Military Defeat and the Smashing of Ideas

We like to think that pernicious ideologies can be defeated by the use of military force. We thought that Nazism was finished off after 1945. We thought that antisemitism could not persist after the Holocaust. We seem to have been wrong about both of these assumptions.

We like to think that pernicious ideologies can be defeated by the use of military force. We thought that Nazism was finished off after 1945. We thought that antisemitism could not persist after the Holocaust. We seem to have been wrong about both of these assumptions.

You can think of many ideas and ideologies that seemed to be defeated but were not. One example, which should resonate powerfully these days, concerns the application of military force.  I have in mind the presumption that an ideology can be defeated by militarily defeating its proponents.  It appeared that Nazism and the anti-Semitism that is its key tenet were defeated in 1945 when the Germans lost to the Allies in World War II.  Hitler committed suicide; many German cities lay in ruins; it was a clear military defeat. Or so many people believed, and that seemed reasonable. But notoriously, it was not the case. Germany was defeated, but not Nazism: neo-Nazi groups are still to be found in many countries today. Those countries include Germany, Norway, the United States, and, notably for our readers, Canada. Military force did not deal a fatal blow to extreme anti-Semitism; notions of power based on physical force; white supremacy; autocratic control by supermen; homophobia; and related fascistic notions. ‘It’s not over until it’s over,’ we say. No, tragically, it’s not over — and the question of how and when it ever will be over remains unresolved.

That there exist Nazis and Nazi sympathizers in Ukraine is true; that they are a powerful constituency and run its government is not. According to Russian propaganda about its cruel and devastating ‘special military operation’, the current appalling war in Ukraine is stated to be a pretext for the defeat of Nazism.  Russia alleges that there are powerful Nazis in Ukraine, governing under President Volodomyr  Zelensky (he’s Jewish), and that Russian forces will defeat the Nazis there, leading to the de-nazification of the Ukraine. This propaganda is an appeal to nationalist Russian support for the triumphant Russian success against Germany in World War II, a tremendous achievement of the past. The rhetoric of needing a special military operation to defeat Ukrainian Nazis hides the real goals of pushing NATO further west and extending Russian control into Ukrainian territory. ‘De-nazification’ is a discredited pretext that cannot stand up to critical analysis.

Germany was defeated, but not Nazism: neo-Nazi groups are still to be found in many countries today

But a background assumption is noteworthy here, and this is the presumption, again, that military force can defeat an ideology, that a Russian military victory could serve to de-nazify Ukraine. Supposedly Nazism was defeated in 1945 – only it was not — a point made obvious by the fact that there are Nazi groups and sympathizers in many countries.

Military force can kill and injure people, devastate buildings and infrastructure, and profoundly damage the environment. All these consequences are terrifyingly visible in Ukraine. But what can military force – or other physical force — do to ideas? Ideologies? Theories? Assumptions? They remain immune. You can’t kill an idea by smashing it. For that matter, you can’t smash it. Not literally, for obvious metaphysical reasons. Take it as a dead, or only semi-alive, metaphor. Perhaps that is not the point. What is at issue here is whether an ideology can be defeated by the application of physical force to those persons and groups who are its proponents. I claim that it cannot. But for many of us much of the time and in dire situations, this conclusion is not obvious. Perhaps that’s because its opposite is so tempting. We have weapons, we have waged wars and won some, we are in peril from a cruel enemy, and we would like to believe that the military defeat of that enemy would be definitive.

Think, in this context, of ISIS and the cruelly militant version of Islam that this movement embodies. (Note: I do not use the past tense here.)  There was a frightening time, around 2015, when ISIS controlled significant territory in Syria and Iraq. It was building a caliphate under the leadership of Abu Bakr al Bagdadi. Hundreds of thousands of people were under its control; it had a powerful social media presence exalting its way of life and achievements; foreign recruits flocked to join the movement; its stridently confident videos of threats and beheadings made it into the mainstream western press. Killings of the infidel, including Shia and Sufi Muslims, were defended, as was sexual slavery. Was this Islam? Not truly: most Muslims don’t share these ideas. Was it fundamentalist Islam? Not truly, for the same reason. Was it Islamism, the view that Islam must have state power in any just state where Muslims can live a good life? Only in part: by no means do all Islamists support the ideology of ISIS.

