War

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POLITICS OCTOBER 22, 2001

War

The air campaign that the United States, with the morally spectacular assistance of Great Britain, inaugurated against Afghanistan on October 7 appears designed to make the medieval kingdom of the Taliban safe for operations closer to the ground. Army helicopters and commando units seem destined for the next phase of the campaign, so as to find the caves in which Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the other self-styled Saladins are hiding. Sooner or later American special ops forces, armed not least with their recollections of the ruins in New York and Washington, will find them. For now, it is important for Americans to understand that, if these indeed are the war plans of the American government, Operation Enduring Freedom represents a great correction in the contemporary American understanding of warfare. In recent decades, in the Gulf of Arabia, in Somalia, and in the Balkans, the resort to American force, both successful and unsuccessful, has bequeathed American presidents and planners a pack of illusions about military power and its uses. With any luck, the great post-September sobriety will do away with those illusions, too.

The most renowned of those illusions, of course, is the Powell Doctrine, a crude and crippling approach to military strategy that may be summarized (in the words of Billie Holiday) as all or nothing at all. But the nature of the enemy in Afghanistan and the nature of the terrain in Afghanistan have retired Colin Powell's great teaching. In a useful analysis in The New York Times, Michael R. Gordon remarked that the Powell Doctrine "has already been one casualty in the Bush administration's war on terrorism," and rightly concluded that "the Powell Doctrine seems inappropriate for many of the terrorist threats that the United States is likely to confront in future years." In this war, calibration and cunning are everything. The American military will have to rely upon an exceedingly un-Powellian kind of relentlessness.

The Powell Doctrine's fetishization of "overwhelming force" made it seem very hard-boiled, but in truth it was very soft-boiled: just a swaggering version of the misplaced delicacy with which America has come to regard the experience of Americans in war. As a consequence of our so-called victory in the Gulf, we came to believe that we could wage wars in which Americans would kill but not be killed; and as a consequence of our successful bombing of Milosevic's Serbia, we came to believe that air power, and specifically the new technologies of precision guidance, would make war no longer dangerous to the warriors. Never mind that the Bush administration in 1991 defined the American objective in the Gulf in a way that emancipated us from the really urgent and perilous ground operation, namely, the march to Baghdad for the purpose of relieving Iraq and the world of the only regime to have used weapons of mass destruction against its own population; and never mind that the Clinton administration in 1999 was theologically opposed to the prosecution of a ground war to stop the ethnic cleansing and the ethnic slaughter in Kosovo. An era without body bags appeared to have dawned. (This fantasy of immunity in battle animates also Donald Rumsfeld's dream of the militarization of space.)

To this unrealistically tender sentiment about soldiers in war, the Clinton administration added an unrealistically tender sentiment about civilians in war. This is not to be confused with the scruple about non-combatants that is a moral cornerstone of every just war. Operation Enduring Freedom certainly appears to be proceeding in conformity with that time-honored scruple, in its targeting as well as in its food drops. No, it was this remark by Bill Clinton in 1998 that made emotional exquisiteness into another impediment to military action: "The night before we took action against the terrorist operations in Afghanistan and the Sudan, I was ... up till 2:30 in the morning, trying to make absolutely sure that at that chemical plant there was no night shift. I ... didn't want some person who was a nobody to me--but who may have a family to feed and a life to live, and probably had no earthly idea what else was going on there--to die needlessly." Who, exactly, is for noncombatants dying needlessly? Also, as a result of Clinton's little foray into saintliness, the United States may have bombed the wrong target and left bin Laden's chemical factory in the Sudan untouched.

But things are different now. If America is less afraid of body bags now, it may be because we have already sustained six thousand of them (or we would have sustained six thousand of them, if many of the victims of Al Qaeda had not been burned and crushed into nothingness). We may be witnessing the end of Vietnam Syndrome, and Somalia Syndrome, and Gulf War Syndrome: a war without syndromes, waged in our own defense. A just war that is not holy war, but wholly war.

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posted in: politics, new york, washington, afghanistan, great britain, somalia, united states, american government, taliban, ayman al-zawahiri, billie holiday, bin laden, balkans

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