A few days ago I stood overlooking what was no-man’s land outside the little town of Auchonvillers in the Somme department of Picardie. In a battle that became known as Beaumont-Hamel, the morning of July 1, 1916 saw the slaughter of most of the Newfoundland Regiment (it later received the title “Royal”): of the 780 men that emerged from their trenches that dawn, only 68 answered roll call the following day. Newfoundland still commemorates this tragedy every Canada Day (note: Newfoundland was not part of Canada in 1916). The monument is a fitting and touching memorial to the senseless loss of life.
What also struck me about the site, aside from the disadvantageous terrain the Newfoundlanders had to cross, were the shell holes. These are no longer the muddy pits of destruction and death they would have been a century ago, but green-swathed depressions, almost idyllic. But they are the aftermath of the wave after wave of high-powered missiles sent by both sides. Some failed to explode and are still being dug up in fields across France and Belgium every year. Others reduced humans to pieces, too small to even honour with a decent burial.
On that fateful day in July the attack was preceded as well by a humongous mine – the Hawthorne mine. An 18,000 kg explosion under one of the German positions, a bomb almost unfathomable in its size. The explosion erupted, the dirt settled, the Germans were alerted that something was up and the Newfoundlanders were mowed down.
I have read of other accounts where days of concentrated bombardments were seen as a precursor to easy victory. Troops were assured that the shells had destroyed the enemy’s positions and they were ordered to walk leisurely to take possession. In most cases they were annihilated by gun nests that survived the onslaught. Side note: why did anyone think that shells decimate barbed wire? Isn’t it mostly air? Thousands found out too late that the wire was still in place as they crossed no-man’s land. They died as a result, some entangled in that wire.
This is all relevant as we seek to come to terms with our strategy on terrorism. We have vast technological and military superiority over groups like AQ and IS, even if the latter has an “army” and some US materiel seized as “war booty” from fleeing Iraqi troops. We have sophisticated aircraft and cruise missiles and armed drones. IS and its ilk are truly “bringing a knife to a gun fight”.
And yet this overwhelming advantage does not seem to be leading to “easy victory”. Yes, terrorists, including leadership figures, are being killed and that is undoubtedly a good thing. But technology does little to destroy the ideology that drives terrorism. It is necessary in certain circumstances, and we should continue to take advantage of if, but it is not sufficient.
Have we come to rely on technological solutions to a fault? There were accusations following 9/11 that the US intelligence community had defaulted to SIGINT to the detriment of HUMINT and that this bias prevented good information from being collected (full disclosure: I worked for both SIGINT and HUMINT agencies in Canada over 30 years). Do we see our highly developed machinery as the only answer?
Yes, we will continue to use and benefit from hi-tech gizmos, but I hope the response to the last question is a resounding “no”! We need to leverage all our resources, from the very soft to the very hard, in this struggle.