by Barry Edelson
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The War for Civilization

A Different Inconvenient Truth



"What kind of a people do they think we are? Is it possible they do not realize that we will never cease to persevere against them until they have been taught a lesson which they and the world will never forget?"
— Winston Churchill, Address to the U.S. Congress, December 26, 1941

When Winston Churchill spoke these words shortly after the American entrance into World War II, Great Britain had already endured losses for the better part of two years that by today's squeamish Western standards would be practically unimaginable. Nowadays, the murder of a mere handful of innocents shocks civilized nations to their cores and undercuts our complacent notions of our comfortable lives. By comparison, between the spring of 1940 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, German aerial bombardment of English cities and the sinking of naval and merchant ships in the North Atlantic had killed more people and destroyed more property nearly every week than have been lost by both of our nations combined in all acts of terrorism over the last half century.

We are a society that is oddly inured to death on a large scale. The mass killing of civilians is hardly alien to modern conflict, but we are so thoroughly shielded from it that it is difficult for us to get a proper perspective. The massive bloodletting in places like Syria and Darfur, where many hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered, is of a magnitude not seen on American soil in a century and a half. For that matter, the loss of life from natural disasters also pales by comparison to those in distant places. The deaths that accompany an outbreak of tornados on the Great Plains or a hurricane on the eastern seaboard typically number in the dozens at most, while a quarter million or more were swept away by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean a decade ago, and even more were buried by the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.

Our politics, policies and dispassion all reflect our remoteness from nature's indifferent toll and war's grim accounting. Even the prospect of a climate cataclysm does not stir us from our torpor; even 9/11 has proven too isolated an incident to shake us out of a long and steady decline in our willingness to defend ourselves with all the might we can muster.

In part, we have always been the beneficiaries of a lucky geography. The inability of our current enemies to wreak daily destruction upon our cities removes from consideration the terrible measures that would be necessary to fight and thoroughly defeat nihilistic enemies like the ones we faced in WWII. We are told that we are engaged in "asymmetrical" warfare against "non-state actors", as though these facts were justifications for making a meager commitment to the effort rather than simply a recipe for revised military tactics. In "The Last Lion", the final volume of Churchill's epic biography by William Manchester and Paul Reid, it is painfully obvious from the outbreak of the war that Churchill will literally stop at nothing to defeat Hitler and wipe Nazism from the face of the planet. His famed rhetorical aggression against fascist barbarity was matched in deed by a boldness on the battlefield and on the seas that, until the Americans arrived on the scene, far exceeded Britain's military capacity. With or without the help of allies, Churchill was determined to fight literally to the last man. His plans in case of a German invasion included carrying a gun on his person and fighting to the death, if necessary. Surrender was not an option.

From the perspective of time and the safety afforded by being on the side of victory, we look back in horror at the later bombings of Dresden of Tokyo as mere vengeance against an enemy that was already well on the way to defeat. To Churchill and many of his generation, though, total victory meant inflicting as much pain on the enemy as possible. To this day, British and American visitors to Dresden who are are old enough to remember the war will brook no discussion of the military insignificance of the firebombing. Their view is the same as that of generals of many previous wars. William Tecumseh Sherman, who originated the phrase "War is hell" but also said of the Confederacy, "War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen, and I say let us give them all they want." His March to the Sea was designed less to clinch victory for the Union than to teach the South an unmistakable lesson about the consequences of waging war — the very same lesson that the British aimed to force on the Germans, and the Americans on the Japanese.

Now we seem incapable of waging total war, without which total victory is unachievable. In the 70 years since the end of WWII, nearly all of the world's nations have nominally adopted standards of international conduct to make the world a safer place. In 1947, we even replaced the Secretary of War, a title in use since George Washington's administration, with the less belligerent sounding Secretary of Defense, a symbolic but significant change. Notwithstanding the numerous wars in which we have engaged since, most notably in Korea and Vietnam and the 40-year nuclear stand-off with the Soviet Union, we have steadily seen an erosion in our willingness to sustain the losses necessary to win the fights we are in. We have accumulated more offensive military weapons in one nation than the world has ever seen, but our strategy is increasingly defensive. We have grown intolerant of seeing our men and women coming home in body bags, and about killing civilians in foreign lands — as well we should be. American generals during the Vietnam War routinely blamed the anti-war movement on the press for broadcasting horrific daily images of the carnage. Those who opposed the war tended to agree, and moreover asserted that this was a very hopeful development for the prevention of future wars.

