The image last week of James Foley kneeling in front of a masked terrorist made me feel something I hadn’t felt in a long time. I’m a lawyer, a father, and an active member of my community, but in another life I was an Army Ranger. Years ago, I carried a gun in the Middle East and fought against the brutal forces like the masked man who murdered Foley.
I understand what we face in ISIS. There is a unique darkness in the mind of those who perform these sadistic acts. During three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, I stared into the eyes of these brutal men and saw they would stop at nothing to kill me and my family. There is no negotiating with these men, and they will not go away if we ignore them. If we don’t confront them now we will have to confront them later—likely at a time and place of their choosing.
Don’t get me wrong; I am not a hawk when it comes to military power. Most combat veterans don’t rush into a fight because we understand the enormous human cost of war. I’ve spent years advocating for veterans who bear the scars of our recent wars. I was in favor of pulling troops out of Iraq and will always favor diplomacy and other forms of “soft power” over military intervention. But this week, there were moments when I wanted to be back in Iraq with my gun.
This isn’t a unique feeling for combat veterans. There is a cognitive dissonance between our joy of surviving the war and the opportunity it brings to live peaceful lives, and the fact that we will always have ‘one foot in the sand’ and feel the pull of combat. We feel this pull most urgently when brutal men use their power to destroy the innocent.
I joined the Army over a decade ago to fight for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. For the first time in years I felt the urge to fight, but this time I was powerless to act on it. There was nothing I could do but think about my experiences fighting terrorism and what we can learn from this brutal act of terror. The following are a few lessons I learned in combat. Perhaps they explain why I feel so strongly about the murder of a man who gave his life to bring to light the suffering of others.
First, we must recognize that the fight against extremism will not end in our lifetime. In Iraq and Afghanistan, there was an adage among militants that they didn’t have to defeat the U.S. military—they just had to outlast American will. Groups like ISIS have a different view of history. They are patient and not constrained by our 24-hour news cycles. The fight will take time, it will take a strong will, and it will take sacrifice. This is a generational struggle. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 changed the American way of life forever; we will be at war with extremism for the foreseeable future and we must accept and prepare for that.
Second, we must understand that the ultimate fight against extremism is not a military one. To be sure, there is a military component to this battle, but this is mainly a battle of ideas. It is about two starkly different ideas of what it means to be human and a civilized society. It will be fought not only in the hearts and minds of Americans and our institutions, but also through development, education, and diplomacy overseas. This is why we must fight in a way that is consistent with our values and laws and avoid shortcuts for tactical expediency. Our Constitution and rule-of-law is not a handicap, and our alliances with other nations will not slow us down; both of these things are powerful weapons that only make us stronger.
We must fight these brutal men but never become like them, because when given the choice, people will always choose our vision of humanity if we continue to abide by our values and lead by example. Responding to ISIS with overwhelming firepower will only play into their hands. We must be relentless, but also deliberate, patient, and surgical. If we pursue our enemy without restraint or regard for our values we will only be stooping to their level. We must decline ISIS’ invitation to fight this war in the way they fight it.
Finally, we must have confidence in the power of our humanity. We will have to fight extremism for years to come, and fortunately, there are men and women willing and able to do this. I served with many of them and they represent some of the best this country has to offer. But for those of us not engaged in the battle, we must continue to live full and happy lives, lives that draw a stark contrast to the dark vision of extremism.
Becoming a father has made me see more clearly what defines our humanity: our compassion and capacity to love one another. I’ve experienced the power that the love of a child has in drowning out darkness. Staring into the eyes of those terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan was not nearly as powerful as staring into the eyes of my children. ISIS only has the power over us that we choose to give them. We will have to stay vigilant, and there will be some sacrifices in our daily lives, but we must not let them change our way of life.
We will win the fight against ISIS and groups like them, but it will be hard, and there will be sacrifice for years to come. We must fight the battle on our terms, consistent with our values, and never give in to the temptation to play by others’ rules. We must never lose sight of who we are as Americans and what makes us strong: our institutions, our values, and our humanity. That is how we will defeat ISIS. And that is what ISIS does not understand.
Jason Crow is a Denver attorney, former Army Ranger, and proud father of two young children. He has advised state and federal officials on veteran, military, and national security issues and is a Partner with the Truman National Security Program.