The Truth Will Set Us Free

What this war is not about.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

So far most of our intelligentsia have been more eager to explain what this war is not than what it is. Yet the conflict is not a hash-it-out in the faculty lounge, nor a brainstorm over a headline in the newsroom, nor flashy quippmanship in a political debate.

No, it is a deadly business about young men sleeping out in the rocks of Afghanistan and under tanks in Iraq who right now need to know whether this country is at war, peace, or something in between. So we need some straight talk, perhaps brutal honesty about a growing number of false assumptions before we go any further.


It is pedestrian — and for that very purpose mouthed ad nauseam — that we are not at war with Muslims of the world or Islam per se. Of course, we are not.

But it is also near criminal not to see that the distortion of Islam — not of Christianity, not of Hinduism, not of Buddhism — is the fuel of this entire conflagration, from the Taliban and al Qaeda to Hamas and Hezbollah, with plenty of secular opportunistic abettors like Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Basher Assad, and the faux-holy men in Iran thrown in.

We need honest language, not more pablum that “all religions can be distorted by extremists” — as if the Inquisition, the Hundred Years War, Timothy McVeigh, or the Shintoism of the Japanese militarists were contemporary events or relevant to the current struggle. They are not.

We know precisely the crisis and we know the enemy. The mixture of autocracy, religious intolerance, and feelings of inferiority brought on by globalization has created a lethal brew in all the unfree parts of the Islamic Arab world. Again, our crisis is not really with the majority of Muslims who live under consensual or semi-democratic auspices — in Turkey, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, or India. Instead it is in the Middle East where a minority (encompassing millions) has turned to fundamentalism and hatred of a dominant West to account for the misery incurred by its own economic and political failures. And these belligerents will only quit when they believe it is in their own interest to do so.

In response, quite literally thousands of Islamic clerics writing in papers, preaching in mosques, teaching in madrassas, and serving in governments have either ignored this venomous anti-American and anti-Semitic hatred, or in fact actively fanned it. And they go on and on without widespread censure or criticism from the Islamic street or even many moderate political and religious leaders who either cannot or will not confront the extremists and thereby save the good name of their own religion.

We should accept that they are at war with us and cease the intellectual dishonesty and moral cowardice that makes us worry about bombing during Ramadan in Afghanistan while our religious enemies seek to inaugurate these same holidays with the murders of Americans. When you are at war and you care more about the sanctity of your enemies’ religious holidays than they do, you are in serious trouble.

When you give nearly $2 billion a year in aid to Egypt and its media are thelocus classicus of anti-American hatred, you have earned not merely ingratitude, but ridicule in the bargain. When your citizens are murdered on the West Bank as they try to offer scholarships to the needy, and their would-be rescuers then stoned by the populace, it is time to confess, collectively and loudly, that a government that either cannot or won’t stop such hatred of Americans is not our ally, not a neutral, but a belligerent whose enmity of America should be accepted rather than ignored.

And we must accept that Christians and secular Westerners will condemn an over-the-top comment by Jerry Falwell far more readily than a President Mubarak or Saudi prince will admonish the far worse ravings of the president of Malaysia — in the same manner Christian believers are more endangered in Islamic countries than their Muslim counterparts are endangered in Europe or America. If one finds that a harsh generalization, try opening up a church in Saudi Arabia compared with a mosque in Detroit. So yes, there is a ubiquitous asymmetry, and it is just as disingenuous — and dangerous — to ignore it as it is indiscriminately and wrongly to blame Islam. We rightly fret about the latter, but wrongly ignore the former. And if we don’t change, we will lose this war.

In all conflicts, there is of course a sin of extremism, but also one of naiveté. Ifwe always dwell on the first and forget the second then, in fairness to our soldiers who are asked to fight without our full support, we should cease now and come home.


Even Pompey realized that there was not a “war against piracy” but rather a campaign to eradicate live and breathing pirates in Cilicia and the Eastern Mediterranean. And so he did with 100,000 troops and just three months campaigning. The Klan was emasculated not by calls to “stop night riding,” but rather through specific efforts on the part of law enforcement to infiltrate, arrest, prosecute, and imprison a few hundred white male ringleaders in specific places in the south. I don’t recall George Patton mobilizing the 3rd Army against horrendous and nearly unstoppable Tiger tanks, but rather against real Nazi Germans who were in them.

In short, our enemies are ideological fanatics who benefit from sanctuary in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Iran, the West Bank, Lebanon, and Yemen, money from Saudi Arabia and pan-Arabic charities, and indirect political tolerance and at times covert support from members of the Saudi Royal family, the government of Basher Assad, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, elements of the Pakistani government, and Yasser Arafat.

We all know that privately, but we must now publicly accept the challenge of our day — if we wish to ensure that there are no more craters and incinerated flesh in New York. The president had it right all along that there is a big choice for everyone involved — and those in the Middle East will have to decide whether they are for or against the United States in its efforts to kill the Islamic fascists who have butchered thousands of our own and who want to destroy America and offer a new Dark Age in its place. All the peace marches, New York Times editorials, or near-slander from Democratic presidential contenders cannot change that reality, and so the decision really is either to cease and desist or to wage war and finish the conflict. Anything in between is madness.


Perhaps this myth grew out of suicide bombing. Maybe it was the lunatic videos, the head nodding in the madrassas, Iraqis in the Sunni Triangle receiving billions of dollars in aid and then celebrating near the bodies of American dead, or the too-smart notion that we Westerners were blinkered and unimaginative Clauswitzeans. Whatever.

