Wanted: Moral Clarity in the War on Terror
With Obama’s intent of drawing moral equivalence between us and our enemies, the need for moral clarity in the War on Terror becomes even more necessary. Despite the insistence of those on the Left to the contrary, there is a right side and there is a wrong side in this fight, and we have to understand this. Furthermore, we Americans have to understand that we cannot fight a war, any war, mind you, half heartedly. We have to be committed to winning it. We have to take it seriously. That is what so many on the Left, apparently including many in the Obama administration, fail to understand.
A while back, I had the fortune of coming across an absolutely superb essay by Ralph Peters that he had written for the Journal of International Security Affairs called Wishful Thinking and Indecisive Wars outlining precisely what I am talking about. The essay is far too long for me to post here in its entirety, but I do wish to discuss it with you. I’m only quoting the most interesting passages from the work, but I highly recommend you read it all if you have the time.
He begins by saying:
The most troubling aspect of international security for the United States is not the killing power of our immediate enemies, which remains modest in historical terms, but our increasingly effete view of warfare. The greatest advantage our opponents enjoy is an uncompromising strength of will, their readiness to “pay any price and bear any burden” to hurt and humble us. As our enemies’ view of what is permissible in war expands apocalyptically, our self-limiting definitions of allowable targets and acceptable casualties—hostile, civilian and our own—continue to narrow fatefully. Our enemies cannot defeat us in direct confrontations, but we appear determined to defeat ourselves.
This part should be obvious. In fact, this is one of the many reasons why the total number of American soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan numbers around 5000 instead of ten or a hundred times that number. The enemy we are facing does not have the organization or the skill in direct combat that, for example, the Nazis did. Our enemies understand this, and that is one of the reasons why they resort to terrorism and other methods of indirect combat.
Later on, he goes into a few reasons as to why we are so reluctant to commit to fighting this war:
There are multiple reasons for this American amnesia about the cost of victory. First, we, the people, have lived in unprecedented safety for so long (despite the now-faded shock of September 11, 2001) that we simply do not feel endangered; rather, we sense that what nastiness there may be in the world will always occur elsewhere and need not disturb our lifestyles. We like the frisson of feeling a little guilt, but resent all calls to action that require sacrifice.
Second, collective memory has effectively erased the European-sponsored horrors of the last century; yesteryear’s “unthinkable” events have become, well, unthinkable. As someone born only seven years after the ovens of Auschwitz stopped smoking, I am stunned by the common notion, which prevails despite ample evidence to the contrary, that such horrors are impossible today.
Third, ending the draft resulted in a superb military, but an unknowing, detached population. The higher you go in our social caste system, the less grasp you find of the military’s complexity and the greater the expectation that, when employed, our armed forces should be able to fix things promptly and politely.
Fourth, an unholy alliance between the defense industry and academic theorists seduced decisionmakers with a false-messiah catechism of bloodless war. In pursuit of billions in profits, defense contractors made promises impossible to fulfill, while think tank scholars sought acclaim by designing warfare models that excited political leaders anxious to get off cheaply, but which left out factors such as the enemy, human psychology, and 5,000 years of precedents.
Fifth, we have become largely a white-collar, suburban society in which a child’s bloody nose is no longer a routine part of growing up, but grounds for a lawsuit; the privileged among us have lost the sense of grit in daily life. We grow up believing that safety from harm is a right that others are bound to respect as we do. Our rising generation of political leaders assumes that, if anyone wishes to do us harm, it must be the result of a misunderstanding that can be resolved by that lethal narcotic of the chattering classes, dialogue.
Essentially, we have become complacent in our success. We are so used to our lives of luxury that it seems unfathomable that there are those among us who would commit such evil things as those seen in the Holocaust. Even the events of September 11th failed to shake us out of our stupor, or at least not permanently. Sure, in the weeks after, we were ready to seek out and destroy those who perpetrated the acts, but almost eights years hence, it remains but a distant and faded memory to many people. Despite the stated intention of our enemies otherwise, many Americans still believe that 9/11 was an isolated event executed by a few crazies in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Another thing Peters hits upon here is evidence of just how far into our society Liberalism has crept. We have deluded ourselves so much with the concept of a “bloodless war,” that we are horrified at the fact that men die in war. This is not to make light of this fact, but it is an unfortunate cost of war. However, there is some solace in the fact that, as long as the war is being fought for the right reasons, then they did not fight in vain.
Last, but not least, history is no longer taught as a serious subject in America’s schools. As a result, politicians lack perspective; journalists lack meaningful touchstones; and the average person’s sense of warfare has been redefined by media entertainments in which misery, if introduced, is brief.
