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The proper U.S. government response to IS attacks in France and elsewhere

Posted by John Reed on

Sometimes leadership consists of persuading the lynch mob to go home.

In the cowboy movies, the reasons for the lynch mob to go home are rule of law, presumption of innocence, fair trial, hear both sides, jury trial, and so on.

Those do not apply to IS. They have declared war on us thereby conferring upon us the right to summarily kill the SOBs on sight. And we should stop pussy-footing around and just do that in the territory they hold in Iraq and Syria.

The maps we keep seeing of IS-occupied territory in Syria and Iraq would have been maps on Monday and the bombing raids scheduled for Tuesday in World War II. We could end this in an hour without a boot on the ground and we should—with such Vietnam tactics as Arc Lights (B-52s dropping 2,000-pound bombs), Puff, ground support aircraft, daisy cutters. They key is tell the civilians to get the hell out of the way and just attack probable locations of the bad guys.

I saw today that since our side started bombing Raqqa, they went to tunnels. Been there in Cu Chi. One of my college classmates was the platoon leader of the U.S. “tunnel rats” in Cu Chi, Vietnam. What worked in Vietnam on those tunnels was the 2,000 pound bombs of the Arc Lights. Now we also have bunker busters and 35,000-pound bombs. Tunnels are nothing but tombs against those weapons.

In and since the Korean War the reason our wars last a decade and are indecisive is because of pussy-footing-around rules of engagement. Hit them hard enough to kill almost all in one attack. If we were ever to do that, I suspect Americans and the rest of the world would say, “Where has that been for the last 65 years?” See my forthcoming novel The Unelected President for a fictional example of war without public relations executives setting the rules of engagement.

The Unelected President novel

Terrain matters

Terrain is a much bigger deal in war than most civilians realize. Furthermore, with regard to desert terrain like in Syria and Iraq, it essentially prevents war against a modern military.

You want to know how much fun it is to fight modern militaries from the desert? Ask the Iraqi Army after Desert Storm. We vaporized them at a rate of about 1,000 an hour. Read about the Highway of Death there. We can and should turn the map of the territory occupied openly by IS into new Highways of death.


Now lets talk about the hype about what a formidable threat IS is to the U.S. You gotta be kidding me!

Get a grip! We’re talking about a mere tens of thousands of guys with small arms—AK-47s and RPGs—out in the desert and in mud-hut villages—3,000 miles away from the US. The most alarmist hypesters about IS claim they have 100,000 fighters. That is .03% of the population of the U.S. Furthermore, they have no airlift or sealift capability.

Sure, they can send individuals like the shoe bomber and underwear bomber to Western countries. Maybe a fire team as they did in the Charly Hedbo and Bataclan incidents. A fire team is the smallest infantry unit: 4 or 5 guys, which is about half of a squad.

When have they mounted a squad-size or bigger size attack? 9/11 was essentially four separate fire teams.

Here is a classic cartoon that depicts the hype of IS as an existential threat to the U.S. 

This is what the social psychologist Cass Sunstein calls probability neglectour inability to properly grasp a proper sense of peril and risk — which often leads us to overstate the risks of relatively harmless activities, while forcing us to overrate more dangerous ones.


One aspect of the hype has been to call the IS terrorists in France “sophisticated.”

How so? They used AK-47s, so-called because they were invented around 1947. A suicide vest is nothing but a satchel charge with no time fuse and where the explosive is shaped like a half dozen tubes rather than one brick.

What else? They used a car to more around.

Pray tell what detail justifies concluding these guys are sophisticated?

The female who blew herself up was reportedly some airhead party girl six months ago. In another six months she might have decided to try being a Goth, or a boutique owner.

I don’t get the impression any of these people were voted Most LIkely to Succeed in high school.


They say it was a coordinated attack. Coordinated seems like a bit of a hype word.  My wife and I rendevoused at a restaurant in our separate cars last night. Was that “coordination?” I would have called it meeting at six.

The Paris terrorists did not even meet; they just agreed to separately start shooting around 9:20-9:40 PM and did.

Shamelessly exaggerating their skill, knowledge, and performance is further evidence of the fact that the breathless people telling us about these events are hyping it to make it seem more exciting than it was.


Words like “war” and “military” are being thrown around in discussing the Paris attacks. Give me a break!

In American wars, millions serve and tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of military personnel are KIA.

Has a single armed U.S. military person been killed by foreign terrorists in the U.S.?

The Fort Hood KIA were unarmed. In all the terrorist incidents I can think of in the U.S., no armed American military were on the receiving end. Indeed, the terrorist attacks scrupulously avoid armed police or military. 

And even then, how long do these incidents last from the first shot until the terrorist kills himself? One to three hours.

Better to fight them there than here?

