War is Cruelty, and You Cannot Refine It

A Thought Experiment on the Hegelian dialectic towards ‘Total’ Strategy Development

Let’s talk counterinsurgency and ISIS. Not the “population-centric” fantasy of hearts and minds made popular by FM 3–24, David Petraeus, and liberal American idealism, but real counterinsurgency. Now that a cohesive group of psychotics and organized criminals has thrown the Middle East yet again into a cauldron of seething and violent cultural atavism, what should the world, and the U.S. specifically, do about it? Yet the question is not simply about ISIS. We should not be debating a limited American conflict over two murdered journalists, a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ a displaced Iraqi minority group, or a fantastical Jihad domino theory. The fact that we’ve already, and yet again, framed the problem to such short-sighted issues belies the dearth of our strategic depth and coherence. What do we do about the chronic, endemic issue of which ISIS is merely the latest manifestation?

To answer that question, we must first look at our left and right limits of strategy and risk. What is on the table? What is off the table? What are we really trying to achieve and will it be worth the costs? The new American way of war seems to be to trickle into a fight, muddle our way through it with nebulous and often competing goals, and assume at some point—hopefully not too long after the arrival of boots on the ground or airpower overhead—that our enemies will come to their senses, lay down their arms because they suddenly see things our way, and promise to be good little citizens for time immemorial. I give you Iraq, Afghanistan, and most other every major military engagement back to Vietnam. In all cases, we either failed miserably or artificially delayed what would naturally occur anyway absent our short-termed presence. Similarly, does anyone really think the Dayton Peace Accords forced an enduring settlement between the Croats, Serbs, and Bosniacs considering that Bosnia has provided more volunteers per European capita for the Syrian Jihad than any other country in Europe? There are clear and present dangers we choose to ignore while we enact and enforce artificial peace through the force of our Western arms where no voluntary peace has been organically achieved.

Yet how does that square with geopolitical realities? How should we judge the threat and response to ISIS? It can be argued that most, if not all of the issues today can be encapsulated with the old Polish proverb that reads, “Not my circusnot my monkeys.” This is largely true. What occurs in the larger Middle East is largely not our problem. What occurs in the tribal valleys of Afghanistan is not our problem. What occurs during a trade war between China and Vietnam on the high seas (or between China and Japan over a few unpopulated rocks) is not really our problem. And, most certainly, how a group of criminals and terrorists threatens two nations who are certainly not our friends (Syria and Iraq) unequivocally is not our problem. Even if they became an existential threat to countries beyond Iraq, to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, we would somehow, someway still get our oil. And that’s all that really matters from there.

If you, the reader, are sensing a cold, hard Realism (which has been absent from our foreign policy for far too long) to the above argument, you are correct. Nevertheless, the prevailing counterargument will always breathlessly go something like: “We have to nip ISIS in the bud because 9/11!” “We have to fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here!” “The radical Islamic Domino Theory!” That’s all alarmist and unsupportable bunk. White (ungoverned) spaces on a map are not a threat to us or our interests. They never were. The arguers of such tripe can offer no empirical or historical support to substantiate this claim. It does not square with international relations theory and it does not square with human nature.

Although ungoverned, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Waziristan in Pakistan were not terrorist hotbeds until after we, in response to 9/11, pressured Pakistan to try and extend their writ of sovereignty to those areas. That’s when all hell broke loose there, for Pakistan, Afghanistan, and U.S. troops in the region. We forced the creation of a terrorist magnet there; a theme, counterintuitively, running through our global efforts at counterterrorism.

With these considerations, and being that a military-only solution will most likely be untenable for various reasons to be explained, I will now inform a more reasonable course of action which, while requiring equal levels of systemic thinking, coordination, and effort, is more suitable, feasible, and acceptable. I will present to you the thesis and the antithesis to get to the synthesis of strategy.


There are many other catalysts that give rise to terrorism and eventual threats to the homeland beyond the myth of ungoverned spaces or discrete and mythically monolithic terrorist organizations. Namely, they are poor governance by sitting corrupt governments, economic disenfranchisement (enabled by those same poorly-governed states), and (a perceived or real) lack of social justice (again, because of those same corrupt or incapable governments). Obviously, there’s a trend here. Even more obvious is that we not only ignore that trend, but we enable it. Look at our “allies.” Saudi Arabia. Bahrain. Qatar. Nigeria. Yemen. Afghanistan. Pakistan. The list goes on, but all share a common thread. They have something we want, so we shore up the sitting governments no matter how wildly corrupt or malfeasant they are. And there are repercussions we have to deal with piecemeal because we refuse to see the forest for the trees. Our strategy is akin to standing outside and mopping up the rain….during a rainstorm. But this, although important, is getting into a different and tangential argument. What we are now dealing with and debating is the “immediate” threat, again, of Islamic terrorism in some far off place. Even though we have declared ISIS an enemy of the United States, the direct link to vital national interests cannot be defined. What, if anything, to do about that right now?

