Monday, April 12, 2004

Apologies to everyone I've been neglecting while living even more like a caveman than usual while trying to finish my latest column, which is below. Tomorrow I will write all about what I did over the holiday weekend.


In reading accounts of the 1943 North African campaign (Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn is the latest) I am always struck by how passive the local population was toward the large numbers of infidels passing through their lands. Granted, these were large numbers of heavily armed infidels, but the modern reader can’t help but contrast the Arabs of 1943 with today’s radicalized, perpetually aggrieved Muslim populations. Sixty years ago, the Muslim Arabs of North Africa seemed to have no political concerns at all; for them, the appearance of thousands of foreigners shooting up their countries was simply a phenomenon, a manifestation of the will of God like earthquakes or bad weather.

Sixty years later, the Islamic world is a completely different place, full of anger against the West. How it became that way--I think decades of Cold War anti-Americanism have at least as much to do with it as the existence of the state of Israel or the rise of Islamic fundamentalism--is not what I want to talk about here. I only mention it as a preface to some thoughts I had about solutions to asymmetric warfare.

“Asymmetric warfare” is a recent neologism from 1995. “It occurs,” goes the standard definition, “when a weaker combatant uses nontraditional weapons and strategy in order to obtain a fighting advantage over a stronger opponent.” Asymmetric warfare is horribly difficult to fight against, particularly in its Islamic extremist version, with its continual threat of suicide attacks.

Suicide attacks have always fascinated and terrified a certain part of the Western mindset. I’m reminded of the scene in The Godfather Part 2 where a Cuban revolutionary jumps into a car containing an official of the Batista regime and detonates a bomb, killing them both. Afterwards, the audience is expected to nod sagely when Michael Corleone solemnly observes that people who are willing to kill themselves for a cause cannot be beaten. But, we ask today, is this really true? The question seems more and more important every day.

Based on recent experience, there seem to be two general ways to fight asymmetrical warfare. Since September 11th, we’ve seen the Western powers, more or less in cooperation, fighting Islamic extremism in one particular way. It involves trying to anticipate and foil operations as they occur; selective assassinations; targeting the largest and most obvious terrorist targets for conventional military action; or, most ambitiously, attempting to change the political culture of the entire Middle East in Afghanistan and Iraq. All of it is difficult and controversial and enormously expensive.

And then there is the other proposed way to fight asymmetric warfare, namely, the purposeful destruction of the populations in which irregular fighters conceal themselves: For lack of a better term, genocide.

Since the recent massacres in Fallujah in Iraq and the subsequent heavy fighting there, we have heard things like the following, from anonymous Internet posts and on-the-record declarations from radio talk-show hosts:

Ignore collateral damage, flatten some cities and towns and PROVE we are the power in Iraq and that NOT taking our side is dangerous.

WHY are we taking prisoners? We should be killing them all!

Why we didn’t just destroy Fallujah, a Sunni stronghold, killing everything and everyone, and let God sort them out?

I don't wanna say we should kill 'em all [Muslims], but unless there's reform [within Islam], there aren't a lot of other solutions that work in the ground struggle for survival.

While I think that a lot of it is simply people blowing off steam during a difficult military situation, I can’t help but notice more and more of this. Certainly the jihadist monsters who are fighting us deserve to be annihilated in the most brutal manner, but calling for genocide is something very different. It’s a journey into a dimension populated largely by, among notable others, our current opponents.

Make no mistake, the West now faces an opponent whose intent is the literal destruction of its enemies; not just cultural artifacts like the dynamited Buddha statues in Afghanistan, but entire peoples are to be destroyed. From an article by ideologist Saif al-Din al-Ansari in the official Al-Qaeda periodical:

Just as the law of extermination was applied to the infidel forces among the nations in previous days and no one could escape it, so it will be applied to the infidel forces in our day and no one will escape it. Namely, similar to the fate of the Thamoud and 'Ad peoples [two pagan Arab peoples which, according to Islamic tradition, were exterminated due to their rejection of the words of the Prophet], so the American state, the Jewish state, and all other infidel countries will certainly be destroyed. Allah is capable of exterminating his enemies with no need for intermediaries or the help of anyone. His might is infinite...therefore, when He [Allah] designates the task of extermination of infidels to his believers, He does so as a hidden expression of His power...the infidels’ extermination is part of Islamic law, which is operative until the Day of Judgment. Its principal element will be fulfilled only at the hands of the believers, meaning through jihad, which is also to be operative until the Day of Judgment. [Al-Ansar, vol. 16, Aug. 24, 2002]

Other Al-Qaeda ideologists imply that their movement cannot be stopped except by the large-scale depopulation of the Muslim world; since the West cannot stomach such a thing, the victory of their movement is inevitable.

Reading this sort of stuff from jihadists is much easier than reading it from Americans, because we expect it from jihadists. Suicide attacks tend to correlate with mass-murdering regimes, so it makes logical sense. Intentionally wiping out women and children is something we expect from them, not from ourselves.

All of this is important not because of international law, but precisely because international law is a bit of a joke. The appalling indifference to the Rwanda genocide in 1994, and the spectacularly bungled Milosevic prosecution in the Hague gives us scant hope that the “international community” can do anything about genocide.

One of the consequences of this is that genocide is now, in nearly all wars, the default consequence of total victory. If war is a continuation of politics by other means, then genocide has become a continuation of war by other means. Genocide is now simply an extreme political calculation.

I would point out that 60 years ago, when the Muslims of North Africa seemed to have no greater interest in the Americans and Germans in their midst beyond looting their dead bodies, the publishing houses of America featured titles like Germany Must Perish and Germany Will Try It Again. Syndicated columnists wondered why only twelve death sentences were handed out at Nuremberg and not twelve million. More than a few Americans wanted to see the depopulation of the irredeemably dangerous nations of Germany and Japan.

The point I am making is that a lot can change in a few years. We shouldn’t have to become monsters to defeat monsters.

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