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Victor Davis Hanson
Postmodern War
Weaker enemies have learned to use our strengths against us. This time, they’ll lose.
Winter 2005

It is still suicidal to meet the United States in a conventional war—at least for any enemy that has not fully adopted Western arms, discipline, logistics, and military organization. The recent abrupt collapse of both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s regime amply proves the folly of fighting America in direct conflicts. The military dynamism that enables the United States to intervene militarily in the Middle East—in a manner in which even the richest Middle Eastern countries could not intervene in North America—is not an accident of geography or a reflection of genes, but a result of culture. Our classical Western approaches to politics, religion, and economics—including consensual government, free markets, secularism, a strong middle class, and individual freedom—eventually translate on the battlefield into better-equipped, motivated, disciplined, and supported soldiers.

To an American television audience, al-Qaida videos of pajama-clad killers in ski masks beheading captives look scary, of course. But a platoon of Rangers would slaughter hundreds of them in seconds if they ever approached Americans openly on the field of conventional battle or even for brief moments of clear firing. In Mogadishu, Somalia, everything boded ill for a few trapped Americans—outnumbered, far from home, facing local hostility in urban warfare—and yet the real lesson was not that a few Americans were tragically killed, but that the modern successors to Xenophon’s Ten Thousand or the Redcoats at Rorke’s Drift managed to shoot their way out and kill over 1,000 in the process.

Nevertheless, the numerous setbacks of Western armies from Thermopylae to Vietnam prove that there are several ways to nullify these military advantages, both on conventional and irregular battlefields. The question is: Are such historical precedents still relevant to the modern age?

From early times, enemies have obtained superficial parity by a sort of military parasitism—by buying, stealing, or cloning Western weaponry. The galleys and guns of the Ottoman forces at Lepanto without exception were copies of Venetian designs, for example, as was the Turkish arsenal itself at Constantinople. In 1850, Japan had virtually no munitions industry, no oceanic fleet, and no organized naval corps; by 1905, its ships were among the best in the world and soundly defeated a Russian armada— but only after tens of thousands of Japanese students for a half century had studied at European universities and military academies. From Europe, the Japanese had systematically imported everything from Western notions of command to advanced optics and metallurgy.

Today, China is a similar example. Like the Ottomans and the nineteenth-century Japanese, the Chinese military believes that it can either purchase or steal Western computer, aeronautical, and nuclear technology—while skipping bothersome Western notions like democracy and free speech—in order to obtain military parity with the United States. The Arab world too has sought to match Israel with MiGs, Scuds, SAMs, and RPGs—technology that it could neither design nor fabricate, but that it believed could give its autocracies the ability to destroy a democratic, highly sophisticated Jewish state all the same. Every rocket-propelled grenade that kills an American in the Sunni Triangle is either imported from the West or fabricated in the region according to Western blueprints and designs.

Yet in the long run, such imported technological expertise cannot be maintained, constantly improved, or used to its optimum potential without free citizens, secular universities, transparent government, and open inquiry. These intangible values and concrete institutions are the real engines that drive the modern Western ability to field high-tech arms and disciplined soldiers in the first place. For all the worry about weapons of mass destruction, neither Iran, nor North Korea, nor Libya, despite the purchased veneer of a sophisticated military, could ever defeat a militarily serious Western state of comparable size unless it underwent radical social and cultural democratic reform—which ironically might then deprive it of any impulse to attack the West in the first place.

In an age of germs, gas, and nukes, however, the ultimate nightmare of present-day military parasitism is not that terrorists or autocrats could defeat or destroy the West in a sustained conventional or nuclear war. The concern, rather, is that enemies could inflict enough damage in a moment of complacency and laxity here at home to kill tens of thousands of U.S. civilians through a single strike—or at least blackmail us by offering proof of the ability to do precisely that.