As someone who is a history major (and aspiring history professor), this touches a particular part of my heart. We need to have a proper understanding of history. Unfortunately, our schools are not giving our children the sort of history education they deserve. Instead, they are taught a twisted, cleaned-up, leftwing mess. Very rarely are they taught anything of the sacrifices brave men and women have made in the name of freedom throughout history, from Thermopylae to the American Revolution, to the World Wars. We lack the understanding of just how rare the freedom we are blessed with is and how much we should cherish it. We do not understand that freedom is one of the few things worth dying for.
We have cheapened the idea of war. We have had wars on poverty, wars on drugs, wars on crime, economic warfare, ratings wars, campaign war chests, bride wars, and price wars in the retail sector. The problem, of course, is that none of these “wars” has anything to do with warfare as soldiers know it. Careless of language and anxious to dramatize our lives and careers, we have elevated policy initiatives, commercial spats and social rivalries to the level of humanity’s most complex, decisive and vital endeavor.
One of the many disheartening results of our willful ignorance has been well-intentioned, inane claims to the effect that “war doesn’t change anything” and that “war isn’t the answer,” that we all need to “give peace a chance.” Who among us would not love to live in such a splendid world? Unfortunately, the world in which we do live remains one in which war is the primary means of resolving humanity’s grandest disagreements, as well as supplying the answer to plenty of questions. As for giving peace a chance, the sentiment is nice, but it does not work when your self-appointed enemy wants to kill you. Gandhi’s campaign of non-violence (often quite violent in its reality) only worked because his opponent was willing to play along. Gandhi would not have survived very long in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s (or today’s) China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Effective non-violence is contractual. Where the contract does not exist, Gandhi dies.
Furthermore, our expectations of war’s results have become absurd. Even the best wars do not yield perfect aftermaths. World War II changed the planet for the better, yet left the eastern half of Europe under Stalin’s yoke and opened the door for the Maoist takeover in China. Should we then declare it a failure and not worth fighting? Our Civil War preserved the Union and abolished slavery—worthy results, surely. Still, it took over a century for equality of opportunity for minorities to gain a firm footing. Should Lincoln have let the Confederacy go with slavery untouched, rather than choosing to fight? Expecting Iraq, Afghanistan or the conflict of tomorrow to end quickly, cleanly and neatly belongs to the realm of childhood fantasy, not human reality. Even the most successful war yields imperfect results. An insistence on prompt, ideal outcomes as the measure of victory guarantees the perception of defeat.
This goes back to the fact that our success has made us complacent and how we lack a proper understanding of history. Our complacency has led us to believe that evil doesn’t exist anymore any more. As I said before, the horrors of the Holocaust and even 9/11 are but a faint memory to many. We have “advanced” since then, supposedly. Yet, we do not understand that history repeats itself, all too often because we failed to learn the lessons of the past. As long as human nature remains what it is, there will be those who conspire to cause others pain and suffering.
Furthermore, since we are imperfect, we are bound to make mistakes, even in war. There will be the unfortunate cases of friendly fire, there will be strategic blunders, there will be misfires, and so on. In fact, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was written because, as he put it, “someone had blunder’d.” We should not treat these as if they are something new. These have happened as long as wars have been fought, and they will continue to happen as long as wars are fought. You can minimize them, you can reduce their chances of occurring, but they will still happen.
Peters also touches upon those who insist that war is not the answer. The first thing that immediately came to my mind upon reading this is a passage from Ronald Reagan’s famous “A Time for Choosing” speech (which is also worth a read, or re-read):
You and I know and do not believe that life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery. If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin—just in the face of this enemy? Or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross? Should the patriots at Concord Bridge have thrown down their guns and refused to fire the shot heard ’round the world? The martyrs of history were not fools, and our honored dead who gave their lives to stop the advance of the Nazis didn’t die in vain.
I don’t think I could put it any better.
The problem is religion. Our Islamist enemies are inspired by it, while we are terrified even to talk about it. We are in the unique position of denying that our enemies know what they themselves are up to. They insist, publicly, that their goal is our destruction (or, in their mildest moods, our conversion) in their god’s name. We contort ourselves to insist that their religious rhetoric is all a sham, that they are merely cynics exploiting the superstitions of the masses. Setting aside the point that a devout believer can behave cynically in his mundane actions, our phony, one-dimensional analysis of al-Qaeda and its ilk has precious little to do with the nature of our enemies—which we are desperate to deny—and everything to do with us.
We have so oversold ourselves on the notion of respect for all religions (except, of course, Christianity and Judaism) that we insist that faith cannot be a cause of atrocious violence. The notion of killing to please a deity and further his perceived agenda is so unpleasant to us that we simply pretend it away. U.S. intelligence agencies and government departments go to absurd lengths, even in classified analyses, to avoid such basic terms as “Islamist terrorist.” Well, if your enemy is a terrorist and he professes to be an Islamist, it may be wise to take him at his word.
