War not Metaphor

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.

6 thoughts on “War not Metaphor”

  1. Lexington Green,

    I think you are being too hard on Lee Harris. He has written some great pieces in the past. Your message and his message seem to have a large overlap. Putting aside our differing interpretations of Lee Harris, I found your post quite wonderfully refreshing. Like walking out of a warm ski chalet into the -40 winds of Mount Tremblant. Bracing but it keeps you in action.

    I see the nuclear bomb in Mahattan (I use Baltimore in my story) as inevitable. The technology is concievable today. The US has nowhere near the security required to stop it. There would be no appetite for such security – ahead of a nuke blast.

    If it happened, it would be the end of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. The US (with the happy blessings of the French, English, German, Russian and (perhaps) Chinese) Government would crush the Islamic world and then colonize it and enforce a ‘protestant’ revolution in the Islamic faith.

    I think we are in the middle of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations today. One the mideasern front the strategy seems to be promote a second succedful secular Islamic nation, encourage the overthrow of the Iranian Mullah’s and promise the full Saddam treatment to Haffaz if Syria doesn’t behave. We are 1 – 2 more big bus bombings away from unleashing the Isrealies. Relunctantly I have concluded that only victory will end that 55 year war. Victory means killing your enemies will to fight. That means the PLO, Hammas, Syria, Egypt and (perhaps) Jordan.

    Here are some other Lee Harris writings:


    His most infamous essay is “Our World-Historical Gamble.” with this section:


    The greatest threat facing us – and one of the greatest ever to threaten mankind – is the collision of this collective fantasy world of Islam with the horrendous reality of weapons of mass destruction.

    For weapons of mass destruction are unlike any other previous kind of physical threat.

    The capacity of a nation state to threaten another, prior to the advent of nuclear weaponry, depended on its mastery of an enormous number of diverse circumstances. It had to be internally united; it had to have economic strength; it had to possess an abundant, and not easily threatened, supply of necessary natural resources; it had to have a military tradition that instilled a fighting spirit into its troops; it had to have an efficient system of transportation; it needed to have a clear cut and reliable chain of command; it needed to have a substantial base of technological expertise; it required a settled tradition of authoritative command. In other words, a society’s capacity to threaten depended on its successful coping with its own internal and external challenges.

    But a stockpile of nuclear weapons will remain a threat even when those who originally put them together have long vanished. The example of the former Soviet Union is a clear cut case of this. Here a social order, no more viable than the Kingdom of Poland, has perished, and yet its weapons of mass destruction linger on.

    We now live in a world in which a state so marginal that it would be utterly incapable of mounting any kind of credible conventional threat to its neighbors or to anyone else – a state unable to field a single battalion or man a single warship, and whose level of technological sophistication may be generally so low that it would be incapable of providing for itself even the most elementary staples of modernity – such a state could still make a devastating use of a nuclear weapon that literally chanced to come into its hands.

    The procedure would be simplicity itself. Such a state figures out a covert method by which it detonates a nuclear device, and then simply fails to claim the act as its policy. For why, after all, may not a state act covertly, without declaring an attack to be official policy? After all, isn’t this covered by the right to self-determination? Who are we to tell another country what kind of covert policy it may operate on the side?

    Before 9/11 the first question that an intelligent person would think upon hearing such a scenario is why on earth would anyone want to do such a thing. But it is no longer our first question. Our first question is who will do it first? And that is the difference 9/11 made.

    Like 9/11, this kind of attack would have no Clausewitzian justification – indeed, from a realistic point of view it can serve no purpose. But the same is most emphatically not true if those who chose to use nuclear devices were merely acting out of a fantasy ideology: for in this case, the act of violence need possess only a magical or fantasy significance to the perpetrator in order to motivate him to perform it. It need not bring him any other goal than the sense of achievement in having brought it off.

    And beyond this, there is even a danger of rogue states, unable to maintain their domestic viability, degenerating into being merely front organizations for the social force of radical Islam, much as occurred in Afghanistan under the Taliban. In such a scenario the forces of radical Islam – having become the true focus of loyalty – could play a kind of shell game with the West, making use of the state’s convenient façade of legality in order to bring about its own purposes. It would accept the rules of the international liberal system, represented, for example, by the UN, in order to destroy the viability of this system. It would be doing, in effect, precisely what the Nazi Party did with the Weimar parliamentary system: it would force it into a deadlock, in order to destroy it.

    “…there is even a danger of rogue states, unable to maintain their domestic viability, degenerating into being merely front organizations for the social force of radical Islam.”

