Lessons from Normandy

I have spent the last week touring northern France (Brittany and Normandy) with my eldest daughter.  We have seen some amazing cathedrals and abbeys (Mont St Michel and Rouen among others), the thousands of standing stones at Carnac and some incredibly quaint Brittany seaside villages (Pont Aven was particularly lovely).

But what has struck me most so far has been the history and impact of the war (WWII – we haven’t even got to the WWI part of our trip yet – that’s for this week) on France.  I am used to seeing the names of fallen Canadians on cenotaphs in small towns across my homeland, but what I have seen here is orders of magnitude greater. Every small town, village and hamlet has either a memorial or a plaque in the local church full of the names of men “morts pour la France”.  We have not come across an inhabited place, no matter how tiny, where these commemorations are not the focus of town squares and roadside displays.  Coupled with the destruction of cities like Caen (called “the martyred city”), Falaise and St. Lo, you get a real sense of what war is all about.

Why am I relating this in a blog on terrorism?   Well, I want to address the insistent calls for more war to deal with groups like IS.  Everyone appears to have become a military expert, with calls for more airstrikes or boots on the  ground or grand coalitions.  I understand this sentiment as it is imperative that we (whoever “we” is) do something about IS.  The group has monopolised world attention and with the suggestion that it had a role in the crash of a Russian passenger plane out of Sharm al Shaikh, panic has set in.

But is the military tool the best one to use?  People who know a lot more about fighting than I do have stated clearly that airstrikes will not defeat IS.  Will ground troops?  Have we forgotten that the last time ground troops were committed in the region in a big way – Iraq in 2003 – not only did we not achieve “victory”, we set the conditions for the rise of IS. So how will  a new war help?  Is there an alternative?  Several alternatives?  I do not know.

What I do know, and what this past week has taught me, is that war seldom solves anything (WWI led to WWII after all).  And the costs in death and destruction are so high that we really should opt for any other response before resorting to war.

You cannot learn about the tragedy of WWII and not conclude that war in general is a bad idea (I know, I know, how else were we going to rid the world of Nazism?  Remember, no WWI probably no Nazism).  We have stupidly referred to counter-terrorism as a “war” or even a “crusade”.  So we revert to more killing which leads to more terrorist groups.  When will we learn?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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