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Monday, September 25, 2006

Is the War on Terror a War?

As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The linguistic inverse of this, applying it to the topic of today and every day, is that if you see and call a problem a criminal one, you will tend to prefer tools appropriate to solving crimes. If you see the problem as being a military problem, you will tend to prefer military tools. Unfortunately, George Bush et al have decided to characterize terrorists as making war on us and that the appropriate response would be to make war on them. So, Bush declared a war on terrorism.

The word "war" is as misused as any in the English language. We have declared wars on drugs, wars on poverty, wars on child abuse, and wars on various diseases such as wars on cancer, wars on diabetes, etc. And, of course, now we have Bush's declaration of a war on terrorism.

I know how much declaring a war on drugs, poverty, violence against and women and children have gone. In word, they have gone nowhere. How declaring wars on diseases helps out in conquering these things I cannot say but since all of us suffer diseases or know those who have, this, at least, impacts all of us. Bush has tried to terrify the American people into personalizing terrorism -- characterizing terrorist attacks as something that can happen to you and me. That, of course, is so much statistical nonsense. The odds that any one of us will be the victim of a terrorist attack is surely less than the odds that any one of us will be the victim of a violent crime. Bush wants us to be afraid because that lets him exploit the old Republican saw that Democrats are "soft on X" where "X" is the current enemy. As I pointed out in another blog, Democrats have started most of our big wars, which is a fact which is fatal to the theory that Democrats are soft on the enemies of the United States. What they are not is soft-headed enough to buy Bush's war rhetoric.

What I am concerned about is how conceiving of our engagement with terrorists as a "war" may affect the success of our efforts to suppress terrorism because it can matter what we call things. Language does not determine thought but it influences it and calling this engagement a war will heighten the public's fears, as I noted, which has a dual political effect. One effect is that it makes the public more receptive to our taking overt military action because war quintessentially involves military action. Another effect is that it helps out the political fortunes of those in power. It is no accident that Bush is littering the country with sound waves trumpeting his leadership in the war on terror during the run up to the November election.

The Allied attack on Afghanistan was a military attack and seems to have been very effective in destroying the Al Queda training centers, in killing or capturing large numbers of Al Queda members, in taking power out of the hands of the Taliban, and in disrupting the activities of Al Queda's leadership. This victory may turn out to be a hollow one. For one thing, the war in Afghanistan is hotting up with the Taliban making a bit of a come back. And, of course, no one we know seems to know where Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden are. Moreover, Muslim terrorists have no lack of leaders. We kill one. Another pops up. The really unfortunate thing is that when we use military tools in fighting terrorists there is normally a lot of collateral damage, namely the killing of noncombatants. Nothing could be better calculated to cause the family and friends of those killed to want some revenge. Not all will join up with the terrorists, but some clearly do since the supply of terrorists seems inexhaustible. According to my morning Paper, President Musharraf of Pakistan says that is what is going on thanks to our war in Iraq. Whether it is the war itself or Bush's inept prosecution of the war, specifically in the area of post-war planning, I can't say. But there are lots of terrorist groups fighting in Iraq against us and the government we created. Check out this Wikipedia entry on insurgency groups and an IndyMedia UK link from that page, which also provides an inventory of insurgency groups operating in Iraq. I am very concerned about the fate of the men and women Bush has put in the way of danger there.

Which brings me to the issue at hand. When the Bush Administration decided to go to war with Iraq, one of its many fabricated arguments to the American people was that tossing Saddam out and installing a democratic government was part of the war on terror. Whether Bush himself was stupid enough to believe this I don't know but he is smart enough to know that he could count on the American people being gullible enough to buy it, at least initially. I don't mean to put down the people -- Bush and his friends were fear mongering us into accepting all sorts of things including the Patriot Act.

There is another way to view our engagement with terrorists and this is to see it as a crime problem. We saw the bombing of the Murray Federal Building a crime problem and it was solved using conventional methods for solving crimes. The first attack on the WTC was similarly viewed and was also solved. And, through the use of normal police tools apparently -- the use of informants, surveillance, wire-tapping, etc. -- the British police managed to nab a number of alleged terrorists and abort a potentially quite serious terrorist attack, this time involving a large number of planes that would have been blown up over the Atlantic thereby giving authorities little or no physical evidence to work with in ferreting out the culprits.

