A word on Paris

The State Department has issued a worldwide travel advisory for the next three months:

     Current information suggests that ISIL (aka Da’esh), al-Qa’ida, Boko Haram, and other terrorist groups continue to plan terrorist attacks in multiple regions.  These attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics, using conventional and non-conventional weapons and targeting both official and private interests. This Travel Alert expires on February 24, 2016.    

     Authorities believe the likelihood of terror attacks will continue as members of ISIL/Da’esh return from Syria and Iraq.  Additionally, there is a continuing threat from unaffiliated persons planning attacks inspired by major terrorist organizations but conducted on an individual basis.  Extremists have targeted large sporting events, theatres, open markets, and aviation services.

I have been thinking a lot about the Paris attacks and not just because we have a number of guides to Paris.  Our main Paris and France author, Andy Herbach, has written his own blog post which I commend to you here. There are two basic questions we each need to answer: what should we do as travelers — stay or go — and what should we as a nation (or we in the West) do collectively to turn the tide of war in our favor?

The first question can only be answered by each of us on our own. No amount of research can help us arrive at the correct decision. Terrorist attacks have increased quite a bit in the West in the past two years, but most of it still occurs in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. Odds are quite small that I’ll find myself in the middle of an attack on my next trip to Paris or London or Berlin, but it remains a possibility. We each deal with risk in our own fashion.

On the larger question of what we should do in the face of radical Islamic terrorism, here are my thoughts:

Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre, is one of my favorite books. It’s the story of the liberation of Paris in August 1944. The title comes from the question Hitler posed to his Paris commander, General von Choltitz, who was given orders to utterly destroy the city before German troops fled the Allied advance. I’ve been thinking about this book a lot in the past 10 days. Of course there are differences between these two events — although the last time a curfew in Paris was imposed before November 13 was in 1944 — and differences between the ‘isms’ the West collectively faced then (Nazism/Fascism) and those we face today (Islamism). But I wonder if in the ISIS command structure down to the level of ‘field commanders’ there is a General von Choltitz, someone who knows which way the wind is blowing and who can rethink his or her training, ideology, faith — that is, someone who is willing to defy their highest authorities and will refuse to carry out planned attacks against the West.

Sadly, I doubt there is for two reasons.

First, as fanatical as many Nazi Party members were, none believed they would be meeting their maker with a gift of 72 virgins and a hearty slap on the back for a job well done. The mix of Nazi pagan and racial beliefs did not include eternal paradise. The true believers and their many enablers knew they would be rewarded in this world — as long as the Nazi empire existed and thrived — not in the next. Once it was clear that the empire was crumbling, however, the opportunity for a von Choltitz to emerge and defy Hitler’s order became thinkable and, of course, did indeed happen.

Second, and related, in WWII it was clear after Stalingrad, the Italian landings, and Normandy that Germany would lose the war. The Allied offensive was furious and the aim — yes, there was an aim — was unconditional surrender. There was no mistaking the resolve of Churchill, FDR, and Stalin. No half-measures would be acceptable. German senior officers believed that they would be made to pay for their crimes.

But today, ISIS and other terror groups do not see any such resolve. Yes, the French and Russians have stepped up their attacks in Syria now, but for how long? American forces are participating in a hopelessly forlorn, desultory, and, for the most part, unserious way. Compare our sortie rate (air strike missions) from Operation Desert Storm in 1991 (1100 sorties a day) to the war to oust Saddam (800 sorties a day) to today’s war against ISIS: an average of 11-12 sorties a day where any ordnance actually gets dropped.

Or consider this:  just the other day we bombed 116 oil tanker trucks, from which ISIS derives a lot of money. They have about a thousand trucks in their fleet, so why did we hit just 10% of their trucks? Because we ran out of bombs to drop; the mission was limited and that was that. And if we’ve known for more than a year now that oil sales are a big part of their revenue, why did we wait so long to start bombing them? The Pentagon spokesman “explained that American officials were deeply worried about harming the truck drivers, who were working for the Islamic State but might not be ISIS themselves. U.S. officials settled on a plan to drop leaflets on the trucks about 45 minutes before the raid, warning the drivers that an attack was coming, while U.S. pilots flew low passes over the area.” This is anything but serious.

Without the kind of furious offensive reminiscent of WWII alluded to above — one that must be led by the United States, for there is no other power with the military, political, and economic firepower to pull this off — then the coalition against ISIS can only ever be fragmentary and half-hearted. And we know that will not happen at least until January 2017, if then.

As long as ISIS perceives itself as winning, no field commanders will defect, let alone refuse to carry out orders. It is highly unlikely that operatives carrying out terrorist attacks will ever be deterred, I grant you, but when ISIS leaders perceive they are facing no serious and sustained long-term resistance, then we are not setting the stage for young kids with suicide vests to rethink their commitment in the first place. ISIS sees presidential candidates declaring that Islamic State terrorism undertaken in Allah’s name has nothing to do with Islam, and, if they are given to laughter, they must be rolling on the floor with amazement and disdain. They have taken advantage of the tide of migrants that naturally provides them an opportunity for infiltration — and all it takes is a handful of infiltrators — and their contempt for our desire not to offend only grows.

It is clear that we are not even past the early stage of our war with ISIS. In 1942 Churchill felt that it was, “perhaps, the end of the beginning” after three years of major combat operations. Rather, we are now in the phony war stage, where very little of consequence is being achieved, and this is where we have been for years.  Let’s go even further back, to the period of time when Churchill first took over from Chamberlain; three days into his prime ministership, on May 13, 1940, at a time when the Nazi menace was clearly ascendant and no one could foresee how, when, or if it could be stopped, the great man had this to say to Pariliament:

     You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory; victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.

However unpleasant the reality, we are in a war with radical Islamists and have been for many years. Churchill had it right. I vote for achieving victory, which can only be achieved by waging war.



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