Unlearning the lessons of war

And so the complacency sets in some more. I’ve written about this before. The attitude Americans are taking towards the jihadists is gradually changing from being actively focused on the threat, to relaxing that focus and thinking they are safe from it.

David Bell wrote a reasonably well thought out column in the L.A. Times called “Putting 9/11 into Perspective” (h/t to HotAir.com) where he argues that the U.S. has overreacted to the jihadist threat. He says the U.S. has taken a policy position that the jihadists represent an existential threat, equivalent to the threat of fascism in WW II. I’d say that’s accurate. Where I think he misses the boat is the difference between now and then. Now, we are not waiting for our enemy to grow in strength. We know what their aspirations are, ultimately. They have demonstrated that they have the skill and determination to carry out attacks, sacrificing their own lives in the process. We know they would like to grow in strength. We are going to deny them that opportunity. We could have addressed this threat sooner, in fact, but it would have been more difficult politically than it is now. After 9/11 it became clear to most people that we had to address it.

Before WW II Europe took the stance that I see some Americans taking: We shouldn’t do anything unless we are attacked. They do not like President Bush’s policy of pre-emption. A potential opponent should be allowed to do whatever it likes, such as develop WMD. No matter what their operating philosophy is, no matter what we read from their actions, as long as they don’t use them we should just leave them alone. We should attempt to talk to them as well, convince them we are not a threat, and offer them incentives to stop developing WMD or taking aggressive postures. This is basically the approach that Europe took to Nazi Germany, for too long. I’m not saying that diplomacy should not be given a chance to work. There comes a point though where you have to look at whether the other country is interested in acting in good faith. If not, and the other country continues to act aggressively towards your country you have to conclude that diplomacy is not working and prepare for war.

We need to remember that the Nazis originally were just a small political party inside Germany. After Hitler joined them they became a small peasant army. They were not that powerful. Hitler wrote about his intentions for the world with his book Mein Kampf. The Nazis only became powerful once Hitler was put in a position inside the German government, which he gained with political finesse. Once Hitler took the leadership of the government, and the Reichstag (their parliament building) was burned, then he was given ultimate power. He and the Nazi party had the full resources of the German government at their disposal. When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, Europe noticed but said, “Let them have it.” When he invaded Austria they did the same. These were acts of aggression designed to increase Nazi Germany’s wealth and power, to build up a war machine. Europe practiced appeasement, partly out of a sense of guilt, and partly because they loathed confrontation. They “fed the beast” in hopes it would not come after them. They thought they could have a tolerant relationship with Nazi Germany. The rest is history.

The point is Hitler didn’t start out as a man of power. He did not come from royal birth, or a prestigious family. He tried being an artist, but was rejected by prestigious art schools. His first position of note was as a soldier in the German army during WW I. Other than that he was a troublemaker. He was arrested at least once and put in jail. Up until Hitler took power the outside world ignored him. The Nazi Party really started from nothing.

Had Bell taken a look at the Nazis before 1933 he probably would have said the same thing as he says about the jihadists, “Yes, their ambitions are vile, but their capacity is limited.” Up until Germany invaded other countries it was a weak state. It had been devastated after WW I, and the Treaty of Versailles just ground in the defeat more. Had Europe pre-emptively attacked Germany after 1933, Bell might’ve asked rhetorically, “Isn’t Europe overreacting?”

The general sense I’m getting from some quarters is that the jihadists are not really a threat to us, despite what we experienced on 9/11. The brain does not remember pain, the saying goes. The first to say that it wasn’t so bad were some on the far left, like Michael Moore: “There is no terrorist threat.” Moore was later quoted as saying that more people die from car accidents than terrorism. Bell makes a similar argument. Moore said these things shortly after 9/11 occurred. Was he right? I’m not drawing a comparison between Moore and Bell in terms of their character. Bell is clearly an intelligent man trying to make a thoughtful argument. I am drawing a comparison between what both of them are driving at.

