War’s Bitter Laws

The rules of war existed long before we entered Iraq.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Here at the millennium, the conditions under which war must be waged by Western states appear to be like none other in the history of conflict.

We accept instantaneous and ubiquitous television coverage. “Neutral” journalists who traverse battle lines report unfounded rumors to millions from both sides. Their unedited, live reports serve as the mulch for large numbers of influential critics, who sprout from nowhere to demand daily public accounting from commanders in the field. Often they express near-equal concern over the number of casualties inflicted as incurred. Critical pundits also assume that a hostile populace is not unfriendly, but blameless and only held captive by an illiberal autocrat.

With mixed success we are trying to adjust to the new realities by embedding journalists, trying to limit collateral civilian damage, and seeking to shock or awe rather than kill enemy combatants — throughout assuming that we are responsible for establishing a liberal society almost instantaneously where none had before existed.

But it is hard. You see, for all the apparent change and startling new technology, we are still butting up against older laws — those described by observers from Thucydides to Machiavelli — that are so often forgotten but that, I fear, are as unchanging and unforgiving as the nature of man himself.

This bloody past suggests to us that enemies cease hostilities only when they are battered enough to acknowledge that there is no hope in victory — and thus that further resistance means only useless sacrifice. Accordingly, governments or states that preside over crushing losses usually fall or lose credibility only if they are seen as culpable for politics that led to national ruin.

Thus, in recent memory, the Falklands ended in Argentine defeat and the downfall of the Galtieri junta; the same was true for Noriega and Milosevic. Arafat survived solely through the largess of Europe and the exculpation of the United States, which at the eleventh hour both rescued his forces from utter annihilation and restored some shred of legitimacy to an otherwise run-of-the-mill terrorist. The decision to rescue him and send him to Tunis was a folly exceeded only by the decision to bring him back. Otherwise he would have been what he always was — a tiny thug lording over a few acres like an exiled Napoleon, but without either the brains or the past glory.

In Iraq, we sought to mitigate damage to the civilian populace. And we understandably wanted to preserve infrastructure — and thus allowed thousands of Baathists to melt back into the civilian fabric without a systematic roundup of their leadership: one that included psychopaths far more numerous than the odious faces in our deck of 52.

While Saddam’s elite troops were clearly beaten, they were routed so rapidly and without extreme loss of life that they themselves, along with neutral observers, were not altogether sure that with their defeat would come humiliation and with humiliation readiness to change.

Thousands of them now wonder whether killing an American or two isn’t such bad sport, since they got off so easily during the real war — and wager that such magnanimity will still be typical rather than exceptional. The result is that we must now hunt down reprieved diehards one by one, at much greater danger and cost — and kill them individually (let us hope at the rate of 100 or so for every American shot at).

Any time the Western way of war can be unleashed on an enemy stupid enough to enter its arena, victory is assured. And the antidote? Remember the Highway of Death or the insane evocation of “Dresden” on the first night of the three-week war. The way to combat the West is to appeal to either its generosity of spirit or its guilt in hopes that it will call itself off, and thus hand to terrorists and dictators a stalemate that will soon be seen as a victory of sorts, stolen from the jaws of assured defeat.

Such a sophisticated amorality that our elites engage in, and such a sophisticated understanding of their pathology on the part of our enemies! For every killer who was allowed to leave the Highway of Death, three Shiites and Kurds died; let us hope that for every criminal and Baathist that walked away from the latest war, we do not pay a similar price in American blood. Our duty instead is to remind Saddam’s rag-tag murderers that they will only meet the same fate as diehard Waffen SS, Japanese holdouts on Okinawa, foolish attackers at Khesahn — and anyone else who has made the fatal mistake of thinking they would survive a shootout with enraged Americans.

I wish it were not true that the ease of occupation rests in inverse proportion to the damage inflicted on the enemy, but that is so often the case — as the examples of Japan and Germany attest. How the military is to reconcile the irreconcilable facts of modern liberal concern for the mayhem of war with the need to demonstrate manifestly the defeat of an adversary, I am not altogether sure. But the fate of thousands of innocents in the postbellum reconstruction demands that it does — and will tax all the considerable skills of the gifted Paul Bremer.

We sometimes downplay the need to liquidate the charismatic leaders of our enemies. Our grandfathers did not. Thus in almost paranoid frenzy they diverted troops to hunt down a mythical National Redoubt where purportedly a Hitler on the lam might plan terror and guerrilla resistance that could re-galvanize a demoralized populace. We ridicule their silliness and error, but perhaps they understood something we have forgotten.

In postwar Japan, the focus was on the emperor: Had His Highness Hirohito broadcast calls for terrorist resistance, the occupation might have been far more difficult and the Americans hardly deferential to his person, despite his divinity.

