Every student of military history has heard the old saw that generals always fight the last war. It means that generals apply lessons learned from the last war in order to prepare for the next, and is intended to be a word of caution: The next war may be nothing like the last.
Donald Trump’s statement in the aftermath of carnage in Nice that he would seek a declaration of war against ISIS raises the question of what he believes a war on ISIS would look like. If he views it solely in the conventional sense of engaging and destroying an enemy on a physical battlefield then he misunderstands the nature of the war that already is underway.
Unlike past wars this war is being fought in part in cyberspace, with the battles fought to recruit “home-grown” terrorists and to inspire attacks in Europe and the United States as important as the battles for territory in the Middle East; they are two fronts of the same war. In the minds of the terrorists there is no bright line separating the virtual caliphate from the one on the ground. The terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States will not end simply because ISIS is defeated on the battlefields of the Middle East. ISIS also will have to be defeated on its second front in Europe and the United States, and doing so will require different strategies and tactics from those employed to defeat ISIS on a conventional battlefield.
The measures necessary to defeat ISIS on its second front may come as a shock to our sensibilities. Battles will have to be fought in cyberspace to counter ISIS recruiting and to identify potential terrorists. Internet and other communications will have to be monitored to an extent that we never would tolerate for ordinary law enforcement. We will have to give intelligence agencies powers that we really do not like to give them. To reduce potential enemies inside our borders to a manageable size for surveillance there will have to be profiling of individuals by religion, ethnicity, and national origin, with access to the United States controlled in the same manner. It will be uncomfortable and it will place a strain on our democracy.
Conventional warfare is far more brutal and dehumanizing, but most Americans manage to avoid the experience by delegating the ugliness to the relative handful of volunteers in the military. Sooner or later a president is going to have to sit us down and explain that all of us are going to have to tolerate some intrusions and indignities if ISIS is to be defeated. This war is not like previous wars, and is not confined to distant battlefields. It cannot be fought in the manner that we fought past wars and this time the “home front” must be actively engaged in the war-fighting effort if only by accepting some of the unpleasant consequences of this new kind of war.
July 15, 2016