But what both hawks and doves failed to appreciate was that if the nation had been squarely behind the fight in the first place, pictures alone would not have changed many minds. Hasn't the ubiquity of information in the Internet Age convinced us yet that people possess an unending capacity to deny facts that do not gibe with their preconceived notions? One can hardly imagine Churchill or Roosevelt hesitating to press ahead with the successive invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Normandy and the Pacific Islands held by Japan because they might have seen photographs of children killed by Allied bombs, however gruesome the reality depicted. Hiroshima and Nagasaki continue to trouble our collective conscience, but instead of becoming more circumspect about our ongoing forays into foreign conflicts, we are merely more inclined to take remote half measures that satisfy our craving to "do something" but are insufficient to lead to conclusive outcomes. Conventional wisdom has it that there will never be a decisive victory over Islamic fascism; we have not asked whether this is only because of the nature of the enemy but also because of a generational change in our own nature.

Conscience doth makes cowards of us all, in Hamlet's phrase. What we have failed to realize is that conscience, like war, exacts its own price.


Unfortunately, our enemies are not at all reluctant to wage all-out war. ISIS has made it abundantly clear it has no compunction about inflicting pain and death on anyone and everyone who gets in its way, and many others besides. We do have such compunctions, and that it is why we are losing. We won't lose this war in a few years or perhaps even in a single lifetime, but, over the course of a lengthy and disfiguring campaign, we will cease to be the civilization we started out to be. As T.S. Eliot writes in "The Dry Salvages", "…this thing is sure / That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here." Neither cold, hard reasoning nor the opposition of an equally ruthless army of other faiths will alter the reality that there is no way to win the war we have been fighting, fitfully, for a generation without fundamentally changing ourselves in the process. Our best hope of retaining our identity is to do exactly the opposite of what we've been doing for the last dozen years: commit overwhelming force to wipe out the terrorists, engage the entire nation in the fight (not just those who are temperamentally and ideologically most inclined to go to war), and get it over with as quickly as possible.

In the Gulf War of 1991, forces from all nations in the coalition to reverse Iraq's invasion of tiny Kuwait totaled more than 950,000, about three-quarters of them American. In 2003, fewer than one-third of that number took part in the American-led invasion of Iraq, a vastly larger nation with an incomparably more complex ethnic and religious composition. Even with a President in charge who was deeply committed to the war, it was seen as imperative that we carry out the invasion and occupation on the cheap and without disturbing the home front too much. We all know how that turned out. Not only were we unwilling to involve anyone but the volunteer military and their families in what was billed as an existential battle for our future, but we compromised our values, perhaps irreparably, in the entire disreputable conduct of the "War on Terror", in which rendition, water-boarding, Abu Ghraib and domestic spying became bywords for America's fall from grace as the world's indispensable nation.

But, you may protest, we retained our traditions of decency during previous conflicts. We didn't resort to torturing prisoners in World War II, for example, even though the Germans and the Japanese did so routinely. The misguided actions of a few in the Bush years isn't representative of the entire country. Perhaps, but in WWII we did forcibly confine many thousands of Japanese Americans in detention camps, did not allow African American soldiers to serve beside their white counterparts, and turned away quite a few boats carrying Jewish refugees from Europe, many of whom ended up in Hitler's gas chambers. In Korea and Vietnam, our upstanding generals and privates and all ranks in between used the word "gooks" so pervasively to describe both our allies and enemies that every reader knows exactly what it means. During the Cold War, our Congress persecuted many American citizens and drove some to suicide, and in the name of freedom our spies committed all manner of crimes about which we will never know the full story. Our record of openness and decency in the conduct of war is hardly spotless. And all that happened with the participation of vast numbers of ordinary people who, drafted into the fight as officers and enlisted men, might have been expected to temper the views and actions of the most zealous among us.

