Andrew Coyne: A war that cannot necessarily be won, but must be foughtall the same

People mourn near the scene of an attack, the day after a truck mowed through revellers in Nice, France, Friday, July 15
After this week’s mass slaughter — they seem to arrive every few days now — the air was thick with declarations of martial resolve. “We are going to destroy this vile terrorist organization,” Barack Obama said. “We are at war with these terrorist groups,” said Hillary Clinton, promising to “look at all possible approaches” to “wage it and win it.”
Donald Trump announced that if elected he would ask Congress for a declaration of “world war” (no, I don’t know what that means, either), while Newt Gingrich demanded the U.S. government interrogate every American of “Muslim background” as to their belief in Shariah law, and deport those who confessed. He did not specify where to.
It is easy to agree that some approaches might be less workable than others. It is harder to acknowledge none of them might prevail, at least in the sense implied: of defeating terrorism, and ending the periodic massacres that are now a feature of urban life around the world. We are accustomed to believing that with the right plan and enough determination, we can fix anything.
It is one of the few things on which right and left agree. Whether it is the right’s obsession with getting Obama to say the words “radical Islamic terrorism,” or the left’s insistence on “staying true to our values,” the unifying principle is that there is a solution to this problem — that on the other side of the present madness, whether by force of arms or intelligence or sheer steadfastness, lies peace.

Indeed, the same basic optimism animates even the defeatists. All those glum warnings that we are in an “unwinnable” war, all those demands to know, in advance of any commitment of forces, how we will know when “victory” has been achieved, and what our “exit strategy” might be, are premised on the assumption that there is an alternative: that if we give up the fight, so will they.
Alas it is not so. Whether or not we choose to be at war with ISIL they are at war with us. And there is very little we can do to change this.
We cannot simply defeat them in battle, as we might a conventional state: whatever progress we have made against ISIL in Iraq and Syria seems only to have diverted its energies into attacks overseas. Nor can we appease them, as we might a conventional terrorist group, even if we were of a mind to: for they have no demands, or none that we can possibly meet, such is the fantastic, end-times nature of their beliefs.
Nor can we just harden our defences, as if we could anticipate every possible avenue of attack. Protect the most prominent public buildings or infrastructure, and watch as restaurant diners and concert-goers are mown down. Guard against bombs and hijacked airplanes, and see AK-47s and trailer trucks used instead. Close the borders, and find yourself beset by homegrown jihadis. Focus on known terrorist profiles, and the enemy takes the form of “lone wolf” attackers, with no necessary connection to ISIL.
The threat — anonymous attackers, willing not only to kill in limitless numbers but to be killed themselves, and aided by all the latest technologies — is unlike any the world has ever faced. And among the challenges it presents is the psychological.
Because there is no satisfying narrative arc to this. We don’t get to go home when this is all over, because we are home and it may never be over. We have to accept this. We have to accept that some problems cannot be solved, but only endured; that some wars cannot necessarily be won, but must be fought all the same.
We are not helpless. We can make less likely the worst sorts of attacks, the kind that require greater planning, co-ordination and resources, and as such are more easily intercepted and disrupted. We can deprive ISIL of territory, starve it of funds, kill its leaders, and by these and other means deny it the mantle of prophecy on which it depends for new recruits.
And we can do much at home, notably to ward off the kind of deep-seated alienation within Muslim communities that so plagues Europe, on which terrorism thrives. It is crucial Muslims are not made to feel as if they are the enemy, collectively — every bit as crucial as recognizing the unique danger posed by ISIL, and the fundamentalist Islamic theology at its heart.
But there will be more attacks like those we have lately suffered, and probably they will be worse.
I don’t mean to say there is no chance of defeating ISIL, or that Islamist terrorism may not in time go the way of other threats to our way of life. I only mean that we cannot assume it will — not in the short term, and not even in the long. The roots of fanaticism have sunk too deep, over too much of the world, to be assured of that. When an idea, once unthinkable, has been first thought, and not only thought but acted upon, and spread to thousands if not millions of people, it will be a long time before it can be unthought.
So we must accustom ourselves to looking at this, as our adversaries do, as a struggle that may go on for decades, even generations, and understand that in the meantime there will be many more innocent deaths to mourn.
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