Our response to the destruction of the WTC and some adjacent buildings was seen as presenting a problem wanting a military solution. So Dubya invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq. In fact, the destruction of the WTC was not in principle any different from the apparent planned attack that the Brits seem to have foiled. It makes little difference whether hijacked planes fly into buildings or the buildings are bombed from below or planes are bombed and fall into the Atlantic. They are the same kind of crime -- mass murder accomplished through massive vandalistic attacks.

Had we seen the engagement with terrorists as a crime problem from the beginning, we would likely have operated in a very different way. What we did was start two wars and we are now propping up two governments, neither of which has any chance of surviving once we leave. Arguably the instruments of war were required to deal with the Taliban and Al Queda in Afghanistan for they had bombable training camps there and were located there. Don't think that destroying the training camps and storage facilities Al Queda had in Afghanistan means the end to such things. There are a lot of Muslim countries where such facilities can be placed.

Apparently, the use of military tools in Afghanistan crippled both the Taliban and Al Queda with the result that the Mullah Omar and Ossama Bin Laden were forced to go into hiding. Since then, terrorist attacks have been performed by locals against local targets. This was true in London and Madrid, as well as in Bali. In any event, I would argue that we are much better off now to define our engagement with terrorists as a crime problem not a military problem though occasional special forces type attacks may be needed to wipe out new training centers or kill specific bad guys located in foreign countries. But, it is very important that when we kill bad guys we minimize the killing of noncombatants. Right now we are killing too many in Afghanistan, to say nothing of Iraq.


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21 Comments:

Blogger Paul F. said...

We should just bomb Mecca. That will really piss those Muslims off.

6:49 PM

 
Blogger Mister Pregunto said...

Have phrases of the type 'The War on X' become the West's psychological equivalent of what the expression 'Jihad' is to Muslims?

8:41 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

Mister pregunto: I love that question.

LG, I think you've touched on something interesting here. I think some of the examples you cite may be acceptable, whereas most of them are problematic. For example, the "War on Drugs" could really be a war, considering the kinds of armaments and organization they have, particularly in countries south of the border. This is actually the closest example to match the "War on Terror". If it's not a war, then what is it? What defines a war? If you are using military equipment and targeting military targets (which includes training facilities and production infrastructure, e.g. cocaine packaging facilities) with military tactics, then what about it does not look like a war? Does a phrase like "limited military operation" or, as in Vietnam, a "police action", have any meaning? Notice with the Vietnam example that since it was not a popular cause they chose not to call it a war, while in popular causes they like to call it a war.

The use of fear for political gain is an interesting topic. You might like the movie "V for Vendetta" because that's one of the primary themes of that movie. I only wish the GOP didn't think it was necessary to use fear for any purpose; they have enough other topics (such as low taxes) to keep them in a large amount of power, but perhaps without it they wouldn't have as much power as they do.

12:49 PM

 
Blogger Anna in Cairo said...

Mister Pregunto, most Muslims don't use the word "jihad" as a shorthand to mean their own opposition to everything they are opposed to. Of course don't let that stop you from making the insulting comparison between Muslims and the Bush Admin.

Language Guy: I read at one point a skewering of the "war on terror" saying that it was a war on a tactic, which was as idiotic as declaring a "war on flanking maneuvers". I still think this is a pretty apt point.

3:31 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Kelly, I think you missed the point. If you define some engagement as a "war" then of course you will use military weapons but then you can't turn around and say it must be war because military means are employed. That would be begging the question in the classic sense of the term.

The engagement against terrorists is primarily a crime problem best fought using hte CIA, FBI, and local police, as well as similar resources in other countries. Indeed, if our own agencies had simply shared info and paid proper attention to it, the 9/11 attack might have been stopped. It seems that doing that, the British have stopped another attack.

When Bush invaded Afghanistan, we turned the engagement into a military one. Maybe that was the right thing to do. But invading Iraq created the terrorism problem there. It may be the single stupidest action any President has ever taken -- Bush turned a toothless, secular Muslim country into a huge problem. Young arabs are coming to Iraq to fight us. Bush's claim that it is better to fight them there than here is crazy talk. It is the war in Iraq that is creating the terrorists and giving them something to do.

