Lose the War Metaphor
The War on Terror is heading into its seventh year this fall. Six years and counting. That makes it longer than either World War, longer than the Civil War, and closing fast on Vietnam. The good news is that so far the casualty count is a lot lower than those other wars, even counting the people who died on September 11, 2001. It’s a low-intensity war, unless you’re unlucky enough to live in Baghdad or Helmand province. Once again, Americans for the most part get to watch it on TV.
Are we winning? You tell me. There hasn’t been another 9/11, and that’s good, but on the other hand, Iraq, where five years ago there were no suicide bombings, YouTube decapitations or Shiite death squads, is now a vast exercise ground for thugs of all stripes, most of them hostile to us. Whether or not going into Iraq has made us less safe, it has certainly made most Iraqis less safe, and given the ghastliness of the Hussein regime, that’s a real feat. Even if you concede that Saddam was a direct threat to us, it’s hard to argue that our invasion has had a successful outcome.
Afghanistan is different: pretty much everyone, even the nervous Europeans, agrees we had to go into Afghanistan, and if we’d left it at that we’d probably still have most of the world on our side. But even in Afghanistan the jihadists are far from beaten.
So it’s the shooting-war part of the War on Terror that seems to be giving us, the world’s undisputed military top dog, the most trouble. Why?
Maybe it’s a conceptual thing. I’m starting to think that ‘war’ is the wrong way to think about this. After all, the 9/11 attack was largely planned by a handful of guys in an apartment in Hamburg, and all the carrier groups and armored brigades in the world are useless against a roomful of guys muttering in Arabic.
George Soros raised howls of protest from conservatives a while back when he said that maybe we should have treated 9/11 as a crime against humanity instead of an act of war. The proper response to a crime, of course, is intelligent police work rather than war. That didn’t sit well with the hawks. I think the hawks should take a second and think again.
We love to declare wars in this country. We also have a War on Drugs, and there used to be a War on Poverty. I guess we must have won that one, because you don’t hear much about it anymore. Every once in a while some politician identifies a serious problem and decides he has to declare war on it. That’s supposed to get everyone mobilized for a big national effort, I guess. It’s supposed to justify extraordinary measures, and, usually, great expenditures. It signals that the politicians are serious.
The problem is that the war metaphor can mislead us, and I think it’s misled the Bush administration in a serious way in the current crisis. I think in the shock after 9/11 they looked at our first-rate military machine and saw that nothing could stand against it and therefore decided it would solve all our problems with Islamic thuggery. So they declared the War on Terror.
Here’s the problem with that: in a real war, the kind our military was designed to fight, there is an enemy government with a seat of power and a chain of command. It has at its disposal a military machine that can be located and engaged and, if you’re better, destroyed. And then the enemy government can be compelled to do whatever you want it to do, including coming out with their hands up.
But where’s Bin Laden’s capital? Where are his carrier groups and armored brigades? The September 11th attack was carried out by half a dozen guys with box cutters. Yes, there were the camps in Afghanistan, where those guys learned their tricks. And our military took them out in short order. Insofar as there was a locatable enemy, the shooting war worked just fine. But then it got harder. There are a whole lot of guys in a whole lot of apartments, muttering in a whole lot of languages. And you can’t send the B-52’s to bomb Hamburg.
George Soros was right: what we need to defeat Al-Qaeda is principally good intelligence and patient police work that doesn’t alienate the populations that shelter our enemies. We need people who can speak the languages and people who know how to cultivate informants, and flexible and adaptable security agencies that don’t squabble over turf. We need a lot of good smart tough cops, and we will need a lot of time.
That’s not satisfying to a lot of people. They want the bang. They want to turn sand into glass. They want to make somebody hurt. 9/11 was an act of war, they insist, so let’s give the bastards a war. Wasn’t 9/11 an act of war? OK, sure. How about Timothy McVeigh’s blowing up the Murragh Building? Was that an act of war? And who do you declare war on there? You don’t. You put the cops to work, and they track the bastards down.
Here’s another problem with calling this a war: in many people’s eyes, it grants legitimacy to the criminals. In a real war, it’s understood that the other guy is fighting for his country, just like you are. His government may be at fault, but you don’t hold that against him. Diplomats can argue about the merits of the case. Calling what we’re in now a war says to millions of people around the world that Bin Laden has a case, that the suicide bombers are more than deranged killers, that Musab Al-Zarqawi qualifies as a patriot. It grants the killers a status they don’t deserve. Sure, being a criminal suspect may grant you some procedural rights that being an enemy combatant doesn’t, but it’s a loss in the propaganda war. Calling the Al-Qaeda thugs enemy combatants grants them a dignity they don’t deserve. It undermines our case.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not pleading for appeasement or soft treatment. When the enemy is locatable and armed and hostile, I’m fine with sending in the Marines. The problem is that this enemy is so often not locatable, and when he is, he is hunkered down in a house full of women and children who don’t deserve to die with him. Or he is embedded in a university in Europe, or lying low in an office job in the U.S.
If we want to find him and stop him, we have to get smart. We have to stop thinking about invading countries and start thinking about intelligence and investigation and infiltration and patient assembling of data. We have the best military in the world, and they have done everything we’ve asked of them. But not everything is a military problem, and military action can alienate a population and turn it against us in the wink of an eye. I think the war metaphor led us into disaster in Iraq, and it’s time to retire it.