Part 1: Enemy
Imagine that tomorrow the government confirmed with certainty the deaths of Bin Laden, his generals, and every single Al Qaeda foot soldier. Would that mean that the war on terror was over? Would that be enough to declare the US safe from the threat of another 9/11?
Most of us realize that it would not. Soon enough, another terrorist group would rise in Al Qaeda’s place. Militant Islamist groups—Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Fatah al-Islam, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard—are symptoms of something deeper. Most of us recognize this, and assume that the war on “terror” is not supposed to be an attack on only one of these groups, but rather an attack on the underlying force that unites them.
What is that force? The Bush Administration has called it “terror,” but does that really define it? The State Department’s official list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” includes the Irish Republican Army, the Basque separatist group ETA, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, and the Communist Party of the Philippines. Its definition of terrorism would include the activity of extremist environmental groups, violent animal rights activists, and radical pro-lifers, who have all engaged in bombings in the name of their causes. While these groups do indeed engage in terrorism, they do not constitute the enemy in this war.
The various groups that make up “the enemy” in the so-called war on “terror” are united by a shared system of ideas and ideals: the political ideology of Islamic Totalitarianism. This ideology advocates the imposition of Islamic law across the Middle East and, ultimately, the globe. Because the US and its way of life are a threat to that goal, these groups believe that jihad against Western “infidels” is both necessary and moral, and they all uphold martyrdom for the cause of Islam as a supreme ideal. The ideology of Islamic totalitarianism is the hub on which these militant Islamic terrorist groups revolve.
Americans are a people that respect individual freedom, and so hesitate to identify an ideology as an enemy. They are cautious, properly, not to declare war on a set of personal beliefs. But the issue here is not of personal ideology—it is of political ideology. Just as in the cold war the enemy was communist nations, just as in World War II it was Nazism that animated the Germans, so today it is Islamic Totalitarianism that underpins the particular terrorist groups.
Imagine, in World War II, if the enemy had been identified as the Blitzkrieg technique, rather than Nazism. What would that have done to the clarity of American resolve? Naming the enemy as terror or terrorism has the exact same effect. It bespeaks an unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of the situation.
Terrorism is merely one form in which Islamic Totalitarianism manifests itself. Its practitioners also seek, and have successfully obtained, political power through military coups, pressure group politics, and even diplomacy. Hezbollah and Hamas, for instance, openly negotiate with other nations to gain political legitimacy. And overt war against the US and Israel has long been advocated by the fundamentalist regime in Iran—a government, not a terrorist group, and one that continues to openly pursue the nuclear arms that will make such war possible.
The spread of Islamic Totalitarianism, and the corresponding threat to the US, has been building for decades. In 1979, Iranian militants stormed the American embassy. In 1989, Iran declared a death sentence against Salmon Rushdie (a British citizen) and his American publishers. In 1993, Osama Bin Laden bombed the World Trade Center towers for the first time. In 2000, Islamic terrorists facilitated by Sudan ambushed the U.S.S. Cole. In 2001, the World Trade Center towers were destroyed by hijacked airplanes, and since, Islamic terrorists have made or attempted bombing attacks across the globe (Bali, Dehli, Madrid, London, etc.), most recently exploding two car bombs at the US embassy in Yemen. Small scale attacks have also occurred repeatedly in the US—for example, in 2002 an Egyptian man living in Los Angeles opened fire at LAX, killing two and wounding four others.
So far, the accumulated attacks on the West have not led to a mainstream American identification of the root of the danger. We have not openly grasped, as a nation, that the ideology of Islamic Totalitarianism has been and remains the motivation behind the militant Islamist movement that threatens us and the rest of the Western world.
The first step to properly evaluate the war effort is to rename it as the war against Islamic Totalitarianism. That is the ideological fuel that compels a man to reject reason, strap on a bomb and blow himself up in a crowded market. That is the ideological fuel that deems such men martyrs and inspires others to follow in their path. That is what brought down the World Trade Center. That is what we are fighting.
