If anyone had lingering doubts about my post from about a week ago (the one with the distinct lack of terrorists), this latest missive from CNN should clear those right up for you. And it’s not this article in and of itself, per se, so much as the fact that one of these articles gets released every couple weeks. Just in case anyone in the world is wondering, the US could not be more open to terrorism if it took out large billboards in unfriendly nations saying Please bomb the United States of America, North America, Western Hemisphere posthaste and greeted would-be bombers with VIP dinners and a show.
And yet, no terrorism.
It should be extraordinarily relieving to realize that there is not actually a terrorist threat to the soil of the United States of America. Maybe it would be more so if we didn’t seem so obsessed with trying to create one. Or believe that one is already there when it is not. But the absence is nevertheless blatantly and painfully obvious. There is no other explanation for the lack of action despite abundant motive, opportunity, and means.
Shooting messengers was probably an early form of terrorism. In the old days, it wasn’t just a rhetorical joke to get one’s boss to not yell about bad news. They actually shot messengers. Or stabbed them, when the practice was popular prior to firearms’ invention. Talk about a conversation stopper.
It’s sort of the ultimate act of bad faith. Someone is entrusted with the courteous gesture of giving you fair warning, knowledge, or understanding of a concept. Sometimes an unfriendly concept or plain old bad news, to be sure, but still just letting you know. Giving you a heads-up. And then you take their head out. No doubt some of these instances were simply rage or a lack of control. But occasionally they would be deliberate, and punctuated by things like sending the messenger back, hand delivered (no COD), by your own messengers. Few volunteers raised their hands for that return journey.
Obviously, at some point, it just becomes inconvenient to engage in such messengerial slaughter. After all, the incentive becomes high for one’s own messengers to book a ticket for a cave in the woods rather than deliver the actual message. In any case, it all boils down to one thing: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
Nowadays, we have e-mail to keep us from the dilemma of whether or not to execute a messenger to make a bold, if rude, point. And the worst you can do with e-mail is ignore it, which must be worse than deleting it. Unless you’re the White House, in which case e-mail deletion has been criminalized. Good luck winning that case, courts. Ordering someone not to delete an e-mail is sort of akin to ordering them not to think about something. Not only will you have no way of proving whether it’s happened or not, but telling them not to do it will guarantee the opposite.
Ignoring e-mail is dangerous, if not often deadly, because there’s full documentation that something has been communicated and a complete lack of acknowledgement or response. Some days, I half expect an urgent notice in my Inbox saying that my Outlook courier has been shot by a colleague.
But it beats the alternatives. Some of the world’s great bloody battles could’ve been prevented by a good e-mail system. The Battle of New Orleans was among the largest of the War of 1812, and fought entirely after peace had been declared. It just took a while to get the word out. It’s hard for me to pick and choose amongst deaths in war as being more or less unjustified than each other, but that one’s pretty objectively hard to explain. War deaths are needless enough without waiting four to six weeks for delivery.
Around the same time last week, I promised another post about the misperceptions associated with the War Without End (WWE – remember, WWF is taken) that the US is engaged in. To review, Iran will get toasters and there are no terrorists in or coming to the United States.
The perception that’s making it impossible for the US to prosecute an effective war in Iraq and Afghanistan (and indeed would hold true in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and wherever suicide bombing is sold) is individualism. Individualism is, almost by definition, a Western concept. Yes, home on the range, but more specifically (or actually, less specifically) “Greek Western”. (And now you’re just thinking of Alexander the Great in a John Wayne film. We’re getting nowhere. Or maybe I’m too glib tonight to really write this post seriously.)
The point is that many people see the world as West vs. East (or at least West/East… there is not always diametricity). The Islamic world, neatly, serves as a bridge, both geographically and conceptually. While Islam falls squarely in the evolution of Judeo-Christianity, which is at the core of Western culture, there are sufficient links to the East in the cultures who tended to adopt Islam (Persia, Arabia, The Stans of Central Asia) to muddy the waters. And a (the?) central question in West/East debate is individualism vs. communitarianism. All for one or one for all? Or really, one for one or all for all?