What about the claim that’s it’s better to fight them over there than here? It’s the opposite of the truth—obviously.

Instead of thinking about it in the abstract on the basis of a rhetorical slogan, let’s make it personal. YOU will be our fighter. Your mission is to capture one IS fighter. You can either go over there or wait here for one of them to arrive by plane or across the Mexican border. Which do you choose?

Of course, you will stay here where you speak the language, know the culture, have many friends and can live far more cheaply. Here, you have “interior lines” a military phrase relating to the short supply lines of a soldier in his country defending it compared to a soldier who is thousands of miles from home dependent upon a long supply line.

‘JV squad’

Obama, whom I have no use for, famously said IS was a JV squad. Not everyone has criticized him for it, but I have not heard anyone defend his saying it, either.

I will in part.

First, let’s make it clear that there are two ISs. Roughly speaking, if you volunteer for IS, they give you a test. If you get a really low grade, you get to be a suicide vest wearer. You get no training. I mean how can they waste resources on training? You’re gonna be dead soon.

You get the crappiest rifles in the arsenal. It’s like the old World War II joke about Italian war surplus rifles. They’re in great shape because they’ve never been fired and only been thrown down once. The suicide vests for the dummies are highly reliable, although not durable. They only need to work once, right?

When the Warsaw Pact ended, a number of countries switched form the Communist Warsaw Pact to NATO. That meant they had to discard their AK-47s and switch to NATO M-4s. The Soviet bullet diameter is one millimeter bigger than the NATO bullets. Know why? So they can use NATO ammo in their guns but NATO cannot use Soviet ammo in NATO guns. Really. 

[Ooops. Reader John Ross says that is quite incorrect. I guess that silly millimeter wider that I heard about back in my military days related to another Soviet weapon, not the AK-47.]

Anyway, the old Warsaw Pact countries modified their old AKs so they could only fire blanks and sold them cheap. Gunsmiths in Belgium modified some back so they could fire real bullets. I’m guessing these are lousy, cheap rifles and they are what the IS recruits who score dopey on the entrance exam get. That might explain why their AKs in Paris were jamming. The AK has a reputation for never jamming. If you were IS, how much would you spend on guns or weapons training for new fighters who were only going to get off, what, 100 rounds or so before they died?

So it would appear that the IS members who attack western countries are closer to special ed than JV.

The other IS guys—who take and occupy territory in Syria and Iraq—are a whole other thing. They fight ferociously and do not wear suicide vests. I don’t know much more about their training or equipment. But it must be said that they seem to have taken their territory without opposition to an extent. Assad was greatly weakened by defections among other things. Iraqi soldiers ran away. Christians seemed incapable of fighting. Only the Kurds resisted and they struggled.

So although the IS guys who remain in the Middle East are infinitely better than the vest corps, they are not the U.S. Navy SEALs, are they? When compared to their Middle East opponents, they are varsity equivalents. But against modern air forces, they are fish in a barrel—or maybe ground hogs who dive into a hole at the first sign of modern military opponents.

The only problem with Obama’s JV comment was that it was taken to mean IS is utterly impotent. No, they’re not. They can attack unarmed crowds for an hour or three in the West. And their Middle East squad can go toe-to-toe with the militaries of that area. They still have no military capability to successfully attack western countries or even to travel to those countries in unit sizes bigger than a squad or so.

Obama policy is not that far off from what I advocate. True, he just doesn’t give a crap about the military and hates US involvement abroad. And he’ll pussyfoot and unnecessarily risk the troops’ lives as a result. But although he gets there for the wrong reasons, his refusal to put boots on the ground and his reliance on air power is actually correct. But he needs to go all out and wipe out the Middle East IS once and for all and do it fast. He apparently would rather just run out the clock and then blame any bad news on his successor.

Ultimately, the problem is not that he said that IS is JV, but that he, as a commander in chief, is junior pee wee,

It’s not war

This is not war. These are sucker punches against the most vulnerable unarmed civilians. In the Middle East in pitched battles, the IS fighters often show courage and determination. But the terrorists they send to the West are generally inept cowards who take great pains to do their deed far from armed men and to kill themselves before the armed men arrive.

These guys are closer to purse snatchers than soldiers.

To say we are at war or that IS is an existential threat to the U.S. or France is absurd. This is hype.

Who hypes such things?

