Our Weird War of War

Our enemies know us only too well.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

The wars since September 11 have once more revealed the superiority of Western arms. Afghanistan may be 7,000 miles away, cold, high, and full of clans, warlords, and assorted folk who have historically enjoyed killing foreign interlopers for blood sport, but somehow a few thousand Americans went over there and took out the invincible Taliban in eight weeks. What followed was not perfect, but Mr. Karzai offers far more hope than a Mullah Omar — and without half of Afghanistan ceded over as a terrorist sanctuary to plan another September 11.

Iraq is a long way away too. And the neighborhood is especially eerie, with the likes of hostile Syria and Iran, and triangulators on the dole like Jordan and Egypt. When we become ecstatic because a megalomaniac like Khaddafi says he’s taken a hiatus from nuclear acquisition, you can see that good news over there is rare indeed.

Add in the hysteria over oil, three decades of the Baathist nightmare, and a potpourri of terrorists, and the idea of even getting near Iraq seems crazy. Yet we defeated Saddam in less than three weeks — in far less time than the 125- to 225-day conflict originally predicted by many Pentagon planners. True, the year-long reconstruction has often been depressing and bloody; but here we are a year later with some hope for a government better than Saddam set to take power. Success, remember, need not be defined as perfection, but simply by leaving things far better than they were.

Despite the tragedy of nearly 600 American combat dead, we did not see thousands of American fatalities, millions of refugees, burning oil wells, and the other assorted Dante-esque scenarios that were promised before the war. In other words, distance, climate, weather, the foul nature of the enemy — all those and more challenges were predictably trumped by the U.S. military, which cannot be defeated on the field of battle by any present force in existence.

Yet will we always see political successes follow from our military triumphs? Hardly — and for a variety of reasons. We are confronted with the paradox that our new military’s short wars rarely inflict enough damage on the fabric of a country to establish a sense of general defeat — or the humiliation often necessary for a change of heart and acceptance of change. In the messy follow-ups to these brief and militarily precise wars, it is hard to muster patience and commitment from an American public plagued with attention-deficit problems and busy with better things to do than give fist-shaking Iraqis $87 billion.

Still, we must give proper credit to our enemies for our present problems in Iraq and indeed in the so-called war against terror in general. The fundamentalists and holdover fascists are as adroit off the conventional battlefield as they were incompetent on it. If Middle Eastern fanatics cannot field tens of thousands to meet the United States in battle, they can at least offer up a few hundred spooky assassins, car bombers, and suicide killers seeking to achieve through repulsion what they otherwise could not through arms.

Thus while hundreds of thousands of Saddam’s soldiers ran — as Egyptians, Syrians, and Jordanians did from the Israelis in five wars — hundreds most certainly did not once the rules of war changed to the protocols of peace. Recently we were within hours of smashing the resistance in Fallujah once we accepted war anew. But when the mujahedeen, Gollum-like, decided to slither out in the open, then in terror scampered to safety, then remerged on all fours defiant and barking when we stopped firing, our forbearance and fear of global-televised condemnation handed them a victory they did not earn. In short, we should have listened to Sam and strangled the creep on the spot.

But our problems are not just with the paradoxes of the fourth-dimensional, asymmetric warfare that the United States has dealt with since the fighting in the Philippines and knew so well in Vietnam.

No, the challenge again is that bin Laden, the al Qaedists, the Baathist remnants, and the generic radical Islamicists of the Middle East have mastered the knowledge of the Western mind. Indeed they know us far better than we do ourselves. Three years ago, if one had dared to suggest that a few terrorists could bring down the Spanish government and send their legion scurrying out of Iraq, we would have thought it impossible.

Who would have imagined that Americans could go, in a few weeks, from the terror of seeing two skyscrapers topple to civil discord over the diet and clothing of war in Guantanamo, some of whom were released only to turn up to shoot at us again on the battlefields of Afghanistan? Our grandfathers would have dubbed Arafat a gangster, and al Sadr a psychopathic faker; many of us in our infinite capacity for fairness and non-judgementalism deemed the one a statesman and the other a holy man.

So our enemies realize that the struggle, lost on the battlefield, can yet be won with images and rhetoric offered up to alter the mentality and erode the will of an affluent, leisured and consensual West. They grasp that we are not so much worried about being convicted of being illiberal as having the charge even raised in the first place.

