10/10/2014 11:04 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2014

The Challenge of ISIS

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Our effort to subdue ISIS by aerial bombardment is making life more difficult for the terrorists and providing exciting footage for the evening news, but it is not turning the tide of battle. Indeed, the random impact of aerial bombardment with its inevitable collateral damage is serving primarily to stoke the resolve of the enemy and fuel anti-Americanism in the region.

I have made this point often before and hereby make it again -- you cannot conquer a serious enemy from the air. You have to have the one thing President Obama has vowed time and again that we will not have -- boots on the ground. And if we are not willing to do that, if we are not totally committed to victory, we are just making noise, wasting ordnance and calling attention to our lack of credibility.

Some may contend that air power alone was sufficient to bring an end to the Bosnian war in 1995, but there were many boots on the ground in that war. They were not ours, but they were there. The bombing came at a propitious moment helping bring the combatants to reach an agreement in Dayton, and the aerial assault clearly made an impression, but it was not the primary means by which the combatants were persuaded to stand down.

In any case, the ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq are not amenable to coercion, from air attacks or anything else. They are driven by rage against civilization and are willing, even eager, to give their lives to their cause in what amounts to a mass suicide pact not seen since the Japanese banzai and kamikaze tactics of World War II. I knew many of the veterans of that war and it left an indelible scar on them. That level of war cannot be withstood with half measures.

This is not to suggest I favor sending our fighting people into ground combat against ISIS. I do not believe it would be successful nor would it have the overwhelming public support that military action requires in a democracy. Indeed, I fear it would put us into a quagmire worse than what we had in Iraq and are still dealing with in Afghanistan.

There are limits to what we can do. Until a majority of Muslims recognizes the fact that the west is not the source of their distress -- that we all share the sins of greed, corruption and at times faltering faith -- there can be no lasting peace. Cultures are like deep draft ocean vessels difficult to turn. Chopping off heads and other acts of gratuitous violence only deepen the chasm between Christians, Jews and Muslims. We need peacemakers to foster reconciliation.

Of course, there can be no reconciliation with ISIS, but the United States does not have the power or resources, never mind the will, to serve as the world's police. We must pick our battles carefully and when we do go to war, it must be backed by total commitment to victory. That means tanks, rockets, machine guns, helicopters -- and boots, lots of boots.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications, published by The History Publishing Company.