June 2011

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Permanent War

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bwy.net

The Killing of Bin Laden

I want to say at the outset that I have no moral or legal issue with the killing of Osama bin Laden. While one may formulate credible arguments about the propriety of targeted killing of enemy leaders under international law, on a spectrum, Bin Laden falls about as far to the extreme end as possible. He functioned outside all human and national law, publicly ordered murders and gloated about them, engaged in subterfuge and surprise, caused the murder of tens of thousands of civilians including children for their ethnic identity or political or religious affiliations, and vowed the destruction of our nation and our way of life. I can live with the contradictions if any inherent in the following: while I am in favor of closing Guantanamo and moving the remaining inmates into the U.S. legal system, I would not have cared to see Bin Laden brought to Guantanamo or to New York for trial, placed on television and allowed to rant, or become the subject of hostage-taking actions in attempts to free him. Winston Churchill famously questioned the legality and motivation of the Nuremberg trials, saying it would have been better simply to shoot the defendants. While I would be morally uneasy if he knelt and surrendered and they capped him anyway, in the fog of war when dealing with such a dangerous and powerful man, his death was the cleanest result.

Wikipedia, which is replete with rules and commentary to an almost Talmudic extent, has a famous document entitled "Ignore All Rules". Democracies and justice systems are rule-based but there are also exceedingly rare moments when it may be necessary to go outside the rules in order to protect them. This is of course a dangerous proposition; if exploited ignorantly or in bad faith, it becomes the rule-eating exception and devours the system.

Bin Laden's personal net worth was described as ranging from two hundred million to a billion dollars. Although some of it may have been seized or spent, he remained a nexus for unlimited amounts of money, able to build the compound where he hid (compare dirty, dissheveled Sadam, hiding in a hole in the ground). As a wealthy man, he had both the desire and the ability personally to warp, transcend and work towards the destruction of polities he opposed.

Where my opinion on this matter begins and ends: on September 11 I emerged from the subway under the Trade Center a minute after the second plane hit. I have a sense of closure today for which I waited a long time. Bin Laden, who had converted many thousands of living people with hopes, loves and aspirations into tools of his murderous policy, himself became a tool at the last moment.

The permanent war

American involvement in Vietnam began in the 1950's and ended in the 1970's. When I was about ten, I asked my father if I would grow up to be drafted and die in Vietnam. He said no: the war would long be over. He was wrong. The draft was discontinued the year I turned eighteen; I received a low draft number and would have been called.

World War II was decisively over in just six years (Americans were in it for only four). What road has led us to lower intensity conflicts that go on for decades, and seem to have no clear resolution?

I think there are two components to the answer: the nature of war has changed, but our nature has changed as well.

The nature of war

I am fascinated by the contrast between Pearl Harbor and 9/11. To achieve a surprise attack on an American base, the Japanese had to build airplanes and ships, arm them with weapons, and train thousands of men to handle them, at a cost of billions of today's dollars. Bin Laden recruited nineteen men willing to die, gave them about a hundred thousand dollars, and they used our commercial jets full of fuel as the weapons, causing more deaths than occurred at Pearl Harbor.

War has changed. It used to be an exhausting head to head confrontation between nation-states. Proust quoted what he identified as a cliche several times in the 1500 pages of "Lost Time": "The victor is the one who can persist fifteen minutes longer than the other." We won World War II, not because we were smarter or better strategists than the Nazis and Japanese, but because we had the ability to persist, to keep expending men and material, longer than them.

One of the features that Sun Tzu and Clausewitz must have imagined would be a constant in war was the knowledge that if you defeated the invader on your territory, you could next go and punish him on his own. Everyone had skin in the game because failure to hold territory abroad would lead eventually to Dresden, Hiroshima, the fall of Berlin, humiliation, ruins and defeat. The half joking saying we use to threaten people, "I know where you live", has its roots in war.

Al Qaeda is a different and--lets admit it--rather brilliant adversary. If a new Japan had sent bombers on 9/11, our reaction would have been, "They didn't!"--attack by a conventional method by someone we didn't expect would do it. Our actual reaction on 9/11 was "They did what?" It hadn't occurred to most of us that an adversary, however evil and smart, could knock down the towers with nineteen soldiers and some box cutters. A software developer I knew at the time referred to it as "an elegant hack".

Because you don't need to train, equip and feed a million men to fight this kind of war, that "I know where you live" thing is also not applicable any more.

The soldiers of Al Qaeda are all more or less irregulars. Some have more training and a place in a hierarchy than others. Some are simply self appointed fellow travelers committing violence they know is approved of by the organization.

