"A War Like None Other"
Richard H. Kohn
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
While the September 11 attack shocked and outraged Americans in its suddenness and destructiveness, it should not have come as a great surprise. The war actually began years ago, declared by Osama bin Laden.
Americans have long been aware of terrorist groups who oppose our foreign policies, despise our political and social values, and espouse a willingness to engage in the mass killing of civilians. Within the last few years, an attempt to destroy the World Trade Center buildings in New York misfired; terrorists have been stopped at our borders; a plot to destroy American airliners over Asia was apparently foiled; and other threats certainly unknown to us have been delayed, disrupted, or aborted. American installations overseas have been attacked: an air base in Saudi Arabia in 1996; our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; the USS Cole last year. In 1999 the United States Commission on National Security/21st Century, established by Congress to review holistically the nation's defense, concluded that "America will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on our homeland" and that "Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers." The very first recommendation in the final report published last March called for "the creation of an independent National Homeland Security Agency." Earlier government reports and much congressional testimony have attested to the essential vulnerability of our economic, cyber, and physical infrastructure.
The surprise was the simplicity of means and the magnitude of the catastrophe. The appalling death and destruction, combined with the prospect of repeats that might be even worse, forced the American government to change strategies and push the struggle to the top of the country's foreign and domestic priorities.
The war metaphor seized so quickly by George W. Bush has a number of important uses. War evokes powerful images and symbols; it reframes understanding and alters expectations. War focuses people's attention, steels determination, forces bipartisanship, justifies expending unlimited resources, and prepares the population for a long, costly, complex campaign that will subordinate American foreign and domestic policy to the struggle, necessitate changes in government organization, and result in some, perhaps substantial, casualties in the armed forces.
The war metaphor focuses on the proper goals: not revenge or retaliation, but the necessity to defeat or wipe out an enemy to prevent future slaughter. No government can stand to absorb an attack of the immensity of September 11 and retain the confidence of its people unless it responds dramatically. Nor could the Bush administration afford to wait indefinitely to act. Another such attack before an American response would have caused irresistible pressure to lash out with a violence that might have alienated world opinion and thwarted the alliances necessary to combat the terrorists.
The war metaphor informs American allies that the country is serious and communicates American resolve. Most importantly, the use of the metaphor warns other governments, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, that the United States is determined, that if they choose not to cooperate there are likely to be important, perhaps even dangerous, consequences for them over the long term. For thirty years the U.S., while not ignoring terrorism, has tried to meet the threat through law enforcement or diplomacy, and has refused to make anti-terrorism a priority of foreign policy. The war metaphor does not simply alter the discourse; it reframes the issues in ways that express the true intent of the government and the American people.
If this really is a war, who are the enemy and what are their goals? What is the cause of the struggle, and what are the United States's war aims? How will the war be fought and how will it end?
Most assuredly the enemy is not terrorism, for that is a strategy, not a state, or a group of people, or even an idea, like communism. Apparently the enemy is a network of mostly Middle Eastern terrorist groups that are to some degree financed, trained, motivated, directed, or coordinated by Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda organization he founded in the late 1980s. Bin Laden claims to want American troops and influence out of Saudi Arabia, and perhaps the entire Middle East. Conceivably his ultimate desire is the toppling of conservative, autocratic regimes throughout the Muslim world and their replacement with purified theocracies that can remake these countries into the radical fundamentalist version of their ideal Islamic society. Clearly globalization, market capitalism, political democracy, secularism, and the western (particularly American) popular culture flooding the globe, along with such social norms as gender equality, threaten longstanding values espoused by a group like the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda's current host government. Perhaps the attack aimed to provoke a reaction that would feed bin Laden's popularity in Islamic countries, even kindle a war between Islam and the West so that bin Laden's networks could unify the Muslim world in a holy war that could catapult them to power.
The American goal is protecting the United States, hopefully without undermining those foreign policies that promote American interests in various areas of the world. Simple protection requires new defenses (and perhaps legal measures) at home combined with the destruction of terrorist groups that threaten our homeland but harmonizing a military offensive with diplomacy, financial pressure, law enforcement, and propaganda in such a way as to avoid inflaming Muslim opinion against the West. The problem is that these groups lack a center of gravity: places or individuals whose elimination would spell victory for the United States and prevent further attacks. Apparently terrorists and their sponsors have been training succeeding generations in schools in Pakistan and elsewhere for some time. American military power has long concentrated on weapons and forces designed to destroy an enemy's military forces and the political, social, psychological, and economic infrastructure that supports them. Tailored, measured, proportionate force, or even the use of proxy forces the intelligence services, legal institutions, and armed services of allies may not eliminate terrorism directed against the United States. The struggle is triangular: America and friends against shadowy terrorist groups, in contest for sympathy and support in Muslim populations stretching from North Africa to Indonesia. As long as terrorism can recruit adherents willing to commit suicide, and use hatred of America to rally the street to try to overthrow governments in the Islamic world, the threat will persist.