The gross abuse of women, the slave markets, the emboldened claims of the caliphate under ISIS, are within recent memory. But these days we don’t think so much about it. By 2019 ISIS had lost most of the territory that was the base of the caliphate. There were highly significant military victories. Many ISIS fighters and supporters have died or are in prison.

Was ISIS defeated by military force? To some degree you could say that it was, given that territory in Syria and Iraq was reclaimed with the assistance of western troops and Kurdish forces. But was the ideology of ISIS defeated as well? It would be comforting to think so; nearly all of us would love to believe it. But it would be a mistake. If you want to find an expert to  argue the point, consult Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an article published September 9, 2020. The title states his point: “The Real World Capabilities of ISIS:  The Threat Continues.”

ISIS is not dead, a claim that can readily be supported by evidence. It is not dead because it lives on, and it lives on in writings and broadcasts and in the hearts and heads of groups and individuals in many different countries. Ideas live in books and media; leaders and followers; preachers and pundits. They can survive in dusty libraries, move around the globe, and lurk in the hearts and minds of fighters’ descendants.  ISIS and its followers persist in the Philippines, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Somalia, and Afghanistan. That’s not to mention surviving fighters and recruits in North America, western Europe, and Australia. While military victories are often important, it is a mistake to assume that they are final.

Now we can consider another phenomenon: Trumpism. Despite the Biden electoral victory in 2020, Trumpism clearly lives on in active supporters and adherents. Will Trumpism die if Donald Trump does not win the U.S. presidential election in 2024? Not likely. The respected Canadian/American commentator David Frum wrote about Trumpism in The Atlantic (“Trumpism,” July 13, 2021). Frum described the movement as authoritarian and illiberal, and — after the attacks of January 6, 2021 — justifying politics by mob violence. It is based on the assumption that power comes from the gun; to keep it, you can ignore the law, physically attack the government, and kill people. The key sentiments are aggrievement, fear, and contempt, buttressing anti-migrant and nationalist emotions and – in most cases – aspirations of uber-male violence. Trumpism in this sense does exist, and it is by no means limited to the United States. Its ideas of force, power, and autocracy are shared around the globe by leaders exercising or seeking to exercise power. These proponents of force and autocracy include Berlusconi of Italy, Bolsonaro of Brazil, Duterte of the Philippines, Erdogan of Turkey, Marine le Pen of France, Orban of Hungary, and Zuma of South Africa. What is Trumpism? An ideology? A political philosophy?  Perhaps Trumpism is just fascism under another name; one could argue that point. But however one labels them, the notion that these Trumpist ideas and norms could be vanquished by the application of physical force is highly implausible. It is not happening, and evidence is that it will not happen.

Should you be convinced by all this that ideas can never be defeated by the application of physical force? I think so, but a critic might deny it, saying that only three cases have been considered thus far, and the third one can be reduced to the first, so it does not amount to a distinct example. But the argument here is not entirely inductive. The point is also metaphysical: ideas and theories are not physical items that can be physically smashed or destroyed. They live in the hearts and minds of people and are communicated through speech, texts, feelings, organizations and the actions of people. Although proponents of Nazism, or extreme Salafist (ISIS) Islam, or Trumpism may be militarily defeated in a specific context, texts and followers can survive, move, and develop. These ideas may seem to explain things or to offer solutions to intractable problems; they may be psychologically attractive; they may serve to build group solidarity. Their apparent death is most unlikely to be real. 

