Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

The Power of Will: Winning Still Matters

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

The terrorists cannot win either a conventional or an asymmetrical war against the United States, should it bring its full array of assets to the struggle. Indeed, the Middle East, for all its revenue from inflated oil prices, has a smaller economy than Spain’s. It has never won a war against a Western power. Arab nations lost in 1967, 1973, 1991, and 2004. Hence the fatwasmust go back to millennia-old glories about Saladin, the siege of Cyprus, the Moors, and the Caliphate — about the last examples of Islamic victories over the West. The Middle East’s only successes in 1956, or during the 1980s in Afghanistan, were due to either a United States’ veto of British operations or the importation of American stinger missiles. The Iranian hostage crisis, Lebanon, and Mogadishu were Western retreats, not battlefield defeats — grievous, yes, but hardly arbiters of relative military advantage. The present terrorists are a nasty sort, but they are still not the SS or millions of Tojo’s crack Japanese troops; nor do they have the organization or the skill of the Vietcong or NVA. These are losing hundreds of jihadists every week in Iraq and have failed to retake Afghanistan.

So why do the now-surrounded and desperate insurgents in Fallujah think they can prevail, especially after the rout of the Taliban in six weeks and the implementation of a consensual government in less than three years in Afghanistan? In a word, the jihadists and their fellow-travelers are once again convinced that this time it will be different because the West, and the United States in particular, have neither the patience nor the will to endure their primeval killing of a post-Saddam Iraq.

Beheadings, suicide bombings, mass executions, and improvised explosive devices are not intended to destroy or even defeat the U.S. military. Rather, they are aimed at the taxpaying citizens back home who fuel it. In a globalized world of instant communications, a bin Laden or Zarqawi trusts that most of us would prefer to take out the garbage than watch a blood-curdling video clip of yet another Western hostage kneeling before a half-dozen psychopaths as they begin to saw off his vertebrae. They hope that we the sickened ask, “Why waste our billions and hundreds of lives on such primordial folk?” — wrongly equating 26 million who wish freedom with a few thousand criminals and terrorists.

The improvised explosive device is a metaphor for our time. The killers cannot even make the artillery shells or the timers that detonate the bombs, but like parasites they use Western or Western-designed weaponry to harvest Westerners. They cannot blow up enough Abrams tanks or even Humvees to alter the battlefield landscape. But what they can accomplish is to maim or kill a few hundred Westerners in hopes that our own media will magnify the trauma and savagery of their attack — and do so often enough to make 300 million of us become exhausted with the entire “mess.” The message of Arabic television is that the Iraqis are supposed to blame us, not their brethren who are killing them, for the carnage. Not our power, but our will, is the target.

Al Qaeda and their appendages in Iraq do not know the requisite numbers of dead or wounded Americans necessary to break the resolve of the United States, but brag that with 1,000 fatalities they are nearing their goal — and thus a few more will give them a change of administration, schedules for withdrawal, an abandoned interim Iraqi government ripe to pluck, and a Lebanon-like paradise to reconstruct the lost sanctuary of Afghanistan. In other words, they are desperate for a reprieve from their looming destruction. Al Qaeda — “the Base” — without a base is not much of a terrorist organization since its own proud appellation has become an ironic joke.

Despite the three-week victory over the Baathists, there is some reason for the Islamists’ optimism that they can break our will — given a decade of nonchalance after the first World Trade Center attack, the Khobar towers, the USS Cole, and an assortment of other unanswered murders in the 1990s. The April withdrawal from Fallujah — whether due to worry about Iraqi civilian or our own casualties — was a grievous blow. The Spanish debacle was an even worse Western defeat. Killing about 200 Spaniards got a Socialist and anti-American prime minister elected and an almost-immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq — even though such appeasement was met not with thanks but with a subsequent attempt to blow up the judges of the Spanish High Court.

Meanwhile, here at home, John Kerry talks about timetables for departure and cessation of the present course. His supporters on the extreme left from George Soros to Michael Moore blame George Bush, not Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, for the current televised butchery. There is a reason why candidate Kerry now painfully insists that he would not precipitously withdraw — because everyone else worldwide, from a Chirac and Schroeder to Arafat and most of the Arab world — suspect that, in fact, he will.

An American flight would shame Tony Blair and John Howard, leave eastern Europe to the bullying of Paris and Berlin, destroy the Iraq interim government, take the heat off Arab autocracies, and send a message that American policy was back to Clintonian-like law enforcement, replete with jargon such as “sensitive” and “nuisance.” It does not matter what Kerry would “really” wish to do, since the last two years of campaign rhetoric have earned him the worldwide reputation of the Bush antithesis, and thus his victory would, rightly or wrongly, be interpreted as a complete rejection of toppling Saddam and fostering a constitutional government in his place. His supporters and financial backers on the left would not tolerate anything less than a withdrawal.

