Posted by Lexington Green on September 22nd, 2003 (All posts by Lexington Green)
Jonathan sent me this article by Lee Harris entitled War and Wishful Thinking from Tech Central Station. Instapundit cited the article favorably, and Jonathan tells me that Harris has had good posts on technical issues. OK, so Harris gets some slack. But he is totally wrong in this article.
I sent an angry email in response, but for this post I’ll strip out much of the harshness and profanity for this family-style blog we’ve got going here.
First, Harris says that Bush describing what we are currently doing post 9/11 as a war is a “metaphor”. That is just so cloyingly academic, it reeks so foully of the faculty lounge. Please. For God’s sake, be smart instead of clever. Calling the current war a war is not about metaphor, it is about legality. If you don’t call it a war you can’t send your planes to blow things up and your troops to shoot people. Bush is commander in chief. If he doesn’t call it a war he can’t legally use what he has at his fingertips to destroy our enemies. The alternative is to call it a crime, which would change everything about what you can do. We are a law abiding society and if you don’t clearly define what you are doing and by what authority you are doing it, you get in deep trouble. Bush got himself a Congressional authorization for this very reason. That means the Commander in Chief can release the hounds. (Michael Lind’s interesting book Vietnam the Necessary War discusses this convincingly. Good review here by John Lewis Gaddis.)
Harris says this: “It is wishful thinking to believe that what we have before us is simply another war, of the kind that we have fought in the past.” What? Who ever said this? Bush said clearly it was NOT like any war we’ve ever been in. I heard him say that. So, duh, no.
And, uh, who is we? Lots of people have fought similar wars many times. Ideologically motivated terrorists are not some kind of alien force we don’t know anything about, they are a staple of modern life. The Colombian government has been fighting FARC for decades, just the latest round in the ceaseless bloodshed there, with no end is sight. Or look at the interminable, horrendous situation in Sri Lanka. (And see this article, A Nasty Business, which is very powerful stuff.) Guess what? Those are wars. Just not nice ones, with flags and parades at the end, or even an end at all. What we are in is also a war. Guerilla and terrorist movements which drag on and on and on are actually way more typical and normal than the kind of big-ticket tanks-cannons-planes plant-the-flag-in-the-rubble type thing Harris seems to think of as war.
These hostile guerillas or jihadis or terrorists or mujahideen, or whatever you call ‘em before our troops kill them, whom we are now fighting, are widely, even globally, dispersed. This fact does not change the basic nature of the war. It is a guerilla and terrorist war. Its proponents have a coherent and articulable, if somewhat insane, set of aims. Their aim is to damage the United States so badly that it will withdraw from the Islamic world, which they believe possible since everyone knows Americans are soft, weak, effeminate, materialistic and cowardly. Once the USA has pulled out, they plan on overthrowing the existing regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and other places, and establishing Muslim fundamentalist regimes in their place. That is our enemy’s goal. Maximal, indiscriminate violence against all Americans or Jews or “westerners”, anywhere and everywhere, at a place and time of the enemy’s choosing, is the enemy’s chosen means. None of this is all that hard to understand. My eight year old understands it. That’s the war we’re in. Welcome to it. Lots of people have fought lots of similar wars, with varying results. The scale is different, the substance is the same. So, Harris is wrong again.
Harris says this: “Yes, 9/11 was a colossal act of violence, such as occurs in war. But war, as we have come to understand it, is akin to Aristotle’s idea of a work of art: it has a beginning, a middle, and an end” and this: ” War, finally, is a process that has a clear cut termination. ” Says who? Who thinks this? What has this guy been reading? As who has come to understand it? War is a continuum, with a blitzkrieg where one side loses and the other surrenders at one pole, and, much more common in history, is the opposite pole, where the weak side exists in a permanent state of more or less violent unrest, and killing and destruction and banditry and revenge fester and never stop. Victor Davis Hanson (see The Western Way of War), among many others, has shown that wars with clear-cut beginning and end points, with delimitations on who is and is not a combatant, are extremely unusual, originating in ancient Greece and pretty much restricted to wars between European (or Euro-derived) communities. Books and articles on this topic are practically an industry unto themselves. So war as “we” understand it is a much bigger, more variegated phenomenon than Harris seems to think.
As an aside, talking about Aristotle’s theory of art does not lend one lumen of light to the discussion. The way to make sense of this situation is not to be clever and literary. It is to read the military and political history of analogous or related events and reflect on it and understand it.
Harris says further that the ongoing unpleasantness is not a war because there may be no answer to this question: “How will we ever know when it is over?” That is a sad fact, if fact it is, but it does not mean we are not in a war. Nor does it mean that calling the current war a war is a metaphor rather than an accurate description of reality. How did we know when the war against the indigenous “native Americans” was over? When most of them were dead and the survivors were on reservations. That was a “war” that lasted about 300 years. How did the Spanish know when the Reconquista was over? They were at war against the Muslims for 800 years, and it continued at sea on and off for several centuries more. That bag of dirt Osama still wants Iberia back. It is the only place the Muslims held for a long, long time and then lost. Was that a war? For about 1,000 years? Shit, yes it was a war. The Habsburgs fought the Ottomans for centuries. The Chinese fought the Mongols for centuries. The Romans and Byzantines fought the Sassanids for centuries. The Byzantines fought the Turks for centuries. The British fought the tribes on the Afghan border on and off during most of their stay in India, a century. The British have been fighting someone or other either in or from Ireland for centuries. The Russians fought the Mongols for centuries. The Russians first rolled into Chechnya 150 years ago, and that one isn’t over yet by a long mile.
Harris mistakenly takes the incredible peace and order we have in the USA, our few short, successful wars, and imagines this to be “normal”, and then asks the wrong questions based on a misreading of history. He needs to rethink.
(The foregoing is the nice version.)
Bottom line. We’re in for a long, ugly struggle. It may not end. It may just settle into endemic violence, with occasional flare-ups. One factor counsels against that. Americans, especially Jacksonian Americans, don’t like long, drawn-out, unresolved conflict. They like wars to end, with the enemy quite entirely dead or very, very chastised, so that we can go back to what we are good at: working hard and making money and minding our own business. So, I do think this war will end, in years or decades, but it will end.
Best case, we come up with a stripped-down export version of the American Way of Life and jam it down the throats of the Iraqis — they decide they like it, it catches on, the swamp is drained, and the terrorists have nothing to do and no frustrated rage to appeal to so they end up dead, in prison, or they settle down and give up. That is an idealistic longshot and Bush is a saint and a hero for trying to do it. More likely, there is a sad ending. The Iraqis prefer to murder each other and us rather than quietly making a living. Nothing good happens there. The jihadis get a second wind. They do what I think and fear they’ll eventually do, put a nuclear bomb onto Manhattan. Then the nice, Wilsonian, Bush/Powell thing goes out in the trash. Then we will get the real Huntingtonian war of civilizations. The gloves come off, and the Arab-Islamic world faces nuclear genocide courtesy of the US taxpayer. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. If we can’t have a win/win, then we do us/them. In that case, it’s us.
If Iraq can’t reprise Germany and Japan, then the Arab world is one giant step closer to reprising the fate of the Sioux and the Apaches. It’s really up to them.