Can we defeat ISIS by “killing them all”? We’ve learned nothing since 9/11.

Summary: What have we learned from our ways since 9/11? How have we changed since 9/11? The enthusiasm of our presidential candidates, except Trump and Sanders, for more of the Long War suggests we’ve learned nothing. The broad support for torture (63% in a recent poll) suggests that we have become more like the monsters we fight. This interview with noted military experts Ralph Peters shows both these trends, an ominous sign for our future.

“Kill them all; let God sort them out.”
— Loose translation of phrase attributed to Papal legate Arnaud Amalric before the Massacre at Béziers, in France at the start of the Albigensian Crusade.

Another demonstration of America’s failure to learn from our post-9/11 wars

Ralph Peters about 4GW

In the 15 years of our post-9/11 wars US forces have fought across the Middle East. We have employed the full trinity of US military methods — popular front militia, massive firepower on civilians (e.g., winning hearts & minds with artillery), plus sweep and destroy missions. Local forces have defeated us in Iraq and Afghanistan by the only metric that counts — they’re still there after we leave. Yet we have learned nothing from this expenditure of America’s blood and money, as we see here.

Ralph Peters (Lt. Colonel, US Army, retired) on Fox News, 22 March 2016

O’REILLY: Do you think the American people have the will to fight ISIS? I mean, the polls show that most favor ground troops, but an entire political party, the Democratic Party is against any kind of meaningful confrontation. What about the folks in general? What do you think?

PETERS: Well, I think the American people certainly could summon the will to defeat ISIS, to destroy ISIS, if properly led. But we are not properly led, and I’m afraid looking at the political landscape we may not be properly led. Because I’m not — generalities won’t defeat ISIS. I’m not hearing the kind of expertise, depth, and strength of character it will take. Worse, Bill, worse, we now have two generations of military officers educated, trained, convinced that it’s more important to prevent casualties and collateral damage than to win. Honestly, I don’t know if our military leaders have the character, the wherewithal to do what it takes to defeat ISIS. It’s not about winning hearts and minds, it’s about splashing their hearts and brains all over the landscape.

Even for Fox News, this is an amazingly ignorant statement to hear in the 15th year of our post-9/11 wars (he said much the same thing in 2014). We’ve learned nothing from our experiences, going back to our attempts to win by “killing them all” in the Vietnam War…

Best and the Brightest
Available at Amazon.

At an early intergovernmental meeting {1962} on the importance of psychological warfare, one of {General} Harkins’ key staffmen, Brigadier General Gerald Kelleher, quickly dismissed that theory. His job, he said, was to kill Vietcong.  But the French, responded a political officer named Donald Pike, had killed a lot of Vietcong and they had not won.

“Didn’t kill enough Vietcong,” answered Kelleher.

— From David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972).

We tried to “kill enough”. The US dropped 1,613,000 tons of bombs in Europe during WWII — and almost five times that on Southeast Asia ( 7,662,000). That’s almost 500 pounds of explosive per person, not including the massive use of artillery and napalm {for more information see this study) — and the more retail-level killing (as at Mai Lai, a sadly common event). Nick Turse’s book documents the result: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.

It should be obvious — but obviously isn’t — why mass murder of insurgents by infidel foreigners is unlikely to work. First, there is the difficulty of distinguishing them from the other locals. The following steps are no easier. This has been proven many times by many nations since WWII, as explained in Chapter 6.2 of Martin van Creveld’s The Changing Face of War (2006)…

“What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure … {W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s expulsion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Eritrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon.

“…Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to defeat local insurgencies. Despite that, foreign forces have an almost uniform record of defeat. Such as the French-Algerian War, which the French waged until their government collapsed.”

Failure to learn is a disability that can offset the power of even the greatest nation.

“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”
Said not by Einstein but by Alcoholics Anonymous, people who know everything about dysfunctionality.

Ralph Peters

About Ralph Peters (Lt. Colonel, US Army, retired)

Peters is a successful novelist and has written a many influential articles in the military literature.  Some, such as “The Human Terrain of Urban Operations” (Parameters, Spring 2000) described changes made clear only years later. His work marks military’s cold war mission and search for new roles in the 21st century — such as this: “The American Mission” (Parameters, Autumn 1999). Our long mad war after 9/11 shows DoD’s success.

We, the American people, have reached the end of a two-and-a-half-century crusade that defined us and changed the world as profoundly as any event in history. For a quarter of a millennium, we fought empires. Now, those empires are gone–every one–and we do not know what to do with ourselves. Our present enemies are vicious, but small. They cannot excite us to a new national purpose. The United States is suffering from victory.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about modern terrorism., especially these…

The Changing Face of War
Available at Amazon.
Kil Anything That Moves
Available at Amazon.