Part 2: Victory
Part One of this article discusses the importance of recognizing that the enemy America faces is not “terror”, but Islamic Totalitarianism. Identification of the enemy is only half of what is required to evaluate the war effort. The second component is to identify what victory against that enemy would entail. What does victory against Islamic Totalitarianism mean? And is such a victory achievable?
If the enemy is Islamic Totalitarianism, then victory in such a war can only mean the virtual elimination of any national threat posed by Islamic totalitarians, present and future, by rendering defunct the ideology that fuels them.
Is such a victory possible? Can an ideology be defeated so thoroughly that it ceases to animate new recruits? History says yes. The West has fought and defeated ideological enemies before. The most well known 20th century examples are Communism and Nazism, but there is also a third, more pertinent example. Like the Islamic totalitarians that threaten us today, the advocates of this ideology worshipped a deity that commanded them to war, embraced violence as the means to advance their cause, and believed that honor was achieved via the ultimate sacrifice of life itself.
Japan in WWII was ruled by an emperor conceived by his people as a god. The Japanese were indoctrinated with the ideas of “State Shinto,” a nationalized political mythology that drew upon the country’s dominant Shinto religion in the same way Islamic Totalitarianism draws on Islam. State Shinto mandated worship to the Emperor-god, a sacred half-man/half-deity that commanded obedience and had full power to order the nation to war. From birth, children were taught that veneration of the Emperor and sacrifice to the Nation were the foundation of moral virtue, ideas that would later manifest themselves as suicidal banzai charges in the name of honor.
The Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor as one step of a broader decade-long campaign to expand the borders of the Japanese empire. The attack on Pearl Harbor was conducted in concert with attacks on US bases in Hong Kong, Guam, Malaya, the Philippines, and Wake Island. All of these attacks were launched with the tacit support and endorsement of the Japanese people—according to State Shinto, the war had been sanctioned by their god, and was therefore an expression of the Shinto religion which could not be questioned.
The historical parallel is striking: a dominant religious ideology gives rise to a distinct expansionist political ideology, and that political ideology then fuels anti-American action because Americanism threatens its growth.
History has recorded the US response to the Pearl Harbor attack. It was an immediate, decisive, unwavering military campaign. FDR declared unambiguously that victory meant the unconditional surrender of the Japanese. FDR’s administration, and Americans generally, recognized implicitly that the bombing of Pearl Harbor sprang from a deep-seated bellicose philosophy, and that peace could only be obtained by two mutually dependent actions: destroying Japan’s capacity to wage war, and purging Japan of the ideas motivating its lust for war. The former would eliminate the immediate threat. The latter would ensure a long-term peace.
Japan’s ability to wage war was neutralized first. Before the first atomic bomb was dropped, Japan’s military had been crushed through the firebombing of Tokyo and other related efforts, and Japan was rendered wholly incapable of further aggressive action. Japan would not be able to launch another attack any time in the near future.
But the goal was not merely to temporarily neutralize the Japanese war machine. The goal—i.e. the standard of victory—was ending the threat from State Shinto. Although Japan was militarily defeated after the firebombing, Japan’s will to fight had not been stamped out. The ideology that motivated Japanese aggression was still in place, and many Japanese citizens actually longed for an American invasion in order to die with honor in the name of the Emperor. With martyrdom idealized as a form of heroism, the government’s propaganda campaign hid the destruction of the Japanese military and issued directives to its people calling for death without surrender. “One hundred million deaths rather than surrender” was a popular slogan. A week before the bombs were dropped, the impetus to war remained so strong that 900,000 Japanese troops had amassed on the island of Kyushu, waiting to die in an American invasion that would never come.
The American administration did not hesitate to take the next step, difficult as it was. An American invasion would have caused an inconceivable loss of life. General Charles Willoughby, chief of intelligence for General Douglas MacArthur (the Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific) estimated American casualties at one million within a year, let alone the number of dead Japanese. Any political treaty short of unconditional surrender would have left State Shinto—and its will to war—in place. But how could the enemy, seemingly undaunted and righteous despite the defeats it had suffered, be cowed into unconditional surrender?