Given the present lethality of modern weapons, a hostile state or terrorist clique can obtain an odd sort of parity with Western militaries, even though its aggregate arsenal is not equivalent to the West’s: al-Qaida or Iran cannot fabricate or purchase B-2 bombers but might nonetheless obtain a nuclear weapon. And because these extremists profess to be willing to lose thousands or even an entire country to take out the center of New York, negotiations and concessions would follow that did not reflect the actual relative military strength of the two belligerents. No civilization can exist for long with a series of 9/11-like attacks that destroy its icons of financial and military power, and in a few seconds inflict a trillion dollars of economic damage.

There are other ways to check Western advantage besides achieving such superficial arms parity. Western powers can be turned against one another through outside invitation or bribery, or by fanning rivalries over perceived self-interest—and such conflicts could aid an otherwise weaker adversary. Thankfully, out-and-out fratricide is rarer these days, because the spread of Western democracy tends to discourage consensual governments from attacking one another in the way that Sparta fought Athens or Europe tore itself apart during the twentieth century. Should Syria or the Palestinians ever develop a full-fledged democracy analogous to Israel’s, problems over borders more likely would be adjudicated peacefully rather than through conventional wars or terrorism.

But while it is highly unlikely that the full array of Western military advantages could be turned against itself, what is far more plausible is something like the lead-up to the 2003 Iraqi war. Saddam expended ill-gotten billions to encourage France, Germany, and Russia to restrain the U.S. through a UN veto—hoping to achieve a diplomatic triangulation similar to the United States’s forcing the cancellation of the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Suez in 1956.

More usual, however, than this state-to-state check on Western military operations is the hindrance that comes from internal dissent. Given that Westerners are usually more liberal, consensual, and affluent than their adversaries, they are sometimes slow to risk peace and prosperity to prepare for, much less preempt, distant dangers on the horizon. Civilian audit brings military dividends in the long run by forcing officers to render constant accounts of their decisions and face consequences for their blunders. Nevertheless, these same democratic citizenries often hesitate in peacetime to make needed sacrifices—think of the classical Athenians’ acrimony over Themistocles’ peacetime diversion of income from the Athenian silver mines to craft an Athenian fleet that would later destroy Xerxes’ armada, or the narrow approval of an American draft by a single vote on the eve of World War II. Much of the American weaponry used today in the war against terror was authorized only by narrow margins and subject to great acrimony during the senatorial debates over the controversial Reagan-era buildup in hopes of reestablishing credible deterrence against the Soviet Union.

Thus a weaker enemy can hope to persuade or frighten a majority of its adversary’s citizens to reject the war party, and to come to its terms or simply quit, by such means as the rather crude Soviet Union propaganda efforts in the cold war or by appealing to deep-seated Western pacifism. More recently, terrorists have grasped that the enormous wealth and privilege of Western society in the postwar half century have convinced many Americans and Europeans that avoiding war altogether, rather than preparedness and deterrence, is critical to maintaining their present tranquillity. Usama bin Ladin’s own fatwas invoke America’s purported inability to take casualties, while Saddam Hussein stockpiled morale-boosting DVD copies of Black Hawk Down, on the logic that the movie showed how irregulars in block-to-block fighting might force conventional American troops to go home by shattering their leaders’ morale.

Precisely because terrorists believe that life is awfully good in the West (and relatively less so in their own environs), they compute success by a different, asymmetrical arithmetic: killing a few of us, even if it means losing a lot of their own, is what brings victory—withdrawal of American forces under waves of media carping and popular outcry. Bin Ladin, Saddam’s remnants, and the like all believe that there is a magical and relatively small number of fatalities—600? 1,000? 4,000?—in any one campaign beyond which Americans will conclude that fights like those in Afghanistan and Iraq simply are not worth the effort and anguish. And they may well be right. Who, after all, wants to raise a son in the San Jose suburbs, with a B.A. from UCLA, to die in the filthy streets of Sadr City seeking to bring democracy to tribal fundamentalists?

