Casualties and convictions: Americans’ response to casualties may hold lessons for France after Charlie Hebdo

Guest post by Zachary Shore

Shortly after the horrifying Paris attacks, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared war. France, he said, must defend its values of liberty and fraternity. Less than two weeks later the French government announced sweeping new measures, including hiring 2,600 counterterrorism officers, widening the use of telephone surveillance, and expanding data collection on citizens. But for how long will the French people support encroachment on their civil liberties? Will anger at extremists persist, or will fear of further casualties gradually erode support for a robust war on terror? America might offer France an example.

Contrary to what the terrorists may think, Americans are not deterred by casualties. What weakens their resolve is moral ambiguity. One of the more shocking stories of the previous year involved the savage beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The Islamic State’s leaders apparently believed that brutally beheading Americans could act as a deterrent, dissuading further U.S.-led airstrikes or interventions against them. It seemed a reasonable assumption. Americans were weary from years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, and wary of another potential quagmire in someone else’s civil war. But to ISIS’s surprise, its strategy badly backfired. American public opinion turned dramatically in favor of attacking ISIS forces. So what was the flaw in ISIS thinking?

ISIS got it wrong because its leaders misread the lessons of the past. Americans are not deterred by losses; they are incensed by them. The locus of attack, on American soil or abroad, is irrelevant. What saps their stomach for a fight is not fear but ambiguity.

Vietnam is a clear example. Le Duan, the man running North Vietnam for most of the war, advised his comrades to kill as many Americans as possible in order to undermine Americans’ support for the war. That strategy succeeded in Vietnam not because of the casualties themselves, but rather because of the moral ambiguity that the U.S. public came to feel about the conflict. Increasingly the public feared that they were not just fighting communists, but viciously destroying lives in someone else’s civil war. Anger from the Tonkin Gulf could not match Americans’ growing qualms. A comparable unease arose when American Marines were targeted in Lebanon in 1983, and again in 1993 when American corpses were dragged through Somalia’s streets. It was not the casualties that Americans could not endure; it was the uncertainty over the rightness of their cause.

Pearl Harbor, by contrast, seemed perfectly black and white. On paper, the Japanese plan must have seemed sensible to some. Because the United States was so much stronger, Japan would deter America by dealing it a knock-out blow. Destroying the aircraft carriers in Hawaii would buy time for Japan’s advance and weaken the American will for a protracted war. But Pearl Harbor actually revealed how badly the Japanese understood their enemy. The surprise attack evaporated previously potent anti-war sentiment and solidified American resolve. The nation determined to defeat Japan at whatever the cost. And the cost was steep indeed, in both American and Japanese lives.

Pearl Harbor exposed more than just the Japanese misreading. It also revealed a critical aspect of the American character. Unwarranted attacks against Americans who were not themselves involved in combat posed an unmistakable breach of fairness. And whether it is the German sinking of an ocean liner in 1915, the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor, or the murder of 3,000 innocent lives on 9/11, when Americans perceive attacks to be unjust, they will act.

9/11 had a crucial Pearl Harbor-ness about it. It struck Americans as supremely unfair. Nothing, from the American perspective, could have justified such a massive assault on civilians in their workplace. That the public eventually soured on the war in Iraq was not because its moral outrage over 9/11 had faded. It was because the moral ambiguity of fighting in Iraq became apparent. Saddam was not involved in 9/11. The weapons of mass destruction weren’t there. And the dream of transforming the Middle East by bringing democracy to Iraq looked increasingly absurd. Americans didn’t lose their nerve because of casualties; they lost their will to fight someone else’s battles when the moral impetus grew muddy.

ISIS’s actions eliminated all uncertainty. The beheadings removed any doubt about their barbaric nature. Their crimes invigorated Americans’ resolve precisely because they saw those savage killings as immeasurably unjust. Unwittingly, ISIS Pearl Harbored itself. It aroused the nation’s moral outrage—the force that, if sustained, truly drives its will to win. The task of leadership is to maintain that sense of outrage as ambiguity creeps in.

The question for the French public today is whether it can maintain its resolve in the face of terror. And the challenge for the Valls regime will be to devise a sensible strategic response that preserves the public’s long-term support. After 9/11 France declared, “We are all Americans now.” After January 7th, the French may need some good old American moral outrage.

shoreZachary Shore is the author of Breeding Bin Ladens: America, Islam, and the Future of Europe. He is an associate professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and a Senior Fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served on the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State through a fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations.