Can This War Be Won?
March 19, 2002

by Joe Sobran

     Why does everyone seem to assume the United States 
is winning -- or can ever win -- the amorphous "war on 
terrorism"? Shortly after the 9/11 attacks we seemed to 
realize that we were in a new period of warfare, unlike 
conventional wars between states. Even President Bush 
warned that we might never know when this war is over.

     In conventional terms, the war is going well for the 
United States. It's inflicting enormous damage on 
Afghanistan while suffering few casualties. There have 
been no successful terrorist operations within the United 
States since the war began. (Never mind that the enemy 
forces seem to have escaped.)

     We have already forgotten last fall's tremendous 
anxiety over possible chemical, biological, and nuclear 
weapons within our borders. We are beginning to feel 
victorious and omnipotent again, if not quite as 
invulnerable as we once felt. In truth, this war appeals 
chiefly to our nostalgia for World War II: it offers the 
satisfaction of bombing suspected enemy strongholds 
without suffering reciprocal bombing at home. It makes us 
feel that the good old days of American power are back.

     But Bush had it right the first time. We will never 
know whether our enemies have been decisively weakened. 
If Osama bin Laden were to resurface and surrender, he 
couldn't guarantee that his fellow fanatics would throw 
in the towel too. Some of them surely would not.

     If -- tomorrow, next year, ten years from now -- 
someone who hates America should get hold of a second-
hand Russian nuclear device and smuggle it into 
Manhattan, blowing it up with conventional explosives, 
the ensuing panic, even if there were fewer deaths than 
on September 11, could paralyze economic life in this 

     The principle of terrorism is simple. All social 
life depends on our implicit trust that strangers won't 
harm us without a reason. Terrorism is violence 
calculated to destroy that trust. Anyone, even a lone 
individual, can do that. It's absurd even to speak of a 
"war on terrorism."

     So the Bush administration is pretending that this 
is really in essence a conventional -- i.e., winnable -- 
war, a war against an identifiable enemy, and is 
targeting regimes it thinks it can defeat with 
conventional forces, with an occasional hint that it may 
resort to nuclear weapons. It also tries to shore up 
American morale by repeating that the enemy is "evil," 
rather than, say, "cussed" or "ornery."

     But since we can never know whether the war has been 
won, we can only know that it's making us more enemies. 
The Roman Empire made a vicious war on early 
Christianity, which didn't even fight back, yet the 
martyrs won so many converts that the Empire itself 
eventually became Christian. The Israelis have been 
fighting terrorism for decades, yet they now face more 
and worse terrorism than ever before. You can neither 
deter nor punish those who are willing to die in order to 
hurt you.

     It may already be too late, but we should ask 
ourselves why we are hated with such extreme bitterness. 
To ask this question is not necessarily to "blame 
America." It is merely to try to understand the enemy's 
motive, as a good chess player tries to understand his 
opponent's moves -- not to seek defeat, but to avoid it.

     If you can never know whether you have won a war on 
terrorism, can you ever know if you have lost? The U.S. 
Government can never really lose, because its resources 
are inexhaustible. It can tax us and prune away our 
freedoms while claiming it does these things to protect 
us. And since we are much easier targets than the 
supposed enemy, the "war on terrorism" amounts to a war 
on the victims of terrorism.

     In Randolph Bourne's famous aphorism, "War is the 
health of the state." Our government doesn't mind if its 
war actually hurts us more than it hurts the nominal 
enemy. Yet I don't doubt that Bush sincerely believes he 
is waging this war for our sake.

     Only time will tell whether our government has 
bitten off more than it can chew. And time may take a 
long time to tell us. In the end we may learn that the 
war has only aggravated the problem it set out to 

     If Bush's aim were to save American lives, rather 
than to preserve American empire, he might take these 
steps: call off the war, close U.S. military bases 
abroad, bring American military personnel home, and ask 
for an end to U.S. support for foreign regimes, 
particularly Israel.

     For additional safety, he might also announce his 
conversion to Islam. That would be no more improbable 
than the other steps, would it?


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