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On War – 2004 Update

I’ve been thinking about the “War On Terror” a bit lately, and about the whole concept of war in general. I haven’t come to any conclusions, but I’m not certain there are any conclusions to be drawn.

(Note: this a seriously long piece -- closing in on 1900 words. I'm putting the rest of it in the extended section to keep from completely blowing the main page.)

The classic definition of “war” involves open, armed conflict between nation-states. One nation declares war on another, usually prompting a counter-declaration (sometimes it’s simultaneous), and then the two nations (primarily through their armed forces, but it’s quite often a full national endeavor, with nearly all citizens participating in some way or another) do their level best to change something about each other through violence. The aspect being fought over can be land, money, past affronts, religion, or simple loathing of the other’s existence. The actual cause of the war is only relevant in determining when it is over and who won.

After World War II, though, the concept of war was diluted. We had concluded the greatest war in history, destroying two of the most powerful empires the world had ever seen, but we still had a great and powerful enemy in the Soviet Union. World War II had simply been a 6+-year distraction from the inevitable conflict between Communism versus Capitalism and Democracy.

Prior to the war, there was great antipathy between the United States and the Soviet Union, but it was limited to the international equivalents of dirty looks and muttered threats across a crowded bar. The United States was still suffering from internationalist burnout after World War I, the failure of the League Of Nations, and the Great Depression, while the Soviets were still too busy consolidating their own territories to seriously consider expansionism.

However, that didn’t deter others from looking to grow beyond their borders. Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany (and fascist Italy, to a lesser extent) began suffering from overwhelming delusions of supremacy, and made extremely credible stabs at dominating large chunks of the world. It took the combined efforts of both the United States and the Soviet Union (as well as the last truly great war effort of the United Kingdom, which turned out to have been a fatal self-sacrifice of the British Empire as such) to crush them utterly.

The primary consequence of World War II, though, was to simply set the stage for the next 40+ years of East-West relations. Out of necessity, two great powers had been forced to set aside their comfortable isolationism and flex their might across the globe. Suddenly the two surly barflies who had settled for glaring from across a crowded room found themselves repeatedly coming nose-to-nose in numerous locales. There was a huge dividing line separating Europe into East and West factions, and differences that had been largely cultural and social suddenly became gaping chasms.

So here we had these two great powers with huge differences, and both were in many ways spoiling for a fight. However, two factors prevented the two from simply “settling the matter.”

The first was was the sheer magnitude of weaponry. The United States had developed the atomic bomb, and had demonstrated that it could obliterate whole cities in a single stroke. Nobody quite knew how the Americans did it, or how many more bombs they had, but they had had at least two and had willingly used them. Nobody wanted to serve as the guinea pig to find out if the US had bomb #3.

The other factor that prevented the East-West conflict from erupting was simple fatigue. The war had been going on for several years (since 1941, 1939, or 1937, whether you count the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Nazi invasion of Poland, or the Japanese invasion of China as the starting point), and had totally consumed all participating nations. Every single participating nation had committed their entire economy and populace to the war effort. Soldiers had been fighting in the most brutal and savage fighting the world had ever seen, for years on end. Nearly everyone was sick of fighting, and wanted to just rest and get back to their lives as they were before the war. No nation could successfully rouse its people for another conflict, and thus none tried. This was especially true for the United States, which as noted above, was far and away the best-equipped nation to continue the conflict at that point.

But here we had two great powers, face-to-face around the world, both believing that conflict between them was inevitable, but neither ready to commit to that fight without serious assurances that they would be successful. Thus evolved the “Cold War.”

The Cold War was a gray area between peace and war. The West and the East opposed each other, but not openly. They fought in the shadows, with spies and agents. They fought by proxy in otherwise-unimportant countries. They fought in every forum they could find -- at the United Nations, in the Olympics, in space exploration, just to name three – but always stopped short of actual, direct armed conflict. Both sides kept fighting these “skirmishes” around the world while preparing to win the “final battle,” building more and more horrifying weapons, but thanks to the “balance of terror,” neither side ever side ever felt comfortably superior enough to use those weapons.