But the fact is that a few million in the Islamic world have a definite and discernable ideological agenda, and it is explicable in traditional military and political terms — and it always has been. We call al Qaeda loony for its blathering and promises of a pan-Arabic state run by Islamic fundamentalists in control of oil reserves and petrodollar-fed weapons of mass destruction — gussied up with puerile allusions to “strong horses,” the Reconquista, and the Western rapine of chaste women in burkas.

But such a crazed vision is no more crazed that a lunatic corporal ranting about pseudo-physiognomy and mythical “Aryans” to a bunch of perverts, drunks, thugs, and failed academics in the dives and bars of Austria and Germany in the 1920s. The fact is that aggressors in every war share the same very human desires, appetites, fears, and weaknesses. Bin Laden hated the seductive corruption of the West — but not so much as to deny himself imported Western appurtenances, material conveniences for his four wives, and a coterie of head-nodding apparatchiks. Mullah Omar decreed the 9th century for everyone else and then built himself a fancy pad from drug profits. Our enemies want power and what power brings, and they will thrive on our weakness and die with our strength.

Remember just two years ago this December the mea culpas of the Pakistani “freedom fighters” who rushed over to Afghanistan to see hundreds of their jihadists vaporized by daisy cutters and then crawled back, claiming they were “brainwashed” in the madrassas — but who now once more boast of reclaiming Afghanistan when the skies are less crowded with F-16s.

In short, we don’t care what al Qaeda says, what Mullah Omar broadcasts, or what the Baathists scream. No, all we need to know is that they will all melt away and go get a half-day job when they — and hundreds of millions of bystanders — are convinced that their present hatred really will earn such killers and all their leaders and friends a terrible reckoning. And if we don’t believe that, we shouldn’t ask our best youth in this country to fight this war.


If we are outnumbered in particular theaters, it is only through laxity, not through an absence of resources. This is a country, after all, that bickered over the cost of a single destroyer in 1937 and then built over 87,000 warships less than a decade later when it was at war. If we are convinced that Iraq must be stabilized, and Syria and Iran must cease aiding and abetting the terror and killing of Americans, then surely we have the resources to defeat our enemies in short order. The problem is not might, but will — or perhaps worry about our affluence, gas prices, and self-image.

In the last two years, on each occasion when the United States finally said “enough is enough” and began to apply itself in earnest — after the fourth or fifth week in Afghanistan, pouring it on through a sandstorm in Iraq, or rounding up terrorist cells here at home — the enemy was impressed and faltered. And in contrast, each time we caught our breath and thought we were done — allowing the Taliban to sneak back into Pakistan in droves, watching looting with impunity, concerned more about immediate reconstruction than the destruction of the Iraqi Baathists, or worried about pressuring neighbors not to allow terrorists into Iraq — our enemies became emboldened. We are all products of the Enlightenment and value sobriety and moderation, but that ensures neither that our enemies share such confidence in reason nor that predictability is a virtue in war.

Despite the chaos, we are doing a wonderful job in Iraq; but it is past time to show that we are at times angry and a little crazy — as we remember that we really are in an all out war for our survival and civilization. Our goal should be to arm tens of thousands of freedom-loving Iraqis and put them with us on the front lines of the Sunni Triangle — and then ensure that sober Iraqi members of the new government are in the forefront of the media spotlight to take credit for winning the freedom of their own country. The problem is not just getting Iraqis to fight, but rather extending to them the responsibility, sense of honor, and pride that will accrue when they finally rout the Baathists.


We had a vote last autumn about going into Iraq. The Senate decided overwhelmingly to give the president the power to go to war — and even earlier it had passed domestic legislation to crack down on terror. All the present screaming about illegality and the excesses of the Patriot Act cannot change the fact that the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary were all involved, as they should be, in the present decisions to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq, and here at home against stealthy killer-cells. We have had plenty of time for our versions of Bob Lafollette and Charles Lindbergh, who screamed long, hard, and a little dishonestly to keep America out of its two World Wars.

Yet when war did come, at least their frenzy ceased and the nation closed ranks to defeat the enemy. So when Gen. Clark implies that President Bush knew in advance about 9/11 or when candidates Kerry and Dean insist that the effort in Iraq is characterized by deceit, illegality, and corruption, they and all those who repeat their slurs have crossed the line, and will only earn the wages of a George McClellan who likewise slandered Lincoln as a warmonger, lost the election, and then rightly ended up in bitter retirement.

It is time for Clark, Dean, Kerry and the rest either right now to advocate legislation to stop the war and bring the troops home — or to simply be quiet and support the effort of our soldiers. Any further hysteria about purpose rather than quibbling over tactics, and the American people will rightly conclude that such Democratic invective hurts America and helps its enemies, whose entire strategy of assassination and terror is aimed at appealing to the anti-war movement in the United States.

Vietnam is much evoked by the Democrats, who apparently believe the country was lost in 1973-4 when they cut off money for further support. So it is now the hour for them likewise to conjure up that time-tested Vietnam remedy by cutting off the money, bringing home the soldiers and calling it quits. If they really care about the troops at war, they must either support their efforts or bring them back — but not leave them in limbo as they damn their mission.

We are in a war and we are winning due more to the courage and superb character of our soldiers than to the popular mobilization and engagement of the American citizenry itself. We have the best military in the history of civilization, but we can still lose this war — unless we remember September 11, acknowledge the awful nature of our enemies, and always, always accept the truth that civilization itself hangs in the balance.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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