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Even Strategists Must Oppose This War

Editor's Note: This essay, written in October, 2001, in response to the September 11 attacks and the War on Terror that followed, is reprinted here with minor revisions. It seems particularly relevant in light of developments in Afghanistan.

Pacifism, it would seem, is in trouble. Pundits, politicians, academics, strategic analysts, even many pacifists, are saying that this war is different. The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were crimes so heinous that we must respond. The threat they pose is so great that any response short of military force is craven and inadequate. A peaceful strategy is appeasement; it will reward the attackers; it will not bring them to justice or show sufficient resolve. The voices of war are deafening, and they are unanimous. Pacifism is dying, and peaceful solutions are impossible in this new kind of war.

It is not, and they are not. All of us need to rethink our beliefs in the light of new information. September 11 was the worst kind of new information: a shocking revelation that the mightiest country on earth cannot avoid the world’s troubles forever. But rethinking need not mean abandoning the quest for peace.
It is not too late to try a more peaceful, wise, and strategically sound approach, but every day of bombing makes the search for peace more difficult. And every day the bombing goes on, it becomes harder to climb down.

Rethinking War

Some of the most vocal critics of pacifism are attacking a pacifism that does not exist. Pacifists are not cowards, and they have not effectively sided with the September 11 attackers. This is the oldest debating trick in the book —setting up a straw person and then knocking it down. It is difficult to take such analysis seriously.

More serious critics are either pacifists themselves or sympathetic with pacifism. They suggest that, however difficult it is to justify war, the September 11 attack was no ordinary act of war, and the threat it represents cuts so deep that rejection of war has become untenable. Those who believe otherwise must respond to this argument or abandon the field.

Is war, then, the only, the most moral, and the most practical response to September 11? It is not. The September 11 attacks were possible because of a complex of social, diplomatic, spiritual, and economic problems. Military force—indeed the whole concept of “war”—is irrelevant to most of these problems. Bombing, however precise, and ground attacks, however limited, may actually make some of the underlying problems worse.

The case for war, even after the shock of September 11, is not as compelling as it first appears. This is a war whose strategy is unclear, whose overall plan is vague, and whose definition of victory—ridding the world of terrorism—is unattainable. It is a conflict which will probably do a great deal of damage while achieving little that makes the world more secure. Its costs are likely to be greater than its benefits—and if things go badly wrong, those costs may be very great indeed.

The strategic and political case against this war is powerful. It undergirds, rather than undercuts, the case for peacemaking. For if the war is folly, if it will cost much blood and treasure for little gain, then the war is also wrong. What is right—seeking peaceful ways to respond to September 11—also becomes prudent. The pacifist argument stands. We must rethink, but we need not abandon, our ideals.

Let us, then, look at the strategic argument against this war; for it is also the moral argument.

Terror and War

First, however, a word about terminology. It is hard to talk about September 11 and its aftermath without using terms like “terrorist” and “terrorism.” The government uses these terms freely, but they are misleading. They imply that events like September 11 occur in a vacuum—that they have no social or political roots. So do terms like “evildoers.” Before we can respond to September 11, we may have to relearn how to talk about it.

“Terrorism” is actually shorthand for a particular use of terror tactics, which have a long and bloody history in warfare and political agitation. By terror tactics, I mean deliberate attacks on civilians calculated to create fear that goes far beyond the damage they inflict. The word “terrorism” goes back to the late 18th Century.  The use of terror as a tactic goes much further back than that. Military forces, not disaffected political groups, were the first to use it, and modern armies are still the most efficient practitioners of it.

In principle, there is little difference between obliterating Dresden with firebombs and obliterating the World Trade Center with hijacked airliners. We all agree that the World Trade Center bombing was an atrocity. But the example of Dresden, a city which had no military importance and was full of children on the night it was bombed, should remind us to beware of becoming complacent about our own goodness. We were the victims on September 11, and it would be wrong to say that we deserved our fate. But it would be equally wrong for us to forget that we, too, have sent armies, navies, missiles and bombs to make others into victims. And we, too, have trained and funded independent individuals and groups who used terror tactics. Our hands are not clean. And we are not free of the taint of terror.

War as Political Metaphor

Long before any of us understood what had happened on September 11, the Administration had declared a “War on Terror.” To students of war, this declaration, like previous ones of war on drugs, war on poverty, war on cancer, and wars and wars and wars, seemed like a very tired political metaphor. And it was.
The fact is that the “War on Terror” is not a war at all in most ways. The work of apprehending suspects, tracking down links, and freezing assets has no connection with the military. The problems that made September 11 more likely—conditions in much of the Arab world, perceived (and real) Western arrogance, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and other grievances—cannot be improved by dropping bombs and inserting special forces.

By characterizing our policy as “war,” however, the government has created black and white divisions where, in truth, there are only gray areas. In war, you are either with us, against us, or (though the Administration tends to forget this) neutral. No ambiguity, no overlapping categories. Simple, clear, decisive. And in war, each side always thinks that it is on the side of the good, the true, and the just. That is a dangerous position when, as now, one thing we must do is realize that we are not always the good guys, at least not to many people in the Islamic world.

Can We Succeed?

To say that our military effort is poor strategy is also to say that it probably will not succeed. Success and failure are, however, largely a matter of definition. If our goal is to “rid the world of the evildoers,” then the entire “War on Terror” will certainly fail. Nobody, pacifist or soldier, has yet found a way to eliminate evil from the world. What we can hope to do, realistically, is to create a world in which everyone is more secure: a world in which men and women in New York and China and Jordan and Chile—people everywhere—can wake up each day knowing that there probably will not be a suicide bombing in the market, an airliner flying toward the office, or anthrax in the mail. That seems a modest enough goal, but will military force help to achieve it?