The one caveat they have learned? Do not provoke us too dramatically to bring on an open shooting war, in which the Arab Street hysteria, empty threats on spec, and silly fatwas nos. 1 through 1,000 mean nothing against the U.S. Marines and Cobra gunships. Instead, their modus operandi is to push all the way up to war — now provoking, now backing down, sometimes threatening, sometimes weeping — the key being to see the struggle in the long duration as a war of attrition, if you will, rather than a brief contest of annihilation.

These rules of the strategy of exhaustion are complex, and yet have been nearly mastered by the radicals of the Middle East. First, shock the sensibilities of a Western society into utter despair at facing primordial enemies from the Dark Ages. The decapitation of a Daniel Pearl; the probing of charred bodies with sticks, whether in Iran in 1980 or Fallujah in 2004; the promise of torturing Japanese hostages — all this is designed to make the Western suburbanite change channels and head to the patio, mumbling either, “How can we fight such barbarians” or — better yet — “Why would we wish to?”

If, on occasion, an exasperated and furious West sinks to the same level — renegade prisoner guards gratuitously humiliating or torturing naked Iraqi prisoners on tape — all the better, as proof that the elevated pretensions of Western decency and humanity are but a sham. A single violation of civility, a momentary lapse in humanism and in the new world of Western cultural relativism and moral equivalence, presto, the West loses its carefully carved-out moral high ground as it engages not merely in much needed self-critique and scrutiny, but reaches a feeding frenzy that evolves to outright cultural cannibalism.

For someone in a coffee-house in Brussels the idea that Bush apologizes for a dozen or so prison guards makes him the same as or worse than Saddam and his sons shooting prisoners for sport — moral equivalence lapped up by the state-controlled and censored Arab media that is largely responsible for the collective Middle East absence of rage over the exploding, decapitating, and incinerating of Western civilians in its midst.

Key here is our own acceptance of such moral asymmetries. Storming the Church of the Nativity is a misdemeanor in the Western press; shelling a minaret full of shooters is a felony. Blowing up Westerners in Saudi Arabia or Jordan is de rigueur; asking Muslims to take off their scarves while in French schools is a casus belli. If Afghanistan has roads, a benevolent man as president, and al Qaedists on the run, call it a failure because Mr. Karzai has not been able, FDR-like, to tour the countryside in a convertible limousine waving to crowds.

Institutionalized cowardice plays a role as well in this weird way of war: Call the few dozen dead in a West Bank town the wages of Jeningrad or the fire-fighting in Fallujah an atrocity, but don’t utter a peep about the 80,000 dead in Chechnya or the flattening of Grozny. The Russians are not quite folk like the Israelis or Americans. They really don’t care much if you hate them; they are likely to do some pretty scary things if you press them; they don’t have too much money to shake down; they don’t put you on cable news to yell at their citizenry; and you wouldn’t really wish to emigrate there for a teaching fellowship anyway.

The moral of all this? The West can defeat the enemy on the battlefield, but in distant and much-caricatured wars on the dirty ground it can only win when it has leaders who can convince a fickle public into sacrificing, being ridiculed, and putting up with inevitable short-term disappointment that is the price of long-term security and stability — a sacrifice that in turn will never be acknowledged as such by the very people who are its beneficiaries both here and abroad.

How weird is our way of war! When we embrace Clintonian bombing — in Kosovo, Serbia, or in Iraq — and kill thousands, America sleeps: few of our guys killed, so who cares how many of theirs? Out of sight, out of mind. Yet when we take the trouble to sort out the messy moral calculus and go in on the ground shooting and getting shot, then suddenly the Left cries war crimes and worse — so strong is this Western disease of wishing to be perfect rather than merely good. Such is the self-induced burden for all those who would be gods rather than mere mortals.

What then are we to do when choices since September 11 have always been between bad and worse? We at least must have enough sense not to stand down and let Iraq become Lebanonized, Talibanized, or Iranicized, even though when all is said and done Americans will be blamed for bringing something better to the region. And yes, we need more democracy, not less, in Iraq and the surrounding Middle East in general.

We have to return to an audacious and entirely unpredictable combat mode; put on a happy, aw-shucks face while annihilating utterly the Baathist remnants and Sadr’s killers; attribute this success to the new Iraqi government and its veneer of an army for its own ‘miraculous’ courage; ignore the incoming rounds of moral hypocrisy on Iraq from Europe (past French and German oil deals and arms sales), the Arab League (silence over Iraqi holocausts, cheating on sanctions), and the U.N. (Oil-for-Food debacle); explain to an exasperated American people why other people hate us for who we are rather than what we do; and apologize sincerely and forcefully once — not gratuitously and zillions of times — for the rare transgression.

Do all that and we can really complete this weird peace in Iraq.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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