ISIS obviously isn’t the first group of its kind. But given our new American way of war, it is unlikely to be the last. We’re already trickling troops into Iraq. Pin-prick airstrikes are ongoing. Special Operations Forces are undoubtedly carrying out targeted strikes on high-value targets. Short term “success” (disconnected from any longer-term strategy) might even be realized. And we will also allow ISIS a certain level of political if not geographic safe haven, just as we did for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Just as we allow our “allies” in the Gulf States to keep funding terrorism from the thrones of their opulent presidential palaces.

We’ll keep fighting this cancer with one hand tied behind our back. Yet cancer requires a wholesale attack. Even “targeted” anti-cancer therapies try to root out the cancer from the starting place—the genetic source. We have never attempted and will probably not attempt to do this. We’re afraid of backlash. We’re afraid of unintended consequences. We’re afraid of global public opinion. Yet the way we’ve handled our Global War on Terrorism has been a failure.

Something new is needed; something systemic and something complete. Unless, that is, we determine the cost-benefit analysis says it is cheaper to deal with global Jihad and Islamic extremism in the same piecemeal manner we currently do. It would need to tell us that playing “whack-a-mole” as threats pop up seemingly out of nowhere to threaten our long-term globalized prosperity forevermore is better than dealing with the cancer in a coordinated, wholesale way. Our cost-benefit analysis must be informing us that simply “hoping” someday Islamic governments in the Middle East will miraculously become enlightened to the needs of their populaces is a better course of action.

So what to do. Beyond all the handwringing at State and Defense about what is too little or too much, or messaging, or narratives, or soft power, or population-centric strategies that focus on the human element, the answer always was right in front of us.

What follows is a thought experiment on a different course of action and a different strategy. We can either sit back on the defensive, following the terrorists’ lead (be they AQ, ISIS, al-Shabab, etc), or we can take control andwe can determine our next move. The latter alternative will require an international coordination, agreement in principle, and effort we have not seen since our last effective global strategy of containment against the USSR. What follows is a game-changer and, as distasteful as it may initially seem, it represents a course of action, albeit extreme, to deal with an extreme and lasting problem. So, what to do? Beyond all the handwringing at State and Defense about what is too little or too much, or messaging, or narratives, or soft power, or population-centric strategies that focus on the human element, the answer always was right in front of us.

If Islamic extremism is a cancer that will not otherwise die on its own (because we cannot politically control the ineptitude and corruption of the host governments that spawn it), we must eradicate it where we can and contain it where we cannot. What is Islamic extremism? It is a failed idea that Middle-Aged theocratic governance is acceptable in the 21st century. It is the sectarian idea that breeds violence, exclusion, atavism, and chauvinism. It is the idea that finally failed with the Ottoman Empire long after it was due. In a globalized, progressive, modern world where trading, partnering, and cooperating nations work amongst each other to secure their interests and, at times, the larger good, there is obviously no place for radical Islamism. I don’t need to tell this to you, the reader, as it goes without saying.

Yet our previous attempts to deal with it have been not strategic, but half-hearted and narrow-minded. And, critically, because of our experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 2000s, we made Jihad and radical Islamism something that is here to stay. In the 1980s we first politically legitimized Jihad against the Soviets. This was the short-sighted and misplaced centerpiece of Charlie Wilson and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s strategy of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ Decades later in Afghanistan, when that political Islam we fostered metastasized into the Taliban, we then tried to win a contest of ideas with Islamic scholars and revolutionaries about what was ‘good’ Islam versus ‘bad’ Islam (i.e., we got into an ideological ‘pissing contest’ with terrorists thinking we could win over their narrative about good Islam to a fence-sitting native population).

