Revenge avenging revenge. The Masculinity of Unending War: the US and ISIS


by Kathleen Barry, Ph.D.


“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”  Confucius

Since August 2014, the US and its coalition states have been bombing the Islamic state regularly, even daily following President Obama’s 2014 call to states to join the US to “degrade and destroy” ISIS. Since then, that swath of Syria and Iraq captured and ruled by ISIS has been under seige by the US Coalition.  At home, the US tightly controls its war propaganda presenting itself as the savior of Syria while insisting that the only way it can do that is to topple (read “regime change” as in Iraq and Lybia) the President, Bashar Assad.

Over the last few years, with ISIS attacks in the West, we have only heard about violence, deaths, and damage when ISIS attacks and kills a priest in northern France or people in Turkey’s airport or the French victims at a national festival in Nice, or Brussels, or Orlando, Florida.  Western leaders and media direct their people’s attention and our emotions to ISIS fighters’ gruesome depravity, from beheadings of journalists to sex slavery of Yadizi women and girls. What about the harm to those who live not only under ISIS rule but have been subjected to US and its coalition airstrikes that average  620 a month, more than 20 a day, each plane dropping large numbers of bombs?

Since August 2014, ISIS has fought back with mayhem and murder while taking responsibility for its attacks on Western states. Its reason is always the same as it was after its March 2016 attack on Brussels that killed more than 54 and injured 230 at the airport and in a subway station: “Islamic State fighters carried out a series of bombings in the center of the Belgian capital Brussels, a country participating in the coalition against the Islamic State.”  []

In tracing  ISIS attacks in the fall of 2015, I found that all of the ISIS attacks in Europe and against Russia that headlined our news followed after the US Coalition began bombing the Islamic state:

  • September 30, 2015, Russia began bombing ISIS and other rebel targets in Syria. In revenge, October 30, 2015, ISIS downed a Russian Airbus passenger plane in the Sinai, killing all 220 passengers on board with a homemade bomb or IED (Improvised Explosive Device).
  • Since July 2014, Hezbollah had been training and providing technical assistance to Iraq and Syria in support of their fight against ISIS. In revenge, on November 12, 2015, ISIS attacked Southern Beirut, a densely populated, poor and working-class section of the city inhabited primarily by Shia Muslim, infidels to Sunni ISIS. The ISIS bombs killed 43 people and left over 200 injured in the area where Hezbollah is in power.
  • Beginning on September 19, 2014, France became the first and most militarily aggressive of the US coalition forces to regularly bomb ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq. In January 2015, ISIS attacked the paper Charlie Hebdo. Again on November 13, 2015, ISIS, in several coordinated attacks, bombed Paris with IEDs killing 130 people.

In response to each of these ISIS attacks, the US, France and Russia engaged their military to avenge ISIS’s revenge for those states’ attacks on the Islamic state.  Rather than subduing ISIS, the daily US Coalition airstrikes states drove ISIS to escalate their attacks on Western states.

In 2015 alone, attacks and bombings from the Syrian military, rebel jihadist militias, ISIS, the US and coalition and Russia killed  55,000 Syrians of which 21,000 were civilians according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. [] In the Spring of 2016, a United Nations Syrian Center for Policy Research report revealed that 11.5% of Syrians had been killed or injured since the March 2011, the onset of the Syrian war,  [] when the US was arming and providing military assistance to rebel forces including ISIS in an effort to bring down Syria’s President Assad.. [Report says 11 percent of Syrians killed, injured in war,” by Michael Pizzi, February 11, 2016, the onset of the Syrian ‘civil war’]. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that by February 2016, 45% of the total Syrian population of 22 million has been displaced or immigrated to another country. But it is good for the US economy. Monday morning following the ISIS attacks on Beirut and Paris, the major military industries showed their highest gains in nearly three years, according to Matt Egan writing for CNN Money. He pointed out that both Northrop Grumman and Raytheon were up 4%, the drone makers AeroVironment up 6% and Lockheed up 3.5%.


As soon as that driver steered his truck the wrong way down a one-way street in Nice, France, July 17, 2016, ruthlessly murdering everyone in his path, speculation began about whether or not ISIS would claim responsibility for that attack. After all, the driver was Tunisian and a Muslim, and the news reports added almost parenthetically that he was a violent man who beat his wife.  By July 16, ISIS claimed responsibility for the Nice attack saying the driver was one of its soldiers. The French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, observed that “This is a new type of attack. » He noted that « We are now confronted with individuals that are sensitive to the message of ISIS and are committed to extremely violent actions without necessarily being trained by them. » []

ISIS has, in effect, responded to this largess of states following the US by calling up its own adherents, individual fighters around the world who may or may not have any actual connection to ISIS who encouraged them to “kill them where you find them.” In May 2016, during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan (June 5 to July 5 2016), ISIS issued a blanket endorsement to attack, kill and wreak havoc on “citizens of coalition states” on behalf of the Islamic state. []

Why, one could reasonably ask, would states like France that have been attacked by ISIS for being part of the US coalition not withdraw their allegiance to the US coalition and make offers to talk peace with ISIS? Or did they believe their own propaganda over the possibility of increasing the likelihood that they could protect their citizens?