  • The media for ratings—like Yellow Journalism in the late 1800s driving America into war with Spain or TV news driving Bill Clinton into the Blackhawk Down fight in Mogadishu
  • Out-of-power politicians trying to give voters reasons to elect them and throw the incumbents out. To quote Rahm Emanuel, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. The corollary to that is out-of-power politicians always claim we are in crisis. “The sky is falling” storyline turns out the anti-incumbent vote.
  • Counterterrorism ‘experts’—This has become an industry. The more they can hype each incident, the more airtime they get and the more books they sell. Former General Jack Keane is big hyper of killing 130 people in Paris means the US is at war or should be. I will hear from Keane fans that he is a good, honest man. He would probably snort that he doesn’t need to be on TV after a life of accomplishment. Uh huh. But all I said above is still true and I see Jack on TV day after day. Actions speak louder than words. There are a lot more than him on TV. And I strongly suspect that if any of those “experts” start talking about the attacks as attention-getting, but insignificant in contexts like war or federal foreign policy, they will quickly find that their pundit services are no longer needed.
  • Academics who sell counterterror credentials to the ambitious who see terror as a growth industry.
  • Students of those academics, who also are likely to exhibit what psychologists call “effort justification” on the subject of whether counterterror academic credentials are important and worthwhile. I and many of my college classmates fell prey to that early on when evaluating our alma mater West Point. But as the years passed, I got over it and became more objective about the advantages and disadvantages of that massive expenditure of effort.

Is counterterrorism even capable of being an academic discipline?

By definition, terrorism is a publicity stunt. In order to get publicity, the stunt must be novel. Beheadings no longer get as much air time for IS because they have become old hat. To regain novelty, they had to burn a pilot alive. But doing that again would get less air time, and so it goes.

So how can academics claim expertise in prevention of future terror acts? Expertise is mainly pattern recognition. But successful publicity stunts require avoiding patterns. After 9/11, the U.S. government hired some Hollywood writers to come in and think up unexpected things terrorists might do.

You gotta be kidding me. That’s the kind of nonsense you get when you try to turn everything into an academic discipline.

No doubt you can study the history of terrorism, and the purported academic programs in terrorism are essentially history courses. But what good is knowledge of the history of a series of surprise novel actions? Unless you can forecast them or control them, you have no useful expertise. 

The football coaching equivalent of terrorism is called “trick plays.” Trick plays are plays you rarely if ever use twice. So you could study the history of trick plays and it would be interesting and fun, but it would not help you stop a future trick play, which is apparently the whole reason for the existence of counterterror programs.

I may write a book on coaching football trick plays. I already wrote eight books on football coaching. But I will not be writing a book on how to stop trick plays. It’s like the knuckleball in baseball. You can write a book about how to throw it, and several authors have. But there is no book on how to hit knuckleballs nor will there be. The knuckleball takes an unpredictable path to the catchers mitt or backstop.

My wife gave a significant financial contribution to the West Point Counterterrorism Center—over my protest. Their literature that we received subsequently said that they had learned that the terrorists like the symbol of the lion.

Seriously? That’s the work product of the West Point counterterrorism center!? Is there a countercounterterrorism center in Raqqa that has discovered that we Americans like the symbol of an eagle? OMG We’re doomed!

    Terrorism is a publicity stunt

    Publicity stunts are designed for use by also rans in the field in question to attract more attention than they could get on their substantive merit. They know they can get attention if they do something dangerous, something involving female nudity or sex, something huge, something cruel and unusual, something dramatic, something involving a criminal act, something involving a celebrity.

    Terrorism is a violent publicity stunt designed to attract attention and strike extreme fear in the heart of the intended audience or to assassinate a prominent enemy or to provoke an enemy into overreacting so as to recruit more allies. 

    Behavioral economics

    The relatively new field of behavioral economics has identified and named the common, illogical response to vividness. Here is a slightly academic article about it : 

    Toxics, Toyotas, And Terrorism: The Behavioral Economics Of Fear And Stigma

    It is well known that Americans are extremely afraid of being in an airplane crash, but far less afraid of being in a motor vehicle crash, this in spite of the fact that the death rate per million man miles traveled in motor vehicles far exceeds the death rate in airliners. Indeed, we now go years with zero fatalities in commercial U.S. airliners.

    And here is a quote from one web article about it:

    This is what the social psychologist Cass Sunstein calls probability neglectour inability to properly grasp a proper sense of peril and risk — which often leads us to overstate the risks of relatively harmless activities, while forcing us to overrate more dangerous ones.

    IS has engaged in videotaped beheadings and burning one Jordanian pilot alive. Militarily, the beheadings were meaningless. Those beheaded were civilians. With regard to the pilot, the substance was a dead military pilot. That requires a bullet; no TV or burning alive. The manner of death and the videoing was a publicity stunt, designed to provoke an overreaction that would enrage Muslims and bring them to the side of IS.

    In 1968 in Vietnam, the enemy expected the Tet Offensive would inspire all Vietnamese civilians to rise up against the government and Americans. It had no such effect. It was a military disaster that essentially wiped out the Vietcong—Communist guerillas in South Vietnam. Thereafter, the North was forced to fight the war with North Vietnamese regular soldiers.