For these reasons this war is likely to differ from any the United States has fought in its history. Like the Cold War, it has begun almost imperceptibly over time, and may end not suddenly but gradually, as these groups are disrupted, forced onto the defensive, or destroyed, and their successors dissuaded from continuing the struggle.
There promises to be no large-scale mobilization of people or resources save some increased, and reallocated, government spending. Indeed the Administration told Americans not to sacrifice or scale back but to go back to normal: travel, buy, spend, recreate, and return as much as possible to "business as usual." The Bush administration seems unconcerned about deficit spending or inflation, both of which normally accompany war. Instead of a wartime boom, September 11 has thrown the economy into a contraction, one that may last just as long as terrorist attacks and general uncertainty depress consumer confidence.
Except for the creation of a homeland defense organization of some kind, there seems little prospect of a massive government reorganization as in previous conflicts. Even the attack on civil liberties that normally tarnishes American wars has been so far limited, as the Administration has acted to combat the upsurge of racism and "othering" arising out of the identification of the enemy with a particular religion and set of ethnic and national groups. Likewise left and right in Congress have joined to oppose the harsher proposals of the Justice Department to expand government powers in the areas of privacy, detention, and immigration control.
The greatest change in the near term is to American foreign policy, as every relationship is subordinated to the fight against terrorist groups. The Bush administration gives every sign of wanting to attack governments that harbor or cooperate with those terrorists who have attacked or intend to attack us, unless these governments stop providing aid or asylum.
Just how much the war will realign the United States's relationship with the rest of the world will depend on the course and duration of the struggle. The longer it goes on, and the more bin Laden and his allies wreak death and destruction on the United States, the more lasting and transforming the effects.
The same will be true at home. Although the tragedy in New York and Washington shocked and outraged the nation, and will undoubtedly leave lifelong emotional scars, the changes of these last few weeks may not recast the country's basic institutions and way of life. But if onslaughts anywhere near the magnitude of September 11 reoccur over time, then American civil liberties, immigration policies, racial tolerance, public institutions, and the very sense of optimism and autonomy that have infused the American spirit for much of our history, will come under great strain.
The military dimensions of the conflict will also differ from typical wars. Combat will be episodic and fought alongside allies in those countries, like Afghanistan, that openly harbor al-Qaeda or refuse to move against it inside their own borders. It will be war without "fronts" because the actual enemy is small in numbers, stateless, and scattered. The destruction of things will be less effective than the killing or capture of individuals and the forcing of countries to stop harboring or aiding groups that are recruiting, training, and launching terror. Economic, legal, political, diplomatic, and psychological efforts against these groups will precede military force and perhaps render it unnecessary. The administration might go after Saddam Hussein, but at the risk of fracturing the coalition and inflaming anti-Americanism elsewhere in the Muslim world, unless there is direct evidence linking Iraq to September 11 or subsequent attacks, or indications that Iraq is planning to attack us warning that can be shared with the world. If the violence we ourselves unleash kills numbers of innocent people or seems excessive in scale and scope, we will be recruiting new terrorists. We will need to isolate these fanatical and extremist groups from the people of the Muslim world who reject violence and have no connection to terrorism. The United States must take care not to act or appear to be the dominating, domineering, arrogant, rogue predator these groups accuse it of being.
The challenge for Americans in what may be a long, tedious, dangerous, and mostly covert struggle will be to recognize our essential vulnerability, remain calm, remember the goal, and understand that strategy and methods will differ from other wars. Abroad we need to eradicate this enemy in such a manner as not to increase its strength. At home we need to conserve our institutions, maintain our morale, and champion the liberties we seek to protect. Our government will have to restrain itself even under great public pressure from military operations that will not further our goals or internal security measures that violate our ideals. And the American people will have to exhibit a patience they have not always demonstrated in previous warmaking experiences.
Richard H. Kohn is professor of history and chair of the Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Most recently, he co-edited Soldiers and Civilians: The Civil-Military Gap and American National Security (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001).