A call to patriotism when there is an attack on our soil gives both ISIS and state militaries including the US military the assurance that they can continue to draw out men who are aching for a fight, who become deranged in their own violence, from rapists to wife abusers, from state-sanctioned military killers to veterans with PTSD to suicidal men who become soldiers. Vengeful men of every military and militia who kill without remorse (a requirement for combat training in the US military) are among the most dangerous on this planet both when they are fighting in combat and when they return home.

According to the standards of manhood, for men to be society’s designated protectors of women, of children, their families, communities and country, they must be able to fight. After the November 2015, ISIS attacks in Beirut and Paris, President Obama, donned the patriarchal paternalism of the male-protector role which is assigned to men as a standard of manhood: “As Commander-in-Chief, I have no greater responsibility than the security of the American people.” How does he protect Americans? After the ISIS-style massacre of 14 people in San Bernardino, California, he told us, “For over a year, I have ordered our military to take thousands of airstrikes against ISIS targets,” []

Really? As a woman, I am supposed to feel safer because the President of the country in which I live ordered the ongoing bombing of mass murderers who fight for the Islamic state?

Revenge between men nullifies the protection we are supposed to believe they provide us.


How can we secure peace if we do not even recognize that our own militaries are driven by masculine revenge? Revenge, built into the meaning of manhood, is disguised so fully as protection that neither our government not our media consider it a problem when taken by the US or its Coalition. State leaders’ rhetoric is riddle with revenge.  When President Putin learned that ISIS had downed the Russian plane in the Sinai in October 2015, he announced that he would make ISIS the hunted object of revenge: “we will find them anywhere on the planet and punish them.” As Russian warplanes struck Raqqa, the Syrian city ISIS named as it’s Islamic state capital, Putin’s language of revenge was clear, “It [the air campaign] must be intensified in such a way that the criminals understand that retribution is inevitable.” No one questions Putin’s manhood. (Emphasisine.)  [ Gwyn Topham and Matthew Weaver in London and Alec Luhn in Moscow Tuesday 17 November 2015 13.59 ESTLast modified on Tuesday 17 November 201517.01 EST]

Immediately after the November 2015 ISIS attack in Paris, President Hollande stood strong declaring that France would be “merciless” and “act by all means anywhere, inside or outside the country” against ISIS. The world saw him taking charge, emerging from the humiliation of not having been able to protect his country from the attack just as he intended that the French see him as their protector from future ISIS attacks.

Hollande’s choice of the word “merciless » was curious and covert in relation to Putin’s use of the word “intensified” which suggests previous Russian attacks on ISIS.  By making it seem as if France had not provoked ISIS at all, Holland was recalibrating revenge suggesting that in reaction to the ISIS attack on Paris, France would initiate its first attack on ISIS. By changing the starting point for revenge, he successfully diverted public attention away from France’s previous and ongoing bombing in Syria, leaving a shocked world to ask “Why Paris?”

By exposing how Hollande’s ordered bombings of the Islamic state as the  highly probable cause of ISIS’s attack on Paris, it does not follow that either ISIS’s or France’s revenge was justified. But it does show how, on recalibrating revenge, Hollande asserted himself and France as the dominant force over those who had attacked his country only the day before. He made it seem as if he had never lost that control. And, as if resurrecting the mentality of French colonialism of the Arab world, he was behaving as if he and his state were meant to dominate those who attacked them.

Hollande, like Obama, reverted to a familiar macho-revenge delusion characteristic of the authoritarian father-figure when he suggested that France’s attacks will be so fearsome that the enemy, in this case, ISIS, will not be able to recover. That was how he reassured the French that they would be safe. They weren’t, and each time ISIS attacks in France, the state leaders and media present ISIS fighters to the world as terrorists while France is incessantly bombing the Islamic state with little or no media coverage.

In addition to escalating French bombing of the Islamic state, the French government turned against Muslims living in France. Four months after the November 2015 ISIS attack on Paris, in the language of the oppressed, most of whom understand in their hearts how male and state power are wed, 3,400 raids have been carried against homes, mosques, Muslim restaurants, etc., in total brutality, with a willingness to humiliate people.” As Yasser Louati, a spokesman for Collective Against Islamophobia in France, points out, “this means that for four months you have been terrorizing innocent people and holding them accountable for your own failures.” (Emphasis mine.) []  Who knows how many potential ISIS adherents the French police and military facilitated through raids on Muslim communities in France? Did they learn nothing from their earlier determination to retain control of Algeria? A war they did not win.

