Matt Yglesias writes:
In political terms, the right likes the war idea because it involves taking terrorism more “seriously.” But in doing so, you partake of way too much of the terrorists’ narrative about themselves. It’s their conceit, after all, that blowing up a bomb in a train station and killing a few hundred random commuters is an act of war.
A letter to the editor in today’s Washington Post says:
The Sept. 11 atrocities were monstrous, unforgivable, evil, and warlike. But to insist they were literally “acts of war” is linguistically to confer statehood or national sovereignty on al-Qaeda. It’s right to respond to such acts, but the perpetrators are an enormous criminal conspiracy, not a nation, no more than drug cartels and organized crime are.
(The letter is not online, as a far as I can tell.)
Let’s put aside, for a moment, that folks who most likely applauded the “War on Poverty” are now arguing that we have to be careful not to misapply the term “war” when referring to the use of hijacked airliners, box-cutters, guns, explosives, and the like to kill many many people. It is undoubtedly tempting to decide that a QED manner of sorting out these issues is to conclude war is solely the tool of nation-states, and that anybody else is just a great big criminal gang. While Eric Holder said today that he knows this nation is at war, he apparently believes it is best to treat KSM and others as criminals, and their acts as crimes, not an act of war.
But if war can only be fought by nations, who did Great Britain fight in the Revolutionary War? Any war of seccession begins with one side whose sovereignty and statehood is in doubt or disputed.
Beyond that, some of these folks should take a look at the world outside their windows once in a while. Nation-on-nation war is thankfully rarer, but that doesn’t mean war has stopped. The line between terror group and government is awfully blurry some days. Hamas runs the West Bank. Somali pirates aren’t a government in most senses of the word, but they’re claiming the horn of Africa and have lots of weapons and now a revenue stream. The Taliban isn’t a government any more, but they control territory. Who runs the territory immediately south of our border, the Mexican government or the cartels? (Who’s got more firepower?) Why would Iran send, say, its own commandos to do some dirty deed when they’ve got Hezbollah and Hamas as proxies? When Russia invaded Georgia, that country’s cyber-infrastructure was attacked – with some indication that Russian citizens, not directed by their government, were behind the hack attacks.
Clausewitz wrote that “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” Now war is war by other means. (And it’s not just the bad guys; we’ve got military contractors all over the world, a semi-quasi-extension of U.S. military force. They’re assigned tasks by the United States government and paid to achieve them, but they’re not part of the government.)
I realize I’m largely echoing Mark Steyn:
As it happens, Somali piracy is not a distraction, but a glimpse of the world the day after tomorrow. . . . Half a century back, Somaliland was a couple of sleepy colonies, British and Italian, poor but functioning. Then it became a state, and then a failed state, and now the husk of a nation is a convenient squat from which to make mischief. . . . It’s also a low-risk one. Once upon a time we killed and captured pirates. Today, it’s all more complicated. The attorney general, Eric Holder, has declined to say whether the kidnappers of the American captain will be “brought to justice” by the U.S. “I’m not sure exactly what would happen next,” declares the chief law-enforcement official of the world’s superpower. . . . Meanwhile, the Royal Navy, which over the centuries did more than anyone to rid the civilized world of the menace of piracy, now declines even to risk capturing their Somali successors, having been advised by Her Majesty’s Government that, under the European Human Rights Act, any pirate taken into custody would be entitled to claim refugee status in the United Kingdom and live on welfare for the rest of his life.
The idea that only a nation can fight a war is a lovely, quaint notion that stopped being relevant a while ago. For better or worse – eh, who are we kidding, it’s worse – the world of the near future is one where proxy groups, with their delightful veneer of plausible deniability, are the primary tool of conflict, asymmetrical warfare is standard operating procedure, and civilians are targeted more than military personnel (much easier to hit, and rarely shoot back).
Nation-states are increasingly paralyzed by bureaucratic inertia and pressures of public opinion, while small militias, transnational groups, and other non–nation-state actors are increasingly empowered to pursue their goals with ruthless manners and wild abandon.
We’re going to see a lot more individuals and groups pursuing their goals through bombs, bullets, and hijackings and expressing no interest in wearing uniforms. The rallying cry “Legally, it’s not an act of war, it’s just a crime” is not going to do much to console the wounded and the victims’ families.