20 thoughts on “Can we defeat ISIS by “killing them all”? We’ve learned nothing since 9/11.”

  1. “It should be obvious — but obviously isn’t — why mass murder of insurgents by infidel foreigners is unlikely to work”

    that quote, indeed the gist of the article is an unproven assertion. not explained is why we won in WW II, killing as necessary to subdue their military and civilian leaders, & their (Germany, Japan) populace. that assertion may be politically correct but it is unproven and ignores the reality I cited.

  2. CONPLAN 4567 Caspian Guard – Common Training Scenario

    Every TRADOC exercise I’ve seen or participated in since the war in Iraq wound down has been some riff on Caspian Guard…with less and less lip-service being paid to fighting insurgents in the scenarios and more and more daydreams about tank battles and artillery duels against some fictional version of Russia or Iran.

    Just like after Vietnam, the Armed Forces is *eager* to forget the painful lessons of a decade plus of counter-insurgency.

    1. ch1kpee,

      I am somewhat surprised by this. I had noticed DoD’s eagerness to hype potential conflicts with Russia and China (note how their servants in the defense media write about the coming atomic war with China). But it’s odd since AFRICOM is their biggest growth area (all 4GWs, all the time) — and we’re involved right now in 4GWs in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

    2. Much like how the Air Force’s primary “raison d’etre” for the last few decades has been ground support and bombing runs………but they still want to get rid of practical craft like the A-10 and waste GDP pursuing newer, more expensive fighter jets.

      Many higher-ups in defense leadership don’t let pesky things like reality get in the way of what they think is cool. And as long as those tax dollars keep flowing, the military-industrial complex is more than willing to accommodate.

      1. ch1kpee,

        Describing an organization’s behavior as irrational usually means you don’t understand their goals. “Cool” is not relevant. The A-10 generates nothing for defense contractors. New fighters and bombers generate almost unimaginable flows of cash. Nothing is more real, the hard “reality”.

    3. Haha, touché!

      Certainly, the smart ones at the general officer level, making these decisions, are ensuring they have a bright post-military career as a contractor or lobbyist for contractors. But you get the sense, talking to people at the O-6 and below level, that there are a lot of them that *believe* in the bullshit that Boeing, Raytheon, and the rest of the military-industrial complex push for. They don’t *want* to fly ugly, slow planes like the A-10…they want fast, sexy fighter jets. They don’t *want* to talk for hours about goats with village elders, babysit anthropologists doing Human Terrain work, or abide by cumbersome rules of engagement…they want to blow shit up and fight like grandpa did at the Battle of the Bulge.

      For the Joint Chiefs and the rest of the highest echelons, I agree with you that it’s probably sleaze driving this turning away from 4GW and back to the old dream of conventional war with big, expensive hardware. But they’re meeting little resistance from the lower ranks who won’t benefit from the contract sleaze…and likely will end up paying in blood and mental trauma for DoD’s continued failure to learn CI. My own intuition is that the bulk of the Armed Forces is tired of “losing” and thinks that if our next fight is a big conventional one, like in WWII, that that’s the sort of fight we’ll “win” at.

      (They conveniently forget about the Korean War and the fact that nuclear weapons have completely changed the way any future conventional conflict will be fought, especially with countries like China or Russia)

      That’s just what I’ve observed, from the field-grade and company-grade officers and NCO’s I get to interact with, so take it for what it’s worth.

      1. ch1kpee,

        You raise many interesting points. I suspect you are correct. History shows that western armies hate 4GWs in 2nd and 3rd world nations. These are dirty wars, with few opportunities for glory, and usually end in defeat.

        At some level, being in the armed forces is just a job. Everybody has dreams of what they’d like their job to be. Few people get to choose the circumstances they practice in.

  3. The article seems to assume that Ralph Peters thinks that the US military must trouble itself with the difficulty of distinguishing the enemy combatants from the other locals. Perhaps he does not. Get rid of that distinction, and defeating insurgency by main force becomes a whole lot easier. Apart from that, is ISIS an insurgency? Who are they insurging against?

    1. Peregrinio,

      “The article seems to assume that Ralph Peters thinks that the US military must trouble itself with the difficulty of distinguishing the enemy combatants from the other locals.”

      No. Rather the opposite.

      “Get rid of that distinction, and defeating insurgency by main force becomes a whole lot easier.”

      That’s quite false. I suggest re-reading the post.

      “is ISIS an insurgency? Who are they insurging against?”

      An insurgency is a rebellion against the government for purposes of gaining power. ISIS is a rebellion against the Iraq and Syrian governments, with intent to spread the rebellion against other ME governments.

      1. ISIS may have been an insurgency once, but that was a while ago. Currently, it is the government. If the US decided at some point to execute a scorched earth policy in Iraq (or almost anywhere), ignoring all niceties and laws, and in the manner of the Roman Empire “make a desert and call it peace”, it could do it. It’s only because it compromises on war in the name of law, decency, human rights, etc., that it keeps losing against irregular forces that ignore such niceties.

