How We Collapse

The home front is more worrisome than the battlefield.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Democratic critics keep deconstructing federal reports about intelligence lapses that might have led to the tragedy of September 11. While they fault the administration — in some cases correctly — for an apparent lack of vigilance, they do not dare explore the real heart of the disaster.

The 9/11 tragedy was not due simply to bureaucratic inertia or to some sort of oil conspiracy that overlooked criminal behavior of the sheiks of the petroleum states (though all that no doubt played a role), but was far more a dividend of political correctness. If Senator Graham is sincerely worried about our lethal oversights and mistakes, he should examine the orthodoxies and policies that have precluded the according of special scrutiny to radical Islamists in mosques and religious schools across America. Most operated with impunity for decades under the exemptions provided by the false gods of “diversity” and “multiculturalism.”

Had Mr. Atta and his fellow killers been arrested on probable cause, their Islamic haunts raided, and assorted charities and fundraisers shut down on September 10, 2001 — cries of racism, profiling, and McCarthyism would have drowned out the purportedly farfetched excuses that such preemptory FBI raids had in fact saved thousands in Manhattan.

After a long shootout precipitated by American troops who tried to approach a private residence in Mosul, the sons of Saddam were killed in a deadly firefight. Several of our own troops were wounded. Almost immediately, columnists and congressmen — Mr. Rangel was especially visible in this regard — implied that we had engaged in targeted assassinations. Indeed, we had apparently not even made an attempt to provide due process!

That trapped mass murderers do not always understand the logic of jurisprudence was apparently left unmentioned. Again, the first impression left was that we, not they, were somehow at fault. Few of these pundits opined that the shooting of such monsters will ipso facto ensure that they can never again butcher and torture thousands of innocents — or energize the death squads that are currently blowing apart American youths.

More refined humanists — Europeans especially — also objected to the publication of ghoulish pictures of the Husseins’ bloated corpses as something of a throwback to our barbaric past. Apparently, the filmed corpses were the electronic equivalent of displaying the riddled remains of desperados in pine boxes on the main street of the frontier towns of the Old West.

What was never mentioned was that the Pentagon was between a rock and a hard place. Withholding the photos would either fuel conspiracies that we had faked the deaths, or suggest an arrogance on our part, a sense that we somehow operated on a higher and more rarified moral plane than the Iraqi victims of such beasts. On the other hand, releasing the pictures not only suggested to Western elites a sort of retrograde barbarity; it was also interpreted as gloating over the defeated. The subtler added that we were guilty of sacrilege in light of Islamic burial customs — and on and on.

Consequently, no critics offered any advice on how to satisfy the mutually contradictory demands of both American and Iraqi societies — only a generalized grunt or two that it was, somehow, “not right.”

That the graphic image of Mussolini hanging from his heels or Ceausescu lying contorted in the dirt had left a powerful impression on their adherents — and eclipsed the romance of their once-megalomaniac balcony addresses — was forgotten. Apparently, humans are now considered to be immune to the shock — and ensuing salutary lessons — of seeing once-terrifying killers not merely dead, but grotesquely so.

The tragedy of nearly 100 American soldiers dying through terrorist assassinations and bombings in postbellum Iraq is always on all our minds. Yet the current hysteria provides few possible reasons why those who would never face us in war are now able to shoot at us in “peace.”

The cause is at least in part attributable to the peculiar nature of contemporary war. The so-called Sunni triangle is not merely a stronghold of Saddamites; it’s also far to the north from the nexus of the original invasion. Thus it is a region that simply capitulated rather than being overrun — merely on rumors that the Americans were approaching from far to the south.

Yet had the 4th Armored Division from Turkey instead blasted through the Republican loyalists of Tikrit — killing Baathists with ease and displaying the lethality of American arms in the very first few hours of the war — far fewer former Saddamites would now think it is an easy thing to shoot their victors in the back. On both humanitarian and practical grounds, it was wise to forgo the long bombing that blasted Baghdad in 1991 and Belgrade eight years later; but often the cadres that fuel evil regimes see such forbearance as either weakness or a reprieve.

