to examine. How did someone as wild-eyed and ignorant of the Middle East and Islam as Michael Flynn get to be a three-star general and end up as head of DIA in the first place? The short answer is that the status of Special Operations Forces troops has risen sharply over the past 15 years as a result of 9/11 and the wars the U.S. government chose to fight thereafter. The intelligence craft needed to and did shift in relation to that change, so that people like Flynn, who proved good at some element of the new system, got pulled along and up with the elevation of the Special Operations Forces function.
In a way this was inevitable, but there are some implications that are not widely appreciated. Talk to a few garden-variety Marine colonels who have served in the counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan over half a dozen or so craft brewskis, and they will tell you that sometimes the Special Ops guys will roll into a piece of the theater, “go out” at night and whack a bad guy or three because they’ve got actionable intel, and then leave the next morning to let the Marines sort out the aftermath—which can be vastly more complicated in the context of stabilization efforts than the drive-by guys know or care about. Nor need they be masters of larger strategic questions to do their jobs efficiently. The Special Ops units need to move quickly, quietly, and without sharing most of what they know or plan to do for fear of delay and leaks.
This is the world of mental habit that Michael Flynn brings to the job of the National Security Advisor—a job that puts a premium on coordinating the work of large organizations, sharing relevant information in a collegial manner, and generating and deliberating over options for the consideration of the President. It is hard to think of a worse fit. So why did President Trump choose Michael Flynn for this particular job? Please don’t expect me to answer that question.
 The best short treatment of this phenomenon remains Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Relations (Princeton University Press, 1976), chapter eight, “Perceptions of Centralization.”