From Manhattan to Baghdad

One enemy, one war, one outcome.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

The monotonous inquiries of the critics resound: “What does Iraq have to do with al Qaeda?” “First Afghanistan, now Iraq — what next?” “Isn’t Bush’s war endless?” “Aren’t we diverting our attention from the war on terrorism?”

On the eve of war with Iraq, we should remember that such uncertainty about enemies, allies, aims, and the scope and duration of wars is typical. That al Qaeda does not meet us with tanks and planes on the field of battle does not mean we do not know whom we are fighting and where and how we should do it.

We speak of the “Persian Wars” of 490 and 480/79. But only later did Herodotus and the Greeks look back on the defeat of Darius I at Marathon (490) and Xerxes at Salamis (480) as related events in one overarching campaign. In retrospect, they saw that these battles were not isolated victories over various Persian kings with different agendas, but, in fact, all part of a ten-year struggle to free Greece from Persian despotism.

Thucydides wrote of a single, long Peloponnesian War. Most of his contemporaries probably disagreed. Plague, 21 sieges, two major hoplite battles, half a dozen sea fights, five invasions of Attica, far-off campaigns, helot insurrection, revolutions from the Ionian to the Aegean seas — how was all that terror and tyranny connected?

So many at the time thought that the Archidamian War, the Peace of Nicias, the Sicilian War, the Pachean War, and the Ionian War were all discrete events. Had all the fighting really been a war of Athens against Sparta — or, at times, Athens against Thebes — and against Sicily, the Peloponnesian States, and Persia? Did the terrorists on Corcyra have anything to do with the Athenian fleet or the Spartan army?

By contrast, Thucydides in a fit of genius understood that a single conflict involved a single theme — radical democratic imperialism pitted against conservative oligarchy. And in his view such fighting went on in a variety of confusing contexts and landscapes until one side capitulated — as Athens in fact did 27 years later. He didn’t care much who joined in or where the conflict flared up and died down — only that it was one terrible war “like none other.” Whether waged in Sicily, the Black Sea, the western Peloponnese, or outside the walls of Athens, it ended only when the reason for war — Sparta’s “fear” of a grasping Athenian empire — no longer existed.

So wars are not only difficult for their participants to envision as simple events; the combatants are not always so easily distinguishable. Britain and America — but not Russia — fought Japan for most of the Second World War. Germany, under a non-aggression pact with Russia, fought England, and only later was defeated with the help of Russia and America. There was no more synchronism between Germany and Japan than among the present Axis of Evil. Russia never invaded Italy. Nor did Germany send troops to the Pacific, nor Japan to Europe. Guadalcanal was part of the same war, as was Stalingrad — just as Anzio was connected to the capture of Copenhagen, jungle fighting in Burma, and Hiroshima. If all that is not true, then we are wrong now grandly to speak of a “World War II” — a single conflict that combines the Pacific and European theaters, unified by a common struggle against fascism in its various manifestations in Germany, Italy, and Japan, and started on September 1, 1939, June 22, 1941, and December 7, 1941.

Before we criticize President Bush for “diverting attention” away from the war against al Qaeda, we should pause and at least grant that historians may envision it in quite a different way. It is just as likely that at some future date we will come to see that the war on terror for the United States started on September 11 with the murder of 3,000 Americans and the destruction of our planes and iconic buildings in New York and Washington. Then the war moved on to a variety of other theaters in Afghanistan and Iraq — and anywhere else the Islamo-fascists and their sponsors of terror operated or received aid.

“The Taliban War” (October-November 2001) was fought to destroy the Afghan sanctuary of bin Laden and remove the Taliban. It was waged simultaneously with the more insidious and stealthy “War on Terrorism” (September 12 through the present) conducted by police and intelligence operatives to stamp out al Qaeda cells in Europe, Asia, and the U.S.

A third, concomitant “Iraqi War” with additional enemies is a further effort to destroy an historical patron of terrorism and his cachés of deadly weapons that either have gone or will go to terrorists. Saddam’s defeat will end the possibility that his oil-fueled supply of deadly weapons will fall into the hands of al Qaeda and its epigones. His end will isolate and cut off al Qaeda operatives in Kurdistan; it will rid Baghdad of enemies like Abu Abbas (and the ghost of Abu Nidal) as well as various al Qaeda visitors; it will stop bonuses for the suicide-killers of Hamas and Hezbollah (who embrace the same modus operandi and similar religious extremism as the 9/11 killers); and it will send a powerful message to states like Iran and Saudi Arabia that subsidizing terrorists who killed 3,000 Americans is a very dangerous thing to do.

