Friday, December 31, 2010

You Say "Terror", and I Say "War" (Let's Call the Whole Thing Off)

The toughest thing in any form of unconventional warfare – and the “War on Terror” certainly qualifies – is getting into the mind of the enemy. In the good old days of invading armies and fleets, set-piece battles, uniforms, and waving battle flags, this was not such a challenge – the reasons were, typically, taken from a fairly limited menu: land, riches, power, and in some cases pursuit of the dominance of a religious faith or political conviction. The goal, typically, was to capture territory, subdue the populace, steal stuff, and expand whatever nation or empire was victorious. And on the defensive side, the goal was to protect all of the above – through counter-offensive action if need be. Historically, I would say that most wars have been fought for material gains, but there have been “wars of ideas” for quite a long time as well – the Moslem conquests, the Crusades, religious wars set off by the Reformation, and any number of revolutions and civil wars, mostly revolving around various forms of socialism.

If you take the 20th Century as a source of examples, one finds that World War I was, basically, an “old-fashioned” war fought for the usual reasons – even though we preferred to style it a war to “make the world safe for democracy” in order to justify our involvement. It did, in fact, deal a death blow to monarchy in Europe, but I'm not convinced that was the intent. I think the fall of monarchies was a kind of bonus for the materialists and secularists and democrats – with the exception of Russia, where the monarchy definitely had to go in order to make room for socialism.

Then we had World War II, which was, in a sense, an old-fashioned war disguised as a war of ideas -- at least in Europe. And the ideational aspect was seriously compromised by the fact that the "democracies" were lined up with one variety of socialism in a fight to the death with another variety of socialism - pragmatism, as usual, taking the upper hand when the going gets tough. The bottom line was that the "democracies" wound up winning in the military sense, but losing in the political sense, while the variety of socialism we favored -- i.e. communism -- came out on top, beyond the wildest dreams of Marx or Lenin (but not of Stalin). The Soviets didn't have to attack Eastern Europe in order to expand their empire; it was handed to them on a silver platter by FDR et al. You might almost say that, at that point, we were more or less indifferent as to the question of democracy vs. socialism -- and you'd be right. And the main reason was that our own democracy had evolved into a kind of hybrid of the two (and remains so to this day, with the weight gradually shifting toward socialism).

But most communist aggression did not involve declarations of war so much as the fomenting of civil wars; even the Korean war and the war in Vietnam can be seen as civil wars of a sort. I don't think there are too many cases since World War II of a communist country actually declaring war on, and attacking, a non-communist country in order to spread communism... which is more than one can say of the purveyors of “democracy” in our time. It is no coincidence, in fact, that Trotsky, who advocated aggressive international communism, and was shoved aside in favor of “communism for one country” (at a time), can count the Neocons among his philosophical descendents.

So the communists, as a rule, tended to operate more through infiltration (social and cultural) and subversion (political) than in an overt military way; certainly all of their efforts to influence this country were of the stealth variety, and they were (and are), in fact, masters of disguise. I mean, if you had told someone, back in 1917, that one of the favored communist instruments of subversion in the United States would be folk music, who would have believed you? Unions, sure... progressives (or what remained of the movement), no problem... art, maybe... literature, certainly... modern dance... but folk music? Please. What would a sober economist like Karl Marx have thought of all that foolishness? But the term “culture wars” was not coined for nothing. It has become clear that any significant political/social movement must be fought on all fronts simultaneously, or it's likely to fail. It becomes, more often than not, an argument as to “which came first” -- the economic and political theories or the social manifestations (as witness the endless arguments about the “significance” of the 1960s). The only reason people get upset when they see the more blatant forms of cultural aggression in the government-funded art world, for example, is that they don't realize that things are just as bad everywhere else as well... but most people fail to notice. You don't like the garbage that's funded and sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts? Good – but have you checked out the public school curriculum lately? Or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? The most frequent mistake the “culture warriors” make is to assume that they have already achieved total victory, and then start parading their accomplishments in a triumphalist manner, like a May Day rally in Pyongyang – at which point they find that, no, there are still a few pockets of resistance, mostly in the benighted hinterlands, and there are voters living in those pockets. Either that or – as I often suspect – these occasional outrages are simply ways in which the waters are tested. When the day dawns when an outrage is not met with resistance, then the culture wars will have been won conclusively, with total surrender of the losing side. Thankfully, we are not at that point quite yet, and it's our job to continue to resist, even in face of overwhelming odds.