You win a conventional war when you have eliminated the enemy's ability to raise, supply, arm and deploy an army. Where there is an endless supply of recruits, who don't need the organization to supply uniforms, guns or explosives (having no need of the first and scrounging the others), there is no way to eliminate such an army by strategic destruction of bases or supply lines. We can wait for people to lose hope and stop volunteering, but it is hard to imagine what real world circumstances will frighten or deter would be suicide bombers. (On the animated TV show "Family Guy", there was a memorable moment about a guy who gets out of a suicide bombing by bringing a doctor's note.)

When Hitler died, the spirit of the Nazi party was completely broken. There were a few escapees never brought to justice, but there was no resistance carried on, no bombings or massacres committed by remnants in hiding, no attempt by origional Nazis to restore the party or bring it back to power. It was destroyed at the center, and over for all history, after just twelve years. There is no indication that the death of bin Laden will be enough to do that to Al Qaeda, and the on-going desperate battle of the Taliban to get their country back suggests that these people never go away.

Our nature

I am more interested by the elements in ourselves that lead us into permanent war. Vietnam, which had no real geopolitical justification, illustrates how even conventional warfare can become permanent, due to self deception and a lack of will.

Some years ago, in Fat Boys and Buff Toys, I drew a parallel between two apparently unrelated trends: since the 1950's, American boys have become more obese, while the iconic GI Joe toy becomes more buff. In other words, our self image is ever more glorious while our actual physical condition is more pathetic. This is a dangerous trend; one can imagine that the Romans in the decades before the sack of their once impregnable city by the barbarians in the fifth century, had a similar pride that was no longer based on current capabilities.

Permanent war is a side effect of lack of clarity--a glorification of ideology over pragmatism, of exceptionalism over blunt self-confrontation, of a perception that war is an end in itself, and not a means to an end. In my stepson's childhood there was a cartoon character, He-Man, who said, "I only fight when I must", but there are others among us who fight because "we are better" or, even worse, "because we can".

This would be the major rationale for wars in which we have no exit strategy, no clear goals, and therefore no end in sight.

In a polity increasingly influenced by people with millenial beliefs, the temporal fight against evil mirrors the battle between good and evil in the End Times. Angels don't have an exit strategy; it is over when God declares.

Permanent war is a significant feature in a landscape of declining compromise and cooperation, eroding infrastructure, dying education and intellectual skills, and a growing perception that glories are past, that we can no longer build bridges or go the moon. In the absence of more pacific ways to feel good about ourselves, it provides a proud national narrative.

Arab governments have always made use of this trick. "We may not allow you to decide your own destiny, or get an education, or even have enough to eat; but we can all fight Israel together."

American dysfunction is becoming extreme. In a way, the military is our only jobs program in this dangerous economy. There is no Works Progress Administration, no massive mobilation to repair our dying infrastructure and put people back to work, except by sending them to the permanent war.

While Al Qaeda gave us no choice on 9/11 but to mount some kind of response, our permanent war mentality is illustrated by our incursion since then into places where Al Qaeda wasn't, which did not declare war on us, and were not strategically important: Iraq and now Libya.

It is a stunning example of hypocrisy and self delusion that there is no discussion about being able to afford war in a destroyed economy: we are debating cutting Medicare and Social Security while spending billions in Iraq.

The idea that internal social conditions may generate unending wars is a familiar one. In "1984", George Orwell portrayed a society permanently at war with either of two enemies (allegiances and adversities shifting on a regular basis). Anthony Burgess' darkly comic novel "The Wanting Seed" portrayed a world in which squads of highly inappropriate and untrained soldiers of all ages were deployed to a staged extravaganza in Ireland, meant to reduce over-population and provide food to survivors increasingly being fed on human flesh.

I wonder whether evolutionary biologists of the future will detect a relationship between the doubling and tripling of world population in just a few decades and the mass phenomena of suicide bombing. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of people willing to die, and they can't all believe in a trite afterlife with plentiful virgins. The volunteer pilots on 9/11 were largely middle class, highly educated Egyptians and Saudis who had lived secular lives and been exposed to Western culture. I am not sure anyone really has a handle on what causes such a person to decide to die for a cause, which is very different from risking death. Soldiers taking terrible risks may believe in their own luck and the likelihood of survival, but suicide bombers know to a certainty that they will be blown to pieces. I wonder if daily stress, competition, exhaustion and lack of personal dignity, all play a role in creating suicide bombers.

I blame Democrats and Republicans alike for our fall into fantasy. Probably many of our leaders themselves feel like chips in a wave, being carried downstream by social and geopolitical forces beyond their control: as the fifth century Romans did when they saw they would not be able to resist the invading barbarians. But that is just another indication of a lack of leadership.