Jane Novak, at Armies of Liberation, has a post on the ideology of terrorism. She quotes Imam Al-Sudayyis of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, who spoke to both Palestinian suicide bombers and the wider Islamic community on Saudi Television:
You have revived the hopes of this nation through your blessed Jihad. By Allah, be patient until, with Allahs help, one of two good things will be awarded you: either victory or martyrdom. Our hearts are with you; our prayers are dedicated to you. The Islamic nation will not spare money or effort in support of your cause.
You cannot view that statement without considering the carnage and deliberate execution of children and their parents which we all just witnessed in Russia; without remembering the shock, destruction and death of September 11; without thinking of the horrific spectacles of busloads of people incinerated weekly in Israel.
We are forced by these events to consider the question of what constitutes a legitimate target in war. We can approach the subject from two distinct directions: that of the moral-ethical and from the military-strategic.
The Moral-Ethical Question
Where to even begin? How far back into history do we need to reach? Contrary to popular belief, the 20th century was not the historical advent of mass casuality warfare. You can go all the way back to Genghis & Kublai Khan whose campaigns of conquest killed upwards of 40 million people across Asia in the 13th century. That would be almost 30% of the population of Asia or 1/10th of the total estimated population of the entire world. We needn’t go back that far, however. WWI provides an excellent place to start. The mass casualties of WWI resulted from the Napoleonic massed-infantry tactics of the 19th century running head-on into the automated killing machines being widely employed by the early 20th century.
The war caused, as it always does, certain individuals to contemplate the reasons for failure and/or success. In this case the overriding question was, Why had WWI dragged on so and why had the casualties had been so high? Among those thinking and writing was Italian General Guilio Douhet who reasoned (correctly) that airpower, still in its infancy, was going to fundamentally change the nature of warfare. He also reasoned (incorrectly, IMO) that one of the primary reasons WWI had dragged interminably on was that the pain and suffering of warfare was too far removed from the civilians directing and supporting it. Airpower, he surmised, could change that. By targeting civilians directly, wars would be brought to quick conclusion because the civilian population was least prepared and least willing to sustain damage to their towns and cities and least willing to die for their cause. In short, ratcheting up the pain on civilians was more humane since it would bring wars to quicker endings. His writings were widely read and were highly influential on the generation of officers who would lead WWII.
The result was the strategic bombing campaigns waged by the Germans on London and by the Allies on Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Estimates for the number of dead in WWII hover around the 50 million mark, though I’ve seen estimates that go as high as 200 million ‘killed’ when the secondary effects of disease and starvation are factored in.
Since then, the argument for killing large numbers of enemy civilians, or even the targeting of civilians, has been largely discredited. A consensus has emerged that while the targeting of enemy troops, war machinery and infrastructure is effective at reducing an enemy’s ability to wage and direct a war, the killing of enemy civilians accomplishes almost nothing. Viewed in that light, the paradigm has emerged that since killing civilians is ineffective, then killing them anyway is immoral. It is viewed as a form of mass murder. This can be thought of as the gentlemanly, or civilized, approach to warfare. Your army versus mine, civilians are out of bounds. Agreed?
What if your enemy doesn’t agree? What if the balance of conventional military power is so skewed to one side that your enemy reverts to asymmetrical warfare? They avoid fighting your army mano a mano and instead take to killing your civilians. Are you still bound by your ‘civilized’ rules of warfare? To make the question even more difficult, which it often (though not always) is in reality, what if those carrying out these attacks represent only a tiny fragment of the larger population? Are you justified, morally, in carrying out devastating attacks against their civilians? Kill them all, let God sort it out? Let me put a quote in front of you, written by Jan Bussey, after watching the news coverage of the attacks on the school children in Russia this week:
I’ve been watching this story all day yesterday and today – some of the pictures were enough to almost make me throw up. I cannot even conceive of the mentality that makes these things possible. At what point do you declare these people no longer human and proceed to exterminate them? I worry about what we as a society have to become in order to accomplish this, and whether or not we will be able to return from that place.
And now I’m going to go curl up with a book and a teddy bear – my stomach hurts.
I think that sums it up pretty well. We are disgusted by what our enemies have done, however few they are. And we are equally disgusted but what may be required of us to defeat them. These are among the hardest, and have the most long reaching consequences, of any decisions we’ll ever face as human beings.
The Military-Strategic Question
Anyone who has read history knows that human beings have a long track record of killing their enemies en masse. The list of examples is endless. It’s effective, you can’t deny that. One way to ensure you don’t continue to have trouble from an implacable foe is to simply kill every last member of that group; man, woman and child. Problem solved. Permanently. Mass killing is certainly the driving ideology of Al Queda and their ilk. Yet what part of the Muslim world is represented by these people? One percent? One-tenth of one percent?
So we, the ‘civilized’ world, are faced with an interesting strategic situation. We have it within our power, and let there be no doubt that we do, to kill every single member of our enemy’s ‘tribe’. Whether we define that tribe as all Muslims, or just all Arabs, or just all Saudis. We could start tomorrow and be done in a few weeks, maybe a few months, a few years at the most. Every – Single – Muslim – On – Earth. Dead.
I think we’d all agree that’s not necessary. It’s not even, I would argue, in our best interest since the totality of that level of warfare would wreak havoc across the globe and set back civilization at least 100 years, maybe far more.
So that leaves us with more difficult and challenging problem. Dealing with these mass killers ruthlessly, yet dealing with them as groups of individuals. And it will actually be a far easier job than killing them all. It will require fewer resources, but will take much longer to accomplish. It’s also a multi-tasking style effort, or in old-fashioned terminology, a multi-front war. And we’re doing that. From my point of view we’re approaching this problem exactly right. I think the US is on exactly the right track. Fight and kill the terrorists where we find them, change the social-political conditions which gives rise to them, and to the greatest degree practical defend our populations from them.
Can we do better? Yes. But by ‘we’ I mean the civilized world. The US needs to bring the Europeans, the Russians, the Asians…everyone…deeper into the fight. We need to define an international paradigm that shows zero tolerance for terrorists. Terrorism is an act of war. It is war. And it should be treated as such. Period. It threatens the foundations of civilization. It cannot be tolerated.
The single most dangerous actor facing the world with regard to terrorism is Iran. They must be dealt with. A nuclear armed, terror exporting state cannot be allowed to emerge. The international community must come to grips with this single, overwhelming fact. The chaos they will be capable of inflicting on the international community is almost unimaginable. The combined military, diplomatic and post-conflict stabilization power is well within our grasp. We need to use it. It is priority number one.