Defeating ISIS: Lessons from the American and Israeli Wars of Independence

by Bob Schwartz

We can’t “defeat” ISIS. Not if that means declaring “victory” over Middle East-based Muslim radicalism and terror.

There are lessons from the American and Israeli Wars of Independence. This isn’t to suggest any moral equivalence comparing those world-changing events to the monstrosity of ISIS. But there are things to learn.

Both Wars of Independence were attempts to upend empire and established order and create a new model (both uprisings, not coincidentally, involving the British). Both were insurgencies by True Believers, one political and economic, one religious. Both are examples of the power of the heart, because the heart not only wants what the heart wants, it will do anything to get what the heart wants. True belief will find a way.

The British thought that their massive and formal force would roll right over the Americans. They did not count on all sorts of stealthy and tricky techniques, on secret communications, on a guerilla war. Mostly, the British didn’t account for the depth of American commitment: hearts and minds and souls. It may not always work that way, but competitions often go, simply, to the side that just wants it more. And that would be the Americans.

The British were never quite sure what they were doing in Palestine. But they did know something about world order and keeping order. Besides, some Brits didn’t much like the Jews anyway. The Zionists believed, literally, that they had God on their side. As far as hearts and minds and souls getting what they want, doing anything to win did mean the occasional act of terror (for example, the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, leaving 96 dead). As far as who wanted it more, the founders of the modern Jewish state not only defeated the British, but turned back all attempts by hate-fueled neighbors to root them out.

In the aftermath of Paris, just as with 9/11 and other recent terrible events, if we keep talking simplistically about “defeating”, “eliminating” or “building American-style democracy”, we are—there’s no other way to say this—fools. We should eliminate and prevent horror, terror and monstrosity wherever and whenever we can. But if we think that the toxic mixture of true belief, grievance and pathology is just going to vanish because we are purer and more powerful, that would be funny if it weren’t so sad and dangerous.

If you don’t think that hearts, minds and souls matter when it comes to extremism, just look at the sorry record of irresolute and wasteful wars when we ignore that. We may feel righteous and superior, and want to vindicate civilization. But that doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to be smart. Smart about what we face, what we can accomplish and how to accomplish it. So we can do some good, and do less harm.