This brought about a titanic, yet subtle, change in the American psyche. For years Americans had been fixated on “keeping out of the war.” Then, once dragged in, their focus was on ending the war and going back to peacetime life. Now, however, Americans were undergoing a fundamental change. They were living at peace, yet a war was going on. They got comfortable with the “cold war” going on, without significantly affecting every day life. The term “war” lost much of it’s terrible power over people’s imaginations.

In fact, when we actually did fight wars, in Korea and Viet Nam, we didn’t call them “wars.” No presidents asked for declarations of war, no congresses passed such declarations, the people were never called upon to make huge sacrifices to support the war effort. We just called them “police actions” and sent the military off to fight them, while trying to minimize the effect on the nation as a whole.

Meanwhile, to fire up the nation’s imagination, the word “war” began to be applied to other areas. In the 60’s, President Johnson declared war on poverty. In the 70’s, Ford and Carter declared war on inflation. In the 80’s, Reagan declared war on drugs. And after 9/11, Bush declared war on terrorism.

It was these events that started me wondering if there was some mystic power behind the word “war.” It seemed that whenever a president “declared war” of any sort, the surest consequence was destruction on a massive scale. Even when the “war” wasn’t an actual armed conflict with another nation-state, the destruction seemed to follow.

Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty with his “Great Society.” The single greatest consequence (albeit unintended) of this war was the utter destruction of the poor as a viable social group. Programs such as welfare had the result of utterly destroying the family unit among the poorer classes. Today, single-parent households and illegitimacy are pandemic, and in far too many areas are the overwhelming norm. Today huge portions of our society contribute virtually nothing to the nation’s economy, and the tax burdens on the productive elements are growing higher and higher. The average person ends paying about 1/3 of their entire income in federal, state and local taxes.

(Part of me wonders if that could be a factor in the average person’s attitude about work – if one isn’t making any money for 20 minutes out of every hour one spends on the clock, that could seriously affect one’s attitude. But that’s a topic for another time.)

In the 70’s the great enemy was inflation. Ford declared the war, and Carter continued it. By the time Carter’s term in office was ended, interest rates were closing in on 20% and inflation was in double digits. Gasoline prices shot up, and the automobile industry suffered great body blows as consumers turned away from overweight, shoddily-built gas guzzlers and embraced cheaper, smaller, more reliable imports. “Made In Japan” evolved from a joke shorthand term for “cheap, knockoff junk” and is now considered an imprimatur. The main consequence of the “War on inflation” was massive devastation to our nation’s economy.

In the 80’s, Reagan declared war on drugs. “Just Say No” became the national watchword. All of a sudden something that had seemed little more than a harmless diversion and a rich source of entertainment (witness the careers of Cheech and Chong, for example, or the huge popularity of cocaine) was suddenly evil embodied.

And just how did this war play out? The huge crackdown on drug use sent the prices of drugs skyrocketing. Traffickers (those that managed to stay out of custody) suddenly found themselves awash in money. The drug trade became more and more violent. “Drive-by shootings” entered the lexicon. Drug money became a hugely corrupting influence – even maverick carmaker John DeLorean succumbed to the chance to make easy, fast money through drugs. In Colombia, drug merchants set themselves up as a virtual government in and of themselves. In Afghanistan, they went right through the “virtual” stage and took over the whole nation. Drugs became more and more potent. The THC levels in marijuana have increased nearly geometrically since the 1960’s. P. J. O’Rourke, in his brilliant book “Parliament Of Whores,” describes the arrival of crack cocaine “as if we finally had a drug that lived up to all the warnings and hysteria of ‘Reefer Madness,’” (or words to that effect; my copy is currently out on loan).

And that brings us to the War On Terror. President Bush has declared war on terrorism. The problem is, there is no nation called “Terrorism.” Terrorists don’t wear the distinctive uniforms of any nation-state. And there is no Terrorist government or Terrorist head of state that we can pummel into surrender or destruction. We are engaged in a war with no identifiable definition of victory of defeat. We’ve successfully dismantled two governments that supported terrorism and we’ve gone over 2 ½ years without another successful terrorist attack within the United States, but that’s mainly gone toward helping remove the immediacy of the threat to the average American.