Just as Italian fascists, Japanese militarists, and German Nazis saw commonalities in their efforts to spread right-wing nationalist rule, so Islamic radicals seek to end Western global influence in similar ways — either through the establishment of Islamic republics in the Gulf and other oil-producing countries or loose alliances of convenience with tyrannies like those in Syria, Libya, or Iraq, which can be cajoled, blackmailed, or openly joined with in ad hoc efforts to destroy a hated West.

Fascist states and radical Islamists, in fact, exhibit affinities that go well beyond sporadic and murky ties between such governments and fundamentalist terrorist groups. For one, in a post-Soviet Union world, they all seek weapons of mass destruction to be used as intercontinental blackmail as a way of weakening Western resolve and curtailing an American presence abroad.

For another, their common ideological enemy is liberal democracy — specifically its global promotion of freedom, individualism, capitalism, gender equity, religious diversity, and secularism that undermines both Islamic fundamentalism in the cultural sense, and politically makes it more difficult for tyrants to rule over complacent and ignorant populations. Third, our various enemies share an eerie modus operandi as well: Al Qaeda terrorists blew themselves up killing Americans; and so do terrorists on the West Bank — and so does Saddam Hussein send bounties to the families of such killers.

Nihilism — whether torching oil fields, gassing civilians, crashing airplanes, desecrating shrines, toppling towers, or creating oil slicks — is another telltale symptom of our enemies, as is the perversion of Islam, whether illustrated in bin Laden’s crackpot communiqués, the rantings of Hezbollah and Hamas to extend theocracy and kill infidels, or Saddam Hussein’s ugly nouveau minarets and holy books written with his own blood.

Muslims from the Middle East are not per se the enemy, but rather those renegade Muslims who use the cover of Islam to rally support for their self-serving politics. After all, without the bogeymen of Zionism and the Great Satan they would have to explain to their own dispossessed why Cairo is poorer than Tel Aviv, why heart surgery is done in London and not Damascus, or why so many Arabs seem to seek out Detroit rather than Baghdad.

Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda, bin Laden, Hezbollah, and others — they all talk in apocalyptic tones about Western decadence, the inability of Americans to take casualties, the need to destroy Israel, and the moral superiority of Islam. They all sprinkle here and there crazy references to crusaders, colonists, infidels, and jihad. They have all fought and killed Americans in the past, and brag that they will do so in the future — whether referring to cooked-up “victories” at “the mother of all battles” or the trenches and caves of Tora Bora.

Their real gripe is that the world is passing them all by — whether we speak in noble terms of the benefactions of globalization such as high-tech medicine and the respect that freedom conveys to the individual, or more the crass schlock of Michael Jackson’s globally broadcasted sins and the addiction of video games. The millions of the Islamic world are at last trying to taste some of this far faster than their mullahs and dictators can stop them. So in the warped minds of terrorists and strongmen it is either to blow up a skyscraper or to blackmail the West with germs — or to see the slow strangulation of Islamic fundamentalism and Arab tyrannies through the advent of globalized freedom.

Are we, then, confronted with a clash of civilizations? Not really, but rather the tottering of the last impediments to the reform of the Arab world before it joins the world of nations, and embraces freedom and tolerance, which alone can provide it with security and prosperity. While there are hundreds of thousands of terrorists and state fascists in almost every Arab government, hundreds of millions of more ordinary citizens are watching this war to see who will win and what the ultimate settlement will consist of. Many, perhaps the majority, may for the moment have their hearts with bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, but their minds ultimately will convince them to join the victors and a promising future, rather than the losers and a bleak past.

The jailing of al Qaeda, the end of the Taliban, and the destruction of Saddam’s clique will convince the Arab world that it is not wise or safe to practice jihad as it has been practiced since 1979. Killing American diplomats, blowing up Marines in their sleep, flattening embassies, attacking warships, and toppling buildings will not only not work but bring on a war so terrible that the very thought of the consequences from another 9/11 would be too horrific to contemplate.

Taking on all at once Germany, Japan, and Italy — diverse enemies all — did not require the weeding out of all the fascists and their supporters in Mexico, Argentina, Eastern Europe, and the Arab world. Instead, those in jackboots and armbands worldwide quietly stowed all their emblems away as organized fascism died on the vine once the roots were torn out in Berlin, Rome, and Tokyo. So too will the terrorists, once their sanctuaries and capital shrivel up — as is happening as we speak.

Since 1979 we have been caught in a classic bellum interuptum that could not be resolved through mediation and appeasement, but only — as we saw in 9/11 — made worse. Wars do not end with truces nor do they start because of accidents or miscommunications. They break out when one side has aggressive aims and advances grievances — whether real or perceived — and feels there is nothing to deter it. And conflicts end for good with either victory or defeat. Although we may not see it now, we really are in one war against one enemy — and since we started fighting it on September 12 we are, in fact, winning and will soon be nearing the end


©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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