Is the Western Way of War Dead?

Not yet, but it may soon be irrelevant.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

It is now becoming trite to write of the American military “failure” in Iraq. But recently this purported setback has been lumped together with the Israeli problems in southern Lebanon to suggest an end to the long dominance of the Western Way of War — an approach to warfare that has usually allowed Western soldiers to do what they wish abroad, from Alexander at the Indus to the Europeans in the 20th century.

Supposedly the Islamists have not only evolved beyond the old, failed Arab paradigm of feebly copying Western conventional practice (remember the 1967 Six-Day War or Saddam’s disaster in 1991), but also have mastered a novel sort of jihad terrorism that, within the confines of urban fighting inside the Middle East, has nullified traditional Western advantage — and for good.

It is certainly wise to acknowledge the military and political success of jihadists, whether in the Hindu Kush, the Sunni Triangle, or southern Lebanon, in making life very difficult for relatively small numbers of soldiers in Western militaries. Recently in National Review, I reviewed reasons why we should indeed be worried about the terrorists’ new adaptations.

In a Middle East awash in petrodollars, militias like Hezbollah can purchase off-the-shelf night-vision goggles, anti-tank weapons, and communications equipment that near parity with those of the Israel Defense Force. Jihadists in Iraq may not be able to make explosives, but they can easily buy them, adapt them into improvised explosive devices, and then blow up multimillion-dollar Abrams vehicles, along with their professional crews.

This is especially true when Western-generated expertise in munitions is freely available over the Internet or readily learned from study abroad in Western universities. Give a jihadist a sophisticated Russian anti-tank projectile or a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile, along with a few hours of instruction, and he can destroy multimillion-dollar machines and their crews, each of whom has a million-dollar education.

Such asymmetry works also to redefine losses. When the underdog is defeated, but not crushed, victory has a way of being redefined as a setback. We saw that anomaly in Lebanon, where the Israelis killed ten Hezbollah militants for every IDF soldier lost — and were promptly pronounced the losers. Since these postmodern wars usually take place in the home landscape of terrorists and jihadists, it is not easy to ask Western soldiers to give up the good life to fight against enemies who have proclaimed — whether out of religious zeal or from the misery of living in a squalid Ramallah or Baghdad — to love death more than life. It apparently does little good to remember that our generation’s cumulative 2,500 fatalities during combat operations in Iraq amounted to about a week’s losses in our victorious grandfathers’ hard-won victories at the Bulge or in Okinawa.

The West itself is also divided by worries about oil, terrorism, and commercial entanglements with the Middle East. At the United Nations, a France or Russia is as likely to oppose as support America. Europeans willingly sell Iranians the sophisticated machine tools necessary for nuclear fabrication. The European Union takes an odd psychological delight in seeing, and often seeks to profit from, American tactical reversals in the Middle East — as long as they do not impair the overall shared Western strategic advantage.

In an era of global communications, the fact that al Jazeera looks more or less like a splashy Western media outlet gives an impression of credibility and cloaks its propaganda. But more importantly still, 30 years of institutionalized moral equivalence, multiculturalism, utopian pacifism, and cultural relativism in the West are felt even on the distant battlefield. While we are no longer surprised that an ex-president like Jimmy Carter can’t tell the difference between a democracy that is attacked and a kidnapping, missile-shooting terrorist cadre that starts a war, such constant criticism finally does erode our own confidence and emboldens the enemy. Once-noble institutions like Reuters can no longer be trusted to send out photos that are not doctored, or even to report fairly events on the ground — and that too ultimately filters down to affect the very manner in which we make war.

So this anti-Western bias among elites inside the West has given the terrorists enormous advantages in this conflict. If one doubts the sophistication of al Qaeda in echoing Western self-loathing, examine the recent communiqué in which Adam Gadahn condemns Daniel Pipes and Steven Emerson, while praising Seymour Hersh, Robert Fisk, and George Galloway. Not long ago Osama bin Laden tried to interject himself into the 2004 elections by hinting that each state will have to accept the consequences of its vote. Earlier he had praised William Blum’s savage take on America, Rogue State.

