woody zimmermann 120When I was growing up in the small city of Allentown, PA – about 50 miles north of Philadelphia – I and most of my buddies followed and rooted for the Phillies of baseball’s National League. We thought of them as “our team.” Sure, they stank during most of our formative years, but we still admired their players, and faithfully listened to their games – often late into the night in darkened bedrooms, with the radios turned low so our parents wouldn’t hear.

The Phillies were founded way back in 1883, but by the 1950s they had been in the World Series only twice – in 1915, when even my pop hadn’t been born, and in 1950, when I was too young to know what baseball was or what was happening in the Majors. The Phillies lost the 1915 series to the great Boston Red Sox, winning only a single game behind the pitching of Grover Cleveland Alexander. In 1950, Joe DiMaggio and the Yankees swept the Phillies’ Whiz Kids in four straight. All through the dreary ‘50s, the Phillies were a second-division club – although they enjoyed the great pitching of Robin Roberts and the excellent hitting of Richie Ashburn.

Despite their lackluster record, we loved those guys, and we wouldn’t have dreamt of pulling for any other team. Our only brief exceptions were rooting for other National League teams in several World Series. After all, those were respected rivals of our beloved Phillies. Rooting for the hated Yankees would have been a supreme act of disloyalty.

But some of our peers were consistent Yankee fans. They weren’t necessarily bad guys, but we didn’t really hang out with them. We couldn’t figure how they could be so disloyal to the Phillies as to root for the Yankees. It was a long time – well into my adult life – until I understood that a certain kind of person always roots for winning teams. Loyalty is not part of their equation. I think I finally comprehended this when I saw colleagues and neighbors rooting for the (gasp!) Dallas Cowboys instead of for our Washington Redskins, while I was raising my family in Maryland. Those folks pulled for “America’s Team” (as the Cowboys fancied themselves for a time) because they were consistent winners. Not my style, though – cultural disconnect.

I hadn’t thought much about the dynamics of teams, loyalties and winners until recently, when I saw State Department spokespersons on TV trying to explain why European and American young men are joining Islamic terrorist forces – i.e., ISIS and ISIL – who are making war, capturing towns, beheading hostages, and generally raising hell all over the Middle East against what looks like little or no opposition. Leaders of countries too small and too weak to accomplish much, militarily, are trying to take the fight to the Islamists, while powerful nations like ours are diddling around, sending girls out to explain that we’re not really at war with Islam, and proposing crack-brained plans to “help” the terrorists with jobs-programs, not guns. These are not really religious people, declares our president, by way of explaining that the villains beheading Christians and shooting Jews are frauds who have hijacked a great and peaceful faith.  

“We can’t kill our way to victory,” said State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf – a well-turned-out blonde who probably wouldn’t know an artillery shell from a kumquat. (If her brilliant observation doesn’t make Bartlett’s Familiar Quotes, next to “Bitch set me up,” by Marion Barry, then I’ll admit that I don’t know nothing about nothing.) But I digress…

The young Americans and Europeans joining the ISIS forces are an intriguing parallel to those long-ago days of the winning Yankees. In the Nifty 50s, the Yankees were almost unstoppable, so they attracted numbers of “good-time” fans who wanted to join the victory party. Today – in a more serious vein – ISIS is on a victorious roll of its own. They’re doing whatever they want, and no one seems able to stop them. Leaders of the strongest nations on earth look like bumbling fools, while gangs of tough-looking young guys strike heroic poses, brandish automatic weapons, and fire bursts into the air. Thousands of shiftless young men across the globe watch those TV images enviously, and see themselves on that winning team. They want to get in on the fun. It never occurs to most of them that they could actually get their butts shot off, once the world’s “sleeping giant” gets its act together. Mr. Obama might run out the clock in office before he has to join the fight, but eventually the doo-doo will hit the fan. People are going to get hurt.

Homeland Security and State officials say these wanna-be jihadists constitute our most serious threat. Repeatedly, I see commentators and pundits scratching their heads over the young men heading to the Middle East to join ISIS. Why they are going there, and how to stop them has become today’s great public riddle. No doubt the puzzle prompted Marie Harf to theorize that these young people really need jobs because they don’t have enough productive work to do. I believe many of them might also be frustrated because they haven’t been able to get Hollywood careers started or become college presidents. (It could be true…)

A better strategy than the “jobs” initiative is available, however. To describe it, let’s ask how many of those fair-weather Yankee fans stayed faithful, once the Yankees’ mystique faded. Not very many, I daresay. When the winning stops, fans of that kind just fade away. It stops being fun and interesting when the team is no longer on top.

The same will be true for those young fans of ISIS. Once ISIS is no longer romping triumphantly from country to country, the eager volunteers from Europe and the USA will lose interest. The grim casualty-reports will halt the parade of cannon-fodder because the fight won’t look like a romantic adventure any more. After all, who wants to leave a cushy college life (and nice girlfriend) to get shot to pieces or blown up with a suicide bomb? Winning is great. Losing stinks.

Miss Harf’s theory notwithstanding, licking ISIS on the battlefield is still the real answer. “There’s no substitute for victory,” wrote General Douglas MacArthur long ago, after watching us fight to a “draw” in Korea. If you really want to dry up the enemy’s resources, nothing will do it like a serious butt-kicking. Jobs, encounter groups, understanding, and a sensitive hearing of “grievances” have nothing to do with this war. People who suggest these things have a profound disconnect with reality.

Finally, in order to preserve the sanity of millions of American veterans who have been spending their evenings yelling at their TV sets, could we pleeese have a moratorium on sending comely young valley girls out to explain why we can’t win this war by shooting people? (Really, each one looks more ridiculous than the one before.) And could we do something besides talk before the bad guys are actually coming down the chimney (or atomic-bombing the Port of New York)? We need to get serious here. This ain’t beanbag, and we can’t nice-talk our way out of it.

“War is all hell…” (Gen. William T. Sherman)