The American Way of War
And the constraints on American power.


Victor Davis Hanson

Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq threaten nuclear conflagration, since neither had the bomb or patrons that did (note the quite different scenario in any plan of attack on Iran).

And both Saddam and the Taliban were the prior recipients of American punitive bombs that had little effect in removing, or even moderating either regime. So the third, riskier ground option was tried and now hangs in the balance. Both wars are costing more and more American blood and treasure. As expected, the media has emphasized our slips (errant bombs in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, the recent purported Marine killings, etc.) far more than the gruesome nature of enemy beheaders and suicide bombers.

Yet there are three new wildcards in the ground equation that question rational constraints: (1) the sense of righteous outrage after 9/11–the worst attack on American soil in our history; (2), the medieval nature of our enemies whose hatred of secularism, rationalism, religious tolerance, gays, and women’s rights bothers traditional Western left-wing critics of the use of American force; and (3) we are in a global ideological war; but unlike the Cold War there is no nuclear godhead like the Soviet Union (at least yet). So Iraq is no proxy war on the periphery. Instead, win there, and we may well change the entire Middle East, in the sense that millions now look to the Sunni Triangle to decide with which side they are to make accommodations.

Where does all this leave us? Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi understands that Iraq is now more than a democratic succession to Saddam’s murderous rule, but has evolved into the blueprint of the Middle East itself. So he has pulled out all the lessons from the playbook of asymmetrical warfare as it has been waged against any American ground presence since Vietnam: Televised beheadings to repel a squeamish Western public; the targeting of Poles, Spaniards, and Italians to fragment the Coalition; suicide-murdering of Shiites or Sunni moderates to ignite a civil war; targeted assassinations to discourage Iraqi participation in government; recycling of the hysteria of liberal Western critics to inflame American public opinion; and attacks on infrastructure to create enough general misery to depress the populace into blaming us rather than the perpetrators.

Al-Zarqawi knows that his terrorists without uniforms will still enjoy the de facto protections of the Geneva Convention while violating every one of its provisions. If in World War II a German partisan in civilian clothes shot an American, he was likely to be summarily executed as a terrorist; in Iraq, every shooter is out of uniform—but, when captured, will likely be sent to prison and released. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman once marched Confederate prisoners ahead of his columns to ferret out improvised explosive devices (“torpedoes”); today for that he would land up in Fort Leavenworth.

In reaction to the terrorists, we rely on superior American technology, organization, and logistics to thwart the insurgents that have no air support and increasingly depend on ad hoc training and weaponry. Economic aid seeks to jump start the economy and connect a better life to the defeat of the nihilists. By promoting democracy, we have mobilized millions to thwart the terrorists. And the presence of a legitimate government poses paradoxes both here and abroad–if the American “infidel” leaves, elected Iraqi officials may die; so thousands of brave invested Iraqis are in the difficult position of welcoming the American sacrifice and must deftly acknowledge just that if they wish us to stay. The degree to which the administration can appeal to American idealism–we seek no hegemony; we support the oppressed to find freedom; we take no oil–also wins months of additional domestic support; to the degree that our officials offer tired assertions rather than inspired exegeses about what is at stake, in turn limits our time and options.

In short, America knows a ground war in the Middle East is not our theater of choice in the postmodern age–and yet necessary to undermine both Middle East autocracy and fundamentalism that hand-in-glove lead to the conditions that caused September 11. If we succeed, the Middle East stabilizes and enters modernity, leaving its pariahs on the margins. If we fail, we resort back to punitive bombing as a method of deterring enemies and will reenter the pre-9/11 paradigm of states sending out terrorists and either hoping we won’t hold them accountable or send in only a few cruise missiles.

The outcome of the insurgents’ war will hinge on whether we assess our own strengths and weaknesses in this sort of fighting far better than does our canny enemy. And that answer in turn will determine whether Iraq and Afghanistan shatter the aspirations of our enemies–or turn out to be colossal Mogadishus. 

Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author, most recently, of A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.