It is unpleasant to explain to our children not only that we are at war, but that they will be, too. At a time when adult behavior is in short supply on our college campuses, however, it is particularly important to deliver some unpleasant truths to the kids, among them that our real-life enemies—who really do want to kill us and destroy our civilization—do not come straight from the pages of their storybooks. Western leaders have managed to avoid both truths for 14 years. And counting.
Less than two months after the September 11 attacks, I framed the conflict as “World War IV” in a Wall Street Journal article. The main point:
The Cold War was World War III, which reminds us that not all global conflicts entail the movement of multimillion-man armies, or conventional front lines on a map. The analogy with the Cold War does, however, suggest some key features of that conflict: that it is, in fact, global; that it will involve a mixture of violent and nonviolent efforts; that it will require mobilization of skill, expertise and resources, if not of vast numbers of soldiers; that it may go on for a long time; and that it has ideological roots.
I took a good deal of abuse for that coinage, and for criticizing efforts to talk about our Islamist enemies as if they were the “the real-world equivalents of J. K. Rowling’s Lord Voldemort, Tolkien’s Sauron, or C. S. Lewis’ White Witch,” that is, nameless evildoers who do evil for the sake of doing evil. Yet leaders from Jeremy Corbyn to Barack Obama continue to express that piety, and it keeps us from coming to grips with what we are up against.
The French, having been hit a second time, and harder, by the Islamists are now quite open in calling this war. And so it is. Mere criminals act for the sake of illicit gain or out of dumb sadism. The Islamic State does have its heists and extortion, but while it is certainly sadistic, it is not stupid—it is purposive and very intelligent. They are brave people, those murderers and suicide bombers; they are well organized and trained; they have a real, political end in view, even if we think it is mad. So were Mao’s purposes, after all, and Western leaders still smile ingratiatingly at his portrait when they go to China.
Our leaders fool themselves and try to fool us when they claim that the Islamists are “contained”, let alone “losing.” On the contrary: When European writers and journalists censor themselves, when politicians bend over backwards to denounce “Islamophobia” and de facto concede control of some parts of their cities to those who reject Western rights and laws, the Islamists win.
One of the Administration’s greatest failures over the last seven years is its persistent underestimation of the enemy (“on the verge of strategic defeat”, “the Jayvee team”, “contained”, and as ever “on the wrong side of history”), to the point of failing to take them seriously. When al-Qaeda hit the Benghazi consulate, the White House may have sincerely believed that this was a spontaneous mob unhappy about a six-month-old trailer to a movie that was never made. The profound strategic stupidity implicit in that claim is actually more damning than the alternative thesis that senior officials simply lied to avoid domestic political embarrassment. But the Administration is hardly alone. The British Home Secretary—a Conservative, of course—declared on Monday, “The [Paris] attacks have nothing to do with Islam.” Rubbish. They most certainly do—a vicious, apocalyptic, and thankfully minority element of Islam, to be sure, but Islam nonetheless.
Contrary to what the President and his team have claimed, the enemy is doing just fine, thank you. The Syrian civil war is providing the training ground for thousands of recruits to the jihadi cause; the refugee camps with hundreds of thousands of displaced, abused, and traumatized children offer an unlimited pool for replacements in years to come. Western civilization cannot quite bring itself to commit to the hard fact of war, preferring useless gestures of sympathy—first it was “je suis Charlie” and now it is illuminating buildings in the French colors. Sweet, to be sure, but sweet does not win wars.
What will it take to fight this war? Begin with endurance: this war will probably go on for the rest of my life, and well into my children’s. That is an unpleasant reality, but there it is. Politicians will have to explain just how high the stakes are. The President may be right in the narrowest sense when he says that the Islamic State is not an “existential threat”, but its actions can derange our politics and cause chaos in parts of the world that we care a great deal about. If they ever acquire weapons of mass destruction (which they would like to do), they can and will kill thousands and tens of thousands rather than tens and hundreds.
We will have to understand the ideology, or rather ideologies of our enemies. The Islamic State may be an outgrowth of al-Qaeda but it differs in its tactics, the specific grisliness of its methods, its willingness to kill other Muslims, and its overall strategic concept. Until government officials can discuss these matters openly we will be doomed to a strategy that consists chiefly of therapeutic bombing, which will temporary relieve the itch, but leave the wounds suppurating.
Finally, we need to stop the circumlocutions. The “violent extremists” are in fact Islamists. We do not intend to “bring them to justice” or “take them off the battlefield”, but rather capture or kill them. Although it is true one cannot kill one’s way out of an insurgency, we are going to have to a kill a great many people—thousands, not hundreds—before we break the back of the Islamic State and kindred movements. To that end we need a long-range plan not to “contain” but to crush them. It seems fairly evident that the Administration lacks such a plan, but if it exists it is plainly failing.
It will be a long, bloody, and costly process; what is at stake is not simply our way of life in the sense of rock concerts and alcohol in restaurants, but the more fundamental rights of freedom of speech and religion, the equality of women, and, most essentially, the freedom from fear and freedom to think.
My critics were wrong. It was World War IV in 2001. It is World War IV today. And quite possibly it will be World War IV for more tomorrows than either they or I will see. If our children or our children’s children are not to say the same, we must start by telling them the truth.