The Error of "War" on Terror

Much has been made about the infelicity of making war on something as vague as "terror". There are probably several reasons why this nomenclature stuck. First and foremost, metaphorical phrases like that, combining a word like "war" or "struggle" or "battle" or "fight" and a broad, vague term like "tyranny", "oppression", "Communism", or "fascism" to characterize actual military actions, have been seen for a long time. It shouldn't seem too odd, and it doesn't, for a people who grew up "fighting Communism" to embrace a "war on terror". Second, just as when in the Cold War we were "fighting Communism" rather than (explicitly) the Soviet Union and Red China, and except for a few relatively brief spans of time, Cuba, North Korea, North Vietnam, Guatemala, Argentina, Chile, and so on, we are engaged in a "war on terror" instead of a war with al-Qaeda, a war with the Taleban, a war with Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Tamil Tigers, the Aryan Brotherhood, and so on. It is easy to forget the Cold War rhetoric of "fighting Communism", but in fact, although the Cold War was declared "over", Communism is still alive and ticking in many places around the world, from a left-wing faction in most western European nations to actual governments and officials in eastern Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. The third reason, and the one that I think has doomed the War on Terror to the same ultimate oblivion suffered by Johnson's War on Poverty, is that it militarized our response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Once again, there has been considerable debate about whether what we are doing in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantánamo is really a "war". In both Afghanistan and Iraq, there was a fairly brief and fairly conventional invasion of a nation by another nation which cast out the former government and installed its own. What this resembles the most--strictly at the level of what happened rather than of motivations--is the classical invasion such as that of Germany of Poland and France, and that of Germany by the Allies. That is, we went in, blasted the hell out of the place, kicked out the government, and took over. But that phase was very short, and its connection to our motivations and goals was never very clear.

When Hitler invaded Poland, his motivation was lebensraum, space for Germans to spread out in the manner to which they wanted to become accustomed. When the Allies invaded Germany, the goal was to "make the world safe for Democracy", a goal that shares a surface similarity with our goals in invading Afghanistan and Iraq. But after VE day, the Allies had expended the resources necessary to own Germany. There was an immense military presence there, one that had cost mind-boggling amounts of money and lives. Very few people objected to this because of the horrendous events of the past ten or so years. In the beginning, the Allies hand-picked people to run the German government, and no trace of Naziism was tolerated there during the occupation. By sweetening the deal by providing heavy-handed security, economic prosperity, and hope for the future, even the conquered Germans were on board (and those who weren't were thrown in jail). The extent of the Allied control of Germany is perhaps best seen in the fact that the Soviet Union kept it up in East Germany and East Berlin for fifty years(!) until the end of the Cold War and reunification. That is what a military occupation looks like. And make no mistake, immediately after the war, the Americans occupied their portions of Germany just as thoroughly as the Russians did theirs; we simply differed in our goals, motivations, and interests, and acted accordingly.

Our goal in invading Afghanistant and Iraq was to kill or capture the band of murderers who attacked us, and/or to prevent subsequent attacks on us using weapons of mass destruction. Obviously, that goal is an ambiguous one, and one that has received some, but not much, public debate. Killing or capturing murderers is, after all, something that our police do every day. And preventing attacks from other nations is something that a strong defense coupled with competent diplomacy has succeeded in more often than not. But we made the decision to militarize our response rather than use conventional civilian and diplomatic methods.

However, compared to the war with Hitler, this was never anything more than a half-hearted militarization, even though the Bush administration managed to scare--or freak out--a lot of people. Osama, Omar, and Saddam were no Hitler and the American people, or many of them, understood that from the outset. For one thing, Germany had an immensely powerful military machine that had already invaded and gobbled up most of Europe. The people who attacked us were outsiders, losers, thugs, who basically took advantage of a window of inattention on the part of the still-fairly-new Bush administration. In other words, they blind-sided us with a one-time lucky shot. Their goal was never conquest, it was simply to attract attention, even very negative attention, to their movement and its aims. Once the attack took place, their goal had already been achieved.

Obviously we can't allow people to kill thousands of people on our soil with impunity, and this takes us back to the main point. The Bush administration and Republicans in general had been floundering since the end of the Cold War's "fighting Communism" meme. Perhaps they assumed that they could replace it with the "war on terror" concept, thereby uniting the nation largely behind them. In any case, they rejected the specific pursuit of al Qaeda in favor of military adventures against Afghanistan, where they were located, and against Iraq, which had been a thorn in George Bush's side for more than a decade.

However, their error was in grossly overestimating the nation's interest in a new war. In fact, there never was any desire for war. We wanted more than anything to understand what happened on September 11, and we wanted the perpetrators brought to justice. In the early phases of each war, I think we were expecting those things to happen, and at many of us were willing to accept the Bush administration's assertion that we could achieve those goals through military action. However, the whole wartime sociology, such as what the world has experienced in all previous sustained engagements, never came about. In effect, the government was attempting to blend the "life goes on" aspect of the Cold War with the "any means to the end" aspect of World War II, and it simply could not be sustained over the years. Furthermore, the nation's real interests--security and justice--were not met. In order to support the pretense of a war footing, the government has had to resort to the creation of an environment of fear. Most Americans feel much, much less safe than they did on September 10, 2001, and not much safer than they did on September 12, 2001. As for justice: instead of bringing the perpetuators to justice, we have largely imprisoned a group of assorted bearded coreligionists of the perpetuators in an initiative characterized more by gross injustice than by anything recognizable as justice.

I believe that the fundamental error in all this was to militarize our response to the September 11 attacks. Our military works best when is is used as an adjunct of diplomacy, and the best way to bring criminals to justice is through competent and vigorous law enforcement. Although it is painful to remember now, virtually the entire world was behind us after September 2001. If we had marshalled a diplomatic effort coupled with a very strong police investigation of the facts in order to make a case that would have succeeded even under the strictest Sharia law, we might have taken out al Qaeda without firing a shot. And even if we had needed to go into Afghanstan or Pakistan to get them, we could have done that with immense international support and without starting a war. A non-military response would have achieved our goals (which have not yet been achieved!), would have bolstered our position as a world leader, and would have supported world peace rather than the use of military force. An opportunity that lamentably has now been lost. Perhaps the lesson will be remembered, though.

Greg Shenaut

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