The Ideology of Total War: The Wars on Civilians

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.

12 thoughts on “The Ideology of Total War: The Wars on Civilians”

  1. I don’t see how we can kill every Muslim on Earth…. at least not without destroying many of our own cities, where large numbers of Muslims live. And some of them will likely take a dim view of the complete destruction of the Middle East (although I’m sure others would welcome it). Like it or not, we’re stuck with a largely surgical approach.

    I’ll agree that Iran needs to be dealt with. The question is how. Will we simply retask the guys that are currently babysitting Iraq? That might work out better than you’d think at first glance, since many of the troublemakers there are being fielded by the Iranian regime. Will we (finally) boost the enlistment caps? We should have done that last year; it takes a while to train people. Will we bring back the draft? Only if we want a replay of Vietnam, which doesn’t strike me as particularly desirable.

    Maybe we’ll stop babysitting Europe instead. There’s already plans underway to transfer them to bases in the United States, and I’ve got a feeling that they won’t be here too long….

  2. Jim Miller has two posts on “How Cruel Should We Be” and “Barbarians, and How To Defeat Them” that should be compared to this thread.

    A great point is that censorship is normal during war time. Closing down the Al Jazeera office in Baghdad was both justified and important. Can we do more to counteract them? Like we used to counteract the Soviet agitprop?

    I also like his point that recruiting barbarians as Bush did in Afghanistan and the Iraquis did in Fallujah is historically a good way to make progress. Who are the equivalent groups in Iran? The students for democracy don’t seem particularly well armed. And no one would seriously contemplate asking Ali Sistani and Muqtada al Sadr if they want to run Iran … would they?

    Once upon a time, regime destabilization was a CIA task. They showed in Cuba and SE Asia that this was possibly not such a great idea. Though Chile worked out well enough in the end. Is there a credible third column in Iran? There are exiles. But we’ve already shown that a significant portion of the US Government won’t support an exile based regime.

    Clearly the diplomatic initiative has failed. We can count on at least one of France and Russia to veto any sanctions, just as Russia is claiming they will veto sanctions against Sudan.

    The big problem with Iran is that they can afford to wait. Jim Miller points out that barbarian warfare tends to be sporadic and multi-generational. If they pretend to quiet down and wait another four years Bush will no longer be president. And sometime this generation or next, we will have another Carter or Clinton in the white house. Maybe they can even get the US to fund them like we did North Korea… So worse than just having to deal with Iran, it sort of seems we have to re-elect and then deal over the next four years.

    But i don’t see any particularly good options.

    Matya no baka

  3. Sideline coaches? : )~

    I believe a question that is high on the American mind is how moral do we fight this war? Is there a line? Luckily in this country, (referring to the political cynisism post), there are two sides pushing each view. The question for a lot of readers here is do “libertarans” or classical liberals agree with fighting a war in which we cross “the line?” I fight for freedom because I love life. But what is life without adherance to a rightous code? Do we let the expediancy of winning a battle color the rest of our lives?

    I don’t believe the people of Iran have the same oppression that Iraqi had. They were toutured for decades and some still feel a strong hated for the US. I think it will be a more bloody occupation,
    and will we gain an ally? I feel stupid for advocating this point, but why can’t we just send in britney and pepsi and flood thier country with credit cards and A/C? lol..

  4. “I don’t believe the people of Iran have the same oppression that Iraqi had. They were toutured for decades and some still feel a strong hated for the US.”

    Once they experience US occupation for themselves, some of them will change their minds. I hear many Iranian visitors to Iraq have already come away with a positive impression.

    “I think it will be a more bloody occupation,
    and will we gain an ally? ”

    Maybe we won’t gain an ally, but subtracting a soon-to-be-nuclear-armed adversary would still more than justify the enterprise.

    “I feel stupid for advocating this point, but why can’t we just send in britney and pepsi and flood thier country with credit cards and A/C?”

    Because simply convincing the people that their leaders are rotten isn’t going to work, at least not in time to stop their leaders from acquiring a nuclear deterrent, which can be used against their own rebellious people as well as against meddlesome Great Satans. A lot of people there are already convinced that their leaders are rotten; trouble is, their leaders still outgun them.

    I’d love to hear another viable alternative. Letting them have nukes is too risky, and stopping them from getting nukes seems to require costly US action, unless I’m missing something. I don’t think encouraging a revolt is going to cut it in the time we have left. Just pray that we actually have until at least several months after the election.