Of course, there are some reasons to worry when a nation of formidable military strength is unable to crush quickly an insurrection in the Sunni Triangle. But to admit this is a long way away from suggesting that a new successful Islamic way of war — born in Afghanistan and refined in Iraq and Lebanon — has ended Western military dominance.

First, it is not clear that the West, for all its hysteria, has actually lost anything. We removed a Middle Eastern fascist in three weeks, and then in Iraq birthed three successful elections in the heart of the ancient caliphate — following the even more unlikely scenario of doing the same in Afghanistan. Both countries are the only places in the Middle East where soldiers fight terrorists on behalf of legitimately elected governments.

What looks like “quagmire” now may soon, in retrospect, and in later acknowledgment of the ambition of the undertaking, seem both noble and successful. Such an historical assessment is also likely when we consider that the U.S. military has killed thousands of terrorists abroad, and has severely disrupted al Qaeda — while we have suffered no repeat of September 11 here at home.

In June 1940 the world wrote off liberal democracies as unable to marshal the will or competence to stand up to Blitzkrieg; yet, by June 1945 the Wehrmachtwas symbolic of an entire failed way of fascist war. Ditto the cycle of awe turned embarrassment that accompanied the Red Army between 1945 and 1979. Nothing is static in military evolution — other than the larger cultural underpinnings that enhance or erode military efficacy.

Second, there are a variety of constraints on American power, but most are not military. In an ethical sense, Western publics object not merely to suffering losses, but increasingly to inflicting them on the enemy as well.

But over the long duration of history, these are cyclical and often transitory phenomena. It is not etched in stone that oil will always be the world’s fuel or that its price will never return to $30 a barrel. Take such profits and strategic importance away from the Middle East, and much of its weaponry, and jihadist zeal, will disappear. And if there is another attack of the caliber of 9/11, Western moral restraint on massive retribution against sponsor states will vanish.

Israel may well have been confused by mobile Katyushas and underground Hezbollah bunkers; but should Syria or Hezbollah send a missile laden with WMD at Tel Aviv, the jihadists and their patrons will quickly learn that there is no defense against an Israeli Western-style response.

Third, it is wiser to look at larger cultural, political, and economic paradigms, of which military prowess, whether conventional or terrorist, is merely a reflection. After its war with Lebanon, Israel, in typically Western fashion, immediately underwent soul-searching to learn from past errors, while Hezbollah chest-thumped over its constructed victory. Already the United States, under the generalship of George Casey, has radically altered tactics, operations, and munitions in Iraq, and, in a constant cycle of challenge and response, will adjust more quickly than its adversaries for the next theater of battle. By early 1944 the Japanese had perfected island defense to such a degree that later, on Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, American firepower was nullified and U.S. Marines were forced to fight a slow, costly, and extremely unwelcome type of war. But that is precisely what they adapted to — and were prepared for, if need be, in Japan.

Fourth, the specter of American military paralysis in the Middle East is often raised as an argument to turn exclusively to diplomacy and politics. The subtext is that a bullying America, by sending its military into the Middle East, has arrogantly and foolishly stuck its finger into a buzz saw.

But that claim is as silly as it is specious. We have tried diplomacy, politics, appeasement, and criminal justice remedies, from the Iranian hostage crisis to the USS Cole — and we earned the logical result for our forbearance on September 11. Indeed, take away 9/11, and a reluctant America would not be in either Afghanistan or Iraq. And calls to talk with Iran or Syria or al Qaeda are not novel — ask Warren Christopher, who sat for hours on Mr. Assad’s Damascus tarmac — but just a rehash of nearly three-decades of failed Middle East diplomacy, as well as an illustration of the current election-year hysteria over a policy that has prevented dozens of planned attacks here at home, and removed two odious regimes abroad.

We may indeed witness eventually the end of the primacy of the Western way of war. Yet that demotion will not be due to the Islamic way of war, but rather to the specter of a thermonuclear exchange with paradise-loving enemies, immune to notions of deterrence — an awful situation in which conventional Western military advantage is reduced to nothing.

That scenario is one reason why we are fighting in such unsavory places to dismantle al Qaeda, as well as to isolate, or change, the jihadists’ patron rogue regimes that are so desperate for such weapons. The real problem is not that the Islamists have crafted a new way of warfare, but that we could lose this war at home without being defeated by the enemy on the battlefield.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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