Surreal Rules

The difficulties of fighting in an absurdly complicated region.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Prior to September 11, the general consensus was that conventional Middle East armies were paper tigers and that their terrorist alternatives were best dealt with by bombing them from a distance — as in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, east Africa, etc. — and then letting them sort out their own rubble.

Then following 9/11, the West adopted a necessary change in strategy that involved regime change and the need to win “hearts and minds” to ensure something better was established in place of the deposed dictator or theocrat. That necessitated close engagements with terrorists in their favored urban landscape. After the last four years, we have learned just how difficult that struggle can be, especially in light of the type of weapons $500 billion inMiddle East windfall petroleum profits can buy, when oil went from $20 a barrel to almost $80 over the last few years. To best deal with certain difficulties we’ve encountered in these battles thus far, perhaps the United States should adopt the following set of surreal rules of war.

1. Any death — enemy or friendly, accidental or deliberate, civilian or soldier — favors the terrorists. The Islamists have no claim on morality; Westerners do and show it hourly. So, in a strange way, images of the dead and dying are attributed only to our failing. If ours are killed, it is because those in power were not careful (inadequate body armor, unarmored humvees, etc), most likely due to some supposed conspiracy (Halliburton profiteering, blood for oil, wars for Israel , etc.). When Muslim enemies are killed, whether by intent or accidentally, the whole arsenal of Western postmodern thought comes into play. For the United States to have such power over life and death, the enemy appears to the world as weak, sympathetic, and victimized; we as strong and oppressive. Terrorists are still “constructed” as “the other” and thus are seen as suffering — doctored photos or not — through the grim prism of Western colonialism, racism, and imperialism.

In short, it is not just that Western public opinion won’t tolerate many losses; it won’t tolerate for very long killing the enemy either — unless the belligerents are something akin to the white, Christian Europeans of Milosevic’s Serbia, who, fortunately for NATO war planners in the Balkans, could not seek refuge behind any politically correct paradigm and so were bombed with impunity. Remember, multiculturalism always trumps fascism: the worst homophobe, the intolerant theocrat, and the woman-hating bigot is always sympathetic if he wears some third-world garb, mouths anti-Americanism, and looks most un-European. To win these wars, our soldiers must not die or kill.

2. All media coverage of fighting in the Middle East is ultimately hostile — and for a variety of reasons. Since the 1960s too many reporters have seen their mission as more than disinterested news gathering, but rather as near missionary: they seek to counter the advantages of the Western capitalist power structure by preparing the news in such a way as to show us the victims of profit-making and an affluent elite. Second, most fighting is far from home and dangerous. Trash the U.S. military and you might suffer a bad look at a well-stocked PX as the downside for winning the Pulitzer; trash Hezbollah or Hamas, and you might end up headless on the side of the road. Third, while in a southern Lebanon or the Green Zone, it is always safer to outsource a story and photos to local stringers, whose sympathies are usually with the enemy. A doctored photo that exaggerates Israeli “war crimes” causes a mini-controversy for a day or two back in the States; a doctored photo that exaggerates Hezbollah atrocities wins an RPG in your hotel window. To win these wars, there must be no news of them.

3. The opposition — whether an establishment figure like Howard Dean or an activist such as Cindy Sheehan — ultimately prefers the enemy to win. In their way of thinking, there is such a reservoir of American strength that no enemy can ever really defeat us at home and so take away our Starbucks’ lattes, iPods, Reeboks, or 401Ks. But being checked in “optional” wars in Iraq , or seeingIsrael falter in Lebanon , has its advantages: a George Bush and his conservatives are humiliated; the military-industrial complex learns to be a little bit more humble; and guilt over living in a prosperous Western suburb is assuaged. When a Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton — unlike a Nixon, Reagan, or Bush — sends helicopters or bombs into the Middle East desert, it is always as a last resort and with reluctance, and so can be grudgingly supported. To win these wars, a liberal Democrat must wage them.

4. Europeans have shown little morality, but plenty of influence, abroad and here at home during Middle East wars. Europeans, who helped to bombBelgrade , now easily condemn Israel in the skies over Beirut . They sold Saddam his bunkers and reactor, and won in exchange sweetheart oil concessions. Iran could not build a bomb without Russian and European machine tools. Iran is not on any serious European embargo list; much of the off-the-shelf weaponry so critical to Hezbollah was purchased through European arms merchants. And if they are consistent in their willingness to do business with any tyrant, the Europeans also know how to spread enough aid or money around to the Middle East , to ensure some protection and a prominent role in any postwar conference. Had we allowed eager Europeans to get in on the postbellum contracts in Iraq , they would have muted their criticism considerably. To win these wars, we must win over the Europeans by ensuring they can always earn a profit.

5. To fight in the Middle East, the United States and Israel must enlist China ,Russia , Europe , or any nation in the Arab world to fight its wars. China has killed tens of thousands in Tibet in a ruthless war leading to occupation and annexation. Russia leveled Grozny and obliterated Chechnyans. Europeans helped to bomb Belgrade , where hundreds of civilians were lost to “collateral damage.” Egyptians gassed Yemenis; Iraqis gassed Kurds; Iraqis gassed Iranians; Syrians murdered thousands of men, women, and children in Hama ; Jordanians slaughtered thousands of Palestinians. None received much lasting, if any, global condemnation. In the sick moral calculus of the world’s attention span, a terrorist who commits suicide in Guantanamo Bay always merits at least 500 dead Kurds, 1,000 Chechnyans, or 10,000 Tibetans. To win these wars, we need to outsource the job to those who can fight them with impunity.

6. Time is always an enemy. Most Westerners are oblivious to criticism if they wake up in the morning and learn their military has bombed a Saddam or sent a missile into Afghanistan — and the war was begun and then ended all while they were sleeping. In contrast, 6-8 weeks — about the length of the Balkan orAfghanistan war — is the limit of our patience. After that, Americans become so sensitive to global criticism that they begin to hate themselves as much as others do. To win these wars, they should be over in 24 hours — but at all cost no more than 8 weeks.

Silly, you say, are such fanciful rules? Of course — but not as absurd as the wars now going on in the Middle East .

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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