Thursday, 19 November 2015

Terrorism: hardly a tactic refused by the West, and by no means an expression of power

The atmosphere today is febrile with the fear of terrorism. 

Not without reason. If the attacks on Paris prove anything, they prove that terrorists are capable of reaching right into the places we think of as safest and hit us there. That’s a prospect that makes ISIS seem frighteningly powerful.

We’d do well, however, not to be carried away by our natural fear. In particular, we mustn’t overstate the power of a terrorist movement. In reality, terrorism is precisely the opposite of the expression of power – it is a blind lashing out in impotence, by a movement incapable of exerting real power against its foes.

Nor should we make the mistake of thinking the West incapable of acting in equally terrorist ways. Indeed, we should remember that when the Western democracies went for terrorism, they wreaked incomparably more harm than ISIS ever has.

After the defeat of France by Nazi Germany, Britain was briefly left to fight on alone – although it wasn’t quite as isolated as that sounds, since it could draw on the support of a still substantial empire. However, Britain was in no state to wage an effective ground war against Germany. Indeed, when France and Britain together had decided to strike at Germany using ground forces, it was through an invasion at Narvik in Norway, designed to win access to Swedish iron ore supplies, and deny them to the Nazis. The campaign ended in the ignominious retreat of the French and British forces, and the defeat of Norway by Germany, which promptly occupied the country (as it had Denmark on the way).

At sea, British dominance was unchallenged. But Germany wasn’t fighting a naval war, apart from the submarine campaign against convoys supplying Britain – in which it was giving the Royal Navy a tough battle.

So, in its inability to achieve any kind of success on land, and fully committed in a defensive battle at sea, Britain could only turn to air power to produce some evidence to its population of effective action against the enemy. Hence was born what came to be called the strategic bombing campaign. Cutting through technical and apparently neutral terms, that was the mass bombing of German cities.

The thing about bombing cities is that the only thing it will certainly do is kill a lot of civilians. Indeed, something like 305,000 Germans were killed by this campaign. Nearly 800,000 were wounded. 7.5 million were made homeless.

Aftermath of the bombing of a German city in World War 2
Naturally, the campaign wasn’t openly described as terrorism in Britain (it was, equally naturally, in Germany). It was justified as a way of degrading German industrial capacity, in which it was a failure: production continued to grow throughout the war. However, it was also presented as a means of breaking the population’s willingness to support the war. The Area Bombing Directive of Valentine’s Day 1942 (history is full of ironies) which began the carpet bombing of cities, set as its objective “to focus attacks on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular the industrial workers.” That really is the textbook definition of terrorism: deliberate targeting of a civilian population in order to destroy its morale.

The Germans used the same approach. Over 60,000 British deaths were caused by German bombing. The Germans were just as happy to adopt terrorist tactics as the British; only lack of resources prevented them causing the same level of damage.

So a first observation: it would take over 2000 attacks like last Friday’s in Paris to inflict on the French the kind of destruction the Allies wreaked in Germany. When it came to terror, we had the resources to be a lot more effective at it than ISIS is or ever will be.

And a second observation: it was no evidence of strength on the part of Britain, and later the USA. It’s hard to point to any advantage to the Allied cause that came from bombing German cities. Indeed, it often did us harm. As military historian Correlli Barnett has argued, the campaign diverted resources from providing air cover for convoys, driving Britain nearly to starvation at the height of the U-boat campaign. When it came to depleting German capacity, far more was achieved by bombing railways and canals. No, the bombing was the reaction of a nation that could see no way to win significant victories for the time being, lashing out at its enemies in the only way it could. It hardly mattered whether it did anything useful.

The use of terror tactics by ISIS is of the same order. It had some spectacular success initially in Iraq and Syria but now it’s bogged down. Terror is a way of venting its hatred against its enemies, whether in Lebanon, at Sharm El Sheikh, or in Paris, and it matters little whether it achieves anything for its cause.

In fact, it looks strongly as though ISIS is doing itself harm. It has brought down a Russian airliner and attacked Paris. That has suddenly brought together people who were having real trouble reaching any kind of common ground. We may even see NATO and Russia finally coordinating their actions in the Middle East to defeat ISIS, before considering the questions on which they have differences.

Rather like Japan attacking Pearl Harbor, ISIS may have woken a sleeping giant. That may seal its fate.

See what I mean? The use of terrorism doesn’t show power, it shows weakness. In this case, a possibly fatal weakness.


Anonymous said...

You've made a good argument, David. I hope you are correct. Wouldn't it be nice if these attacks were among the last gasps of this awful "movement?"

David Beeson said...

I think they may well be. Though sadly I suspect that "last gasps" will last a while – like a heroine dying in a tragic opera. And if the West takes action that drives more recruits into their arms that will only make the process take longer still.