But to get back to the other kind of war – the kind most people would actually recognize as war – this has become an extremely rare thing of late, and it has people confused... and has created a proliferation of terminology that, in most cases, does not help matters. Going back to Korea again, it was one half of a country attacking the other half. Sounds like civil war to me, but we jumped into the fray because we had decided that communism was, after all, not that great an idea. I mean, it might have been an OK idea economically, as the New Dealers thought, but it was starting to create political and diplomatic problems, and threatened a lot of vested interests in the economic sector. So it had to go. Or rather, it had to be “contained”. (There were a few people who dreamed of liberating the Iron Curtain countries, but they were shouted down by the voices of pragmatism.) So rather than let South Korea fall to the “reds” -- and how big a loss would that actually have been, anyway? -- we had to jump in and put our economy and thousands of lives on the line, as usual. And for all of our trouble, all we got was a return to the status quo, which persists to this day, much to the irritation of all concerned.

Skipping ahead over a bunch of minor skirmishes, we next arrive in Vietnam, which was a civil war on two levels – North Vietnam vs. South Vietnam, and the South Vietnamese government vs. the Viet Cong. We should have known better than to use that as the place to take our stand... but we didn't. So eventually, after more economic and human sacrifice, we had to leave, and not of our own free will. We had lost a war! Against the communists, no less! (And there had been a more or less soft revolution at home at the same time, not unrelated to the war but having many more long-term consequences.) Now, one would have thought that, as a result of the Vietnam experience, the communists would have taken a new lease on life, pulled out all the stops, and started attacking on all fronts – taking over all of Southeast Asia as well as large chunks of territory elsewhere on the globe. But this didn't happen, and as I've said, this really wasn't their M.O. They much preferred to soften up the battlefield culturally, through propaganda and political activism, before bringing out the weaponry and the concentration camps; it is certainly a slower, but, in the long run, less costly method. Plus, we tend to forget that communism is, first and foremost, a set of ideas – and you don't spread ideas simply through armed conflict. (Again, has our own government learned this lesson? Not that I'm aware.) If you attack and take over a country by force of arms, but fail to change anyone's thinking, it doesn't count, in a way – at least this is the position the communists seem to have held over the years, and this is why their propaganda apparatus was always running in high gear, both at home (in the USSR and China, e.g.) as well as abroad (in the Iron Curtain countries). It was never enough to submit, in other words – you had to learn (through “re-education”) to love your submission... your slavery. You had to, as Orwell put it, learn to love Big Brother. And I would have to comment, on the side, that even the Nazis didn't seem to care as much about this issue as the Soviets did. Third Reich propaganda on the home front was relentless... but in the captured territories (other than the ones inhabited largely by Germans) it was more a matter of pure, raw power; at least that's my impression. I don't recall them winning too many "hearts in minds" in Ukraine, for instance. And when it comes to our case, as exemplified by Iraq and Afghanistan? It actually resembles the Nazi method (raw power) more than the Soviet (hearts and minds), in spite of claims to the contrary. Vietnam, on the other hand, was a bit more of a “hearts and minds” operation, except that it failed miserably due to our ham-handedness.

This is, in fact, the missing element in our attempts to “spread democracy” -- the fact that, at best, we “spread” a sort of skeletal form of democracy (think “inky thumbs”) without trying to actually convince anyone that it's a good idea. In other words, we spread the appearance, and encourage people to take part in the mockery, without approaching it in true cultural warrior style – the way the communists would have, in other words. So the minute we turn our backs, people revert to their old ways, because there are no actual true believers. Of course, how anyone could become a true believer after witnessing some of our actions in the Middle East is beyond me; our habits as occupiers are about the worst advertisement for democracy that can be imagined. What it really amounts to is a kind of protection racket -- “You start acting like a democracy – American-style, that is – and we'll leave. But not a moment sooner!” The problem with this is that they can't start acting like, much less being, a democracy, as long as we're hanging around intimidating everyone and breathing down their necks. So it's a “Catch-22” in our favor – as intended, by the way.