Bluntly, it will not. It will not because retaliation with force does not intimidate suicide bombers; it recruits more of them. It will not because every bomb we drop makes us look like a dangerous bully. As I write this on October 23, 2001, there are reports that many Afghans now fear we are attacking, not the Taliban or Usama bin Laden, but the Afghan people. Should this surprise us? No. Should it worry us? Absolutely. Our intentions may look good, and our bombs may look accurate—to us. But our perceptions mean nothing when much of the world fears that we are the Mad Bombers.

Most of all, military force will fail because it will distract us from the real work of responding to September 11. Already it is clear that our government’s prime effort is going into the military campaign. Support for the campaign has become the touchstone of our foreign policy. This is a historic error in judgment because “[t]he solution to terrorism is not going to be found in bullets. It’s not going to be found in precision ordnance or targeted strikes. It’s really going to be found in changing the conditions. It’s going to be found in establishing a global safety net that starts with security and goes to economic development and political development…”

No pacifist said that. Gen. (ret.) Wesley K. Clark, who commanded the war in Kosovo, said it. He is surely right. But one hears little of this from our government. They have neither time nor interest. They have a war to fight. Military force cannot bring about the world that Gen. Clark envisions. If it becomes our only or even our principal tool, it will make that vision less and less likely as the war goes on.

Nightmares of the Future

It is too late, of course, to prevent the military campaign in Afghanistan, but it is not too late to look at what could go wrong and what it might mean.

One likely scenario is that the war will overthrow the Taliban, leading to chaos in Afghanistan. When the attack went in, there was no obvious successor government in view. In the confusion that follows every war, moving to a stable government that has popular support may be difficult or even impossible. And whether even the most popular government can cope with the humanitarian crisis that will surely follow the war remains very much in question.

It is true that the U.S. is finally turning to the United Nations for help in the transition to a post-Taliban Afghanistan. But the history of that unhappy land gives little comfort once war begins. Some of the warlords clearly see this war as an opportunity to gain power, and it is not clear whether the U.N. can intervene in time to avert chaos. There are reports every day now of a city attacked or taken by anti-Taliban forces. This is not good news, for those are the same forces that fought a prolonged and brutal civil war after the Soviet military left ten years ago.

Peacemakers can and must look for hope even in the worst of cases. Only by seeking and fostering hope can we achieve peace. Even now, there are possibilities for building a peaceful Afghanistan. But as the war goes on, finding hope will become more difficult. And the people of Afghanistan will be the losers.
Chaos in Afghanistan is not the worst case. If we follow the so-called Bush doctrine—the idea that if you are not with us you are against us, and we will take measures to punish you—we may quickly learn what the worst case is. Our allies are quite rightly worried about this doctrine. It could lead to a general war with the Islamic world. And that we do not need.

Anger and Justice

Military retribution for September 11 will very likely make the situation worse and leave us less secure than we are now. But our anger is great. Surely peaceful alternatives will leave us unsatisfied, and our wrath will consume us. We must seek, above all, justice, for our own peace of mind.

We must seek justice, but we must not do so in anger. Anger teaches us to strike out. But anger is a poor guide to policy or strategy, and an even poorer guide to right and wrong. We must put it aside and choose wisely. In this case above all, where war is so dangerous and so unlikely to succeed, wisdom dictates that we use other means. What is right is also good strategy.

Are there alternatives? Of course, and many, both pacifist and non-pacifist, have proposed them in detail. They range from improving airport security to changing, really changing, our policies toward the Middle East and the rest of the world. Would the alternatives work? As with war, there is a risk that they would not. But the risk of failure is lower, and the price of failure would be lower than the price of a failed war. If the current limited war fails, we may find ourselves sliding into a general war that no one wants. Even if the current war succeeds, it may increase the number of willing suicide bombers, damage our relations with the Islamic world, and ultimately make us less secure.

As to justice, it is a word we invoke very easily but do not define carefully. Seeking justice can mean bringing the September 11 bombers and their leaders to trial. This is a worthy goal, if we can find some way to achieve it. But we must not forget the larger picture, in which justice means decent treatment and living conditions for everyone. Capturing and prosecuting the bombers will not bring about that kind of justice. If, in the effort to bring the bombers to trial, we forget about and do nothing to remedy the larger injustices of the world, we will have achieved little.

Justice ignored breeds anger, hatred, and terror. We must seek justice in the larger sense lest the world spiral down even further than it already has. We cannot achieve this kind of justice with bombs. We can only do it with love.

Follow-up Note: Like most people in October, 2001, I did not foresee the invasion of Iraq and the many developments that followed it. Whether the U.S. operation in Afghanistan might have been more successful had the Iraq invasion not followed so quickly is impossible to say. What is known is that the Taliban government fell to the U.S.-led coalition, but a stable, democratic Afghanistan proved much more difficult to achieve, as did the capture of the titular head of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, who is still at large. Afghanistan has a nominal democratic government whose popularity is waning and whose reputation for corruption has further weakened it. The Taliban has regrouped. Allied casualties continue to mount despite the use of novel tactics in military operations. Afghan civilian casualties have also been heavy. The Afghanistan operation, while not yet an obvious failure, has yet to prove a success.


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