Revolutionaries usually draw inspiration from what went before – the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War were most impressed by the actions and the Reign of Terror of the French Jacobins following the storming of the Bastille, the latter themselves taking note of the execution of the Stuart King Charles I by English republicans. As centralised order in Iraq falls apart, the commanders of the Islamic State (ISIL) may not be students of history, but their conduct is remarkably similar to another long-lasting violent insurrection against a tired and weak status quo – the Taiping Rebellion.

The Manchu Qing dynasty in China was already on its death spiral from the depredations and exactions of corrupt officials whom the emperors failed to control, when this revolt first manifested itself in 1850.  Many regional disturbances and secret societies marked the final century of Qing imperial rule. But this irruption was the most serious of all as its driving motive was messianic, with no fixed objective beyond continual expansion.  As the imperial system tottered, the Qing administration’s ‘otherness’ (Manchus were looked down on by Han Chinese) gave vent to xenophobic prejudice in the populace. Such resentment gave succour to the Taiping rebels, not unlike disaffected Sunni Iraqis, alienated by an exclusivist Shia-led government in Baghdad, flocking to the black flag of the Islamic State as one of convenience.

What makes the Taiping rebellion truly comparable is the religious element.  Just as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself as the first new caliph in 90 years after Mosul fell, so the Taiping leader, Hong Xiuquan, declared himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, with a capital at Nanjing.  Hong’s fanatical armies exterminated all those who did not conform to this brand of Christianity, including Chinese Christian folk religion, just as Shias, Christians, Yazidis and even Sunni Arabs suffer at the hands of ISIL.  The operation of a theocratic and militarised rule is present both then and now, with a haphazard and brutal application.

Initially, Europeans decided to stay neutral as the Taiping Heavenly Army’s superior generalship defeated the Qing armies thrown against it. The West keeping their powder dry as ISIS adopted ever loftier ambitions  is an all too obvious parallel, just as the decision to intervene to protect Irbil in Kurdistan echoes the involvement of the superpowers of the day, Britain and France, helping protect Shanghai and reorganising the Chinese military so it could put down the rebellion, Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon leading the way (Gordon would meet his match and death against another extremist army in the Sudan).  Although nineteenth century European governments preferred a weak China to a resurgent one, Western politicians have accepted that the possibility of Iraq remaining a unitary state is gone forever and a federal structure will have to be put in place.

The strategy of the Taiping Heavenly Army was to take major cities, consolidate their hold on these, then subdue and recruit in the surrounding countryside while engaging Qing forces.  Again, it almost seems that ISIL has been following the same handbook.  The death toll over 14 years of fighting in China is hard to gauge but most estimates put it between 20-30 million dead, largely from disease and famine created by the dislocations.  A man-made catastrophe then, like in Ethiopia in the 1980s and like the Yazidis facing starvation on Mount Sinjar.  Thus the Taiping Rebellion was finally suppressed (in 1864) but at great cost.  With ISIL straddling both Iraq and Syria it is hard to see how the endgame will play out, though the fall of Nanjing still left Heavenly Army contingents in the field, the latter making incursions into Siam.

ISIL however could not have made their advances were it not for the failures at the centre.  Nouri al-Maliki has been sidelined as prime minister by his own coalition but much of the Iraqi Army still answers to him.  He is a weak man who wants to be a strongman, regardless that he has been cast aside even by his regional backer Iran.  In the three years since the US Army left, he has hollowed out the Iraqi Army to the same extent that it took several corrupt and/or poorly led governments in Ukraine a quarter of a century to achieve in their own case.

Ukraine is instructive in other ways as well.  Following the purges of the Soviet Red Army in the 1930s, Marshal Semyon Mikhailovich Budenny came to command the Soviet forces in Ukraine and Bessarabia.  To the soldiers under his command, he was the man “with the very large moustache and the very small brain”.  As the historian Geoffrey Regan puts it in The Guinness Book of Military Blunders, Budenny’s “meteoric rise to a position where he could do such damage stemmed from his friendship with Joseph Stalin and his obvious lack of ability… The fact that Budenny survived [the purges] and prospered speaks volumes.”  Despite outnumbering the Germans between three and four to one in men and tanks, his command was annihilated by the invading Germans, losing 1,500,000 men between July and September 1941 alone.  al-Maliki’s handpicked choices to lead the Iraqi Army have been utter failures, 350,000 troops fleeing in the face of a force fifty times smaller.

There the comparisons end.  Much of the Soviet equipment destroyed was obsolete and the factory complexes in the Urals would soon restock the Red Army with superior tanks, aeroplanes and automatic weapons.  Unfortunately, much of what the Iraqi Army has abandoned in its headlong rush from the frontline (clearly al-Maliki’s cronies had no idea how to instil morale) was top-of-the-range hardware that the USA had sold to Baghdad.  Humvees and tanks are now being driven around by ISIL militants with vast quantities of stores available to them to continue their offensive – a criminal state of affairs.  No wonder the Kurdish Peshmerga militia struggled manfully but ultimately found ISIL irresistible, until the US airstrikes began.  The USSR prevailed over the Wehrmacht but at a human cost equivalent to the Taiping Rebellion.  ISIL will probably be overcome – eventually – by a combination of governmental and Kurdish deployments aided by Western air superiority, yet with each passing day the casualties mount inexorably.