  5. General Douhet was hardly the first one to think that bringing total war to civilians would crush civilian support for war. General Sherman had that idea before.

  6. Letting them have nukes is too risky, and stopping them from getting nukes seems to require costly US action

    Ken, I think you’ve nailed it on the head. I worry a lot about Iran. On the one hand, we can’t allow nukes to fall into the hands of terrorists. On the other, occupying Iran could turn into the mother of all insugencies. Lebannon could become the Cambodia of the ME. I keep struggling with this and I can’t see a good solution.

    I would be satisfied with destroying the nuclear infrastructure.

    I’m astounded the Russians continue to enable Iran to become a nuclear state. Are they just slow learners? Do they believe, against all recent evidence to the contrary, that nukes won’t be targeted on them?

    Is it possible they hope to use Iran as a proxy against the US? Or am I being too cynical?

  7. They were toutured for decades and some still feel a strong hated for the US

    Nicholas Kristof wrote an interesting article in the NYT (now archived, sorry) about his travels and interviews in Tehran, Iran.


    “We’ve learned to interpret just the opposite of things on TV because it’s all lies,” said Odan Seyyid Ashrafi, a 20-year-old university student. “So if it says America is awful, maybe that means it’s a great place to live.”

    Indeed, many Iranians seem convinced that the U.S. military ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq are going great, and they say this with more conviction than your average White House spokesman.

    One opinion poll showed that 74 percent of Iranians want a dialogue with the U.S. — and the finding so irritated the authorities that they arrested the pollster.

    Partly because being pro-American is a way to take a swipe at the Iranian regime, anything American, from blue jeans to “Baywatch,” is revered.


    He went on to write that only once did he encounter anyone virulently anti-American. While having a conversation with some Iranians in a cafe, he was shouted at, called a propagandist and insulted. The group doing the shouting and insulting were European tourists.

  8. We don’t have to occupy them. All we need to do is destroy their WMD infrastructure. That will be difficult enough but I don’t think there is a choice.

    BTW, I don’t think the Mullahs will threaten Russia, because the Russians might retaliate against Iranian cities. We would not and everyone knows it.

  9. Michael, you reiterate my point exactly : )

    It is a hard one though, almost like newtons law of physics when you push, there is an equal and opposite reaction.. Thats all im suggesting. Maybe we can use string theory instead of the newtonian way of fighting wars. I’m NOT a liberal, I swear!

  10. “We don’t have to occupy them. All we need to do is destroy their WMD infrastructure. That will be difficult enough but I don’t think there is a choice.”

    And can we destroy all their WMD infrastructure without occupying them? How would we know whether we got it all or not unless we could roam the country at will and get full cooperation from the people working there, which ain’t going to happen as long as someone other than ourselves is governing the place.

    It’s pretty obvious that we didn’t have a clue whether or where Saddam was keeping his weapons. This does not reassure me, it simply underscores how little we know about Middle Eastern countries that we aren’t currently governing.

    “BTW, I don’t think the Mullahs will threaten Russia, because the Russians might retaliate against Iranian cities. We would not and everyone knows it.”

    Everyone knows that we wouldn’t retaliate in kind against a nuclear attack? Since when?

  11. -Maybe we’ll have to invade them, or at least raid them. I don’t know. My point was that occupation per se doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

    -I’m sure we would retaliate. I don’t think we would retaliate by destroying cities, especially as destroying cities might not stop additional attacks.

  12. I think that this discussion could benefit from the application of a concept brought to us by military. That is the concept of the “Center of Gravity” or COG. It is well stated as:

    “Those characteristics, capabilities, or localities from which a military force derives its freedom of action, physical strength, or will to fight.” Specifically, American joint doctrine suggests that “the centers of gravity concept is useful as an analytical tool, to assist commanders and staffs in analyzing friendly and enemy sources of strength as well as weaknesses and vulnerabilities.”

    Terrorism as we know it today is particularly effective against Democratic Republics because the GOG (in a strategic sense) is generally accepted to be the public or population of the country. An associated term is the “Critical Vulnerability” or that vulnerability that most directly affect the COG. In the US it is often seen as the media since it has a huge impact on public opinion.

    Terrorism also directly effects public opinion in Democratic nations. This may be the case in non-free countries or groups, but in those cases this opinion has little impact on the “freedom of action, physical strength, or will to fight” of the terrorist forces.

    The question to me in all this is, what is the terrorists COG? and then what is his CV? Appy this as well to Iran.

    If we can answer these questions, perhaps we would have the start of a plan.

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