What Game of Thrones can Teach us About the War on Terror
Game of Thrones is over for another year - but that doesn't mean there'll be any shortage of sick, random ultraviolence on our screens over the next weeks and months. For this we must thank the brutal jihadists of Al Shabab in East Africa, Boko Haram in West Africa and, most especially, Isis in Syria and Iraq.
I don't know whether anyone in Isis is a fan of Game of Thrones (it's quite possible, given the number of European-born recruits in their ranks) but the way they are waging war does rather call to mind the scorched-earth viciousness of the House of Bolton, whose traditional practice is to flay its captured enemies alive. The big difference is, of course, that Game Of Thrones is a work of cod-Medieval swords and sorcery fantasy entertainment by George RR Martin, whereas the atrocities being committed in Iraq and elsewhere are deadly and real and permanent.
We in the West can easily make this distinction. But can the jihadists of Isis? I'm not altogether sure that they care.
Consider some of the Isis footage now doing the rounds on the internet. One video is filmed from the point of view of some young men in car, driving along a highway outside a town somewhere in northern Iraq, looking for cars to shoot up with their AK-47s. The innocent drivers clearly aren't expecting this. By the time they're aware what's going on, it's too late: soon, their bullet-riddled cars are veering off the roads, their dead or wounded drivers slumped at the wheel. Next, eager as puppies, out pop the jihadis to inspect the damage, gleefully filming their dying victims and then finishing them off. It's like an episode of Grand Theft Auto Mosul, only acted out for real.
What kind of mindset do you need to carry out this kind of barbaric violence? Well I hesitate to say a "Medieval" one because then the Medievalists get all upset. But let's agree shall we that it is a mindset almost completely alien to Western Judeo-Christian culture. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule: the obvious one being Germany in World War II. At the risk of crudely generalising though, I'd say that however much society breaks down in the West I can't ever see any of us reaching the point where we start machine gunning road users just for the sheer hell of it, any more than I can ever imagine us beheading or crucifying prisoners. We got all that stuff out of our system, over the centuries, in a succession of savage conflicts like the Thirty Years War and the Wars of The Roses.
It's from the Wars of the Roses, of course, that George RR Martin gets a lot of his gory detail, including the kill-or-be-killed mindset of his protagonists. They don't think like us because they don't enjoy the luxury of living in a society as advanced as ours. What to us might seem like basic human decency would strike the Game of Thrones protagonists as fatal weakness. Hence, for example, the House Bolton's practice of flaying its prisoners: a) a dead enemy is never going to kill you and b) it so terrifies your foes that - as Isis have found in Iraq - they would rather flee for their lives than face you in battle.
This kind of insight is, I'm sure, one of the main reasons why Game of Thrones has grown to achieve its status as unmissable, landmark television. Yes, of course, the fine acting, great locations, pert breasts and CGI dragons are a big draw too. But what really makes it stick out is that, unlike almost any other fiction set in the past, it chooses not to imbue its characters with the liberal values of the present. This brutal honesty is at once exhilaratingly novel but also deeply unsettling, for it opens a window onto a world where people may look like us and apparently share the same hopes, dreams and fears as us, but where the progressive pieties to which we've become accustomed in the post-war years simply don't apply. Not only do they not apply but they actually look foolish, counterproductive, suicidal.
One of the fatal flaws of the liberal West is its tendency to project its own values on to all the world's other disparate nations and cultures. "If only we give these poor benighted people a gentle nudge, here and there, then soon they too will discover the joys of the free market, property rights, universal suffrage, etc" the thinking seems to go - in defiance of all evidence to the contrary.
But Iraq is one of the many places in the last 50 years where we have tested this cosy theory to destruction. We went in to "liberate" Iraq and not only did they hate us for it but we ended up creating a situation even worse than the problem we were trying to solve. The same is true for much of what happened during the Arab Spring. At the time, I remember some commentators on the right borrowing the language of the left to explain why it was a jolly good thing: the idea that Arab cultures simply weren't ready for or receptive too Western style democracy was demeaning and patronising and racist.
OK. Well at the risk of sounding demeaning and patronising and racist, I'd say that there are a lot of countries in the world which simply aren't ready for Western-style democracy. If we had limitless resources and manpower, we could do what the Romans did and impose it on them anyway, at point of spear. But since we have neither, I'd suggest that a bit more Game of Thrones realpolitik is in order.
Let's just return to those beheading, crucifying, drive-by jihadist thugs from Isis. They inhabit a world entirely alien to ours, with a different rule book requiring a different form of governance. Given that we lack the resources to do this ourselves, I think it's about time we got a lot more cynical and a lot less squeamish about the kinds of bastard we want doing it on our behalf. And we can start by attempting an honest answer to the following question: is the Middle East really a better place since the defenestration of Saddam, Gaddafi and Mubarak?