Legends of the Fall

More myths about the current war.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

“The war is against ‘terror’.” As a number of astute observers have reminded us, terror is a method, not an enemy. And we are no more in a war against it than we were once fighting the scourge of Zeros or the plague of Soviet MiGs.

Such vague, loose nomenclature is reassuring, of course, in our therapeutic society. It ensures that we are not really angry at any one person or nation, but rather at an abstraction — as if somewhere there were soldiers with caps embroidered, ” Republic of Terror,” or crowds chanting “Up with Terror, Down with the USA,” or perhaps thuggish leaders in sunglasses and khaki who beat their shoes at the U.N. and warn, “Terrorism will bury you.”

In fact, those who employ terror of the type that culminated (rather than began) on September 11 are real people with real government backing. They cannot operate without money, havens, and at least passive complicity. Who are they? Aside from the deposed Taliban, al Qaeda, of course; but also Hezbollah and its sponsors in Iran — as well as Islamofascist groups funded and abetted by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. After 9/11, any autocratic country in the Middle East that had recently gone to war with the United States and cumulatively required 350,000 American air sorties, twelve years, $20 billion of policing, and occupation of two-thirds of its airspace to prevent genocide was an enemy, both de facto and — given Iraq’s violation of the armistice accords of 1991 — de jure. That Abu Abbas and Abu Nidal were in Baghdad before the war, and al Qaeda afterward, is the expected calculus of the Hussein regime and its noxious fumes.

While we may be in various stages of bellicosity with differing states, the fact is that after September 11 we will either accept defeat and stay within our borders to fight a defensive war of hosing down fires, bulldozing rubble, arresting terrorist cells, and hoping to appease or buy off our enemies abroad — or we will eventually have to confront Syria, Lebanon’s Bekka Valley, Saudi Arabia, and Iran with a clear request to change and come over to civilization, or join the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.


Of course, a single dead American soldier is a tragedy, both for the nation and for the aggrieved family. But, by any historical measure, what strikes students of this war so far in its first two years is the amazing degree to which the United States has hurt its enemies without incurring enormous casualties and costs. So far there have been five theaters of conflict: Washington, New York, Pennsylvania, Afghanistan, and Iraq. After suffering about 3,000 dead, $100 billion in direct material damage in Manhattan and D.C., and perhaps another $1 trillion hit to the economy at large in areas as diverse as airline losses, increased security expenditures, and tourist and travel drop-offs, the United States has lost under 400 soldiers in defeating the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and probably spent roughly $100 billion in direct military expenditures, with another $100 billion in slated reconstruction costs.

In terms of American military history, this is a staggering paradox. Usually the initial attacks that have prompted past American wars were relatively mild, while the subsequent reaction was costly — in the manner that Fort Sumter paled in comparison with Shiloh, or Tonkin was not Hue, or Pearl Harbor was nothing like Iwo Jima. But 9/11 itself was much more deadly than all of the subsequent campaigns that have followed in the last two years. Unlike other wars, our present offensives going into the third year of fighting have cost far fewer lives than the first 25 months of any major conflict in American history — the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I, or World War II. But then, to see the logic of this anomaly, one must first accept the initial premise that we are currently in a war — and millions of Americans apparently do not.


Of course, we cringe in despair at Americans killed and billions of dollars in costs to rebuild Iraq. But what is truly strange about the opposition to military efforts since 9/11 is the absence of a serious alternative strategy. It is easy to quibble about going into Iraq or the problems of sniping, bombing, or power and water in Baghdad; but so far the opponents of the war have not advocated any of the measures that their spiritual forerunners in Vietnam found so successful in ending hostilities — from sit-ins, daily demonstrations, and teach-ins, to military resistance and the cut-off of funding.

The Senate, which voted overwhelming to give President Bush the authority to fight in Iraq, has few voices who wish either to rescind that legal prerogative or to deny funds for it. Our supposed European enemies have organized no real counterbalance to pressure us to leave; even Sweden has not yet recalled its ambassador. French newspapers may blare, “The slowly rotting situation in Iraq, the Mideast and Afghanistan has destroyed the myth American omnipotence,” but they don’t tell us how removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein is worse than selling weapons to them — or why and how France lost 30 times more of its own citizens to heat in a month than we lost soldiers in battle in two years. Apparently French apartments are far more deadly places than the Pakistani border or the Sunni Triangle.

