Has War Really Changed?

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

Has war been reinvented in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Sometimes it seems so, with the confusion that has come with the instant communication offered by the Internet, YouTube and satellite television — along with the new arts of precision destruction via high-tech weapons like drones and GPS-guided weapons.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, soldiers don’t quite disappear into distant theaters abroad. Instead, they can e-mail or call their spouses from halfway across the world — often minutes before and after battle.

A phony Internet rumor, like the supposed flushing of a Koran at Guantanamo Bay, can incite thousands in mere minutes.

As those in the West become ever more affluent and leisured, it is harder for us to ask our children to risk the good life in often distant, controversial wars. Who wants to leave our comfy suburbs to fight in godforsaken places like the Hindu Kush or Fallujah — against those for whom violence and poverty are accustomed experiences?

The West still has the technological edge in warfare. But thanks to globalization, the Internet and billions of petrodollars, terrorists can get their hands on weapons (or the instructions on how to build them) that often prove as lethal as those used by American or NATO troops.

That Osama bin Laden did not have anything like the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz did not prevent him from taking down the World Trade Center.

Nonetheless, many of the old rules still apply amid the modern fog of war. Human nature, after all, does not change. And since the beginning of civilization the point of war has always been for one side through the use of force to make the other accept its political will.

We should remember that and get back to basics in Afghanistan. Our leaders must remind us that war always offers only two choices — bad and worse.

We certainly could leave Afghanistan. That would allow the Taliban to return to power and host more radical Islamic terrorists.

Or we can persist in a dirty business of trying to stabilize a consensual government that will fight terrorism. Both are dangerous enterprises: Withdrawal has long-term risks; staying may become hellish in the short-term.

We should also carefully define the enemy. Who exactly are we ultimately fighting in Afghanistan? Afghans? Arabs? Radical Muslims? Terrorists? Most of the public is still unsure after eight years of war.

There are certainly plenty of horrific thugs like those in the Taliban throughout the world whom we often ignore. But what made radical Afghans of vital interest to the United States was their willingness to help radical Arab Muslims kill Americans on a wide scale.

What unites al Qaeda and the Taliban is a shared murderous radical Islamic ideology, one antithetical to our own. Americans should hear that without politically correct euphemisms.

The president must explain what victory in Afghanistan means. Are we there until we destroy the viability of the Taliban and their terrorist allies — by fostering an elected government that will eventually secure the country? If so, we need to hear exactly that.

If not, the president can instead talk of deadlines, troop withdrawals, cruise-missile attacks and Predator-drone bombings — all efforts to now and then bother, but not end, the Taliban and al Qaeda.

War typically concludes when one side cannot fulfill its political objectives. Sometimes both sides quit, as in the Korean War. But usually, as in Vietnam or the Balkans, violence ceases when one side is tired of losing more than it hopes to gain — and admits defeat.

If our leaders today could consult great generals like the Roman Scipio Africanus or William Tecumseh Sherman — who won what were once near-hopeless wars — they might receive the following advice:

  • Prepare the public to shoulder human and financial costs.
  • Be candid about why enduring the horrors of war now is preferable to risking even costlier violence later.
  • Talk always of winning, never leaving or quitting a war.
  • Have no apologies for crushing the enemy. The quicker the enemy loses, the fewer get killed on both sides.
  • Inform the public of the other side’s losses just as you do your own.
  • And be magnanimous to the defeated — after the war, not during the fighting.

Nation building may be fine and even necessary. But war always involves “a military solution.” How can there be economic prosperity or political stability if civilians are afraid of getting killed by enemy terrorists?

President Obama talked of many things in his recent Afghanistan speech. But he never once mentioned the words “victory” and “win.” All that may seem like an out-of-date idea to postmodern Americans. But it is still a very real one to the premodern Taliban, who seem to understand the ageless nature of war far better than we do.

©2009 Tribune Media Services

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