And with that, we finally arrive, bloodied but only semi-bowed, at the Age of Terror, in which we are, once again, fully engaged in other countries' civil wars, with the difference that, this time, those civil wars have spilled over into the nice neighborhoods – namely the U.S. and Europe – the way our own urban troubles did not (as yet). We might have been perfectly happy allowing each Islamic pesthole – er, “sovereign nation” -- to work out its own problems and deal with its countless religious factions, except that somebody decided to – to revert to a phrase from the Vietnam era -- “bring the war home”. And this was because they perceived us as already engaged in their various civil wars, namely by being on the side of the establishment (in most cases), whether an actual monarchy or one in every other respect. And then there was the added irritant of “the infidel” despoiling the holy places... and, finally, the fact that we had declared an eternal inseparability with Israel, the arch-enemy. So it was not enough to confine their efforts within their own borders – they had to do what was, really, the logical thing, and show us, in no uncertain terms, what the real consequences of our actions over the years were. They had to give us a first-hand taste of war, in other words – a taste of which we had no living memory (the most recent case being the Civil War). The targets were us, and our running dogs in Europe and elsewhere that came to be known as the “coalition of the (temporarily) willing”. And it's at this point that the real questions begin – and that our utter confusion begins.

I ask again, how does one read the mind of a “terrorist”, or whatever you want to call him (or her)? To begin with, what do they expect to accomplish by repeatedly attacking their own people – not just troops and police forces but ordinary civilians? Is it, once again, a form of protection racket? And yet the Viet Cong apparently played similar tricks. Maybe it's true that if you terrorize people enough, then promise them an end of terror if they help repel the invader, it really works. But whether it works or not, this is, in fact, their technique, and one we have forced ourselves to deal with. And I think a lot of terrorism is punitive in nature as well. In other words, it's a way of dealing with people who have shown themselves to be “impure” by consorting with the enemy in some way – even the most passive. “If you're not for us (i.e., a die-hard militant), then you're against us.” This seems to be the attitude. So this is one thing we have to deal with, and it is still fairly new to our experience (although it should not have been for Britain, for example, who eagerly followed us into this folly).

So I'm perfectly willing to call many of the attacks that occur within the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan “terrorist” in nature, since they are directed against civilians and have this kind of coercive, blackmail aspect to them. But were the 9/11 attacks, and the ones since in Europe and elsewhere, truly “terrorist” attacks? Or were they acts of war? See, right away we get into this paradox of “what to do with the Guantanamo Bay prisoners”. If they are “terrorists”, then they've done something “illegal” and should be tried in civilian courts. But if they committed, or plotted, “acts of war”, then it's absurd to accuse them of doing something “illegal”; now they're POWs and should be treated as such. But this leads to two other problems. One is that POWs are typically held until the end of the war – but when is this particular war expected to end? The latest word from the Pentagon is: “never” -- or not in our lifetimes, at least, which amounts to the same thing. So are we going to hold these guys until they all die of old age? But the other problem is, perhaps, even more serious. If we admit that these guys are POWs, we are saying that they committed acts of war, which actually serves to legitimize their actions to some extent. In other words, in some great courtroom in the sky where the wisdom of “international law” is meted out, war is still “legal”, whereas “terrorism” is not. You see the problem? And we wonder why Hillary Clinton is looking older with each passing day (and deservedly so, I might add).

Now, I know what the most likely counterargument will be, and that's that these guys are terrorists because they blew up a bunch of innocent civilians in New York City and on some airplanes, and (by and large) a bunch of government workers in Washington. OK... can you say “Dresden”, class? Or how about “Hiroshima”? See, we have adopted a “total war” policy, going back at least as far as the Civil War, as standard procedure, and there's no sense in denying it. We cheerfully kill civilians in order to force governments, and thus militaries, to surrender. And we call that “war”, not “terrorism”. So where do we get off all of a sudden changing the rules? It seems to me that any action taken outside one's own national boundaries constitutes war. Further, even if it's a U.S. citizen attacking other U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, it's still war, if he's doing it on behalf of a foreign government or organization. In other words, it's not terrorism, or treason, or garden-variety violence – it's real war, because it is based on war-like intentions.