In the 1980s, we supported the Saudi Wahhabists in their cancerous spread of radicalism; first to Pakistan then, under our noses (and not so unknowingly), to places in the wider Middle East and North Africa. Also, places like Chechnya and the Balkans in later decades (it will be interesting to see what happens when all those Saudi-radicalized foreign fighters return from the Syrian battlefields to Bosnia). One simply need follow the money. Where radical-preaching madrassas pop up, there is often, if not always, a link to a “friendly” oil-rich state. The rise of ISIS is no different. We can no longer be a party to the spread of this cancer. This is the thesis. However, this is not the first step in this triage.


World War II in Europe ended when the Germans capitulated in Berlin. The war in the Pacific ended on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay later that year. The key term of this surrender was ‘unconditional.’ War would be waged, ideas would be killed, any hopes or fantasies of continuing to fight would be crushed. This was accomplished through wholesale, industrial violence. Fighting Nazism and Japanese Imperialism was necessary to protect our way of life.; it was existential. We know total war works.

We also know the limited war actuated by the Global War on Terrorism and the Authorization for Use of Military Force is an unqualified failure by any strategic measure. Not only have we spread the cancer of terrorism from the backwater mountains of Afghanistan, we’ve created magnets of terrorism in many new places. We’ve steeled the hearts and minds of revolutionaries and terrorists by the support we give to the various corrupt host nations that disenfranchise them in our blind quest for GWOT partners. We create more terrorists by playing whack-a-mole with the ones we can find and by continuing to support Saudi Arabia and the like and allowing them to make a mockery of political self-actualization for their populaces. It all does go back to Maslow’s hierarchy after all.

If we are to address ISIS militarily, which was the original question posed here, we must address it wholly, unconditionally, and unreservedly. That is the choice we must make. We cannot trickle our way into and then out of this lest it just pop up again at a different time and a different place. Again, see Iraq and Afghanistan. This is how we’ve tried to handle this disease in the past. It has gotten us strategically nowhere and resulted in thousands of dead American soldiers.

We did not ask for this war, but this region of the world has obviously decided to visit it upon us and our allies. As General William Tecumseh Sherman stated in his letter to the civic leaders of Atlanta before he burned it to the ground in 1864: “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our Country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to Secure Peace. …The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for, if it relaxes one bit to pressure, it is gone….” For us, our nation, our children, and the future prosperity of the rest of the modern world, this cancer must be stamped out.

General Sherman marching out of Atlanta

We worry however of the backlash, the opprobrium from the civilized world. My answer? Israel’s Operation Protective Edge…and every previous ‘mowing the grass’ operation to date. The IDF horrifically killed hundreds upon hundreds of innocent Palestinians. Women, children, non-combatants all. Razed hospitals, schools, houses of worship. Unequivocally horrible, but it was war. While their ‘mowing the grass’ strategy seems to be counterproductive (largely because it doesn’t have a political end-state in sight), this is not the point and not the corollary I am trying to make. Horrible losses of innocent life were suffered by non-combatants in and around the areas of the IDF’s targets. And a single month after the operation ceased? It is not in the news anymore…at all. The most liberal of EU governments who were some of the harshest critics of Israel still trade with them. Israel goes on, its political capital a little tarnished but this too will diminish with time. Because the world forgets and because the world can recognize the larger threat to their civility and civilization. Our attention span in the West gets shorter by the year. Israel did what it thought necessary and the world goes on. The biggest challenge to rational strategy development (the short-term memory of the general public beyond the 24-hour news cycle) can in actuality be our greatest enabler to dealing with the problem at hand in the manner proposed.

So how should we conduct a counterinsurgency against a global Islamist threat? How have successful counterinsurgencies been accomplished in the past? Certainly not Afghanistan or Iraq. There are examples out there. We just choose not to look at them.

ISIS, its supporters, and the very ideas that give rise to it and the innumerable groups like it, must be eradicated; wholly and fully eradicated. They, like weeds or cancer, cannot be allowed to take root. This will take a global cooperative effort. It will not be politically pretty at the outset (because we have allowed them to take root in our various homelands, US and Europe, both) but that will lessen over time as it becomes effective and as the short-term memory of the Western nations takes its effect. The entire region of Eastern Syria and Iraq is a target rich environment. So is Somalia, northern Nigeria, Libya, and other contested spaces where it has taken root.

The one thing our nation should have learned after Iraq and Afghanistan is “go big or go home.” If we are going to unleash the dogs of war on radical Islamism, the gloves must come off, the waves of bombers need to fly, and restrictive ROEs must be largely removed from what we know them to be. It has to be coordinated, it has to be hard-hitting, and it has to be widespread. There can be no qualifying this war in harsher terms than we will employ. It must be cruel and it must be unrefined.

