What can Jon Favreau and Will Ferrell's 2003 Christmas classic 'Elf' teach us about the fight to defeat ISIS?

What Can ‘Elf’ Teach Us About Defeating ISIS?

December 18, 2015 / by / 35 Comments

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as “ISIL,” “ISIS,” “IS,” or simply “Daesh,” is a dangerous terrorist organization that must be defeated. 2003’s Elf is a delightful holiday movie, directed by Jon Favreau and starring the charismatic Will Ferrell in one of the most beloved Christmas movies in recent memory.

But what can the story of a man who was raised as an elf in the North Pole, who visits New York to connect with his biological father and spread Christmas cheer, teach us or the over 60 other countries currently waging war against ISIS about how to defeat the jihadist militant group?

The Failure of Shock and Awe

Just like Buddy The Elf couldn’t simply barge into Manhattan without a developed appreciation of context or history and expect his physical presence and ideas to be welcomed with open arms, neither can the U.S. exert a doctrine of military dominance in Iraq and Syria without a developed appreciation of the nuanced situation on the ground.

Elf most powerfully demonstrates its frustration with shock and awe tactics with its portrayal of the Central Park Rangers, whose displays of power and fear are rendered useless against an elusive, fanatical target. Furthermore, Elf provides us with a cautionary tale of what happens when you invade a region without understanding of its nuances or respect for its social mores, as the film harshly depicts the consequences of crossing busy intersections, eating discarded gum off of the subway bannister, or misunderstanding the religious difference between local Sunni and Shiite populations.

The Power of Belief vs. The Limited Effectiveness of Air Superiority

The battle against ISIS is in part a war of ideas, just like Buddy The Elf must counteract the forces marshaled against belief in Santa by converting his fellow New Yorkers to his radical pro-Santa ideology. A strong belief structure will always countervail, no matter the strategic importance — but ultimately limited effectiveness — of the air superiority and substantial reindeer power of the U.S. Air Force or Santa’s Kringle 3000.

Boots on the Ground

We can spend a substantial amount of resources on building up the social and political infrastructure of the Levant or a breathtaking to-scale Lego replica of Manhattan in Gimbels’ Santa Land, but without a significant and sustainable commitment of American personnel and financial investment, we risk seeing all the gains we built come violently crashing down in a destructive free-for-all of rival militias and department store employees.

Ultimately the only way to bring back people’s belief in Santa, or to end ISIS’ ability to control significant territory and attract an international corps of fanatical recruits, is to deploy highly trained specialists (like etch-a-sketch makers or military advisors) into the theater of action to address the issue head-on. It’s not going to be enough to hand out gifts like advanced weaponry or Susie-Talks-A-Lot dolls without also supplying eyes on the ground to monitor the situation and gather intelligence on moderate factions within the area of conflict, like Emily Hobbs or the Free Syrian Army.

Coalition of the Willing

Ultimately, neither the U.S. nor Buddy The Elf can accomplish their respective tasks alone. Deluding ourselves about our role in the world — whether as a global hegemon or a man raised with an affinity for elf culture — is not the proper path to take.

Instead, it will take a coalition of the willing to defeat ISIS and spread moderate, Christmas cheer, enlisting the support of tactically advantageous allies like your half brother Michael, your fellow mail room employees, or the Kurdish Peshmerga. A war against ISIS cannot be won alone, and just as Buddy needed to secure the help of Jovie and the rest of the crowd gathered in front of the New York 1 broadcasting cameras to spread Christmas cheer by singing loud for all to hear, so too must the U.S. entice regional players like Turkey or moderate Sunni tribes to play a more active role in opposing ISIS.

The Importance of Names

In a battle for the minds and hearts of men and women across the globe, the war of words must not be forgotten. Just as Buddy learned the importance of names the hard way when he radicalized the paramilitary force of Miles Finch by referring to him as a “South Pole elf” or an “angry elf,” so too must the U.S. and its allies be mindful of how we refer to and portray our enemy, understanding the full implications of the name we use to identify the fundamentalist militant group.

A Victory for Liberalism

Ultimately no ideology can be defeated by force alone. While only the Iraqi and Syrian people can fully determine the role that tolerance and liberalism will play in their future, the West must properly convey the benefits of a moderate society. Following the lead of Buddy, who came to appreciate the benefits of full employment and acceptance in the secular world of New York City, the allies in the fight against ISIS can contain the spread of fundamentalism by adhering to the principles and dispensing the benefits of a liberal worldview and commitment to its governing belief system.

Prepare for Regime Change

Any plan of action must have an end-game in mind, as Buddy The Elf unfortunately learned when he first shook the power structure at Greenway Publishing without a suitable Plan B waiting in the wings. Ultimately nothing short of a complete regime change will be tenable in the long term, and imposters who sit on a throne of lies, from a Santa falsely masquerading as the real Santa Claus in Gimbels to Bashar al-Assad claiming to represent the Syrian people, must be disposed of with reasonable use of force.

Just as the central conflict of Elf is resolved by nimbly pivoting the goals and perspectives of all involved (resulting in the establishment of a new regional player in the children’s book publishing industry) so too must the U.S. and its allies in the war against ISIS be willing to accept a reimagined political structure in the region that allows for separate Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish rule and self-sufficiency.