3:36 PM

 
Blogger Mister Pregunto said...

Anna, you make an important point.

In asking my question above, there was a presupposition that we non-Muslims really have a (valid) insight into the meaning and connotations that Muslims understand by the word 'Jihad'.

Personally--and I may be way out in left field about this--I understand the word Jihad to mean something more like "holy enthusiasm for a worthy cause", or any campaign of action carried out with such enthusiasm. The worthy cause in question could refer to the intended elimination of a perceived evil, but it could equally be the intent to promote a perceived good. The key to the expression is that it is carries with it a sense of exhortation.

As for the common perception among Westerners that 'Jihad' simply means "holy war" in the sense of actual armed warfare. I would suppose this is a valid use of the term in specific contexts, but probably does not represent the word as it is commonly understood and used by most Muslims. That said, there does seem to be a subset of professing Muslims who also mean, more or less exclusively, "holy war" in the sense of armed warfare, when they use the term 'Jihad'.

At the risk of being repetitious, I would like to say that one of the most important features of the word 'Jihad', in my guesstimation, is that it's use generally marks an intention to inspire feelings of enthusiasm and righteousness in carrying out an action.

I would like to note that, in my question above, I did not refer to the Bush administration's use of expressions like the "War on X". Rather, I referred to the "West's" use and appreciation of the term. That distinction wasn't accidental. As far as I know, the Bush Admin might be heavy users of such expressions--and may have even coined one or two of them--but they probably did not invent them in the first place.

As far as I know, we have been using these type of expressions for many years, but in recent times they have become more widespread. Anyway, the reason that I suggested in my question that such expressions may be the West's equivalent to 'Jihad' is that their use "generally marks an intention to inspire feelings of enthusiasm and righteousness in carrying out an action."

I hope this clarifies the thought behind the question. Of course, you are free to correct me if my understanding of the meaning of the word 'Jihad' somehow falls short.

The most important thing I want to say is, "no insult intended".

6:45 PM

 
Blogger Le vent fripon said...

Kelly, the war on drugs seems is an even greater abuse of the term. Any time a government uses that word, their actions are suddenly only limited by internation law--which is often as good as saying they can do whatever they want. If we are in a war on drugs, what is to keep us from shooting coca farmers? In a war on terror there is no justice system to keep the army from torturing prisoners in secret detainment camps.

6:42 AM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

LG, I'm not sure that's begging the question. It's not begging the question to say that, for example, any sea creature with two shells that are hinged together is a bivalve, and that any bivalve is a sea creature with two shells hinged together. I was merely positing a possible definition of war: that whenever military tactics (etc.) are used, it is a war, and any war is a conflict wherein military tactics are involved. If you would like to posit a different definition, be my guest, but this is not begging the question.

I don't think it's ridiculous to declare a "war on terror". Rather than viewing it as a war on a tactic (which sounds ridiculous at first blush) it should be seen as a war on people and organizations who use the tactic. It would be much like declaring a general war on anyone who defies the Geneva Convention.

Le Vent Fripon, I meant that the war on drugs resembles a war more than, for example, the war on obesity (or whatever). I was not positing that it isn't abusive to declare such a war, at least without the consent of the countries where the war will be fought (unless, of course, the countries support the problem or turn a blind eye to it--in which case it is just as if they were attacking our citizens directly by way of murder and drugs). As far as whether it's right or wrong from an international law or global politics standpoint, well, there I'm completely out of my depth, but it seems to me that if a country (say, Venezuela) wants to help its citizens violate our laws within our borders using their homeland as a base of operations, then I see no reason, morally speaking, why we shouldn't be able to go in there and stop it. This is assuming, of course, that we do it in the most responsible way.

12:40 PM

 
Blogger Anna in Cairo said...

OK, I am sorry I did not check this for a few days and you are probably not reading, but the word Jihad is not used in everyday speech among those muslim communities I have had extensive contact with. It is supposed to have a variety of meanings, one of which is defensive warfare if attacked. The meaning that people usually prefer to use (outside of fringe elements like Bin Laden et al) is the "struggle of the self" (being a better person in face of temptation e.g.). The word used for "fighting" (militarily that is) in the Quran is not Jihad, it is Qital.

