Terrorism And Absolute War

Ralph Kinney Bennett has an exceptionally provocative piece on the use of civilians as a weapon by terrorist groups like Hizb’Allah. He observes:

Those who have visited any Hezbollah installation in Lebanon over the years always remark on the fact that there are always families, women and children, in and around the place. “Secret” installations are usually hidden in plain site — in houses or apartment buildings.

Seldom, if ever, has a guerrilla movement been able to so openly and exquisitely weave itself into the fabric of a society as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon.

If the civilians in and around these operational bases happen to be of Hezbollah’s own brand of Islam they automatically become a part of the “sacrificial,” suicidal equation. Often without choice or foreknowledge, they die an “honorable” death in the battle against infidels or apostates.

If the civilians happen to be of some other persuasion, Islamic or otherwise, their deaths are not even worth a shrug. However, these mangled bodies and wailing women with arms outstretched do provide an immense propaganda payoff, especially in the Western “crusader” media — which still places a quaint value on human life.

Terrorists are different from combatants precisely because they very deliberately involve civilians in warfare. There has always been an understood “warriors code” that discriminates between non-combatant and combatant populations in conflicts – this is one of the bedrock principles in Just War Theory, and even the great Muslim general Saladin allowed free passage and amnesty for non-combatant Christians during the Crusades. Terrorists like members of Hizb’Allah or al-Qaeda do not have such scruples. As Bennett observes, there is no delineation made between non-combatants and combatant forces. In bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa against the West he states:

The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it… (emphasis mine)

Al-Qaeda’s view of warfare is somewhat similar to the concept of total war. In fact, what bin Laden is truly seeking is something even more forceful: absolute war – a war in which every part of society is dedicated towards the war effort. Von Clauswitz argued that the concept of absolute war was impossible – there would always be some moderating influence in society.

However, radical Islam divides the world into Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb – the House of Islam and the House of War. It is believed that every Muslim’s divinely-mandated spiritual duty is to bring all of humanity into the fold of Islam or destroy them. The terms of such a belief are innately totalitarian – the term “Islam” literally means “submission” and the radical school of thought represented by the radical Salafists, Wahhabists, and followers of Qutb take that literal meaning to its extreme.

The postmodern way of war is in many ways an utter betrayal of Clausewitz. Paul Mirengoff made and interesting remark on Power Line that reveals a salient point about today’s postmodern school of war in regards to the current Israel/Hizb’Allah conflict:

The current fighting in the Middle East has put the American left, and other accommodationists, in a difficult position. Ordinary Americans of all political persuasions understand that a terrorist organization that has killed Americans is attacking one of our allies. Accordingly, most of the Bush-haters I know, Jew and non-Jew, see no reason to stand in the way of an Israeli response that offers the possibility of inflicting a complete defeat on Hezbollah.

But such a response, and perhaps the very concept of completely defeating an enemy, is foreign to the thinking of sophisticated liberals. Thus, a middle ground had to be staked out, and the liberal elite found such ground in the form of their favorite notion — the martial time-table. Thus, Israel would be given a few weeks to try to inflict enough damage on Hezbollah to prevent future bombing of its cities and towns. After that, regardless of its degree of success, Israel would cease hostilities and turn responsibility for protecting its security over to the U.N., NATO, the Lebanese government, or some combination thereof.

The concept of fighting a war for a limited, pre-established duration is, to put it gently, a post-modern one. Prior to the left’s call for a time-table in Iraq, I’m not aware of any precedent for this peculiar approach to warfare. So it is fair to ask, what are the reasons why Israel should be allowed only a few weeks to finish a military operation it initiated in order to prevent its citizens from being bombed by an enemy committed to Israel’s destruction?

Mirengoff is right. The idea that warfare can be accomplished on a set timetable is ridiculous. As the old saying goes, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. It is impossible to say that a war must only continue for X amount of time – the goal of warfare isn’t to inflict a certain amount of damage in a given period of time, it’s to prevent the enemy from continuing the war. In short, the problem that postmodern thinkers have with war is that it’s decidedly against the values of postmodern thinking. In war, in order to be successful, someone must lose.

A war half-finished is a dangerous thing, it ensures future conflicts – often more deadly than the first. The only way that we can prevent the specter of Islamic terrorism from shadowing us for decades is to defeat the Islamic terrorist movement. That means utterly and completely crushing them. That means making it very clear that particular form of virulent Islam is a guaranteed ticket to a futile death. The concept that “violence begets violence” is not at all true – if it were wars would always be futile, and civilization would have collapsed decades ago. What history teaches us, and what military thinkers from Sun T’zu and Clausewitz on down remind us, is that the only way to end a war for the long term is to be victorious against the enemy.

That means that our will must be greater than that of our enemies. It means we’re in a long and protracted campaign in which the cowardly and disgusting tactics of our enemy guarantee a higher number of civilian casualties than we’d like. That means that states like Syria and Iran cannot be left to fester. That means that the United States will have to continue to sacrifice more blood and treasure in order to ensure that the next terrorist attack doesn’t involve the destruction of a city and the death of millions.

The reality is that if we truly value peace, we must realize that the only peace we will have is the peace that can only be obtained through victory. Everything else is illusory. Our enemy is fighting the closest thing to absolute war against us that we’ve seen – they’re not liable to hold back anything against us. If they obtain weapons of mass destruction the results could be apocalyptic. We have never faced an enemy so unconstrained by basic concerns of humanitarianism, and if we ensure that such tactics become entirely futile, we may never again. This war won’t be won on a timetable, nor will it be won cheaply, nor will it leave innocents unscathed. However, those who think war too brutal should consider the consequences – what if millennia of Just War tradition were replaced with the radical Islamist’s view of radical war? What if the use of civilians as a weapon continues to gain currency, and the current pattern of escalation into ever-more-daring acts of terrorism continues? What would our world look like then?

The reason why war exists is because sometimes it’s better than the alternatives.

UPDATE: Here is something else to consider:

Democracies are particularly vulnerable to losing “protracted conflicts against irregular foes.” He cites Gil Merom’s observation that “democracies fail in small wars because they find it extremely difficult to escalate the level of violence and brutality to that which can secure victory.”

Sadly, that may well be right…

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