And this is what worries me. I have absolutely no doubts that terrorism is the single greatest threat to our nation’s security. But I see more and more similarities between the war on terror and the other failed “wars” of recent history, and fewer with the “real” wars that we won.

This is the part of the essay where I’m supposed to come up with my brilliant, yet elegantly simple, solution to the problems above. This is followed by rounds of praise and applause, along with the inevitable nit-picking on some of the finer details and various and sundry wiseasses getting in their own snipes. And then the world moves on.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any solutions. Hell, I’ve spent over 1700 words and haven’t even fully defined the problems. But the mere effort of putting this down in words has helped me collect my thoughts a bit better. And, with luck, this might prompt me or others to take what I’ve started here and carry it forward.


Comments (8)

It's a War on islam if you ... (Below threshold)

It's a War on islam if you ask me.

To the extent that Islam is... (Below threshold)
Rodney Dill:

To the extent that Islam is a religion of intolerance that wants to annihilate all that won't convert or kowtow to their ways, Yes it is a war on Islam.

Where's my old tinfoil hat?... (Below threshold)

Where's my old tinfoil hat? You know, the one with The Black Helicopters on it. Ah, here it is. Just a second.

Adjusts tinfoil hat snugly on head

Maybe the government should fake a few terrorist attacks on US soil, just to keep the people from getting too complacent.

Rips hat from head

Ow, that hurts, even just wearing it for a second. I don't know how those loonies put up with it.

It is not a war on Islam. A... (Below threshold)

It is not a war on Islam. And what the terrorist are doing represent one facet of one, illegitimate sect of Islam. Saying that Islam encourages this, is like saying Christianity supports the KKK.

like saying Christianity... (Below threshold)

like saying Christianity supports the KKK.

No, David, it's not like that at all. Christians vocally condemn the acts and statements of the Ku Klux Klan, and Christians vigorously pursue the individuals responsible for their illegal acts, so they may be punished.

Muslims aren't rising up in protest over the acts of terrorists. Many continue to support them logistically and financially, and many more Muslims rejoice when the Islamic terrorists strike.

No David, you are about as wrong as you can be on that point.

David, one problem with you... (Below threshold)
Jay Tea:

David, one problem with your premise: go back into news archives. Whenever there's some atrocity committed by Islamists, go check the reactions of the Muslim community.

Here's a hint. It won't be condemnation of the action. It won't be a denouncement of the perpetrators.

It is almost universally the same: "You can't blame Muslims for this."

The most important thing they can think to do at that time is to CONTROL PUBLIC OPINION. They don't give a goddamn about the victims, about punishing the guilty, about preventing future atrocities. They just want to make damn sure nobody tries to blame THEM for the action.

Shakespeare had it right: methinks they doth protest too much.


(Or, to put it more briefly: David, you're right. It's the 95% of Muslims who either commit or support atrocities that give the other 5% a bad name.)

The difference between the ... (Below threshold)

The difference between the unsuccessful "wars" and wars and the successful wars lies in the naming of the enemy. Note: an enemy is a person with ill intent towards you (or at least, towards whom you have ill intent). Therefore, "drugs", "poverty", "inflation" and "terror" are not enemies, and you cannot make war on them. With real wars as well, those where we didn't accurately name our enemy (China should have been included in the Korean War, and North Viet Nam in the Viet Namese war) and carry our battle to that enemy were losses. Here, we have named a thing as the enemy, and have not named many of the nations and groups working against us, such as Saudi Arabia, as enemies, and are not pursuing action against them.

It should be common sense that if you don't attack your enemy, you will not defeat him; and in a nation with a representative government, you cannot attack someone unless you name them your enemy.

Hmm... Jeff, you might be o... (Below threshold)
Jay Tea:

Hmm... Jeff, you might be on to something there. I like it. You pretty much summed up what I said with that "named enemy" without actually saying it. I think that if I revise my piece in the future, I just might steal from your comment. It's a very elegant synopsis, and puts it in short, simple language. I probably could shave off a couple hundred words with your observations.

Thanks muchly,







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