Sunday, November 15, 2009

The War on Terror, or Putting my foot in it

I stand a very good chance of just annoying a lot of people and, for that, I apologize. But, as a wordsmith...

I wish people would stop talking about a "War on Terror" or a "War on Terrorism." "Terror" and "Terrorism" are abstract concepts (for all the very real consequences that follow from them) and you can't send armies against concepts. I think that the phrase "War on Terror" is more similar to the "War on Hunger" or "War on Poverty" than it is to "War on Germany." However, we all recognize that a "War on Hunger" is a metaphor. Unfortunately, "War on Terrorism" (because of the very real associations with death and destruction) isn't as obviously a metaphor.

The danger is that "War" still means something. In a real war (as opposed to a metaphorical one), you declare your intention to attack another country, you gather your army, you march (or fly or sail) to that country, you kill its soldiers/citizens, destroy their military equipment/munitions/factories/homes, and you continue until the other country surrenders or negotiates some kind of peace. You then eliminate the other country's ability to renew hostilities and withdraw your forces/leave some kind of occupying force/acquire new territory. So, you would say a "War on Germany" or a "War against Britain" or a "War against Switzerland" and the last word in the phrase is the country that you are going to declare war on and are going to attack.

But a "War" on abstract concepts like "Hunger", "Poverty", or "Drugs" is a different thing. It indicates that you intend to mobilize great forces and that you are going to continue until no one suffers from the abstract concept. But you don't destroy the military forces of "Hunger"--you feed people; you don't destroy the munitions of "Drugs"--you prevent drugs from being created or delivered or sold. And we recognize "War" in these phrases as a metaphor: We do not expect a "War on Hunger" to consist of dropping bombs on anything, let alone on Hunger (or the people who suffer from Hunger).

The same is true of a "War on Terror": It's hard to see how any of the actions that apply to a real war apply to a "War on Terror." Who do you send your army against? What do you occupy? What munitions do you destroy (since terrorists can cause death and destruction with material carried in a briefcase or hidden under a coat)? Unlike a real war, does a "War on Terror" ever end (who would you negotiate with)? After all, even the Hundred Years War came to an end (as did the Cold War, which was another funny kind of war)

Isn't terrorism more like "criminalism"? It's a constant effort by the police forces of the world to keep crime in check and, it seems to me, stopping terrorists is another effort that will never end. Even the metaphorical "War on Poverty" and "War on Hunger" projected an end when Poverty/Hunger were eradicated.

The problem is that using this metaphor encourages us to think in terms of a real war instead of a metaphorical one. Indeed, in the early stages of the "War on Drugs" there was some thought the metaphorical war could be won by bombing the sites where the drugs were created or sending armed forces against the groups that made or distributed the drugs. That didn't work.

We could say a "War on Terrorists" and have a phrase that isn't a metaphor. However, I think that phrase suggests the inherent problem: you don't use armies against terrorists. You could, at best, send armed forces against countries/governments that support terrorists (though "War on Terrorist Supporters" isn't nearly as catchy). The US has done this in Iraq and Afghanistan. That seems a limited solution: many of the countries that support terrorists are countries we're not willing to attack (Korea). More importantly, it's questionable whether terrorists even need the support of governments and countries (looking at the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan).

The other problem with the "War on Terror" metaphor is that it suggests that governments can take actions "for the duration." In every real war, governments are obliged to take actions and assume powers/responsibilities that are limited to the duration of the war (e.g. increased oversight of citizens/price fixing). If fighting terrorism will never end (and, like fighting crime, I don't think it ever will) should governments be allowed to assume these powers forever?

If the "war on terror" is a war, it's not like any war we've fought in the past and using the same term is just going to lead to mistakes. I suspect that ending terrorism is less an activity performed by armed forces than the result of work done by intelligence and police forces. It's less about conquering territory than eliminating individuals and more about destroying financial support than destroying munitions. While armed services can spot and destroy a missile emplacement, I'm not sure how you spot and destroy 19 men with box cutters--or, if you do, you use security/intelligence/police forces and not heavy equipment or platoons of soldiers.

I think that the phrase "War on Terror" distracts us from the range of options required to eradicate terror and causes us to focus on activities that are almost guaranteed not to end terror (perhaps even on actions that will increase support for terrorists). It certainly seems that the US was more successful in reducing terrorism inside Iraq when it used its forces to track and kill individual terrorist leaders, to build alliances with groups in Iraq, to create a stable government, and to win "hearts and minds" rather than territory.You could make the same case for ending terror in Ireland: it was less about military force than political will. It's not about spending money on new aircraft or even on more soldiers but spending money on intelligence forces, border patrols, and security forces.

"War on Terror", while a great rallying cry, in the end, may mislead more than it helps.

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