The Rise of ISIS Makes More Sense in Reverse

Kurt Vonnegut once imagined World War II backwards and found peace at the end. What happens if you do the same for recent conflicts in the Middle East?

A U.S.-led coalition aircraft flying over Kobani, Syria, in 2014. (Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters)

There’s a famous scene in Kurt Vonnegut’s book Slaughterhouse Five, in which the author plays World War II history in reverse. In a way, it seems to make more sense:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation. The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

What would happen if you imagined the Iraq War, the rise of ISIS, and the recent broader regional tumult, in reverse?

An ISIS fighter grasped the arm of a Yazidi woman. The pair took a step backward, and then another, never stumbling. Without looking where he was taking her, the ISIS soldier guided the Yazidi woman toward a truck; on the way, they were joined by other Yazidi women, who all walked backward as well. It was 2016, and the women were being held as slaves in northern Iraq in the midst of a horrific civil war. But ISIS was liberating them and healing the country.

The truck drove backward, exhaust first, to a mountain near Sinjar. When the truck stopped, the road was full of dead bodies—Yazidi males, riddled with bullets. The ISIS fighters pointed their guns at the corpses and, wondrously, sucked out the bullets, which flew through the air into the gun chambers, restoring the Yazidi men to life. The Yazidi women were returned to their families. Tears rolled up their faces and disappeared into their eyes.

Foreign fighters in the ranks of ISIS put down their weapons and reclaimed their European passports. They made an arduous backward trek through Turkey to a life of peace in Europe. Faith in apocalyptic prophecy was stripped away and in many cases replaced by social isolation.

American soldiers worked alongside ISIS to stabilize Iraq. Smoke-filled craters were suddenly made whole, as rock and debris were drawn back together, and buildings reappeared. Metal projectiles flew upward from the buildings into the sky and were captured by U.S. aircraft that conveyed the explosive cargo to base.

In 2014, ISIS forces withdrew at a lightning pace from Mosul and returned to Syria, and the caliphate was undeclared. Thousands of Iraqi refugees endured an epic journey across mountains and rivers, walking backward in a kind of reverse exodus.

In 2011, Syrian soldiers used their guns to draw bullets from Syrian protesters and bring them back to life. In Egypt, activists returned Hosni Mubarak to power. In Tunisia, the Jasmine Revolution restored Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to office.

A Tunisian street vendor named Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi lay in a hospital with terrible burns. He was taken by an ambulance, which drove backward to the city of Sidi Bouzid, where he spontaneously combusted. The flames healed his wounds. Bouazizi expunged them with the flick of a match and a canister that drew paint thinner from his body. He walked backward to the local police who gave him money to help him work as a trader.

A procession of American trucks rumbled from Kuwait into Iraq. They traveled in reverse, and the drivers stared back down the desert road. Millions of items were removed from the trucks and then assembled into vast American bases, complete with coffee shops, bowling alleys, and movie theaters.

In an American cemetery, the coffin of a U.S. soldier was slowly removed from the ground with great deliberation. A flag was ceremonially unfolded. The body was flown to Iraq where it was taken to a morgue and then a hospital. The soldier’s buddies carried the body to a Humvee that raced backward through the streets of Baghdad until it reached a chaotic scene of black hanging smoke. The body was taken from the Humvee and laid out on the street.

The soldier showed signs of life. Fresh blood trickled upward toward a wound that began to close and heal. The great swirl of dust folded in on itself like a collapsing cloud. There was a blast of light and a loud explosion, and an insurgent appeared seemingly from nowhere. He attracted the flying metal to his body and collected it neatly in containers attached to his chest. The insurgent traveled to a safe house where his vest was removed, and the dangerous contents were stored out of harm’s way.

The American soldier, entirely healed, returned to his patrol and walked backward down the street scanning rooftops. He was one of tens of thousands of American troops who recovered from terrible injuries and even death in Iraq, and returned to their families, their souls unbroken.

In 2006, the al-Askari mosque in the Iraqi city of Samarra, a sacred site for Shiite Muslims, lay in ruins. Its shimmering golden dome was reduced to a mass of twisted steel and mud brick. The wreckage was disturbed and began to shake, and there was an enormous blast. The smoke cleared and the dome reappeared in its full majesty. A band of al-Qaeda operatives entered the mosque and carefully removed an elaborate series of explosive charges. They found a group of guards tied up, and released them. With the mosque repaired, tensions lessened between Sunnis and Shiites, full-scale civil war was averted, and Iraqi civilian deaths fell dramatically.

In Abu Ghraib, Iraqi prisoners had been photographed in sordid masked ensembles. American guards released their fingers from camera buttons, again and again, and one by one, the pictures were annihilated forever. The prisoners had their hoods removed, were dressed in civilian clothes, and then returned to their families.

In 2003, the civil war in Iraq was over. Thousands of American and Iraqi lives had been restored. The campaign was a victory. Far across the ocean, off the coast of San Diego, a dot appeared in the distance and grew closer. It was a plane flying backward. It landed on an aircraft carrier and halted suddenly on the runway, connecting perfectly with a catapult. The American president George W. Bush got out. He walked backward to a podium and began speaking. Behind him a banner read: “Mission Accomplished.”