Bell makes the argument that so few American civilians have been killed from jihadist terrorism, that we should view it as a small problem. I can go back to WW II as a comparison. How many American civilians were killed during that war? Not that many. What was the Pearl Harbor attack? Yes, nearly as many soldiers were killed in that attack as civilians who died on 9/11, but Pearl Harbor is on a far off Hawaiian island. Hawaii wasn’t even a state at the time, but a U.S. territory. It did not join the Union until 1959, 14 years after the war was over. Yet we lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers fighting in a war that started on that island. What was the war about? Was it about an existential threat in terms of civilian lives? No. It was about a political existential threat: fascism.

Let’s look at this from another angle. Despite the fact that Nazi Germany declared war on us, did it represent an existential threat in terms of its capability to attack us? Did Italy, Germany’s ally? No. Nazi Germany has long been remembered through our history as once being a major threat to the U.S. I’m not challenging this notion. It was a major threat, but it was one that was far off (for us) at the time our involvement in WW II started. Looking at it from Bell’s perspective, would Germany and Italy have seemed like a major threat at the time?

Let’s look at the weapons Nazi Germany had. They had tanks and short range fighter planes. None of their airplanes could reach the U.S. They did not have ships. They had U-boats (submarines), but they did not have surface-to-air missile capability. They had underwater torpedoes. That was it. So they had the capability to sink our ships, threaten civilians on ships in the Atlantic, and disrupt trade. Even then they were “polite” about it. They would surface their sub near the ship, make their intentions known, allow the civilians and crew to leave the ship via. lifeboats, and then the Germans would sink it.

Did the Germans have the capacity to invade us? Absolutely not. At some point Nazi Germany developed the V-2 rocket that could reach England, but that was it. They didn’t have the capability to reach the U.S. If anyone would’ve had that capacity it was Japan. Had the war with Germany lasted long enough, they might’ve developed technology that could reach us. A year or so ago I read an article about an idea Hitler had about a potential weapon against the U.S., called the “Amerikabomber” (image). The article showed a conceptual drawing of it. It looked kind of like one of those planes you see modern day adventurers build who want to fly around the world. It was aerodynamic, had a large wingspan, and had two stages. It was guessed that it was designed to fly across the Atlantic, and crash into some location in the U.S. It was never built. So despite his lack of capacity, Hitler did not lack ambition of being able to cause civilian casualties in the U.S.

Bell also makes the point that the rate at which American soldiers died in WW II was much higher than in the War on Terror (so far). This is true. I’ve often used this argument myself about why the hysteria over how many U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq is irrational. We should feel lucky we have lost so few. Such a measure shows the sacrifice that was made to defeat the enemy, but I don’t see that it bolsters his argument much. It does show that the enemies we faced had a greater capacity to cause us harm, but it also shows that the world waited too long to address the fascist threat.

Bell’s argument is off base because it’s purely materialistic. It misses the fact that this is a political/ideological battle. Wars often are. There’s a saying that goes “war is politics by other means”. And likewise politics is war by other means. The way in which the jihadists hope to influence geopolitics is by killing innocent civilians. That’s what it boils down to. That’s what the war in Iraq is largely about. It’s an attempt to change the political equation in the Middle East with democracy. Bell misses the boat because he focuses solely on the civilian casualties, not the political threat. What political threat do I speak of? The threat is existential, because what the jihadists want to do is spread their philosophy of government throughout the world. You need only look to the Taliban and the way they treated people in Afghanistan as a small example.

Let me go back to another part of Bell’s argument: do they have the capacity to cause us great harm? From the very beginning, within a week of 9/11, I had a conversation about this with a liberal friend of mine. He didn’t believe the jihadists had the capacity to achieve their ultimate goal, despite what had just happened. He just thought of them as crazy fanatics with delusions of granduer. We agreed to disagree. I knew how I felt about the attack. I was devastated. He appeared more calm about it. I heard stories, even a year after the attack, about people in the Northeastern states being so devastated emotionally that they acted like zombies, numbed out by the experience. We seem to have forgotten that now.

Al Qaeda has shown a capacity to do a lot of damage with very little in the way of resources. Secondly, if they were to increase their resources by capturing a state like Pakistan, with nuclear weapons, I have little doubt they would use them.

