Best Defense

A grunt’s reaction to the Paris attacks: Let’s not make another failed case study

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris, which claimed over a 129 lives, leaving countless more injured and maimed, have set the wheels of war turning once again.



By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of Former Enlisted

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris, which claimed over a 129 lives, leaving countless more injured and maimed, have set the wheels of war turning once again. French President François Hollande characterized the attacks claimed by the Islamic State as “an act of war.” He vowed to a wounded French nation that, “We will lead the fight, and we will be ruthless.”

French warplanes have already attacked the capital of the Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria. Although the aerial assault was largely symbolic, the operation is a harbinger of what is to come. There is talk that France will demand NATO action, invoking Article 5, which states an “armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” With the precedent set by the United States when it invoked Article 5 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a French-led NATO action against the Islamic State may be only a matter of time and scale.

James Stavridis, former NATO supreme allied commander, even recently argued, “The fundamental purpose of a NATO mission should be to defeat the Islamic state in Syria and destroy the infrastructure it has created there.”

It all makes me ask: Have we learned nothing in the last fourteen years of war?

Why do I say that? Because no amount of aerial bombardment will destroy the Islamic State. At best, targeted strikes will prove an inconvenience, weakening logistical supply lines or eliminating a handful of sites. By its inherent nature, air power cannot hold territory. Thus, allowing the Islamic State to weather the storm, hiding behind civilian populations in its strongholds like Aleppo, Mosul, and Ramadi. Ultimately, an aerial campaign will drop millions in ordnances on shattered cities, achieving nothing meaningful. Only look as far as Libya to see the shortcomings of ‘aerial liberation.’ Addressing the issue of Libya in May 2015, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s chief, confessed, “The challenge was that after the military operation has ended, the efforts to try to stabilize the country did not succeed.”

So, let’s say NATO brings the full military might of its 28-nation alliance to bear upon the Islamic State. Ground troops will have to wade into a maelstrom of local realities and far-reaching geopolitical consequences. The war will be reminiscent of the failed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Cities may be liberated after long, bloody engagements like the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq and the tumultuous campaign in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. But what then? Will NATO remain behind for another decade of counterinsurgency and reconstruction – hoping the third time is the charm?

This is all a drama I’ve seen before.

In the Paris attacks, I see my twelve-year-old self watching the Twin Towers crumble, only a few miles away from my middle school. In the escalating calls for Syrian intervention, I see myself enlisting in the Marine Corps at eighteen, eager to make a difference. In the bombing raids in Syria, I see the aerial blitz to Baghdad, which would land me in Ramadi, struggling to navigate the byzantine morality and utility of the war. And ten years from now, I see myself interviewing another generation of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) about their stories of loss and heartache. The only difference will be the names and places, but the tragedy will be no different.

So, I see the same war of 2001 unfolding in 2015, feeding off the latest flurry of righteous anger and the impulse to strike back. But how many more ill-conceived, half-baked interventions must we wage before we learn that waging war is easy – building peace is a decade long process. And if we are not prepared to build meaningful peace, we should be wary to wage war in its name. For the price will be steep, as it’s always been.

Sebastian J. Bae, a frequent contributor to Best Defense, served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a Sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He received his Masters at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, specializing in counterinsurgency and humanitarian interventions. He holds the Marine co-chair on Best Defense’s Council of the Former Enlisted. His instagram handle is sebastianbae.

Photo credit: Imperial War Museums via Wikimedia

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1

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