I do understand that people have to express themselves based on assumptions and that they necessarily may get things wrong because they are not experts on outside cultures and stuff, so I should not have been so harsh, but I really think your average Muslim does not talk nearly as confrontationally as your average "Western politician", so I resented the comparison. :)

1:09 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Kelly, Wikipedia says "begging the question is the term for a type of fallacy occurring in deductive reasoning in which the proposition to be proved is assumed implicitly or explicitly in one of the premises." This has always been my understanding of the concept and the site will give you more. This is precisely what you do in saying "whenever military tactics (etc.) are used, it is a war, and any war is a conflict wherein military tactics are involved." I am surprised you don't see this and am a at a loss how to make it clearer.

1:14 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

It's a definition, not an argument. That's why it doesn't fit that category. Saying that something is the same thing as its definition is not begging the question. I thought that I had made that clear. But if you would like to argue for a different definition, then that's fine.

Any elephant is a pachyderm with a long proboscis, just as any pachyderm with a long proboscis is an elephant. If the elephant (or the bivalve) example is not begging the question, but instead is a definition, then my statement on war is not begging the question, but is also a definition. I was simply not trying to make an argument. You can't beg the question unless you are in the reasoning stage of the argument; I was only in the proposition stage. Like I said, if you want to criticize the proposition, that's fine, but propositions are not subject to fallacies unless there is some problem in the underlying reasoning. When you are merely naming a thing, there is no reasoning involved, and that is all I have done. As you've noted before many times, the meaning of words is arbitrary. I was only making clear my understanding of the meaning of a word.

4:24 PM

 
Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

I remain of the opinion that the best place to wage a "war on drugs" is the true battlefield...the heart of the drug user. Fighting anywhere else cannot possibly succeed.

I have never been a user of narcotics or other drugs and cannot imagine a situation in which I would become one. I am however a caffeine and nicotine addict and have been known to knock back a drink or two. I favor full legalization of everything with controls resembling those which currently restrict my own "drugs of choice". With support, of course, for groups to help people who want to kick the habit.

It's not a question of morality, but of psychology and biology.

9:02 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

Ibad, I oppose the legalization of drugs, but you might find this interesting: they've found that after all the anti-drug advertising in recent years, the use of drugs has actually increased. After they discovered that, they continued to spend millions more.

5:54 PM

 
Blogger Forty_Two said...

Sometimes the omission of language carries more meaning:

The War on Drugs Without Powerful Lobbies is a good example.

3:53 PM

 
Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Um...what were the reasons against it, again? The good, real ones, I mean.

11:01 AM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

You mean drugs? Have you ever seen a meth addict? Maybe I'm biased because the only drug users I've seen were primarily meth addicts, and meth is probably the worst possible drug out there. I don't imagine there's any benefit to legalizing cocaine or heroine either. The crime reduction argument is ridiculous. If you legalized drugs, they'd be sold at places that already exist (i.e. pharmacies and/or gas stations) so the people that sell them now would still do something illegal to make their money--it would just be something worse than what they do now (such as robbing liquor stores). Marijuana is more of a gray area, but I don't think there's any benefit to making it legal. I remember hearing something about how a single joint has as much harmful effect on your lungs/heart as a pack of cigarettes. Some British study, I think. Regarding its "gateway drug" status, I'm not sure. I think people that give in to trying pot are more likely to try other drugs. Anyone that argues otherwise is clearly a fool. I defy you to find a cocaine user who didn't try pot first. But it may have something to do with it being illegal, and once you do illegal thing A you're more likely to do illegal thing B. But by the same token, if you try mind-altering substance A you're also more likely to try mind-altering substance B. Which one has more force (the fact that it's illegal or the fact that it's a mind-altering substance) and is more likely to make it a gateway drug is up for debate. But in the end, even if it is no more harmful, or even less harmful, than tobacco, I still don't see any benefit in legalizing it after it's already been illegal. It would be a different debate if there was no law against it now, but that's not the case.

11:22 AM

 
Blogger Paul F. said...