      2. Peregrino,

        Your bloodlust is interesting — as a pathology — but delusional. There are sound strategic reasons for not killing millions of people in areas controlled by ISIS. You’re blind to them, sadly.

        Also you are confused about the nature of an insurgency. While combat continues it is daft to declare a winner.

  4. It’s quite funny how ill- bread Americans have successfully deluded themselves into thinking that the “the war on terror” had anything to do with peoples from the middle east? The planes that hit the world trade center did so using drone technology “not yet known by the American peoples despite your tax dollars having paid for the research” to insure a war could be started; where “Enhanced interrogative” tactics (torture) were used to insure America received exclusive rights to the Oil contracts from that region, this to insure American dominance of the worlds production of synthetic material production. Unfortunately our soldiers are of such poor quality that, despite our best efforts to torture them into submission, most of those contracts went to china. Open your eyes…America is no longer a Republic but an Oligarchy, run by corporations who have managed to secure the loyalty of the U.S military by offering them higher pay and better benefits then our governments. Don’t believe me… O.K…look up Lockheed Martin…L3 communications, Northrop-Grumman and so on and so forth.

    Be thankful America for the Rothschild’s wealth… for Russia…and the advent of Kinetic force propulsion…to be continued…hopefully!

    1. rokshox,

      You might have noticed that thing have changed in the past 800 years. You might as well as propose using armored knights on horses, since they worked well for centuries!

      History shows that since WWII foreign armies have consistently been defeated by insurgents using 4GW. That we refuse to see that is quite amazing. Pitiful.

  5. I don’t think you can get any useful information from a soundbite. I have read one of Ralph Peters books and a couple of his articles on the Civil War. His arguments usually strike me a well reasoned. I don’t disagree with the soundbite because it really doesn’t contain enough information to analyze.

    Stanley McChrystal’s JSOC campaign in Iraq to defeat AQI pretty much was nothing more than a war of attrition. Surely, he brought a novel (even revolutionary) approach to the table. In essence, though, the approach was to kill terrorists (or whatever term you prefer) faster than they could be replaced. This campaign did much to hollow out AQI for the other processes going on in Iraq at that time that brought that country back from the brink of anarchy.

    So, in a broad context, killing/capturing terrorists as a main objective can be very effective. If you have the right man, with the right tools, at the right time- you can defeat a terrorist network by eliminating them by force. I am not saying that launching Hellfire missiles from drones is a good way to stop terrorism, but I am saying that a nuanced strategy that has attrition as one of its key tools can work. It has worked.

    What I disagree with is the Editor’s tendency to want to put the ISIS problem in a box that happens to be the same box he wants to put other similar problems. ISIS must be confronted as its own unique problem with unique solutions. However, in my opinion, those solutions must be grounded within the reality that “it’s about splashing their hearts and brains all over the landscape.” The “surge” (protecting civilian populations) worked in Iraq because we killed thousands of AQI in operations spearheaded by special forces.

    Several authors here at Fabius Maximus have had distinguished military careers and I have much respect for that. My opinions are not that of an expert and just that of a friendly counter-point.

    1. Swatter,

      (1) You can learn a lot from a sourndbite.

      (2) “in a broad context, killing/capturing terrorists as a main objective can be very effective”

      This has been tried by foreign armies many times since WWII, with an almost total record of failure.

      (3) “ISIS must be confronted as its own unique problem with unique solutions.”

      That’s not how military strategy works. Nothing is “unique”; there are always common elements. Using the same tactics that have failed against so many other insurgencies since WWII but hoping for a different result is … you know the answer.

      Hearing the same old rebuttals after 15 years of war is near-definitive proof that we have learned nothing.

    2. I agree, attrition doesn’t have a good track record when deployed by democracies against asymmetric threats. Yet, Coalition forces in Iraq during 2006-2008 proved that attrition does work as an important facet of overall strategy. Its not a matter of opinion, it did work.

      Granted, I don’t see the same confluence of circumstances that would enable a brute force strategy with ISIS, but that is because the political will to definitively deal them is non-existent. That is not saying that other strategies that don’t focus on attrition wouldn’t work. I am just saying, if you have the money, necessity, and political will, you can craft a high tempo, brute force strategy than can defeat asymmetric threats. The template for success does exist. Perhaps its a template that is too expensive to deploy in anything but dire circumstances, but who knows what the future will bring.

      1. Swatter,

        “Its not a matter of opinion, it did work.”

        Repeating that like a mantra means zip. Can you cite supporting articles in a major military journal or study by relevant experts (e.g., RAND)? Citing someone talking big to reporters means less than nothing.

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