“…you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, protect it and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men in the mud.”
T.R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War
On a weekly basis, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) invites us to watch the torture of the group’s captives. It is a campaign of terror by social media, and it’s been astonishingly successful. I do not know what ISIS aims to accomplish with such gruesome spectacles. However, much of the American public is now prepared to double down on the most disastrous foreign policy failure since the Vietnam War. NATO warplanes now engage ISIS positions daily. Our intelligence communities are doubtlessly already well within the group’s ranks. Both our aircrews and our spies are well-aware of the consequences of failure. Their valor can’t be overstated.
But information without action is impotent. Air Forces do not liberate nations. Despite historical precedent that spans a century, we still welcome the delusion of liberating nations without ever feeling their soil. This idea is so durable because it validates a culture that classifies warfighting as a sector of the service industry: A task to performed by skilled professionals at a negotiated rate, using highly specialized tools, at minimum inconvenience to the consumer.
When we see people burned alive or drowned in cages, we experience an angst unique to Westerners of our generation: The knowledge that we could stop it. This anxiety is well-substantiated. NATO absolutely does have the expeditionary capability to force ISIS back into the swamps and mountains, to prevent more grotesquely choreographed torture.
The moral burden that follows is a byproduct of enjoying the services of the most lethal armies mankind has ever fielded. As information technology enables more vivid updates of human suffering, we implicitly accept that we could stop them. As we’ve expanded our ability to fight, we’ve shrunk our plausible deniability for moral sins of omission.
However, we must be honest about the cost of relieving our moral angst: We would, effectively, need to re-invade Iraq. We would need to return to a nightmare. We would need to sideline efforts to rebuild our own societies and infrastructure, and instead refocus on an expensive, tedious, and unrewarding task. We would need to accept that our own domestic conflicts – the education of our children, our health, and our national welfare – would once again become secondary priorities.
Most significantly, we must understand that we would end human lives. When the state incarcerates a prisoner, suppresses a riot, or arrests a thief, ending human life is the final option. In warfare, ending human life is the default course of action. American generals never asked loyalists or Confederates or Nazis about their feelings on the US Constitution. Their allegiance to the enemy answered those questions in full.
In all wars, a combatant seeks to destroy his enemy’s ability to resist, or his will to do so. The idea that we can – and should – quantify the suffering caused by violence has been a central theme of this blog. I believe that for violence to be just, we must understand our desired end-state and be willing to achieve it. Futile resistance against overwhelming force is not justified because, if defeat is a foregone conclusion, our violence will not actually reduce the suffering we experience.
This consideration isn’t a factor in our moral calculations regarding ISIS: A NATO task force could absolutely defeat the organization. However, we must resolve to be willing to follow through with enough violence and resources to achieve these objectives. Western warfighting over the past fourteen years does not betray any willingness to do so. The Western status quo in our “fight” against ISIS is this: Given the world’s most advanced weaponry and most experienced warriors, we have opted for type of violence that provides maximum suffering, at maximum expenditure, for minimum likelihood of success.
Here’s the punch-line: We know how to win.
It was never spoken at the Commander’s Update Brief (CUB). Sometimes, a brave Major might allude to it at the Commander’s Highlight Update Brief (CHUB), but certainly no Captain had the nuts to follow through
If we can no longer stomach the images, the reports, the gruesome videos, we must be honest with ourselves about the cost of banishing them: We will need to declare war on ISIS. Not an intervention, not a policing action, and certainly not “airstrikes,” but rather the third full-scale invasion of Iraq in a quarter-century. We must be willing to incur massive debt and subsequent currency devaluation. We must be willing to accept more risk on urgent environmental issues. We’ll need to brace our communities and criminal justice systems for the inevitable, post-war influx of alienated, emotionally traumatized young veterans. But most significantly we’ll need to understand that, in exchange for the emotional trauma of no longer seeing images of ISIS’s torture, we’ll be accepting these types of images on an increasingly frequent basis:
That’s the cost. That’s what it’ll take. With the dramatic decline in violence during our generation, we’ve come to expect warfare that’s quick and bloodless. That type warfare is a myth, a fantasy lived out in political speeches and Pentagon briefings.
Destroying an enemy as formidable as ISIS will never be a convenient undertaking. It will be long, expensive, bloody, and – with all apologies to my feminist peers – will absolutely involve putting our “young men in the mud.”