The masculine violence of war is part and parcel of male violence against women, against each other, as well as against enemy militias and states. It is the job of propaganda to make the seamless continuity of male violence appear as if each form is different than and segmented from the other, that war has little to do with sexual assault on campuses and violence in the home or that policing is unrelated to how our patriarchal societies personalize violence against women. The reality is that while depoliticizing violence against women in order to treat it as a series of disconnected, private acts while recognizing war as systemic and brought about by a myriad of related events and forces, power is attributed to war while violence against women is reduce to insignificance. Yet both often are carried out by the same men.

Meanwhile for their part, ISIS and other jihadist militias abandoned the male protector role making no effort to hide their blatant hatred of and cruelty toward women. To that, they reinterpret Islam to render it into a belief system that justifies their violence.

Humiliation is the fuse to the explosive that ignites men to regain their power through revenge and then avenging revenge to assure their domination through brute force. In its obscurity, cloaked as protection, revenge is the Achilles heel of male violence. It is that unprotected, vulnerable spot, the chink in their armor against another’s revenge on them. From Greek myth, Achilles reveals the rage that explodes in men who have been humiliated by attacks because they are not behaving as protectors and, therefore are not real men. When Achilles friend, Patroclus, was killed by Hector, Achilles kills Hector, then he “lashes the body to the back of his chariot and drags it across the battlefield to the Achaean camp. Upon Achilles’ arrival, the triumphant Achaeans celebrate Patroclus’s funeral with a long series of athletic games in his honor. Each day for the next nine days, Achilles drags Hector’s body in circles around Patroclus’s funeral bier.” [] Achilles planned his final revenge. He was not out of control. His rage was studied, practiced, precise and relentless.

The patriarchal history of war that follows from mythic Achilles is the same as the irrational conceit I identified as “blinding macho” in my work on the masculinity of war, [Unmaking War, Remaking Men,] I drew my definition from women’s experience of men’s violence, “blinding macho – one small incident, even an imagined one, can inflame him. He lashes out in what looks like uncontrollable rage – maybe first a slap in the face or fist to her pregnant belly.” [Barry, Unmaking War, Remaking Men, 2011,] But,

While his rage may appear uncontrollable, he chooses violence, for he makes no effort to turn away from it. By rising to it, he reveals that his blinding macho is the entitlement of his gender – an entitlement based on the belief that because he is stronger, can yell louder, is bigger,  [has more bombs], … that nothing should inhibit him from allowing his rage to take over his being. And he knows it provokes fear in her – fear that he expects will produce her compliance, her submission, or subordination. [Unmaking War, Remaking Men, 2011, page 105,]

One woman said of the husband who abused her, “He destroyed me from the inside out.” Is that not what men from ISIS, the US, the Syrian military and rebel militias have been doing to war-torn cities in Syria?  Is that not what ISIS with its random, murderous attacks on civilians is doing to its people as well as in attacks around the world? Here is what one Syrian city looks like having been destroyed from the inside out. Homs was the second largest city in Syria:

    The chaotic violence of war destroys social infrastructures – schools, hospitals, social welfare programs, clean water, food distribution, garbage collection. From that destruction, untold numbers of men and boys, already brought up to believe they must be fighters to be protectors, are cut loose from family ties and community connections. No one is safe, and the traditional male-protector role disintegrates. In that chaos, males no longer even pretend to be protectors. Disconnected from society’s norms as well as its protections, and surviving attacks by the US military, it is not hard to imagine them finding their way into any one of the militias fighting in or state militaries fighting against Syria. Yet, there are all of those men who do not turn to violence. 

The cost of male revenge is enormous. Consider the US Coalition: The tallies from August 2014 to July 27, 2016, show that the U.S. conducted 77% of the 14.903 airstrikes on and around the Islamic state with 9,411 on Iraq and 4,682 on Syria. [ Resolve] When we shed tears over the innocent lives taken in a Paris café or at a soccer stadium or in the Brussels or Turkey airports, shouldn’t we wonder if we even have enough tears in the world to shed for the dead Iraqis and Syrians, the injured, the homeless who live under the dread of US coalition bombings as well as under ISIS’s brutal control?

