J.M. Berger discusses the challenges of having to overcome an extremist narrative in the struggle with ISIS:
“The United States is engaged in a war of ideas — and it’s losing.”
This refrain feels modern, but it has echoed through most of American history. The argument that the U.S. is losing a war of ideas or narratives to ISIS is only the latest iteration. As Scott Atran recently wrote at The Daily Beast, the various military campaigns against the Islamic State obscure “a central and potentially determining fact about the fight” — namely that it “is, fundamentally, a war of ideas that the West has virtually no idea how to wage, and that is a major reason anti-ISIS policies have been such abysmal failures.”
The myth that America’s narrative is losing to ISIS’s persists despite the fact that millions of people are fleeing ISIS territories, while mere thousands have traveled to join the group. It persists despite the fact that the Islamic State’s ideological sympathizers make up less than 1 percent of the world’s population, even using the most hysterically alarmist estimates, and the fact that active, voluntary participants in its caliphate project certainly make up less than a tenth of a percent.
In the United States, the notion of a “war of ideas” dates almost as far back as the Revolutionary War, according to Google Ngrams, which searches the text of English-language books that have been digitized. The phrase appeared during the Civil War, in the context of slavery, and returned during World War I. References soared as the United States entered World War II, and became a fixture of American political discourse during the Cold War. The Korean War was a war of ideas; so was Vietnam.
And in every era, the same alarm bell has sounded.