Suicide bombing, as a tactic, is at the heart of this issue. Again, I’m going to speak tactically and strategically about war and violence despite being a complete pacifist. I’m not exactly sure why I keep doing this. Maybe because what’s going on in this country is so broken that I’m not sure how everyone doesn’t see it, and yet I recognize that pacifism is not widely espoused. So I seek to explain a middle ground, or even “win on the road” as it were. If I can beat people in their own violent ballparks, just showing how ridiculous the status quo is by their (your?) own standards, then maybe I’m getting somewhere.
It beats just accepting things.
So back to suicide bombing. In some ways, nothing is more individualistic. One person’s sacrifice and martyrdom for the good of all. Your name in lights. And the much-ballyhooed “72 virgins” theory. Although, upon reflection, it seems these are all extremely Westernized views of a phenomenon that, deep down, the US mind can’t fathom. My suspicion is that these suicide bombers do not actually make much of the glory and the individualism of it all. My guess is that this is the West trying to put what it finds incomprehensible into some neat little package that makes sense, such as 72 times as much hot sex, forever. But I’m not really buying it. Sure, I guess there’s a passage somewhere about 72 virgins. But tons of smart activists have done a really good job of carving up Leviticus to demonstrate the unending prohibitions contained therein. And the whole Judeo-Christian lineage is on the hook for the Old Testament. Pretty much any religious text reads like a string of self-defeating schizophrenia. This is one of the damning things about organized religion – it tries to be so all-inclusive and universal that it ends up saying everything. And thus, ultimately, nothing. And God gets lost in the process.
God is for another post. And certainly little could be further from God than suicide bombing. The point is that despite the West’s claims that “suicide bombers are doin’ it for themselves”, I’m not buying. I think they’re making a sincere, if abominable, sacrifice. I think they mean it. The reward, if they really believe it, might not hurt, but they’re mostly motivated by making their life an effective weapon in a communal fight for a communal ideal.
So what has the primary strategy of the US for four (Iraq) to six (Afghanistan) years been to combat this new communitarian weapon? You heard it in the very first hours of the Iraq War. “Decapitation.” The entire core strategy employed by Western forces against insurgents/rebels/freedom-fighters/terrorists who use suicide bombing has been to try to kill leaders so that the whole movement collapses on itself.
Obviously, the grand-daddy of this strategy was the original “decapitation strike” (attempt) on Saddam’s life when the war began. But it has continued ever since. The only news stories of purported mini-victories have been about this or that person, key leaders who you just heard about for the first time after their death, being killed. And all future speculation is about killing this person, and then that person, and Osama, and then maybe it will all be over.
This is very Western. In the West, we like individuals. We like strong personalities and people who tell us what to do. I just finished reading Shantaram a few days ago, continuing to find it over-rated as all get out. I couldn’t stand the narrator. But he was a classic Western hero. And time and time again, he was admired and admonished for not believing in anything except people. He didn’t believe in God, religion, society, but he liked individual people. No wonder this book is so popular among Americans.
And when you kill our people, boy does that weaken us Westerners. JFK’s death killed a generation’s hope and perhaps the whole damn country. MLK’s shooting plunged the Civil Rights movement into chaos from which it is still recovering. RFK. John Lennon. The US does not bounce back from the dead.
But this is an individualistic perspective. It is one that innately believes that people are more important than their ideas. The author’s name should be bigger than the title on the book cover. The actors are bigger than their movies. The artist beats the art, the politician beats the politics, the ideologue beats the idea.
This is not what the suicide bombers believe. It is not what the people who follow al-Qaeda (if and how it exists) or any of the other groups fighting Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan believe. In fact, even saying “people who follow” is misleading. It would be better to say “people who are”. Because that’s what believing is like for someone with that kind of conviction.
Conviction is not hip in America, unless we’re talking about sending people to prison. It’s cool to be apathetic, dispassionate, not stand out in your love for something or your dedication. You don’t want to be labeled as “obsessive” or “compulsive” or in need of heavy doses of widely advertised and unsafe legal drugs.
The Eastern world seems to lack these hang-ups. Despite noted emotional dispassion in much of the Eastern world, it can widely be seen that there is a greater level of conviction and dedication therein. And this is usually toward a higher ideal or purpose, almost always with a communal aim.
Thus, there is no decapitation strike. To use a weird and disgusting and easily misinterpretable (but still compelling) analogy, the “enemy” (of the Western forces) is basically like an army of worms. And the US is trying to use decapitation against an army of worms. Every strike just makes two more where there were one.