You may also wish to point out that the brutal practices of our enemies are incomparably worse than anything we have done. This is undeniably true, but it is also undeniably true that we live in a democracy and claim to believe in standards of decency, based on ancient moral codes, that we set for ourselves. It is true that al Qaeda, the Taliban, Islamic State, al-Shabab, Boko Haram and their other disreputable brothers in deviancy have killed many more civilians on purpose than we have killed by accident. But it is also true that they obviously don't give a damn about human life, and that we are supposed to. The despicable behavior of the enemy is not the standard by which we ought to judge ourselves. Nonetheless, in the history of human conflict there has yet to be a war in which nations were not embittered and coarsened by the horrible things done by each side to the other. Moreover, the memory for atrocities is very long, and can turn an otherwise secular conflict into a quasi-religious one in which righteousness gradually takes the place of mere anger, and a sense of moral superiority becomes casus belli in and of itself. We haven't yet rounded up Muslim American citizens, but then again we aren't facing the very real possibility of an invasion, either, as we seriously feared after Pearl Harbor. If Islamic State ever gets its hands on large numbers of long-range aircraft and ships, all bets are off.

We would do well to keep in mind that while we wait out the cold winter days, watching the Super Bowl and the Oscars, tens of thousands of foreign fighters — including some Americans — are flocking to Syria and Iraq to join the fight against the civilization that raised them. ISIS recruitment videos paint a rosy picture of spiritual paradise: a place where Muslims can practice their faith freely and raise a family without having to worry about the impure influences of Western culture. The irony of wielding Western-made weapons and using Western-made technology to spread their message of religious purity is obviously lost on them. Much more disturbing is that their desperate desire to live in a Muslim oasis, which is not objectionable on its face, for some unexplained reason depends upon the grisly, hand-to-hand murders of thousands of other people, including many Muslims, and the forcible rape of countless women, an atrocity as fundamentally anti-religious as anything imaginable. This is not an enemy we will ever defeat with limited air strikes or a robust domestic defense, especially not one that inexorably erodes the way of life we are committed to protecting. If we don't have the stomach to pummel the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa to dust, then we had better have the stomach for an unceasing scenario of beheadings, immolations and attacks on soft targets like Charlie Hebdo.

The historian Arnold Toynbee's famous precept is unavoidable: the boundary between a highly civilized society and a less civilized society is not a stable one, but in time favors the less civilized one. Islamic fascism will never go away unless we destroy it completely. The argument that there isn't a military solution alone to this problem is both true and besides the point. Had Churchill and Roosevelt decided to use mainly diplomacy and propaganda to convince the youth of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to turn away from dictatorship, we would all now be speaking German and Japanese. We can never eliminate every extremist from every country, but that is a specious argument for the half-hearted military campaign we are currently a part of. There are still skinheads who celebrate Hitler's birthday, but they are hardly a threat to anyone's national security. If we really and truly believe that the Islamic State is the incarnation of evil and represents a mortal threat to Western civilization, then we have a duty to teach them a lesson that will make every wannabe terrorist think twice. And if we're not willing to do something that ugly, to bear the many deaths of our own soldiers and innocent civilians that such a campaign would entail, then we have to acknowledge up front that we are simply going to lose. Worst of all, the misguided and self-destructive actions we continue to take in the name of national security will accomplish nothing but render unrecognizable the country we set out to save after 9/11.

This is our stark choice: to make slow war and become gradually like our enemies, so that paranoia and injustice grind into our national soul; or make real war by taking the fight to the enemy with all the resources at our command, world opinion be damned. Certainly it would be preferable if the millions of men in uniform in the nations surrounding ISIS — nations with much more to lose in this fight than we do — were also set upon the task of annihilating their enemy within. And we should be working avidly to bring those armies into the fight by building the kind of coalition that we did in 1991 against Saddam Hussein. But we should have no illusions that any countries but the United States and a few of our NATO allies have the military capacity to wage and win an all-out war. What we are lacking only is the will, which was sapped by our two lengthy misadventures after 9/11, and the courage to take a punch without flinching, which has been dissipated by isolation and our own good fortune. We had the chance to do this right in Afghanistan in 2002, and let it slip away. We've only made the task harder for ourselves, not least by alienating many actual and would-be allies. But it won't get any easier from here.


February 22, 2015


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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.