Thus, I have simplified the jobs of the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department immensely, with a single stroke, and I anticipate receiving an award, hopefully accompanied by a healthy check, in the mail any day now. Right. There are too many vested interests that want things to stay just as they are – vague, ambiguous, confused, and convoluted. They want us to be able to do anything we like and call it anything we like and get away with it; that's number one. And, they want us to be able to call anything that anyone else does anything we like, and not have to put up with any arguments. It's a war of words as much of anything else. Are they terrorists? Are they war criminals? Are they POWs? Is it a candy mint or a breath mint? These questions just whirl around in an endless maelstrom, with people like Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano, and a gaggle of generals doing the stirring, while Obama looks on with countenance benign (since this stuff is “above my pay grade”).

One thing is for certain, however. We are seeing something that is truly new under the sun – at least in our history. We are seeing people fighting back, on our own sacred soil, against offenses that we didn't even realize we were committing – and still don't, in fact. And we respond to their objections to us having military bases in the Middle East by invading two more Middle Eastern countries – yeah, that'll solve the problem, all right. But it does bring up another point, which is, simply: What do they want us to do? Now, the simplest answer would be to just leave – and this is the answer that caused Rudy Giuliani to burst a blood vessel when Ron Paul suggested it during the presidential debates. And while leaving might not solve everything, it would sure be worth a try. But this, of course, would be entirely unsatisfactory to the Neocons and the Evangelicals, and the rest of the pro-war cabal. As far as they're concerned, no outcome short of grinding the “terrorists” to a fine powder, and their unconditional surrender, is acceptable – which means, whether they realize it or not, that anything short of our remaining in the Middle East as long as our Republic stands is unacceptable. I mean... Islam is a bit older than the American experiment, right? And those people have the long view of things. And they are, as I said, true believers, whereas we're not – at least not in the same way or to the same degree. Their actions are faith-based, whether we like it or not... and ours are idea-based, and showing considerable signs of wear at that.

Now, let me briefly discuss some things that the Islamists most definitely don't want – or at least, they don't care one way or the other. Number one, they don't want to impose sharia law on the United States. OK? But millions of people believe this, and they are, inexplicably, permitted to remain at large and to vote. Islam is not a missionary religion in the sense that we think of missionary work – it spread through armed conflict in the early days, but seems to have been more or less self-contained for quite a while now. This is not to say that Islam is elitist; it welcomes converts from any religious, cultural, ethnic, racial, or geographical background. But I just don't see them going out and looking for converts, much less converting by force like in the old days.

Now, someone's going to say, “But what about...?” And that would refer to all of the ridiculous controversies in Europe, and even a few over here, as to the building of mosques. Well... let me try to explain. Moslems move into a given country or area, and they have a tendency to bring their religious beliefs with them. (This should not be an unfamiliar concept to Americans.) So once there are sufficient numbers of Moslems in a given area, they're likely to crave a place of worship, and hence want to build a mosque. This is not the same as attempting to convert the infidel, or imposing sharia law – although I can easily imagine them wanting to establish certain elements of sharia law within their own numbers. How this works in the context of the larger society with an established legal code is something that would need to be worked out – but think, we even have a similar situation in this country with the Indian reservations. They have legal codes and proceedings within the confines of the reservation that are not always shared by the larger society... and I'm not aware of this being an intractable problem. Or, you have Orthodox Jews in every large city in the U.S. who are subject to the rules of their faith – and even if those rules don't have legal standing, they are certainly powerful controllers of behavior (probably more so than the actual legal code in some cases). So, bottom line, this sharia thing is a bogeyman – as is the threat of a Moslem “takeover”. It's not unlike the old “red scares”, except that the red scares actually had some basis in fact.

So... if they're not trying to convert us, and not trying to impose sharia law on the infidel (which would probably be some form of heresy anyway), then what do they want? My wild, offhand guess is that they want to be left alone – whether we're talking about American Moslems or Moslems in Moslem countries. And they don't want to be judged – let along belittled and made fun of, which it is the perfect right and privilege of the American media to do at every opportunity, no doubt – but it's not helping things any. I remember as a kid that the expression “the poor man of Europe” was still occasionally applied to Turkey. Certainly the Moslems have been pretty much at the bottom of the totem poll of American public opinion for many decades – and let's face it, the antics of the Aga Khan and Ali Khan didn't help much in the old days, and the actions of the various royal families of the Islamic world haven't helped much since then... and the actions of the terrorists, or holy warriors, or whatever you want to call them, aren't helping at present. But see, the Moslems really don't care what anyone thinks of them; they're above all that. In fact, because they are true believers, they fully expect to be hated by the infidel – they relish it, in fact, because it proves their merit. In this sense, they wouldn't have it any other way.