And when Islamic protests holding signs of “Islam will rule over all,” or “Massacre those who insult Islam,” or “Sharia for the….” (Netherlands, UK, pick-your-state) show up in London or DC or Amsterdam, these people need to be rounded up and deported to their home countries, even if a generation or so removed. No trial, no due process, no appeal. It is a war and their message and way of life is inimical to our own. This is effective counterinsurgency. Our failures from Afghanistan and Iraq (and Vietnam) should inform the strategy that the changing of ideas and ideologies cannot come through debate with criminals or psychotics or people who view a war as total while we view it as limited; it must come through unremitting violence. Enemies will only stop when they are dead or when they unconditionally surrender. Populations, we know, can be made to unconditionally surrender their ideas.

ISIS, its supporters, and the very ideas that give rise to it and the innumerable groups like it, must be eradicated. Wholly and fully eradicated. They, like weeds or cancer, cannot be allowed to take root.

Where the cancer has taken hold, it must be destroyed. Any thoughts of resistance or carrying on the fight for Mohammad like this was the 8th century Islamic Conquest need to be wholly and thoroughly shattered. It needs to be entirely destroyed from the minds of any population. From the fighters themselves, the fence-sitting populations providing indirect support and breathing space, their children, and children’s children. This can only be achieved through unlimited violence and a global pressure not seen since the World War leading to unconditional surrender. Allied governments must take control of their populations and not let the insidious nature of radicalism continue to take root within their borders. Again, this needs to be a total war for it to be effective. The West has temporarily waived “constitutional rights” before in such wartime circumstances and we are all still gleaming models of democracy in comparison to the cancer of what we are fighting against. This is the antithesis.


A true military campaign to root out the cancer of Islamic extremism will be long, (necessarily) bloody, and most likely beyond the pale of modern liberal governments. Although this is the methodology that has made counterinsurgency truly successful in the past, this represents a strategy simply not acceptable today (even if it were suitable and feasible). So where does this lead to? Where ISIS and the like cannot be stamped out because of the sovereignty of other states and geopolitical requirements and realities, it must be contained. This is strategy we know and understand. This strategy works.

Both unlimited war and containment have worked very efficiently and very well for us in the past against different threats at different times. When it mattered to us enough to employ them in the right times and places, we did so to great effect. It can be argued that the on again/off again threat of radical Islam and ‘global Jihad’ present such a threat to our long-term globalized prosperity. Not the specific threat of ISIS or al Qaeda, but rather the unceasing ineptitude of Middle Eastern theocratic governments who only continue to enable and export this problem. The risks to our peacetime Grand Strategy are greater by dealing with this through limited wars of pin-pricks to an amoeba-like enemy than dealing with it through a major overhaul of our foreign policy. A military strategy is one way, and it would be beneficial to have some manner of it precede the following, this second part is the more enduring solution and strategy to achieve long-term goals. This is the synthesis.

The longer strategy comes through containment. There must be a veritable wall put up around the genetic wellspring of these radicalist fantasies. The governments of countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Qatar, etc., who we know support and fund terrorism need to be put on short alert. We will first deport any citizens we find in our countries who can be attributed to these respective nationalities. We can track home-grown foreign fighters originating in our countries crossing our borders via air back and forth to these hot zones. They cannot not be allowed to return no matter whose passport they hold.

People passing out ISIS leaflets in London, etc. can be easily tracked, their networks identified, and rounded up for deportation. They simply do not have a place in Western civilization. Furthermore, a terrorist attack on any target anywhere in the world having the earmarks of Saudi et al. money must be met in kind by targeted strikes. And not simply to “terrorist training camps.” These terrorists and Jihadists are supported, both directly and indirectly, by these governments. We gave the government of the Taliban such warning immediately post 9/11 and when they didn’t concede, they paid the price. That is the purpose of war: to get the enemy to bend to your will.

Who and what are our true enemies? The toadies that carry the AK-47 and do the beheading or their ideological and financial sponsors? Countries that support and export terrorism and sectarian conflict must be made to bend to our political will; specifically, we must send a clear, unmistakable message that we will no longer stand for it. The charade we’ve been playing for the past decade plus must end. If Islamism was a threat not unlike North Korea, where they were content to remain a Hermit Kingdom, it would be one thing. Since they are not and since governments in the Gulf are happy to have their ideology spread as part of their larger war to win the Sunnia-Shia schism, we must force the containment. We must not continue to be Saudi Arabia’s proxy to win their sectarian conflict for them against either Iran or progressivism and modernity, or both. Again, this must be a coordinated, global response that can only work with the cooperation of our true partners.