Kelly, you say anyone who is a cocaine user probably tried pot first? And I say he or she probably tried alcohol first befor the pot. So you can keep your republican mumbo-jumbo rhetoric to yourself. I admit that I have gone beyond pot, yes, but cigarettes and alcohol came first. Nowadays I don't do drugs or cigarettes, but I still like pot and alcohol once in awhile.

4:34 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

Paul F., you make a good point. I don't think I was making mere rhetoric. As I said, I'm not married to my position on marijuana. I was exploring the issue. Calling it "[mere] rhetoric" (the word "mere" is implied when you use the word in this way) shows that you have an emotional investment in the discussion, considering the fact that nothing I said was propaganda in any way, was not intended as such, and I don't see how anyone could take it as such.

On that point, then, we already tried illegalizing alcohol in this country. If we had a fresh start with a new culture, a country without alcohol might be a good thing. But it's so much a part of our culture that illegalizing it would be a big, unenforceable mistake, as history proves.

But pot? I hardly think that's such a big part of our culture. It's been illegal since before it was ever a popular drug in this country. And as I said before, I don't see the benefit of legalizing it. I'm not entirely familiar with the medical aspects of it, but that's an entirely different discussion. It's ridiculous to hear people cry "legalize marijuana" and cite its medicinal uses when all they really want is recreational use.

Now, a counter-argument occurs to me. The "Why not?" argument. This argument is not very convincing, but the position would of course be that recreational drugs are nice to have. My response to that would be that alcohol should be sufficient. Then the counter-argument can be anticipated that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. Whether or not that is true, I have no idea, but my response would be, irrespective of the truth of that statement, that changing the regime (i.e. illegalizing alcohol and legalizing marijuana) would be a big mess, and no good could come of it.

I'm not dead set on this position, but it seems to me the most reasonable. As someone who has never tried marijuana and who never will try it, but also someone who isn't adamant about it (having little opinion on the positive or negative aspects of marijuana), I think I'm free from bias as well as anyone can be on the issue.

But then, we're going entirely off subject here, aren't we?

10:14 PM

 
Blogger Paul F. said...

Kelly, you have a very compelling argument. I don't have time right now to respond, but I definately will tonight even though it is a little off the subject (sorry LG).

9:50 AM

 
Blogger Paul F. said...

I guess, Kelly, the best thing that I can say is that I was just trying to make a point about pot being the gateway drug. I'm just tired of people saying that pot is the gateway drug. Anybody who has tried pot has probably tried alcohol first. But they (the media spin machine) won't point that out because they don't want people to think about alcohol as a drug. We are trying to teach our chidren that drugs are bad, but they never really include alcohol in this stupid parody.

As far as recreational use is concerned, I think we deserve a choice. Pot would be my choice because I don't like getting drunk. i drink a little beer because I like the taste, but the feeling of being drunk isn't very good. Plus, alcohol is highly addictive. Obviously, people want to enjoy themselves with intoxicating substances. This is a fact of life. Why can't we have a choice?

As far as medicinal pot goes, I personally find it to be a great anti-depressant and mood lifter. I am a high-strung individual who isn't exactly a people person. When I am sober, I am generally pretty rude to people that I consider a republican or religious whacko or a plague. But, if I have a couple puffs here and there, I can tolerate these people a lot better and I am a lot nicer to everyone. The world just seems a little better than it really is and my pain is taken away. Alcohol just doesn't do that for me. Sure, you can say what you want. I've tried sobriety for a year, and let me tell you, it sucks because the world sucks in my opinion. People are like a malignant cancer on this earth and it makes sad and angry to see what has become of mankind. I like to be rude to all these people that I feel are causing all this pain and suffering in the world. I will not take prescription anti-depressants because my depression and sadness isn't because of body chemistry, it is situational depression. The world is in a bad situation and I don't want to witness all this stuff that is happening. But I do see it and I'd rather not be a sober person because it's the"sober" people who are screwing this place up.

I know this isn't the greatest arguement and it may even sound moronic, but there you go.

1:38 AM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

No, it doesn't sound moronic. It's probably the best argument I've heard in favor of legalizing marijuana, though. I'm still not convinced, but this was a good discussion.

11:30 AM

 

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