Thus many Americans conclude that the short-term and daily televised costs of pacifying Iraq add up to a grave moral and political mistake. They resent the immediate suffering involved in the long-term goal of changing the landscape of the Middle East to end terrorism sponsored or tolerated by petroleum-funded Arab autocrats who, at least in public, blame the Americans for their own glaring political and economic failures. Such aims might make long-term moral and political sense, but when CNN or NPR interviews an amputee maimed by an improvised explosive device, it is hard for 300 million other Americans not to think that his misery was preventable—or might just as easily have befallen their own children or spouses. Like the British and Israeli public who tired of war when hundreds of innocents were blown apart in Belfast and Jerusalem, the American citizenry feels that it cannot withdraw and yet cannot quite stay either. In the terrorists’ logic, each explosion is intended not to destroy incrementally the U.S. military—that task is impossible—but to lower its morale and, more important, to convince the suburbanite back home that the carnage on his screen is his to stop.

So besides military parasitism and the checks and balances inherent in a consensual society, there is yet another means of countering Western military advantage: what we might loosely call the perceptions of asymmetrical conflict, also called “irregular” or “fourth-dimensional” warfare. Such militarily inferior forces—often not nation-states, as al-Qaida and the Iraqi terrorists demonstrate—prefer terrorism, assassination, and bombings to nullify Western military power. What we see as uncontestable strength—plentiful hardware, massive firepower—they seek to turn into weakness. Perceived underdogs in the shadow of this overwhelming military superiority, they also enjoy the satisfaction of besting their betters, as well as of hurting or killing someone to whom life has been immeasurably more kind—and therefore perceived as more dear. Taking out an Abrams tank or an Apache helicopter, whatever the cost in insurgent lives, sends a message that the illiterate and ill-equipped can, like David, take down Goliath.

And because asymmetrical warfare is inherently political, victory often entails merely hurting rather than defeating a superior enemy—to the applause of local civilian bystanders, who may cringe at their terrorist brethren’s methods and aims but nonetheless still enjoy a little blood sport from time to time, especially if those dying are rich, haughty, and occupying Americans, restrained by the Geneva convention and their own scruples in their retaliation.

This one-sided fighting has one prerequisite: the terrorist avoids open identification with any conventional military target or supportive infrastructure subject to Western military reappraisal. Slobodan Milošević ’s fatal error was that the world finally concluded that his goons in Bosnia and Kosovo really were slaughtering on his orders. Thus the people of Belgrade could legitimately be held responsible for their rogue leader’s sponsorship of genocide. And when they were held responsible—when precise GPS targeting, rather than random carpet bombing of civilians, took out vital infrastructure and sent the message that “life will be more difficult until you hand over Milošević ”—the killing stopped. If the West finds an easily identifiable target and its selection passes moral muster back home, then it can often attack with little constraint.

Historically, there has been a wide variety of ways of conducting wars in the “wrong place at the wrong time against the wrong enemy”—asymmetrical conflicts that have nevertheless led to Western victory. Given that the West often feels constrained from using its full array of military power—increasingly so in the present age of instant global communications—there has emerged a now time-honored four-part strategy: hunting down insurgents with lighter, highly trained commandos; creating local militias and providing them both status and high-profile public exposure; offering a political and economic alternative that promises visible and rapid improvement in the quality of life; and sealing borders to ensure that outside volunteers and supplies, whether in Korea, Vietnam, or present-day Iraq, do not swell insurgent ranks.

In the context of Iraq, the United States has been adept at killing terrorists, moderately successful in promoting freedom and material improvement, tardy in its efforts to create an Iraqi national army to spearhead security and earn the respect of fellow Iraqis, and mostly unsuccessful in preventing Saudis, Iranians, Jordanians, and Syrians from flowing into Iraq. Yet whenever all of these four requisites have not been met, failure has usually followed, despite overwhelming firepower—as for example in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the Soviets indiscriminately slaughtered civilians, sought to impose an autocratic and foreign atheism on a deeply tribal and religious people, and were unsuccessful in isolating and killing the mujahideen, much less stopping the importation of jihadists and sophisticated weapons from Pakistan.

Israel, in contrast, has been more successful in hunting down Hamas terrorists, often careful to focus attacks on killers while sparing civilians, but abjectly unsuccessful in either cutting off money and weapons from Europe and the Arab world or convincing the Palestinians that Israel offers a political solution preferable to their own current misery. And so the mess continues, and the war becomes the focus of great controversy inside Israel, as tactical victories do not turn into strategic successes: either the Israelis must stop the money and munitions from getting to the terrorists and craft some sort of autonomous democratic government on the West Bank, or forgo limited war altogether and consider the struggle a conventional fight, with no restraints on the full use of its overwhelming Western arsenal.