Perhaps, as products of a sophisticated, rational, and liberal society, we now believe that sane people can judge for themselves that an Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein is discredited and hiding in miserable circumstances, if not wounded or dead. But the nature of their rule — unlike Western consensual government — was never sane or rational, hinging instead on precisely the opposite emotions of fear, romance, and personal magnetism in lieu of reason.

Saying that their fates don’t especially count might be smart PR in lieu of their capture; but I’d prefer our leaders to shout every day that we are hunting them down, that it matters a great deal, and that we will never cease until they are accounted for. The humiliating capture or surrender of Noriega and Milosevic was integral to postbellum tranquility and reconstruction.

The Romans realized this, and thus understood that Gallic liberation, Numidian resistance, or Hellenic nationalism would melt away when a Vercingetorix, Jugurtha, or Mithridates all were collared, dead, or allowed suicide. The more public the mortification, the better. Thus, such wannabe messiahs were sometimes kept alive for the inevitable consular triumph, an ancient equivalent of a shaved Saddam or Osama, in chains and stripes, muttering yes and no to the tough interrogatories about past mass murderers in front of a globally televised military tribunal — a forum that evolves from high drama to boredom among its audience, in the blink of an eye.

So, yes, it is vital, in a symbolic sense, that either the live person, corpse, or shreds of DNA of evil firebrands like Saddam or Osama be accounted for. In the pre-Jenin days of over a year ago, critics alleged that the Israelis were being paralyzed by suicide-murdering and by the world opinion that put restraints on their retaliation. But Mr. Sharon, the cagey old soldier, realized that if he were not allowed to destroy his adversaries, he could at least isolate and humiliate their godhead Mr. Arafat. Thus, confining Yasser to a rubble pile did more for the cause of peace than all the processes, roadmaps, and shuttling of diplomats put together.

Our modern-day Great Mahdis are of course only the manifest tumors of a deeper cancer. To prevent every generation or so a malignancy like a Khomeini, Nasser, Osama, or Saddam Hussein from metastasizing, the host of our enemies must be vaccinated. Hence our current recognition that the peculiar Arab example of either fascistic or socialist states imposed on a traditional tribal society is a particularly lethal brew — as we have been learning in Iraq.

Unable to feed or house their people, these tribes are quite able to harness their media to deflect blame onto outsiders like Israel or the United States. The only solution in a real war is thus twofold: either periodically swat down a Saddam-like figure who may emerge from the miasma and then leave (an imperfect, Gulf War I solution), or seek to leave democracy, open markets, and civic audit after victory that might alleviate wretchedness — or at least remind the Arab street that its own misery is now a product of indigenous, rather than foreign, culture.

A final note: Contrary to the views of some anthropologists, wars are not rituals but the raw manifestation of larger political struggles. Fascism, Nazism, and Communism, remember, all had their adherents in Africa, South America, and the Middle East, but rarely do today — once their military wings had been contained, isolated, or defeated at their birthplaces. Thus while we hunt down the Taliban and Baathists, and rightly seek to implement political reform, there is a larger ongoing clash as well that will either empower or sap guerrillas on the front lines. We need not wait to pacify all of Iraq in order to ratchet up the political, economic, and cultural pressure on Syria, Iran, and Lebanon — inasmuch as their reform is part of a larger solution. Instead of worrying about their agents undermining our efforts in Iraq, let them worry about our popular culture and democratic creed undermining their own illiberality inside Teheran or Damascus.

A democratic revolution in Iran will enervate its extremist ganglia in Iraq; pressure on Hamas or Hezbollah in Lebanon will deflate terrorism in the entire region. Even more importantly, there is a cultural war going on that our enemies cannot ultimately win if we press on — as long as a 10th-century mullah wishes to download off the Internet and use a cell phone, or Iraqi Baathist diplomats to seek cancer treatment in the United States.

There really is no alternative to the allure of the West — even for a theocrat or suicide-murderer. Communism alone offered to the ignorant the only tempting romantic counter-proposition to Western capitalism and liberality: that Western bounty must be stolen at the point of a gun shared by all its citizens.

In contrast, Islamic fascism or Arab tribal autocracy, for all its bluster, is without even that superficial appeal. Its only feature is that poverty and misery can be self-induced rather than imported from abroad — and that the vast appetite of corrupt mullahs and despots for Western goods is discernible precisely through their periodic denouncements of our purported decadence.

We are winning this war. But we should never forget, because of our amazing success so far, that we are still in a war — a big one against Islamic fascism and the abettors of terror in the Middle East that started on September 11 but will follow certain historic rules that did not suddenly first appear in 2001, nor can be easily ignored by present experts. Our task — ordeal if you will — is that we must make war so godawfully terrible to our enemies, and the rewards of peace and reform so humanely sweet to our friends, that the vast middle in between will have no problem choosing sides.


©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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