The 9/11 Commission commented on the fact that we lacked the imagination to anticipate the al Qaeda attack. What I see in Bell’s argument is the same lack of imagination. It’s not what the jihadists have done so far that we have to worry about. We have to worry about what they could do. Attacks have to be anticipated. We can’t just take the posture of sitting back and waiting for them to happen.

The reason Bell feels he can make this argument is he feels safe. A lot of us feel safe. It is because of this that a creeping complacency is setting in, “It’s not so bad. What are we afraid of, little ‘ole terrorists?” As President Bush has said on a few occasions, there have been many more attempts by al Qaeda to attack the U.S., but they have been stopped. What’s the difference between something that was planned but was stopped, and a situation where nothing happens? To a lot of people there is no difference. They assume that nothing has happened.

This is a bit off the subject but the same thing happened with Y2K. You remember that catastrophic computer glitch that was supposed to be so scary? Remember how very little happened after the year 2000 rolled around? The truth was it was kind of scary, but the problem was fixed. Hence nothing much happened. Years later I’ve heard people say they think Y2K was just a big scam. I know better. The problem was very real. The fact that nothing happened is due to the fact that programmers did the job of fixing it well.

I saw an interview with someone recently where this creeping complacency was discussed. Unfortunately I’m terrible with names. I see programs on TV, interesting discussions, but a day later I forget who was involved. I don’t forget what was discussed though. The person interviewed was asked about this. He said, “Of course this is happening. It’s natural.” When you get far enough away from a traumatic event, normalcy returns and people forget about it. I think there’s also a kind of denial. People don’t want to be reminded about 9/11. We saw this last year when the movie “United 93” was released. There was resistance from some people, particularly New Yorkers, who said, “It’s too soon.” I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, but I think some conservative commentators were right when they said the reason for this is people don’t want to remember. It’s too painful. They’d rather forget about it. If they don’t want to look at it they don’t have to, but I think in a way it’s unhealthy to turn away from the horror. If you turn away you’re not being honest about it. You’re choosing to not see the threat. Unfortunately I think the person in the aforementioned interview is right. This complacency is a natural process, and we’re likely to see more of it as time passes. I have made a conscious effort not to forget, because it doesn’t feel right to do so. It’s obvious to me the threat still exists, and it’s going to require vigilance to defeat it. I consider myself an active citizen, so I choose to take on the responsibility of educating myself about the issues that face our country. I’ll do all I can so that people who are willing to listen do not forget.

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2 Responses to Unlearning the lessons of war

  1. Kurt says:

    The problem with your argument is that you use the word, “they”. Hitler, the Nazis, “they” were Germany – a country. Today the enemy is scattered all across the Middle East. Simple question: Who do you think is going to sit down to sign a peace treaty with us when we win the “War on Terror”?

  2. PIBoulder says:

    Not just the Middle East. They’re scattered all across the world. There are jihadist cells in Europe and the U.S. The simple answer is there will be no terms of surrender with any of these guys. This is true no matter if we win or lose. As was said from the beginning of this war we are not fighting a state. We are fighting an ideology that is not constrained by state boundaries. That’s the reason the very idea of an official declaration of war was so problematic.

    Bell used Japan and Germany as comparisons in his argument as well (WW II). So using them as examples in my post was completely fair game. As Bush said early on, “This is a different kind of war”. There is no precedent for it. So the Nazi Germany analogy is imperfect but is not entirely off base, when you consider the ideology we are fighting.

    The reason the war is even necessary is some states in the Middle East are not strong enough to contain the violent ambitions of these jihadist groups. In Europe and the U.S. it’s at least somewhat manageable because we have mature institutions and a society that can isolate and deal with them.

    You might ask, “Since the war is ideological why are we fighting them when we should give them representation?” The method by which they practice international politics is brutal–they kill civilians. They do not protest peacefully as is the norm in the West. They do not come to bargain and compromise. They want what they want. That’s the end of the story with them. If you do not agree, they want to kill you. Sen. Joseph Lieberman said it best when characterizing the jihadists’ aims: “Women’s rights? Gay rights? Forget about it!” I don’t want to live in that kind of world and I doubt you do either.

    There are some who see President Bush in the same light as I described the jihadists. I disagree with that notion. Believe me, living under the rules the jihadists want is far worse than living under this Bush presidency.

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