War on an idea

The Washington Post has the first articulate explanation I’ve seen for declaring war on “terror.” I don’t agree with the explanation, but at least I understand it.
Caleb Carr, a professor of military history, describes terrorism in the same category as slavery and piracy — practices that were once common, but have been rendered unacceptable.

It’s true that both slavery and piracy are still practiced, but only in remote corners of the world; certainly genocide is still with us, but its employment is now cause for immediate sanction and forceful reaction (theoretically, at any rate) by the United Nations. Banning such tactics and actively stamping out their practice has been the work of some of the great political and military minds and leaders of the past two centuries. Now it is time — past time, really — for terrorism to take its place as a similarly proscribed and anachronistic practice.”

The trouble with this argument is a Robbean one. Guerrilla warfare is an ancient tactic used by rebels to fight more powerful foes, using tactics of sabotage, assassination, and terror. Contemporary terrorists are fighting guerrilla wars, using modern techniques of organizing networks, and disrupting modern infrastructure.
Slavery and piracy could be banned because they were mainstream. They were practiced by states, which could be persuaded or compelled to obey laws. In England, abolitionists used political persuasion to outslaw slavery. The US fought a civil war, and the slave states were defeated. Piracy was once a common technique of interstate warfare and extralegal taxation (see wikipedia on Privateering. In the mid-1800s, nations signed treaties to ban privateering, and the tactic faded away. Meanwhile, criminal piracy appears to be on the increase.
Guerrilla groups behave the way they do because they cast themselves as outsiders. They don’t have empathy for the civilians of the enemy, so abolitionist-style appeals to morality won’t work. They’re using military tactics that are effective when you don’t have access to an army.
Carr damns explanations of guerrilla tactics as misplaced moral relativism. But you don’t have to sympathize with rebel groups, or morally justify killing civilians, in order to see that these tactics can be perceived as a rational way of fighting a war, for groups who see enemy civilians as infidels or occupiers.
It is possible to defeat particular guerrilla groups. But you can’t just dissuade groups who see themselves as outsiders from using the the tactics available to them. Some argue that terrorist tactics are a sign of desperation. Some groups may be desperate. Others are just calculating and smart. It is a very efficient way of using minimal resources to create maximum damage and distress to an enemy.
Terrorist groups aren’t states that will sign treaties and then abide by them. Getting involved in every guerrilla war on the planet is a way of ensuring perpetual warfare, and creating more enemies.
The September 11 commission suggests that we should give up trying to fight a war against a tactic, and should instead focus our efforts against Islamic militants, especially Al Qaeda, who have declared war on us.
Carr thinks that this will confuse Muslims, who will believe that we’re fighting a Crusade, in the medieval sense. I think this is bogus. If we don’t actually declare that we’re fighting a Crusade, and don’t make as if to invade and occupy
multiple Muslim nations, most Muslims will understand that we’re fighting particular groups of radicals.
I think the September 11 recommendation is sensible. Identify and defeat an enemy that has declared war on us. Build alliances around the world to help defeat a global network.
But the US shouldn’t storm into every guerrilla conflict from South America to South Asia, just because a given group of outsiders decides to bomb a power plant or a restaurant.

2 thoughts on “War on an idea”

  1. More problematic than guerrilla groups/terrorists being outsiders is that in all the recent cases I can think of, they’re also fanatics. Timothy McVeigh, Aum Shinrikyo, Al Qaeda, and the bandits in Iraq right now (by which I mean the bandits on the other side, not our side, of course). This has a number of troublesome ramifications:
    1. Even if you could find someone to negotiate with, they’re not disposed to compromise;
    2. Losses of friendlies are acceptable as long as you are achieving your goal;
    3. Because the goals are absolutes, they’re unreachable, therefore permanent war (or whatever you call it).

  2. More problematic than guerrilla groups/terrorists being outsiders is that in all the recent cases I can think of, they’re also fanatics. Timothy McVeigh, Aum Shinrikyo, Al Qaeda, and the bandits in Iraq right now (by which I mean the bandits on the other side, not our side, of course). This has a number of troublesome ramifications:
    1. Even if you could find someone to negotiate with, they’re not disposed to compromise;
    2. Losses of friendlies are acceptable as long as you are achieving your goal;
    3. Because the goals are absolutes, they’re unreachable, therefore permanent war (or whatever you call it).

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