And what’s the US motto? An Army of One.
In a hypothetical struggle between an Army of One and an Army of Worms… Ditka. (After all, what is the Da’Bears sketch but a testament to the unending faith of Americans in one individual’s ability to vanquish all?)
Hopefully you can see by now why the US has yet to make any progress against the purported “enemy”. The thought that we might spend the next few decades listening to overpaid pundits and analysts say “Now if we just kill this next leader…” is pretty daunting. The fact is that the top twenty al-Qaeda leaders could be killed tomorrow and they would be replaced overnight with forty more, plus thousands of new recruits who were on the fence until this mass-murder angered them enough to finally get involved. What binds them is not devotion to leaders or individuals, but the ideas of the cause. And one of the core ideas is revenge and punishment for injustice. The steady fuel of American injustice is not doing a good job of quelling the motivation here.
So, you may ask, what is the solution? For you militarists, there is probably only one purely tactical solution, which is genocide. There is no way to continually inflame more and more of a population, doing their recruiters’ job better than your own, killing leader after leader and brother/son/father/mother/daughter/sister one after another, torturing the survivors, and somehow quell the population. The intimidation thing isn’t exactly working. The people being attacked are too passionate to be afraid and (especially in Afghanistan’s case), they’ve just suffered too much already to be scared of more war or torture. Afghans have been living in an almost unending state of war since before I was born. You wonder why people liked the Taliban – they actually united the country in some semblance of peace. It was a pretty awful government, but oppression usually beats out endless mortar fire and land-mines. At least you know where you stand and how to wake up the next morning. Ditto that for Saddam vs. status quo in Iraq.
The other unsettling reality (unsettling really only for militarists) emerging from all this is that conquest is no longer really a viable option for world affairs. It’s hard to accept as someone who’s played in excess of 200 Risk games in his life, but I pretty much have to admit it’s true. When was the last time a country was conquered and held by force by an external power? (And Grenada doesn’t count.) Afghanistan was supposedly conquered by both the Soviets and the Americans in the last 30 years, but neither of those have really turned out to be sustainable. Vietnam and Korea? If World War II gave us anything, any consolation prize, it’s the end of conquest. You can’t take over other countries by force anymore. After watching what Hitler did and how the resistances in each country helped bring him down, every nation on the planet has resolved to never let an outsider come in and tell them what to do. No matter what.
As a pacifist, I have to look at this a little like nuclear weapons. This huge commitment to violence is devastating and depressing. But the net impact may (eventually) be to scare people out of fighting, which has to be good. Or, as Shantaram would put it “the right thing for the wrong reasons”. A little like belief in global warming theory. It gets people to do something good, but for bogus reasons. But sometimes, these days, maybe we can take the bogus reasons.
As a strategist in this post’s discussion, one has to think that the sooner the “great powers” realize the no-conquest rule of the post-WWII reality, the sooner they’ll be able to preserve their resources and be reasonable about things. Which puts the US pretty much squarely on the ore cart to the abyss at the moment.
So the actual best strategy (not just what I believe in morally) is total withdrawal. There will never ever be “victory”. There will never be a stable conquest. And make no mistake, victory = conquest in the minds of the US. Sure, it’s not technical “51st state” conquest, but it’s the kind of economic domination over the property and wealth of the remaining country that becoming a 51st state might be less invasive. And there’s no way the people of Iraq or Afghanistan, so long as they’re alive, will ever accept this.
So we can fight forever or fight for a day or just stop already. The question is quite simple: how many times do you want to bang your head into an unbreakable wall?
At least with total withdrawal, there’s a chance of credibly being involved in subsequent diplomacy. The US can again become (or seem) a disinterested party, who has the neutrality to be reasonable, as they are sometimes perceived in other negotiations (though, really, all that comes to mind is the cessation of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 that won Teddy Roosevelt the Nobel Peace Prize). The US can join with the world community in hoping that these countries truly find their own way to be a part of the world, not a branch of Western-based corporation culture.
It’s not looking likely. Will we stop banging our head first? Or will our brains splatter all over the wall?
It’s not a pretty image. But it’s not a pretty time. It’s an ugly time to be an American individual.
I’m just the (gulp) messenger.