That we must follow the new protocols of televised warfare does not mean that the older rules of conflict, based as they are on the unchanging nature of man, will simply disappear. Those tenets remind us that in general, the more carefully we sought to avoid damage and destruction in Iraq, the more likely sordid Baathists were to be emboldened. And the more we sought to rebuild civil society, the more audacious such killers became, convinced that we were no longer deadly combatants, but rather civil servants to be easily picked off.

The burden of the modern Western soldier is not that he is too lethal — although he is surely that as well — but that he must be more than a soldier: he must be a humanitarian who seeks to rebuild almost immediately what he finds has been destroyed by his enemy. An American in Iraq must be as concerned to spackle the shattered plaster from his (or others’) gun bursts as he is to pull the trigger in the first place. And that fact in and of itself — while it will never quite satisfy his elite Western censors — quite literally can get him killed.

In this regard, my favorite recent scene was in the neighborhood of the blasted death house. After explaining to Western journalists that they mysteriously knew nothing of either the Husseins’ nearby presence or the Baathist sympathies of the sheik next door, residents complained of shattered windows and pockmarked walls from collateral fire — only to be assured that the U.S. government would quickly provide suitable compensation. And we will — with apologies added.

If one were to collate the recent news reports about the Mosul shootout, the lessons would be as follows: Read two mass killers their Miranda rights; duck their bullets when they shoot first; capture them alive; let Europeans cross-examine them in the Hague; lose no friendlies in the operation; do not disturb the residents next door; protect the Husseins’ victims from such oppressors (but without cracking their plaster) — and in general remember that the entire scene will be filmed and then broadcast as Cops rather than as Hell is for Heroes.

I am not suggesting that we ignore the real dangers involved in ethnic profiling, or discount the moral issues that arise from killing our enemy leaders and disseminating gross pictures of their corpses. And, of course, we should seek to distinguish Baathist culprits from ordinary Iraqis.

My point is rather that, because we are products of an affluent and leisured West, we have a special burden to remember how tenuous and fragile civilization remains outside our suburbs.

Most of us don’t fear much from the fatwa of a murderous mullah, and few have had our sisters shredded before our eyes in one of Uday’s brush chippers — much less ever seen chemical-warfare trucks hosing down our block, as cropdusters fogged our backyards.

Instead, we have the leisure to engage in utopian musing, assured that our economy, or our unseen soldiers, or our system working on autopilot, will always ensure us such prerogatives. And in the La-La Land of Washington and New York, it is especially easy to forget that we are not even like our own soldiers in Iraq, now sleeping outside without toilets and air conditioners, eating dehydrated food, and trying to distinguish killers from innocents.

What does all this mean? Western societies from ancient Athens to imperial Rome to the French republic rarely collapsed because of a shortage of resources or because foreign enemies proved too numerous or formidable in arms — even when those enemies were grim Macedonians or Germans. Rather, in times of peace and prosperity there arose an unreal view of the world beyond their borders, one that was the product of insularity brought about by success, and an intellectual arrogance that for some can be the unfortunate byproduct of an enlightened society.

I think we are indulging in this unreal hypercriticism — even apart from the election-season antics of our politicians — because we are not being gassed, or shot, or even left hot or hungry. September 11 no longer evokes an image of incinerated firemen, innocents leaping out of skyscrapers, or the stench of flesh and melted plastic, but rather: squabbles over architectural designs, lawsuits, snarling over Mr. Ashcroft’s new statutes, or concerns about being too rude to the Arab street.

Such smug dispensation — as profoundly amoral as it is — provides us, on the cheap and at a safe distance, with a sense of moral worth. Or perhaps censuring from the bleachers enables us to feel superior to those less fortunate who are still captive to their primordial appetites. We prefer to cringe at the thought that others like to see proof of their killers’ deaths, prefer to shoot rather than die capturing a mass murderer, and welcome a generic profile of those who wish to kill them en masse.

We should take stock of this dangerous and growing mindset — and remember that wealthy, sophisticated societies like our own are rarely overrun. They simply implode — whining and debating still to the end, even as they pass away.


©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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