The dropping of the atomic bombs was necessary for the achievement of that aim. America demonstrated that the Japanese longing to righteously resist invasion would not be satisfied. America could continue to destroy Japan from the air, and no American soldier need set foot in the country. The wish to die gloriously in battle was rendered futile; death and war became symbols of unabated suffering rather than of noble resistance; and thus the will to war was broken.
After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the last command issued by the Emperor-god was that of unconditional surrender to the United States. The US then brought into being the victory it had defined at the war’s outset. It dismantled the remains of the Japanese military, destroyed the government schools preaching the ideology of State Shinto, and imposed a proper western constitution on Japan, a constitution that separated church from state and renounced war. Those government officials who remained in power, did so on terms dictated by the US. Though the emperor remained, he did so as a figurehead, explicitly stripped of his deism and rendered powerless.
Americans did eventually provide aid to the Japanese, but only after victory had been achieved. Once the militant ideas were abandoned and Japan no longer posed a threat, America did what it could to help Japan rebuild.
The result of relentless military force against a vicious ideology was a return to security for the US, an enduring peace, and the attainment of previously unthinkable levels of prosperity for the Japanese. And, in contrast to the thousands of young American men and women that have died needlessly in Iraq, not a single American soldier died in the five-year occupation that followed Japan’s surrender.
In World War II, the enemy was State Shinto. Today, it is Islamic Totalitarianism. Back then, victory meant destroying the cultural plausibility that State Shinto had for so many Japanese. Today, it is destroying the cultural plausibility that Islamic Totalitarianism has for so many Muslims around the world. The Japanese saw the futility of their struggle, and there never was a second Pearl Harbor. If there is similarly not to be a second, and third 9/11, America needs to dedicate itself to the eradication of Islamic Totalitarianism with the same devotion and moral fortitude that it had in WWII.
As Americans, we need to think about this issue candidly, and ask ourselves honestly whether a peaceful alternative exists—regardless of what we may wish were the case. The lessons of history point to inescapable truths. No political compromise will convince a government like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia to seriously crack down on militants within its nation. No constitution without a separation of State and Church, such as those enacted in Iraq and Afghanistan, will serve as a foundation for sustained peace. No nation ruled by Islamic totalitarians, such as Iran is today, will compromise its mission because of sanctions or bribes. No terrorist organization that has fervently adopted the ideology of Islamic Totalitarianism will be convinced through rational discourse to abandon it.
The lesson of history is this: The only way to wage war against a destructive ideology is by waging destruction on that ideology—crushing the individuals who actively support it, smashing regimes who fuel it, dismantling the schools where it is inculcated in the young, and demonstrating to any man that considers adopting it that the result of such action will be his own end. If America makes clear to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other “allies” that it expects and demands immediate crackdowns on terrorism; if America shows a willingness to bomb Iran the way it bombed Japan; if America hunts down, ruthlessly and without apology, rebellious militants in Iraq and Afghanistan—the Islamic world will get the message. Islamic Totalitarianism is a one-way ticket to ruin. Better figure out a peaceful version of Islam to replace it. And fast.
But for Americans to support such actions by their government, they must first have confidence in their own righteousness. Americans don’t want war. We don’t want to impose our values by force, we don’t want to take over other nations. We want only to be secure and free to pursue our own happiness.
Victory, in the war against Islamic Totalitarianism, means achieving real security. It means the elimination of the threat of attacks from Islamic militants against US interests at home and abroad. In concrete, real-world terms, it means a full return to pre-war security, to a future free from wire-tapping, invasive airport scans, color-coded terrorism alerts and armed guards with Geiger counters in railroad stations. It means a return to a US where such measures are patently excessive and unnecessary. It means the old normal, not some alleged “new normal” of terror hot lines and biometric national ID cards. That is the goal. Any administration that does not move us demonstrably closer to it has achieved failure, and should be judged accordingly.
Why do Americans seem so apathetic about the war on terror?
See “American Apathy and the New Normal” on our blog.