Americans and most Westerners know how to achieve success in an Afghanistan and understand what led to failure in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia. But as the recent Iraqi experience suggests, new factors have constrained Western militaries even further in conducting irregular wars in the twenty-first century. Moreover, the terrorists are keenly sensitive to the ever-changing nature of war and feel the combination of globalization and postmodern thought has given them an advantage in the present cycle of unending challenge and response.

First, it is now a cliché that cell phones, the Internet, and 24-hour cable news with live battlefield feeds can distort the pulse of war, presenting sensational and sometimes one-sided imagery of violence without offering much tactical or strategic explanation. The usual response to watching a young man fall dead in the street before a live camera is not to ask who killed him and why, but rather to focus solely on the mayhem and understand it as emblematic of the futility of war in general and in particular the culpability of a stronger, bullying United States for conducting such operations. Thus a teenager with an RPG who is shot down can do more damage to the U.S. effort by dying on global television than he ever could by hitting an American Humvee.

Second, the rise of the therapeutic culture, coupled with the marvels of modern medicine and technology, promises that it is our birthright to have perpetual youth, good looks, longevity, peace of mind, and lives free of sacrifice and danger. Multicultural tolerance and utopian pacifism imagine that old grievances that threaten our present tranquillity and affluence belong to a prior age, a primeval time before conflict-resolution theory and the UN convinced us that disagreement was not a result of evil actions or incompatible worldviews, but more likely of misunderstanding and thus capable of remedy through dialogue and reason.

In such a perfect storm of sophisticated global communications and therapeutic culture, soldiers who feel a mission is too risky can phone or e-mail home to complain to their parents 7,000 miles away. A concerned mom can then contact local media in hopes that officers in Iraq learn about the insubordination only after 10 million Americans have first seen it interpreted by telejournalists in two-minute sound bites. Our insensitive grandparents would call such machinations mutiny. We in our wisdom are more likely to deem them misunderstandings or even legitimate grievances.

Third, terrorists are ever more politically savvy about Western society, sophisticated enough to time attacks in Madrid or in Iraq so as to discourage suburban Spanish or American voters with images of limbs in the street or heads rolling on a prayer carpet. In like manner, a webpage, a single university professor, and a “human rights” group based in London can all report wholesale civilian casualties, the more sensational the better, without much information about how they came up with such numbers, in hopes that Westerners will not just worry about losing their own, but decry their troops’ killing of others.

In short, today’s Western soldier must accept not just the burden that he has far more to lose—material pleasure, affluence, and a culturally based sense of individual worth—than his adversary, not just that his death or injury will be seen as argument against his mission, not just that his very conversation may be filmed and recorded for political purposes, but also that his killing of those trying to kill him will be used to denigrate both his mission and his morality.

Unlike Americans conducting counterinsurgency in Vietnam, today’s soldiers in Iraq must not only win hearts and minds, be extremely discriminating in separating civilians from terrorist killers, keep out foreign reinforcements and aid, but also do all that in a way that convinces the voter back home that they are more peacekeepers than warriors, and kill only in self-defense.

Can the United States conduct warfare under such restrictions? In the cold war, conventional doctrine held that the fear of mutual assured destruction would forever circumscribe escalation beyond the conventional battlefield. But in our postmodern age, the West’s own cultural, humanitarian, and political inhibitions about war-making have proved just as powerful constraints as nuclear Armageddon. Our parents feared Soviet nuclear retaliation if we intervened abroad; we limit our options out of fear of the anger of Germany, France, or the UN. Or so we profess in times of relative peace.

