There is a common — and understandable — perception in the postmodern age of nuclear proliferation that victory is an obsolete concept.
Is it that too many nuclear players have provided too many eleventh-hour reprieves to the losing sides in conventional wars?
Or is it the non-uniformed status of our increasingly common terrorist enemies?
Or perhaps the “ends” of wars seem inconsequential because of the ubiquity of terrorism and unconventional tactics, the mess of post-battle reconstruction and nation-building, and the power of instant global communications that bring us unedited and unrepresentative soundbites from the front.
In reality, such pessimism discourages Western military action, and cynical postmodern societies seem to be stymied by their zealous premodern opponents.
“I’m always worried about using the word ‘victory,’ because, you know, it invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur.”
So asserted our president in a July 2009 interview with ABC News. Aside from the fact that Emperor Hirohito never himself went “down” anywhere to surrender to General MacArthur, the president reflected the prevailing sense that wars are now amorphous, never-ending, and without clear benchmarks of success or failure.
But is all this quite accurate?
If it is true that human nature is unchanging, then the very human enterprise of war — with understandable allowances for changing technologies and ideologies — should itself, at least in its essence, have remained unchanged since antiquity.
In other words, while particular wars in any age may not end in victory or defeat for either side, the concept of such finality is very much possible for either, given their shared human nature. In short, if a war is stalemated, it is usually because both sides, wisely or stupidly, come to believe victory is not worth the commensurate costs in blood and treasure — not because victory itself is an anachronism.
In fact, for all the laments about American impotence in a nuclear age, we have won most of our wars since World War II. Despite the stalemate at the 38th parallel in Korea, the U.S. military achieved the stated goal of the Truman administration: keeping North Korea from destroying the South, and ensuring a viable autonomous state there. That was victory as defined before the war broke out.
The first Vietnam War ended in an American victory: the 1973 Paris Peace Accords that accepted an independent South — the original reason to intervene. We most certainly lost the second Vietnam War when our congressional leaders deemed that the postbellum vigilance of keeping the North from overwhelming the South was not worth the additional costs. A Watergate-damaged Nixon administration was unable to honor its commitment to use U.S. airpower to stop renewed Communist aggression.
The British clearly won the Falklands War. The United States won the small wars in the Balkans, Grenada, and Panama. It was victorious in both Afghanistan and Iraq, having removed the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. In the latter two instances, we are fighting second wars in which victory is defined as ensuring the survival of successive consensual systems under the countries’ elected governments.
So far, we are winning both. Victory is definable: when these states are able to stay autonomous largely through their own efforts — with the understanding that Europe, for 65 years, and South Korea, for 60, have both required American military support to ensure their independence.
Iran could not possibly resist the economic and military power of Europe and the United States, should we decide that the mullahs will not have the Bomb. If they get the Bomb anyway, it will not be because stopping the theocracy is impossible, or because such a victory is too abstract a notion. It will be the result of American and European political leaders concluding that the costs would not be worth the benefits.
But what would victory in the now-derided War on Terror look like?
It would require three conditions, all of them closer to fruition than we think.
The first condition of victory: Due to offensive operations in the Middle East and defensive measures at home, it would become almost impossible for an individual or small cadre to pull off another 9/11.
We have done great damage to al-Qaeda in both Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to less publicized attacks on the organization from Pakistan to Yemen. If we continue such offensive operations, at some point the enemy will equate anti-Western terrorism with a death sentence.
At home, we have yet to create a zero-tolerance climate for radical Islamic propagandizing. That toughness would mean, among other things, that anyone on a watch list simply would not be allowed to fly. A Major Hasan should have long ago been disciplined and investigated for his Islamist proselytizing — and shamed by his local Muslim community. His past mosques must realize that publicly condemning radicals in their midst is a far wiser course of action than continuing to protest government vigilance against suspected terrorists on U.S. soil. In short, a Major Hasan should have been treated the same way a lone-wolf Nazi would have been treated in 1943 — once it was revealed that he was mouthing Hitlerian doctrine on a U.S. military base and communicating with Nazi-sympathizers in Argentina.
Second condition: Middle East governments would no longer wish to aid and abet Islamic terrorists. They would fear both international ostracism in matters of trade and global intercourse and the unpredictability of the United States, which sometimes might conclude that a Damascus or a Tehran was as responsible as the terrorists who magically camped on their soil.
Here we had made some progress — the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, Qaddafi’s surrender of his WMD projects, the long incarceration of Dr. Khan, and Pakistan’s occasional attacks on terrorists in Waziristan. Do Middle Eastern countries openly praise the objectives of radical Islam more now or in the past? Despite this country’s change in administration and the ’03–’06 ordeal in Iraq, Arab governments, in fact, seem less likely to harbor terrorists than before.
Third: Radical Islam would become less successful at channeling Middle Eastern discontents into anti-Western terrorism. For years, al-Qaeda’s popularity and its favored tactic of suicide bombing have been declining precipitously in international polls. Democracy promotion erodes the old nexus between the dictator and the terrorist — as we can see from unrest in Lebanon and Iran and the positive efforts of the Afghan and Iraq governments. There are more democracies today than at any time in history.
Critical here is the message and attitude of the United States. If “smoke ’em out” and “bring ’em on” sometimes sent the wrong message, so too did the Cairo fantasy speech of 2009 about a Muslim-fueled Renaissance and Enlightenment, not to mention the nonsense about a tolerant Islamic Cordoba during the Inquisition.
Neither gratuitous boasting nor therapeutic myth-making will convince Middle Easterners to pull away from radical Islamic terrorism. Instead, the message has to be uncompromising, yet understated, something like the quiet motto of Sulla’s: “No better friend, no worse enemy.” That there was no visible German opposition to Hitler in 1939 and no visible support for him in April 1945 was due both to overwhelming Allied power and to the knowledge that a magnanimous reconstruction was possible.
That we will be unmerciful to radical Islam and quite benevolent to those who reject it — that is the proper message. And, to some degree, that duality has been followed since 9/11. That a Middle Eastern Muslim can hope for a freer, more prosperous life without bin Ladenism; and that if he chooses to join bin Laden, he will die and cause havoc to his community, is more true since 9/11, not less.
The Obama administration entered office determined to repudiate the Bush war protocols and show the Muslim world that America had been at fault in its previous war against radical Islam.
But in the end, all that it has done so far, ironically, is strengthen U.S. resolve and show the radical Muslim world that America’s therapeutic alternative was a brief and failed deviation — given the continuance of Predator drone attacks, tribunals, renditions, intercepts, and wiretaps, as well as the difficulty in closing Guantanamo, the public outrage over the Christmas Day bomber and the proposed KSM trial, and the realization that appeasement of radical Iran was idiotic. I still cannot see how offering KSM his Miranda rights is any more humane than the on-site killing of suspected terrorists — and any living thing in their general vicinities — in Pakistan.
In short, “victory” in the War on Terror can be defined. We are slowly achieving it; the enemy is not. That’s why the culture of the larger Middle East is becoming much more sympathetic to us than we are to radical Islam, and why the architects of al-Qaeda live incognito and seem more shrill than ever.
It may be unwise in such a delicate effort to win hearts and minds to trumpet notions of victory, but it is equally silly to deny the likelihood of our ultimate aims. Victory is an ancient and enduring concept, despite the multifarious and confusing faces of war over the ages. Defeating Islamic terrorism is not only definable and possible, but closer than ever before.
– Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.