    This is one of the dangers inherent in a fantasy ideology: it forms the primary group identity of its adherents, cutting across and annihilating other group loyalties, so that one is a Nazi before being a German and a true believer in radical Islam before being a Pakistani or a Saudi or an Egyptian. The fantasy ideology is the underlying reality, of which this or that state regime becomes merely an epiphenomenon, a formal and legal cover to conceal the machinations of the Party – in this case, the Party of radical Islam. And again this finds a parallel in Nazism, which, as a fantasy ideology, transcended the international convention of merely legal borders, and whose constant justifying principle was precisely the sacred principle of self-determination.

    If we are to understand the measure of the present threat that we must realize that we are not fighting a Clausewitzian war, and there are immense dangers ahead of us if we do not squarely face the implications of this fact: they are not playing by the same rules of realism that we are. And it is this that renders so much public debate so historically dated.

    The motivations of those who want to murder us are not complicated: To watch an American city go up into a fireball is its own reward.

    This is the lesson that 9/11 should teach us in dealing with the fantasists of the Islamic world. A fantasy does not need to make any sense – that is the whole point of having one.

    In dealing with the Japanese or with the Soviet Union, we were never forced to wonder whether they might delegate their actions to such utterly informal and irresponsible entities as Al Qaeda. The threat they posed they posed in their own right, and hence they were accountable for their actions, and knew that we would hold them accountable. But this is no longer the case. For example, even today, over a year later, there is still debate about the possible connection between Iraq and the events of 9/11 – a debate that may well never be resolved. And this means that if a nuclear device were to be detonated in downtown Chicago tomorrow, from an unknown source, could we really count on being able to find its “return address” if in fact it was the work of a “rogue” state? We know that, in fact, the answer is no; and we know that “they” know this as well; and they know we know – all of which only begins to suggest the surrealism that is characteristic of the crisis with which we are faced. For it means that if they chose to delegate such a horrendous act to an entity like Al Qaeda, they would force us into an impossible choice: Either we accept such an attack without retaliating, or else we are forced to lash out blindly – and in the same spirit of blood feud and vendetta with which the attack was made. And either choice transcends our present categories of comprehension.

    “…they are not playing by the same rules of realism that we are. And it is this that renders so much public debate so historically dated.”

    The first “rogue” nuclear strike – a strike from an unknown and even unknowable source – is a genie that once out of the bottle can never be put back in. It would cause an overnight catastrophic transformation of the world. In many ways we must be grateful that Al Qaeda’s fingerprints were over all 9-11. For what if we had had no clue – even today – who had perpetrated such an act?

  2. Paul, thanks. Maybe I was too hard on Lee Harris. I am open to the possibility that he has got lots of excellent articles. But he had a bad day with this piece. I looked at the link you sent, and I recall the “Fantasy Ideology” essay. My recollection is that I thought the idea that these guys are totally out of touch with reality was overstated, but I liked the article. I’ll revisit it at some point. Thanks for the link.

    As to a nuke attack being “inevitable” — I don’t believe in inevitability.

  3. Where do we disagree?

    You argue that there have been interminable conflicts between peoples in the past–and one can hardly argue with this. But my point is that when you tell the American people we are at war, they do not automatically go back to the Persian wars, or the Hundred Year War, but rather to Vietnam, Korea, World War II and I, so that when they are asked to see themselves at war, this is how they will invariably see themselves.

    Now my point is that once we have invoked these associations, then we must at once add, as you yourself do: “Yes, but our current conflict may well be something radically different from these previous American wars. So don’t expect it to be like your idea of a war. It may not have an end. We may never know when it is over. Etc.” In short, you repeat my very points, but in order to show, somewhat academically I might add, that what historians have seen fit to call wars in retrospect were not the kind of wars that Americans normally think of when they think of a war.

    My concern is how you justify a war as a national policy, here and now, and not with the way in which historians later label and classify events. Future historians may, for all we know, refer to this period as the fifth Crusade, or as the collapse of the infidel West, or as WW III–but, like you, I don’t believe in inevitability, which means that, as of today, none of us is privvy to what this epoch will appear like when it is over and done with.

    None of which is the Bush administration’s fault. Rather, it is the result of the utter unprecedented nature of 9/11–an act that only makes sense as the first move in a war of utter extermination–or genocide.

    You appear to acknowledge this as one of the possible outcomes of 9/11. But the problem here is, How does the USA, today, defend itself against an enemy that wishes to exterminate us? We can defend ourselves against a Clausewitzian enemy that wants to bend us to his will through official acts of collective violence–but we are not fighting that type of enemy.

    That is my whole point about wishful thinking. It would be nice to believe that we are confronting a Clausewitzian enemy that is prepared to play by the rules of the game, but we are not. You appear to recognize this quite clearly yourself; and, unfortunately, the melancholy conclusions you draw from it are not so very different from my own.


    Lee Harris

  4. Lee, you are a mensch for writing back.

    Several people have said to me “you’ve got Harris wrong”. Maybe so. What I’m going to do is revisit your article, and this comment, and put a new post up at some point as soon as I can.

Comments are closed.