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Can This War Be Won?

March 19, 2002

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 country.

[Breaker quote: Bush was right the first time.]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 eliminate.

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?

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of Griffin Internet Syndicate

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