Yet lost in all this confusion is the recognition that the essence of war remains unchanged—the use of force to eliminate an adversary, coerce an opponent to alter his behavior, or prevent annihilation. Technology, modern social theory, the ease and luxury of the West—these are simply the delivery systems that change with the ages, but do not alter or affect the substance of conflict. In our present context, all our concern about American combat casualties would vanish should there be another mass murder similar to 9/11. Like ancient man, postmodern man is hardwired to survive, and thus really will use his full arsenal when faced with the alternative of extinction. Should we lose the stock exchange or the White House, there would be almost no calls for restraint against states that harbored or aided the perpetrators, on the logic that every terrorist must sleep, eat, and use an ATM card somewhere.

But what about the far more likely scenario of guerrilla wars and counterinsurgency? In such lesser conflicts, the human desire for victory still trumps most other considerations. The hysteria over the Iraqi war in the 2004 election did not really result from a failure to find weapons of mass destruction or to publicize a clear link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. These were issues raised after the fact for political purposes during a campaign that happened to coincide with a change in American perceptions as the war’s rocky aftermath unfolded. After all, on the eve of the invasion over 65 percent of Americans supported the war, and three weeks later, when Saddam’s statue fell, support was nearing 70 percent. The current depressing debate about preemption, allies, WMD, and al-Qaida ties originated in the subsequent inability of the United States to project a sense of absolute victory in the postbellum occupation, as looting led to terrorist reprisals, an insurgency, and televised beheadings.

It would have been extremely messy to have shot the first 400 looters who began a cascading riot that ruined $13 billion in Iraqi infrastructure. Storming rather than pulling back from Fallujah in April 2004 would have offended the press, the professors, and the Europeans. Arresting or killing Moqtada al-Sadr in June 2003 might have angered the Arab world and invited parlor debate among the mandarins back home, but such measures also would have shown ironclad American resolve and eventually would have impressed even our enemies.

The key in irregular, as in conventional, war remains the will to win. That’s why it was simplistic to suggest in the 2004 campaign that John Kerry was a “flip-flopper,” as if he altered positions solely because of changes of heart. In fact, his support for, or criticism of, the war hinged entirely on the pulse of the battlefield. Winning in Iraq made him shed his Howard Dean pacifism; seeing American inability to put down insurgents turned him back into a war critic. And at times, even our war leaders seemed to overlook this simple and depressing facet of human nature: for all their care to hit only terrorists, to supply money and aid, and to work with the Iraqis, they forgot the one requisite for success—the overarching aim to win at all costs.

Victory always sways the heart even of the most ardent pacifist, just as defeat and humiliation erode the will of the most zealous hawk—although it is hard to confess that most humans still think with the most primitive part of their brains. Amid all the glitter of contemporary culture and technology, the will to fight for victory remains crucial to battlefield success, an odious thought for us postmodern children of the Enlightenment, who feel we should be exempt—as too wealthy, educated, or sophisticated—ever to have to descend to the primeval swamp to destroy bin Ladin and his ilk to ensure our survival. But bin Ladin’s October infomercial mentioned truces and respites, not out of tender concern for the West, but because bin Ladin is beginning to feel, like al-Sadr, that he is going to lose.

Modern Western man is faced with this awful dilemma, from which he recoils: real peace and successful reconstruction are in direct proportion to the degree that an enemy is humiliatingly defeated and so acknowledges it—the aim being that he will come to feel that he cannot go on being what he has been. To that end, absolute victory may encompass everything from Hiroshima to bombing downtown Belgrade as the price for tranquillity and a democratic and humane postbellum Japan and the Balkans. Not finishing off a defeated Republican Guard in 1991 or sparing looters in April 2003 or breaking off the siege of Fallujah in April 2004 only ensures that more corpses will pile up later. President Bush’s so-called Axis of Evil in 2002—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—all had in common unfinished business with the U.S. military that had led to a bellum interruptum of sorts. In contrast, the Grenada communists, Noriega, Milošević , and the Taliban were all defeated, and only after that were their societies rebuilt—and thus Grenada, Panama, Serbia, and Afghanistan now do not belong to the axis of anything. Perhaps for all the debate over how to fight irregular wars in an age of global terrorism, we would do best to recall the realistic, if inelegant, words of the owner of the Oakland Raiders, the infamous Al Davis: “Just win, baby.”

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