isis-flag They are described as mad, mentally disturbed, confused, radicalised by fanatics, escapists from domestic trauma. This may not be necessarily so. The State, which was broadcast on Channel 4 last weekend, shows the Brits who travel to Syria to fight for the self styled Islamic State to be highly committed young men and women looking for a sense of meaning and adventure in their lives. Peter Kosminski’s documentary pulls no punches. The men, called the brothers, are told they are not expected to live for more than a year and they will die martyrs to the cause and live forever in heaven. Some are suicide bombers, but if it is Allah’s will, they go willingly to their death.

There is such a strange logic to their fight. As one instructor explains, they are not expected to win, but their actions will bring about the involvement and ultimate destruction of America and all it stands for and ensure that the purity of Islam will prevail. The brutality and violence are a means to an end. It is not always clear who is fighting who and for what. Shia commit atrocities on the Sunni, the Sunni retaliate. Meanwhile Assad’s forces and the Russians are bombing the cities, and terrorist attacks occur every week in the name of Isis throughout the western world. The women are not really expected to do anything except become brides to the brothers and support their fight. In essence, they succumb to state approved rape and prostitution. It is brutal, violent and chaotic.

But what is it that would make a middle class young person living a safe life in Britain want to risk their lives to fight for a cause they don’t understand. Do they crave adventure and glory? Do they want to become heroes? Is it a reaction to what they see as the meaninglessness and decadence of our western way of life? Do they feel victimised by their family or community and seek revenge? Is this the vanguard of a global revolution not unlike past insurrections in France and Russia, but mirroring other anti-establishment movements like Brexit or Trump? Or are they fighting their own internal psychological battle to self discovery? Does identification with Islamic State provides a fixed reference point in a confusing and insecure world, where little seems to matter? Kosminski leaves us with a lot of possibilities but no certainty.

A hundred years ago, millions of young men went cheerfully to France to fight another confusing war under appalling conditions. And even when hundreds of thousands were slaughtered on the Somme, at Ypres. Mons, Amiens and Passchendale, they still kept going back. Maybe they were too traumatised and fearful to do otherwise. I remember my father telling me that when he was training to be a fighter pilot, only 1 in 9 would survive. Nobody pulled out. Some twenty five years later, when the Cuba missile cruise brought the threat of global conflict to our consciousness, I and most of my friends said that if war broke out, we would volunteer to fight. It was only Tim who said he would buy a gun and shoot himself and his family. We were appalled, but with the benefit of hindsight, he demonstrated a grim sense of maturity and wisdom that the rest of us had yet to attain.

There is a difference between the global conflicts of the last century and the confused mission of Isis. Our parents and grandparents were fighting for their country. Lord Kitchener bristled his moustache and pointed his finger, ‘Your country needs you!’ and most obeyed without question. Later it became something more. As a fighting unit, facing imminent death every day, they could not let their mates down. Exhausted and traumatised, they needed certainties; orders they could not question. Tennyson captured the mood when writing about another war: ‘Theirs not to reason why. Theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.’ But when survivors talked or wrote about their experience, they often declared that it was the time of their lives. They had never felt more alive as when they were near death.

Fifty years on, an unprecedented period of peace and stability is being threatened again by conflict. It seems like a ‘lost generation’ of young people with diminishing prospects, brought up on adventure films and virtual war games, are looking for a sense of mission. The Islamic State might fill the gap. The danger and rigid discipline are all part of the attraction. They are a band of ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ united by a collective delusion, not unlike the crusades of old or the jingoism of the Great War when the enemy was the embodiment of decadence and evil and their martyrdom would change the world. They are going for glory. They do not think of dying, only surviving; if not on earth, in heaven.

It is not my intention or wish to condone what is happening in Syria. I am writing this to try to understand the mindset of those who are fighting. We have to try to make sense of the unthinkable if we are ever to resolve it. Kosminski’s powerful documentary portrays a state which was once fuelled by idealism, but is now controlled for fear. The torture, summary executions, rapes and murders are as bad as the worst excesses of the Nazis or the Russian occupation of Berlin. Have the perpetrators have become so conditioned by what they have witnessed that they have no conscience? Have they become so traumatised, they have dissociated emotionally from the reality of what they are doing. Are they so fearful, that they have to be brutal to survive? Or is it just that they see the enemy as inhuman, an object that must be destroyed? Perhaps, all are correct, but who is the enemy and who isn’t?

War traumatises and dehumanises all those caught up in it. And British soldiers are not excluded. During the worst atrocities of the Peninsular Campaign, which Wellington was powerless to prevent, he said of his troops, ‘I don’t know what the enemy think of them, but by God, they terrify me!’ And we are still only just learning of what went on in the detention centres in Iraq or in Northern Ireland.

One of the most chilling sequences of Kosminski’s documentary was when Shakira, the young doctor, sees 10 year olds being taught to stab a fresh corpse, hung up for their instruction, while her son, Isaac, and his friends play football with the severed head. Even the Hitler youth was not as brutal. When, Shakira tries to remonstrate, Isaac  accuses her of embarrassing him and goes back to his mates. It is only too easy to lose all sense of decency while those around you have lost theirs.

At that moment, she decides to escape. It seems surprisingly easy, but when she arrives back in UK, the choice was either being separated from her son and going to prison for years or agreeing to spy on her her own community.

While most reviewers praised the film, Christopher Stevens in The Daily Mail penned a hard hitting attack on as portraying his film as a pure poison, a work of fiction and like a Nazi recruiting film from the 1930s, and 61 year old film maker, Kosminski, as a Oxbridge educated media luvvie, who was neither a veteran of Syria, nor had conducted a research mission to Raqqa or Aleppo. Stevens is also hardly a reliable witness, being best known for his biography of Kenneth Williams and his book on comedy scriptwriters, Ray Galton and Alan Stevens. Jihadist recruits would have known what they were letting themselves in for. Not so, they were attracted by the idea and would not necessarily believe the evidence until they saw it for themselves, by which time, they were either dead or too far in to return. Stevens would dismiss jihadists as incomprehensibly evil or mad. This happens in every conflict, but it doesn’t get us anywhere except more slaughter and more terror.

Kosminski has made a brave attempt to get into the minds of the jihadists to understand their mission, their rejection of liberal democracy, and ultimately their fear and emotional dissociation. Violence breeds more violence. If we cannot try to understand it, we can only retaliate and escalate the cycle of retribution, as would be revolutionaries are driven underground to launch ever more frequent attacks on the complacent and decadent. To my mind, this documentary was so much more terrifying because the atrocities were conducted by recognisable human beings.

The state was screened on Channel 4. It was punctuated every ten minutes by advertisements that were so crass, they underscored what is deplorable about western consumerism and why people might want out.