If a set of ideas cannot be finally defeated by the application of physical force, what are the alternatives? My personal favorite would be argument: the citing of evidence and reasons to show the inadequacy of a false ideology. An ideology could be argumentatively defeated in one or many contexts, but sadly that would not prevent it from surviving in persons and in texts.  Another alternative is cultural pressure: an ideology or belief might be widely discredited in a culture, so that people were reticent to express it and shamed for doing that. The theory would in a sense go underground for that reason: perhaps racist and sexist beliefs have done that, in some contexts, in the recent past. A respected newscaster lost her job for mentioning the n-word when referring to a book by its title. Even though she was mentioning the work of another person, the very utterance of the word, was deemed to amount to an expression of racism and cost her her job. The case illustrates the fact that in progressive circles of late, racism is  readily alleged and loudly decried, often with disproportionate consequences. But that is not to say that racism has been defeated, culturally or otherwise. Shamed ideologies have not ceased to exist. They have been suppressed, not destroyed, and could readily reappear, as racism has in some contexts. In fact, with racism, its reappearance, and even invigoration, is only rendered more likely by the resentment of proponents who feel wrongly silenced and unable to express their views.

All right, so if neither argument nor cultural disapproval would suffice to end an erroneous belief system, what about political defeat? The same argument can be given: the defeated view will persist and survive. Censorship by law? A case in point is laws against Holocaust denial. The topic is vast and views vary. But such laws have not eliminated Holocaust denial and the strident anti-Semitism that lies at its core. Proponents and texts survive, persisting for revival in shifting circumstances and filling the psychological and political needs of certain individuals and groups.

Thinking this through, I was led to the general question as to how (if at all) we can finally defeat any ideology. Failing to find a plausible answer to this problem, I began to consider a related question: could I find an example of such a theory that could be pronounced: ‘Defeated.’ Forever. For good.

This quest led me to think about the Knights Templar. Founded in 1119, it was a militant order of Christian knights organized to protect Christian pilgrims on route to Palestine at the time of the Crusades. The order was highly successful with rich patrons, a strong financial base, and influential attached charities. The pope and the king of France were among its clients. But times changed. By 1291, the Crusades had failed and The Knights Templar lost its function and credibility, with its wealth threatening kings and popes. In 1314 its last master, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake in Paris. Descriptions say he was burned “slowly.” The order was destroyed.

Thinking this through, I was led to the general question as to how (if at all) we can finally defeat any ideology

Or was it? My research suggests otherwise. The Freemasons some 400 years later built upon Templar legends, as do the contemporary Masonic Knights Templar.  Only a modest effort on the internet revealed an article by Dan Janes: “Meet the Americans Following in the Footsteps of the Knights Templar” (July 2018). This twenty-first century ‘chivalrous order of knighthood’ features uniforms with white robes and a large red cross. Understanding themselves as “God’s shock troops”, these groups are characterized by evangelical Christian advocacy, a militaristic ethos of duty and service to the cause, financial expertise, and internationalism. These notions also survive in fictional entertainment, including Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Notions central to the Knights Templar are not dead, not even after the end of the era of the Crusades, and the absence of knights on horseback from the territory of Palestine. Not some 900 years after its original founding.

A related institution is the De Molay International, founded in 1919 and named after Jacques de Molay. This order has the purpose of building character in young men ages 9 to 21. With norms of filial love, courtesy, and partriotism, it exists in Canada, the United States, and many other countries. Memories and some of the norms of Jacques de Molay and the Knights Templar survive in its activities and adherents. One initiation ceremony celebrates the brave death of Jacques de Molay. Clearly this group has a connection with the Knights Templar. Members of De Molay have included Walt Disney, Bill Clinton, John Wayne, and John Steinbeck. Looking into this institution, I found to my surprise that De Molay was even a small aspect of my own history. In 1961 I went with a boyfriend to a formal De Molay dance. I remember my dress, which was a rather nice pale green, and the corsage I had, and the dance itself, which was pleasant. Of course I knew nothing about the history of DeMolay or the Knights Templar; I did wonder about the name of the dance, but did not look into it. There was no internet in these days: research would have been difficult. I had, obviously, heard of the Crusades and of knights and of chivalry but not the Knights Templar and not Jacques de Molay.

Knights Templar? The movement was defeated and died . . . but no, it did not die. Their ideas survive, after many centuries. The burning at the stake of their leader, outlawing, and suppression, did not defeat them. I submit: ideologies cannot be eliminated by the application of physical force.