The American Way of War

And the constraints on American power.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

The Alternative to Punitive War

The nature of American military power in our age is defined by how it is constrained — through nuclear deterrence, political realities, and cost/benefit analysis. How does the United States employ its overwhelming military superiority to achieve political aims, especially when even friends and neutrals often wish us to stumble — if for no other reason than to see the world’s sole superpower occasionally humbled?

Our nuclear arsenal deters enemy states from using like weapons of mass destruction against us. In the rare cases of lunatic regimes that appear suicidal and are immune to the protocols of mutually assured destruction — or at least, like North Korea and perhaps Iran, pose as such — we try to ensure they don’t get the bomb, and, when they do, rely on future missile defense.

The more rational among our enemies know that they would lose either a nuclear or a no-holds-barred conventional struggle against the United States, so they seek to wage asymmetrical warfare. All such initiatives are based on the premise that America, in its wealth and leisure, is more concerned about suffering than inflicting losses, more worried about what others think of it than what it thinks of others.

In the past, we have dealt with this through punitive bombing. When terrorists attacked Americans or general U.S. interests abroad, we launched air attacks — the four-day bombing of Iraq in 1998; the bombing campaign against Milosevic, also in 1998; sending cruise missiles into Afghanistan. The Clinton administration dubbed this sort of occasional missile shooting and GPS bombing as “keeping [the enemy] in his box.”

The upside to these campaigns is that there is usually only a monetary rather than a human cost. The window of political support is considerable since Americans rarely perish on television. Indeed, a hostile media is often neutralized. Devastation that we inflict is rarely filmed on the ground in a targeted police state, especially given the possible proximity of reporters to falling American bombs. Journalists who do go to a Baghdad or Belgrade under attack either don’t get free access, or, if they do, come under suspicion that their full coverage is censored.

There are a few limits to punitive bombing. First, we avoid nuclear states such as North Korea or Pakistan, because we don’t want to risk a dangerous response. Second, we try to prevent a long war that finally results in images of carnage broadcast back to the United States. And, third, planes are not to be shot down.

Even when things are said to have gone well, the drawback, as we saw throughout the 1990s, is that the results are by definition mostly punitive, since we have no presence on the ground to affect political events in a more constructive fashion. And even the degree to which stand-off bombing is successful in temporarily deterring a Saddam, Khadafi, or the Taliban from supporting terrorists depends on the accuracy of American bombs, the nature of the press coverage, and whether a population is restive and blames its pain on its own autocracy (e.g. Serbia) or rather on the American perpetrator (Iraq). Such wars can be relatively short (e.g., Libya, Operation Desert Fox) or go on for months (Serbia) or even years (the no-fly zones).

A riskier proposition is to employ American ground troops to change the political situation — that is, to flip a hostile government on the theory the people are desirous of freedom and would welcome liberation. Invasions are easy in a small Panama or Grenada, less so in large countries in the Middle East or Asia with well-entrenched political or religious movements that can pose as nationalists.

And once America enters such a risky landscape, the clock ticks. The question of victory or quagmire is decided by whether we can defeat the insurgents and set up a local government before the enemy can erode U.S. public opinion — either by killing enough Americans on the evening news to make us doubt the cost is worth the gambit, or by suggesting that the vaunted values of Western bourgeois society have become sullied in the conflict at places like My Lai or Abu Ghraib. The key in any such effort is mostly political: Can indigenous forces, with American aid and the promise of democratic government, take the lead in the fight, ensuring fewer American losses, while offering something better than the past that resonates with sympathetic Westerners?

That an odious enemy beheads or tortures helps us little. Indeed, in such asymmetrical warfare it is to the advantage of the terrorists to embrace barbarity — either to terrify suburban America or at least to galvanize anti-war opposition by opening a Pandora’s box of horrors that inevitably “follow” from America “aggression.”

The Road Ahead

Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq threaten nuclear conflagration, since neither had the bomb or patrons that did (note the quite different scenario in any plan of attack on Iran).

And both Saddam and the Taliban were the prior recipients of American punitive bombs that had little effect in removing, or even moderating either regime. So the third, riskier ground option was tried and now hangs in the balance. Both wars are costing more and more American blood and treasure. As expected, the media has emphasized our slips (errant bombs in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, the recent purported Marine killings, etc.) far more than the gruesome nature of enemy beheaders and suicide bombers.

Yet there are three new wildcards in the ground equation that question rational constraints: (1) the sense of righteous outrage after 9/11 — the worst attack on American soil in our history; (2), the medieval nature of our enemies whose hatred of secularism, rationalism, religious tolerance, gays, and women’s rights bothers traditional Western left-wing critics of the use of American force; and (3) we are in a global ideological war; but unlike the Cold War there is no nuclear godhead like the Soviet Union (at least yet). So Iraq is no proxy war on the periphery. Instead, win there, and we may well change the entire Middle East, in the sense that millions now look to the Sunni Triangle to decide with which side they are to make accommodations.

Where does all this leave us? Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi understands that Iraq is now more than a democratic succession to Saddam’s murderous rule, but has evolved into the blueprint of the Middle East itself. So he has pulled out all the lessons from the playbook of asymmetrical warfare as it has been waged against any American ground presence since Vietnam: Televised beheadings to repel a squeamish Western public; the targeting of Poles, Spaniards, and Italians to fragment the Coalition; suicide-murdering of Shiites or Sunni moderates to ignite a civil war; targeted assassinations to discourage Iraqi participation in government; recycling of the hysteria of liberal Western critics to inflame American public opinion; and attacks on infrastructure to create enough general misery to depress the populace into blaming us rather than the perpetrators.

Al-Zarqawi knows that his terrorists without uniforms will still enjoy the de facto protections of the Geneva Convention while violating every one of its provisions. If in World War II a German partisan in civilian clothes shot an American, he was likely to be summarily executed as a terrorist; in Iraq, every shooter is out of uniform — but, when captured, will likely be sent to prison and released. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman once marched Confederate prisoners ahead of his columns to ferret out improvised explosive devices (“torpedoes”); today for that he would land up in Fort Leavenworth.

In reaction to the terrorists, we rely on superior American technology, organization, and logistics to thwart the insurgents that have no air support and increasingly depend on ad hoc training and weaponry. Economic aid seeks to jump start the economy and connect a better life to the defeat of the nihilists. By promoting democracy, we have mobilized millions to thwart the terrorists. And the presence of a legitimate government poses paradoxes both here and abroad — if the American “infidel” leaves, elected Iraqi officials may die; so thousands of brave invested Iraqis are in the difficult position of welcoming the American sacrifice and must deftly acknowledge just that if they wish us to stay. The degree to which the administration can appeal to American idealism — we seek no hegemony; we support the oppressed to find freedom; we take no oil — also wins months of additional domestic support; to the degree that our officials offer tired assertions rather than inspired exegeses about what is at stake, in turn limits our time and options.

In short, America knows a ground war in the Middle East is not our theater of choice in the postmodern age — and yet necessary to undermine both Middle East autocracy and fundamentalism that hand-in-glove lead to the conditions that caused September 11. If we succeed, the Middle East stabilizes and enters modernity, leaving its pariahs on the margins. If we fail, we resort back to punitive bombing as a method of deterring enemies and will reenter the pre-9/11 paradigm of states sending out terrorists and either hoping we won’t hold them accountable or send in only a few cruise missiles.

The outcome of the insurgents’ war will hinge on whether we assess our own strengths and weaknesses in this sort of fighting far better than does our canny enemy. And that answer in turn will determine whether Iraq and Afghanistan shatter the aspirations of our enemies — or turn out to be colossal Mogadishus.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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