Afghanistan and Germany: Not Neighbors

The current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought the “wonders” of focus groups and buzzwords to discussions of war, with good policy being a secondary concern. The ignorance of history shown by our leadership is utterly depressing. Some conservatives have taken to calling the conflict the Fourth World war:

“But, I would say this. Both to the terrorists and to the pathological predators such as Saddam Hussein and to the autocrats as well, the barbarics, the Saudi royal family. They have to realize that now for the fourth time in 100 years, we’ve been awakened and this country is on the march. We didn’t choose this fight, but we’re in it. And being on the march, there’s only one way we’re going to be able to win it. It’s the way we won World War I fighting for Wilson’s 14 points. The way we won World War II fighting for Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s Atlantic Charter and the way we won World War III fighting for the noble ideas I think best expressed by President Reagan, but also very importantly at the beginning by President Truman, that this was not a war of us against them. It was not a war of countries. It was a war of freedom against tyranny. We have to convince the people of the Middle East that we are on their side, as we convinced Lech Wałęsa and Václav Havel and Andrei Sakharov that we were on their side.”

The problems with this argument are legion to even the most casual observer of politics. For starters, it takes a great leap to call the First World War an “awakening”. Waltzing in to a conflict that has already been going on for three years and teaming up with the leading faction doesn’t constitute that. And how exactly does fighting for the 14 Points represent a noble ideal in the face of conservative opposition to international institutions and norms? How did the “Third World War” (Cold War) represent a battle of freedom versus tyranny, when most of the battlefields in the conflict were struggles of “capitalist” and “communist” strongmen? If people are oppressed by their government, lacking the most basic of human freedoms, can they truly be free just because of more open markets? This is an idea which I shall leave hanging for now, as it needs much more space than I can give it while remaining on the main topic.

What makes the current conflict different than those of the twenty century? For starters, the nature of the enemy from the prospective of the leadership. Arguably during the Second World War, and with absolutely certainty during the Cold War, the enemy was seen as the power structures of the powers with which we were engaged in struggle. The people of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union were not the enemy, they were sufferers under the plight of madmen, while lusting in their hearts for the embrace of freedom. When statements like “We have to convince the people of the Middle East that we are on their side” are made, it ignores the fact that our leadership is not looking at Bin Laden or his supporters as the enemy. Islam is a whole is being seen as the enemy. Terms like “militant Islamist” and “Islamofascist” are the types of words that should be confined to the likes of hate sites, not appearing in newspaper articles quoting national leaders. While recent efforts by government agencies to remove such words from official discussions are a positive step, the real shame is that such a step is necessary to start with. When acts of violence are labeled as the true meaning of a faith by outsiders who has both declared themselves judge, jury, and executioner over acts of violence and has a long history of repressing the native peoples of the region, or at least lending a helping hand in aiding domestic oppressors, it should not come as a shock when adherents of the faith feel a sort of common bond with those committing violence. This is not a sign of support for violence on the Arab street, it’s a sign of fear that violence will rain down upon them if they are not eternally vigilant.

Another issue is the numbers game, in terms of troops, training, and technology. Even assuming Al-Queda has 200,000 members, that is still less than a fifth of the size of the US military. While Al-Queda trains on monkey bars in the desert while living in tents, the US military trains using the most advanced technologies of any nation in the history of the world. In contrast, during the Second World War, the Germans had the superior technology in the early battles and hardened troops. During the Cold War, the Soviets were fully able to match in terms of manpower, and while having less advanced technology on average, they often had more of it to place on the field. The conflicts of the 20th century were epic struggles, international versions of Jefferies versus Johnson or Ali versus Frazier. The war on terror is more like Lennox Lewis versus Ali, if such a fight would have occurred in 1999.

Taking these factors together, it’s clear that those making these claims are either stupid or up to go good. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a little from each column.