ISIS and the Phoney War (Drôle de Guerre)

In the wake of the gunfire in Paris, President Hollande made the dramatic statement: “We are at war!” But why did he need to say it? Why didn’t France realize that before? French planes had been dropping bombs on ISIS targets in Iraq since September 2014. ISIS knew then they were at war with France, why didn’t France get it ? Why did they need to be told now that a war had begun, when their planes had been killing people in the Middle East for over a year?  And not just France, that goes for the United States too.  Do we realize we’re at war?

After Hitler invaded Poland in Sept. 1939, France declared war on Germany as all the world knows. But almost nothing happened at that time: there was very little fighting between French and German soldiers–a few dogfights in the air, but basically nothing. Life went on as before in the UK and in France. It didn’t feel like there was really a war, despite the fact that Poland had just been kicked to pieces. Historians call this the “phoney war” or the “Sitzkreg”, but the French term is better, the “drôle de guerre”—the “funny war”—funny, as in “peculiar”. Maybe the “weird war” would be even better.

It strikes me that this is what’s been going on up to now. We’ve been in a weird situation where this terrible war was going on in the Middle East, and French, American, and other airforces were bombing an enemy that is in so many ways worse than the Nazis, but we didn’t feel like we’re at war, really. We’ve just been going about our business. We’re not engaged in the real world enough.  Maybe we’re buried too deeply in the virtual world, I don’t know, but for whatever reason this Weird War has been taking place over there somewhere and we haven’t wanted to believe that we are part of it.  9/11 was 14 years ago.  That should be enough time to put it all behind us, shouldn’t it?  That’s what we wanted to believe.  That is, until the Russian plane went down and Paris came under fire.

Who knows what the future holds, but it seems fairly certain that once you give young men a Cause, they will run with it, even to the gates of hell, which is looming up in the middle distance. Jihad, as they understand it, is their Cause, and they’re not about to let it go. We can do a lot more bombing, we can probably take back a lot of the territory ISIS holds, but the foot soldiers of ISIS who escape will be out there plotting, and since, apparently, in this weird war taking the life of any individual counts big in their crazy calculus, no one and nothing is safe anywhere in the world for the foreseeable future.   We’ve gotten used to the idea that an earthquake can level a town, or a hurricane can wipe out a city.  Now we have to get used to this.

But if we want to do our best to stop what’s happening and bring this Terror Era to a close, we have to start thinking outside of the box. Assad is not going to go. Give him part of Syria. Give the rest to his opponents—all except those who have committed war crimes. But while we’re at it, we have to partition the Ukraine, we have to partition South Sudan, we have to partition Palestine. We have to give the West Bank to the Palestinians and face up to the zealots in the Jewish settlements.   Maybe with the example of ISIS in front of them, both sides of that conflict will open their eyes and see where this unending, uncompromising enmity leads and get down to the business of making peace.


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