But this, if you will, contrarian attitude on their part brings back the question, do they really want us out of the Middle East? This would seem to be the most obvious and sensible answer... but I'm not so sure. Remember, these are people with crazy long memories and a historical view of things – including, I imagine, anticipating the history of the present era. They are looking to fully restore Moslem dominance in the Middle East – which means, quite simply, getting rid of us and Israel. I don't know how seriously they want to restore the caliphate – and if they do, do they really expect it to stretch from West Africa all the way to Indonesia? Seems unlikely, somehow. But in any case, they would like to be left alone. But aren't they also anxious to extract vengeance on the U.S. and its allies for all past and present offenses? Aren't they still sore about the Crusades, in fact? After all, the European powers left the Middle East under a bit of duress after World War II – but they really didn't suffer enough for their great and many sins against the faithful, did they? And then they turned around and, on their way out the door, set up (with our enthusiastic help) this abomination called “Israel” right in the midst of the Arab world. The Nazis persecuted the Jews, with the result that they wound up on the Arabs' doorstep; it wouldn't be too difficult to see a bit of injustice there. Surely an exquisite, drawn-out punishment is in order for that. So while they would like to get rid of us, they would also like to punish us (which they are currently doing) and teach us a damn good lesson (which they haven't succeeded in doing as yet). The weaker and more drained we are, the less likely we are to interfere in their affairs ever again, right? So some near-term sacrifice – namely keeping us over there while nibbling away at us, crippling our economy, and demoralizing our citizenry – might be in order, and might be part of the plan. Otherwise, why do things that are guaranteed to keep us there? Why keep up the terrorist attacks, for example, when with every new attack some American general or president adds a year or two to the “deadline” for us leaving? Isn't this really a long-term bloodletting exercise? They feel assured of victory in the long run – so why not make us pay as high a price as possible in the meantime? Now again, I can't pretend to even begin getting into these people's heads – but this is what I see happening, based on actual events. They clearly don't want us to simply pack up and leave, or they would declare peace – or at least an armistice. And if they think they can drive us out with terror tactics against the native population... well, that would be a gross misperception of the way we do business, and I think they're smarter than that.

And I should add, as an aside, that I also don't buy the conventional wisdom among contrarians – mostly of the libertarian stripe – that “the terrorists have won” because they've turned the U.S. into a police state. As if they would consider that a bad thing! If anything, they're probably envious. No group on earth is more enamored of police states than the Taliban; we saw this in bold relief when they were running Afghanistan and executing people for watching television. If someone had fallen asleep in Afghanistan under the Taliban, and woken up in North Korea, they would have started their day by drawing in a lungful of the air of freedom.

We also have to ask the impolite question, in who else's interest is it that we stay in the Middle East indefinitely? I would say it's the same people who got us over there in the first place; I call it the cabal: the arms makers, the Neocons, the Evangelicals, and the Israelis. They wanted us over there, and they want us to stay until doomsday – and they collectively dominate and determine everything the government does in the area of foreign policy and military action. So in an ironic sense, their goals are pretty much in synch with those of the terrorists/holy warriors/whatever. (Try that out on Rudy Giuliani! He'd wind up in the bed next to Ariel Sharon.) And the only people who want us to pull back from this fatal folly are a tiny minority within the conservative and/or libertarian contingent – an uneasy alliance (for this purpose at least) that has, probably, less political power than the average Indian tribe.

Now, you'll notice that I haven't mentioned the “tea partiers” in all of this, because, like the Neocons and the mainstream conservatives, they are fully supportive of our “efforts” in the Middle East. They have quaffed deeply of the Neocon/Israeli Kool-Aid, and are not about to do any sort of “cutting and running”. And this, in turn, plays right into the hands of people who not only have no use for their views or values in any other area, but actually despise them and wish them ill. Thus, the bizarre state of things in our time – but if we only blame “terrorists”, and if we assume that history began on September 11, 2001, we gravely miss the point. Not only that, but we insure that our evolution out of this particular era in our history will occur with the maximum of pain.

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