Real Protection 

How do we break out of the chokehold established by the US and other states who say they “will not negotiate with terrorists” and then turn to naming their current enemies as terrorists?  They preclude any negotiation and make war inevitable. To support its wars, the US turns to other nation-states to join them or as President Bush said, “you are with us or against us” and states against the US know they will pay consequences. That is how the US excludes ISIS from the US-brokered peace talks in Syria. Put another way, in these power plays, “everybody thinks they are the good guy,” which is what former CIA Clandestine Service Officer, Amaryllis Fox, encountered in her work in the Middle East. She came away from that work realizing that the “only way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them.” (Emphasis mine.) []

By now in late 2016, an all-out war against ISIS may result in it having diminished impact in Syria. Meanwhile, we can be relatively assured that the very means of bringing down ISIS is the base from which the next extremist force will emerge.

If listening comes before talking as Fox suggests, those trying to arrive at a ceasefire may hear things that will change what they were going to say. I can imagine that if the US was concerned that its representatives be sensitive listeners, those who will step down from the pedestals upon which US exceptionalism and global superiority are built, they could hear why ISIS along with many mainstream Syrians and Iraqis want the US out of their countries, they might think about why bombs are not weapons for liberation.  But that is only possible if the US takes the lead in de-masculinizing peace efforts, if it drops its imperialist “regime change” policies, and if it is willing to step back from its terrorist rhetoric and its militaristic pursuit of ISIS.

If Americans and Westerners were to take an honest account of what the US has done in the region which would allow them to know the context in which Iraqis and Syrians speak, they would recognize that Iraq suffered a decade-long war from the US invasion in 2003 during which 1.3 million Iraqis were killed. That war was to be payback by the US for the Al Qaeda attack on the US on September 11, 2001, even though Iraq had nothing to do with that attack and Al Qaeda had nothing to do with Iraq at that time. In other words, a country was thrown into chaos, unending violence, loss of basic life supports such as clean water, constant electricity, health care because of a lie fabricated by a US President.

What would it mean for women living under ISIS, being sold to soldiers or into sex trafficking gangs, murdered for refusing to cooperate? They would become visible as victims of human rights violations not only by ISIS but my male control of Islamic law which is used to render women and the crimes against them invisible. As I write this, the Western concern with ISIS’s abuse of women takes the form of propaganda to justify the multitude of bombs it releases daily in Syria and Iraq. Men’s wars subordinate and regress the condition of women simultaneously rendering its violations against women invisible.

Is it any wonder that Al Qaeda wants the US out of Iraq and Syria or that ISIS will go further to get the US out of the region? Is it not possible that if the US signaled an intention to withdraw militarily from the Middle East and neighboring countries and give up its illegal strategies of “regime change”, that would be a step toward listening and talking and the possibility of peace? It would be possible if we had a president who rejected both the neo-colonization of US regime change and the masculinity of war. Included in such actions would be international support to control the warring forces when they get back home where they are more than likely to take out their violence on their wives and children

To envision possibilities for this kind of change, we have to step back and consider what a more peaceful world would look like by thinking outside of the box of masculine violence and militaristic solutions. For example, global demilitarization is something that is already underway as national borders become increasingly porous. Likewise, in Unmaking War, Remaking Men [, 2011] I outlined a proposal for a global peace force that could replace state militaries under the aegis of a revitalized UN that equally served all countries. This policing or military would reject masculine violence and revenge.

Such a global police force may seem like a tall order until you see those men who are already making this change to non-violent masculinity during the war. American men who turn in their weapons and refuse to fight are becoming the new model of new non-violent masculinity. So threatened are men living traditional, violent masculinity that they harass and beat Conscientious Objectors.

When men free themselves from the revenge and recognize that they cannot hide behind their claim to be protectors while endangering us, they will be able to join with the rest of us who act in our daily lives from genuine compassion to protect or help those who are vulnerable or hurt which comes from our human urge to save lives rather than masculine need to control them.  If protection springs from empathy instead of power, we all can feel and act on the pain and vulnerability of others who are at risk.

In civilian life, the men who work with men to turn them away from abusing women come to mind. If we turn to breaking cyclical, spiraling revenge and the male violence it feeds, we will create the space for more of these kinds of men to come forward. These men, such as Conscientious Objectors, are proof that male aggression is not biologically driven, but rather is imposed through socialization to support male domination. I look forward to seeing more and more men of the younger generations making choices that undermine violent, domineering masculinity.

In the meantime, until we have the leadership of women who do not model their behavior after men and of men who are strong enough to refuse revenge, we are all in danger.

Kathleen Barry, Ph.D. is a sociologist and Professor Emerita and a global feminist activist whose book, Female Sexual Slavery, 1979, launched a global movement against trafficking in women and was followed in 1995 by Prostitution of Sexuality: Global Exploitation of Women, 1995. Her latest book is Unmaking War, Remaking Men: How Empathy Can Reshape Our Politics, Our Soldiers and Ourselves, 2011 exposes the masculinity of war.

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