Without viewing military action against the visible enemy as a first step in a longer process it will similarly be doomed to failure.

There must be a political goal. We can either a) continue to ‘mow the grass’ like the Israelis in our global war against terrorism and play whack-a-mole forever, accepting more and more risk to our Western grand peacetime strategies, or b) eradicate the threat. It is as simple as that. The Israelis are neither solving anything, nor securing their futures with a better peace than what they have today. We must do better. We have the tools, resources, scope, and strategic depth to do better.

If we decide to address this threat of ISIS which, by all accounts, is limited and not particularly dangerous to our national interests, we must look at it as part of the larger whole. Simply targeting ISIS, like targeting the Taliban or al Qaeda for that matter, is short-sighted. Without viewing military action against the visible enemy as a first step in a longer process, it will similarly be doomed to failure. Where does this cancer come from? We cannot continue to look at treating the symptoms and not the causes.

ISIS does not constitute a direct threat. However, the long term risk to our global economic prosperity is threatened by the continuing ‘here today, gone tomorrow, back again stronger in an unexpected place the next day’ embodiment of radical Islamism. This is enabled by Islamic monarchies and theocracies whose interests are inimical to our own. We can continue to muddle through dealing with this threat or we can take it head on. If we are to address this, we must address it systemically, like a cancer. It will be cheaper in blood and treasure to rip the band-aid off than to keep trudging along through half-measures and counterproductive alliances. We all know this to be the case. We all know we maintain ‘alliances’ with states whose interests directly and violently compete with our own security and long-term interests. We all know political safe havens exist and anything we’ve attempted previously has been limited, ineffectual, and counterproductive.

No occupation, no nuclear weapons, no winning hearts and minds. Those are all variously extreme, unnecessary, or fantastical. Yet a two-pronged and long-term strategic approach can work. First, the ‘gloves are off’ of military operations to utterly destroy the concept of Jihad and Islamic conquest in the places we can reach. Second, we must thoroughly contain the cancer in the places we cannot reach. This is not a call to simply lay waste to a region of the globe, but it is a call to reassess what both the near- and far-term threats are, how to effectively and systematically deal with them, and how not to be encumbered by the political and liberal niceties that have previously stymied our attempts at securing national and global prosperity around the cancer that ISIS again symptomizes.

The failure of Middle East Islamic governments should not matter to the rest of the world. That is, until these governments directly or indirectly support and export the cancer of Jihad. The onus is on the populations of those countries to get their own houses in order. Until such a time as that occurs; until an “Islamic Enlightenment” brings them out of the depths and backwardness of their sectarian conflicts, we should let them spill as much Sunni or Shia blood as is necessary for them to achieve it. “Strategies” to date for dealing with ISIS proffered by U.S. politicians and even most ‘subject matter experts’ within the DoD or State Department are only half measures. They will neither solve the problem nor ensure any longer term safety for American interests.

The same failures have dog-eared our strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are short-term strategies of political accommodation. This, of course, is the Achilles Heel of the new American way of war. This is, of course, why most of this proposed strategy can most likely never be enacted. It is too long-term in view, it requires too much political cooperation, it requires a reassessment of many geopolitical alignments that are too comfortable and through which so much money flows into the coffers of American politicians and corporations.

The answer was always staring at us right in the face, even if we refused to see it for these aforementioned reasons. The problem and threat have never been viewed and dealt with holistically. Kill the cancer where it has spread to, by any means necessary, and wall off and contain the genetic source of the cancer until it either entirely dies off on its own or until those genetically-cancerous societies or cultures achieve political enlightenment according to their own timeline.

The world can wait, but we cannot do it for them and we should stop trying. The choice is clear: if we choose to keep a narrow view of the threat (ISIS and its repercussions), we should do nothing. Let the countries of the Gulf and Middle East sweat over it and spend their blood and treasure when it becomes necessary to deal with. However, if we choose to take the longer view, then we ‘go big or go home.’ Unconditional surrender and containment. We know that works quite well.

 Jeremy Kotkin is a U.S. Army strategist and professional devil’s advocate. The views expressed in this piece are his alone and do not represent the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: William Tecumseh Sherman as a major general in May 1865. Sherman famously said in a letter to the civic leaders of Atlanta before he burned it to the ground in 1864, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” (Public Domain)