Here at home, the campuses are relatively quiet. The most recently announced Democratic presidential candidate, Gen. Clark, is on record praising the present administration for arresting the drift of prior years. And for all of Howard Dean’s invective, he is no Eugene McCarthy, and thus has offered no proposals to end the appropriations for Iraq in lieu of empty slurs and smug criticisms.

Why? Besides the obvious fact that fewer American soldiers have been killed in two years of fighting than often were lost in one week in Vietnam, it is hard to rescind a war that has made the United States more secure and 26 million people freer — and taken out the most odious fascist in the Middle East, who was once bombed by Bill Clinton without either Senate or U.N. approval. So when Wesley Clark in May 2001 applauded the Bush team for its efforts to restore deterrence, and most of the serious Democratic candidates supported the Clinton administration in its past bombing to prevent the spread of Saddam’s WMDs, it is tricky now simply to convince anyone that the entire thing was cooked up in Texas.

Americans may be angry, but most of them are irritated with the Iraqis, for not assuming responsibility for their own fate and showing some gratitude for their liberation — as well as the Arab world in general, whose “moderate” journalists and intellectuals are more critical of the new democratic council in Baghdad than the corrupt autocracies in Cairo, Damascus, and on the West Bank.



Which countries have become hostile to the United States in the wake of the Iraqi war? The United Kingdom? Australia? Spain? Italy? Have even India, Russia, or China turned away or threatened us? Have Jordan and Egypt thrown up their hands and joined the enemy?

Besides North Korea, Syria, and Iran, those states peeved at recent events are, in fact, a handful of countries — Germany, France, Belgium, Sweden, Greece, Syria, Palestine, Algeria, and a few other Arab states. Many of them, as we speak, are still engaged in some sort of military relationship with the United States — NATO coordination, Mediterranean patrolling, hosting of United States troops — joint operations all subject to sudden cancellation at the pleasure of any of these governments. European elites might harp at GPS bombs, but the masses quietly at home, far away from the coffeehouses, acknowledge that the use of such precision weapons during the last decade — whether in Belgrade, Kabul, or Baghdad — hinged on one salient characteristic: They were intended to distinguish fascists from the victims of their state-sanctioned murder.


Ex post facto, all presidents are blamed for getting Americans into wars — from Wilson in World War I to Reagan in Grenada, as incidents like Pearl Harbor, Tonkin, and the captive students in Grenada were all said to have been concocted. Did Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Johnson, and Reagan all lie, misjudge, or overreact to draw us into wars?

But, in contrast, this war was predicated on a variety of immediate reasons — so much so that antebellum critics complained that the Bush administration was using a shot-gun approach in advancing too many causes for war: the broken agreements of 1991; twelve years of no-fly zones that were legal acts of war; Saddam’s past invasions or attacks against four countries; genocide against the Kurds; violation of U.N. accords; the harboring of terrorists in a post-9/11 world; and a host of others. The WMD charge was also predicated on the Clinton administration’s bombing and perhaps killing 1,000 Iraqis to take out Saddam’s WMD capability; thus, according to popular belief here and abroad, these weapons once existed, and yet the bombing offered no proof of their destruction.

There is, however, a political crisis. Critics of the near-flawless military campaign of three weeks were stymied when none of their bleak scenarios came to pass: thousands killed; millions of refugees; governments toppled; terrorist attacks in the United States; mass starvation; and hundreds of U.N. camps. Thus in a frenzied election year they have turned to two backup positions: reconstruction as “quagmire” and WMDs as the sole (and fraudulent) reason for war. Both strategies are risky because they presuppose that a year from now Iraq will be worse, not better, and that there will be no forthcoming textual or eyewitness reports that such weapons in fact were hidden, exported, or secretly dismantled as some goofy gambit of an unhinged dictator.

Finally, rogue states like Iran and North Korea will soon emulate the strategy of Saddam Hussein — but learning the critical lesson of first finishing their bombs before invading neighbors or confronting the United States. Thus the irony of this phony debate is that, in the future, an exasperated United States, in an act of unilateral defense, will reluctantly shy away from the thankless task of policing such regimes, and instead press on with its own military preparedness and missile defense — allowing the more circumspect and purportedly sober EU and U.N. to pay blackmail or pass empty resolutions to deal with these new rogue nuclear states.

Good luck to them both.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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