A paralyzing problem “inside the Beltway” is that our ruling class has been educated out of religious fervor. Even officials and bureaucrats who attend a church or synagogue each week no longer comprehend the life-shaking power of revelation, the transformative ecstasy of glimpsing the divine, or the exonerating communalism of living faith. Emotional displays of belief make the functional agnostic or social atheist nervous; he or she reacts with elitist disdain. Thus we insist, for our own comfort, that our enemies do not really mean what they profess, that they are as devoid of a transcendental sense of the universe as we are.
History parades no end of killers-for-god in front of us. The procession has lasted at least five thousand years. At various times, each major faith—especially our inherently violent monotheist faiths—has engaged in religious warfare and religious terrorism. When a struggling faith finds itself under the assault of a more powerful foreign belief system, it fights: Jews against Romans, Christians against Muslims, Muslims against Christians and Jews. When faiths feel threatened, externally or internally, they fight as long as they retain critical mass. Today the Judeo-Christian/post-belief world occupies the dominant strategic position, as it has, increasingly, for the last five centuries, its rise coinciding with Islam’s long descent into cultural darkness and civilizational impotence. Behind all its entertaining bravado, Islam is fighting for its life, for validation.
To make enduring progress against Islamist terrorists, we must begin by accepting that the terrorists are Islamists. And the use of the term “Islamist,” rather than “Islamic,” is vital—not for reasons of political correctness, but because it connotes a severe deviation from what remains, for now, mainstream Islam. We face enemies who celebrate death and who revel in bloodshed. Islamist terrorists have a closer kinship with the blood cults of the pre-Islamic Middle East—or even with the Aztecs—than they do with the ghazis who exploded out of the Arabian desert, ablaze with a new faith. At a time when we should be asking painful questions about why the belief persists that gods want human blood, we insist on downplaying religion’s power and insisting that our new enemies are much the same as the old ones. It is as if we sought to analyze Hitler’s Germany without mentioning Nazis.
This goes back to what was said at the beginning of the essay. What our enemies lack in conventional firepower they more than make up for in their resolve to beat us. As Peters points out religion is the cause. Our enemies believe that they are on a mission from Allah to either convert or kill us. If they detain us for any period of time, it is only for propaganda purposes. Once our propaganda value has been spent, we will join the numerous others that they have killed.
It’s not politically correct to say such a thing, but we must confront that fact, It is their religion, or at least their strain of their religion, that is motivating them, not poverty or because we wronged them. Those are merely issues that they can co-opt for or to give cover to their true motivation.
Peters goes on to say:
When the United States is forced to go to war—or decides to go to war—it must intend to win. That means that rather than setting civilian apparatchiks to calculate minimum force levels, we need to bring every possible resource to bear from the outset—an approach that saves blood and treasure in the long run. And we must stop obsessing about our minor sins. Warfare will never be clean, soldiers will always make mistakes, and rounds will always go astray, despite our conscientious safeguards and best intentions. Instead of agonizing over a fatal mistake made by a young Marine at a roadblock, we must return to the fundamental recognition that the greatest “war crime” the United States can commit is to lose.
The point of all this is simple: Win. In warfare, nothing else matters. If you cannot win clean, win dirty. But win. Our victories are ultimately in humanity’s interests, while our failures nourish monsters.
I don’t think the importance of these points can be stressed enough. It goes back to what I said at the beginning of the post. When you fight a war, you had better fight to win it. Any half-hearted or unserious attempts at fighting one make the possibility of a loss all the more likely. Furthermore, it will disgrace both the cause you fight for and those who gave their lives in its name. Mistakes will be made, bnut we cannot all them to distract us from the final goal: VICTORY.
In closing, we must dispose of one last mantra that has been too broadly and uncritically accepted: the nonsense that, if we win by fighting as fiercely as our enemies, we will “become just like them.” To convince Imperial Japan of its defeat, we not only had to fire-bomb Japanese cities, but drop two atomic bombs. Did we then become like the Japanese of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere? Did we subsequently invade other lands with the goal of permanent conquest, enslaving their populations? Did our destruction of German cities—also necessary for victory—turn us into Nazis? Of course, you can find a few campus leftists who think so, but they have yet to reveal the location of our death camps.
War is dirty. It is not something you can take the family to for an afternoon picnic and observe. Sometimes, as Peters points out, you have to get down and dirty to fight the battle. You can’t win a war by pretending to be above the fray.
In all, Mr. Peters has written a wonderful essay. If you have the time, I highly recommend you read it in its entirety, not just what was mentioned here.