Can This War Be Won?
March 19, 2002
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. Its 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
falls 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 couldnt
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 country.
The principle of terrorism is simple.
All social life depends on our implicit trust that strangers wont
harm us without a reason. Terrorism is violence calculated to destroy that
trust. Anyone, even a lone individual, can do that. Its 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
But since we can never know whether
the war has been won, we can only know that its making us more
enemies. The Roman Empire made a vicious war on early Christianity,
which didnt 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 enemys motive, as a good chess
player tries to understand his opponents 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 Bournes famous
aphorism, War is the health of the state. Our government
doesnt mind if its war actually hurts us more than it hurts the
nominal enemy. Yet I dont 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 eliminate.
If Bushs 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?