Because of our astounding weaponry and superb military, the terrorists in Fallujah count on the help of such postmodern Western guilt and internecine blame to supply constraints on the American military every bit as effective as the old Soviet nuclear deterrent. Again, a Michael Moore — or so they believe — is worth an entire jihadist cell. Our parents were terrified that, should America resort to military force abroad, they would be nuked; we are even more scared that our lethality will earn us the parlor disdain of the French and Germans. The terrorists are assured that the Western press is obsessed with Abu Ghraib, but not at all with Saddam’s necropolis or their own slaughter of innocents. They suspect that those who endured Omaha and Utah or scaled Suribachi are long sleeping in their graves, and that a few thousand creeps in Fallujah scare us more than a quarter million in the Bulge did our parents.

So yes, it is a strange war. Jihadists are amused that a few American soldiers, worried over their safety, can refuse orders, call 7,000 miles home in anguish, and expect that their complaints, handed over by Mom to the local TV station, will turn up on national cable news before their own commanders in the field even know what is up. A teenaged terrorist with a RPG, being filmed as he is killed, is every bit as an effective soldier through his globally broadcast death than had he lived on to hit his target Humvee with his rocket in the first place. We don’t ask, “Which school-builder or power-restorer was he trying to obliterate?” but rather “Why did we have to kill him?”

When the Islamists behead a tearful Englishman or American, it is more likely that his surviving dad or sibling back home will be on television all over the Middle East within minutes damning Tony Blair or George Bush, without a word of censure for the Dark-Age head-loppers. After all, we are not Nepalese who storm the local mosque and put the fear of God into Islamists when they butcher our own. We are more likely to be frightened, turn on ourselves, and condemn some American somewhere who cannot stop “this.”

But cannot our self-induced forbearance vanish as soon as we decide enough is enough? Should the American government ignore the EU hysteria, tell Kofi Annan to worry about his son’s crooked shenanigans and not Americans’ killing terrorists, and simply take Fallujah — as part of a larger effort to correct the laxity of the past and finish the war — then we would surely win. The fallout would be as salutary as our present restraint is disastrous. Like the murderous Pakistani madrassa zealots who flocked to Tora Bora only to be incinerated, Fallujah would not stand as a mecca for the jihadists, but an Armageddon better to watch on television than die in.

The truth is that war remains the same the more it changes. For all the technological gadgetry, foreign landscapes, baffling global communications, and endemic pacifism of the present age, war is still a struggle of the human spirit. The morality, materiel, and technology are all on our side. But we are confused in this postmodern age that such advantages should automatically equate to near-instantaneous and costless victory as they sometimes do in Panama and Serbia — as if the heart of the medieval caliphate next to Syria and Iran, replete with terrorism and a 30-year past of mass murder, is a mere Haiti or Grenada.

In the heart of even the most ardent liberal lies a dormant but still alive desire for victory, and in every strutting hawk there lingers the fear of abject defeat. Had we secured Iraq by June 2003, the sputtering Kerry candidacy would by now have been faulting Bush for not going into Iran. But blink, falter, and witness beheadings and hostage-taking on television, and Kerry can reinvent himself as the apostle of peace all along — and a bizarre group of creepy people come out of the woodwork professing Biblical wisdom about George Bush’s purported catastrophes.

In short, the more sophisticated, the more technological, the more hyped and televised war becomes, the more pundits and strategists warn us about “fourth-generational,” “asymmetrical,” “irregular,” and “new dimensional” conflict, the more we simply forget the unchanging requisite of the will to win that trumps all other considerations. John Kerry has no more secret a plan than George Bush — because there is no secret way to pacify Iraq other than to kill the killers, humiliate their cause through defeat, and give the credit of the victory, along with material aid and the promise of autonomous freedom, to moderate Iraqis. Victory on the battlefield — not the mysterious diplomacy of “wise men,” or German and French sanction, or Arab League support — alone will allow Iraq an opportunity for humane government.

Meanwhile, we all vote. One candidate urges us to return to the mindset of pre-September 11 — law enforcement dealing with terrorists as nuisances. He claims the policies that have led to an absence of another attack at home, the end of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, idealistic efforts to extend freedom, and radical and positive changes in Pakistan, Libya, the West Bank, and the Gulf have made things worse. In contrast, the other reminds us that we are in a real war against horrific enemies and are no longer passive targets, but will fight the terrorists on their home turf, win, and leave behind humane government. No choice could be clearer. It is America’s call.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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