    But the Tet offensive had an unexpected publicity-stunt effect. It caused the American public, who did not understand the military substance of the event was a wipe out of the Vietcong, to conclude that the American side was losing the war. Like all successful publicity stunts, it succeeded in causing the enemy to draw an incorrect conclusion that led to victory.

    The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion lacked the strength to succeed on its own. The theory was that it was a publicity stunt designed to cause the Cuban people to rise up against the government. They did not rise up. The invasion was a disaster.

    In 1914, A teenage Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Ferdinand triggering World War I, which dramatically changed the world including ending Britain’s domination of the world and ending the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Substantively, it was just a teenager with a pistol he fired twice. The Archduke was the heir to the throne, not yet the king. It was just a spectacular publicity stunt involving a celebrity.

    But it changed the world, thereby giving hope to all future publicity-stunt perpetrators that they, too, might provoke a stupid response that changes the world.


    The antidote to terror or the violent publicity stunt is to keep your sense of proportion, wipe away the emotion, smoke and mirrors and focus on substance of what actually happened and how it compares to other causes of death or to such big picture metrics as national population, national death rate, control of truly strategic territory rather than just any territory, and so on.

    In Paris last week, twelve guys simultaneously attacked unarmed civilians in a theater, outside a crowded stadium, and in several cafes. They killed 130, mostly in the theater. Nine of the attackers were killed within three hours of the beginning of the attacks. The tenth, the leader, was killed five days later by French police in a raid. One or two other perpetrators are still on the run.

    Shooting 130 unarmed civilians is not a military action of any kind. As a percentage of the population of France, it is invisible. It has zero military significance. All it tells us about IS outside of Syria and Iraq is they are incapable of anything other than recruiting and dispatching a handful of kamikaze serial murderers of unarmed civilians. Such criminals are roughly the equivalent of the Boston Strangler or Ted Bundy or the Unabomber or the Columbine teenagers or Major Hasan.

    They do not rise the the level of military concerns because they do not attack military targets and probably could not do so successfully. Their fighting-unit size is too small for our military to deal with. They are a matter for local police and SWAT teams. Because of their propensity to retreat across international borders, it would be appropriate for Interpol and national intelligence agencies to cooperate in the pursuit of IS.

    There is no need for a significant military effort by any western country to deal with IS outside of Syria and Iraq.

    Within Syria and Iraq, the areas they control should be bombed such that the IS fighters there are killed.

    Would this be “destroying the village in order to save it?” No. It would be killing the enemy without regard to what or whom they hide behind.

    Would “innocent” civilians die in the attack?  We who did a tour in a civil war in a Third World country have an insight into that which our draft-dodger fellow Americans lack. In a Third World civil war, innocence is a matter of degree, not innocent versus guilty. 

    In Vietnam, villagers would smile and wave at you just before enemy soldiers in the village would attack you. During the Viet Cong days, they were often related to the VC fighters. They acquiesce to the presence and activities of the fighters. They collaborate with the fighters. They sometimes engage in hostile acts against us. Kids stole our gas can off our jeep in Saigon. They stole engineer stakes out of our moving trucks when we went through villages. In Iraq and Afghanistan kids would sometimes walk into the middle of a firefight where they could see the Americans and stand there and point out the locations of the Americans to the enemy fighters. Civilians sometimes allow themselves to be human shields, which violates international law. Sometimes they actively move to human shield positions to protect the enemy fighters.

    My rule on the “innocent” civilians is to tell them to get out of the way, then bomb. If they don’t get out of the way, or the enemy won’t let them get out of the way, c’est la guerre

    Ultimately, more civilians die when we refrain from killing the enemy because they hide behind civilians. For example, if we had thoroughly bombed the IS-occupied areas in Syria and Iraq previously, the Paris attacks on Bataclan and the stadium and so on probably would not have occurred. So the issue is not whether to kill civilians or not, but rather to allow persons who say they will kill civilians and who have killed civilians to continue to operate for years. 

    The paradoxical arithmetic of war is that the best way to minimize the overall lives lost is to kill as many of the enemy as fast as possible thereby shortening the war. The best example of that was the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Did they kill civilians? Yep. Over 100,000. But they ended the war which would have killed millions if it had continued. One Japanese man who lived there at the time said he would have died of starvation if the war had continued another month, and that was true of most of the people in the country.

    You’re welcome, Japan.

    Our leaders since August, 1945 have preferred to let hundreds of thousands, including tens of thousands of Americans, die over a decade or more in indecisive public relations combat that emphasizes protecting the civilians of the moment rather than taking the long and more accurate view that long wars kill more of everyone including civilians.

    If war is inevitable, get it over with fast and that means attacking the enemy and disregarding the civilians who, for whatever reason, did not get out of the way.

    C’est la guerre.

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