The War on Terror is a losing proposition

This week marks the 68th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only two deployments of a nuclear weapon against civilians in the history of warfare.

The Gembaku Dome building in Hiroshima serves as a monument to the events of Aug. 6, 1945. Image c/o Fg2/Wikimedia Commons

The Gembaku Dome building in Hiroshima serves as a monument to the events of Aug. 6, 1945. Image c/o Fg2/Wikimedia Commons

Hiroshima was leveled by the weapon codenamed ‘Little Boy’ on August 6. Three days later, ‘Fat Man’ devastated Nagasaki – which, notably, was not the original target of the second bomb. The United States abandoned plans for the obliteration of Kyoto at the urging of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who had honeymooned in the city.

The U.S. needed a substitute. Nagasaki would do.

A common refrain in years hence has been that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki foreshortened the war with Japan, averting an incalculable human cost. Though the counterfactual is difficult to prove, many modern historians argue that Japan, facing total defeat upon the entry of the Soviet Union into Manchuria, would have surrendered irrespective of whether the atomic bombs had been dropped.

Others contend that the true purpose of the bombings was to send a message to the Soviets, who had begun to develop nuclear weapons capability in 1942.

While mushroom clouds billowed over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nearly 100,000 Japanese civilians, including school children and infants, were literally cooked alive. Japan found itself on untenable footing, surrounded by enemies, and soon capitulated. Following the surrender, the U.S. occupied the East Asian archipelago and established its own military bases there, decommissioned its armed forces and imposed a new constitution in 1947.

As experiments in nation-building go, the U.S. managed the restructuring of Japan with relative success. It was an experience that would inform subsequent action by America and its allies that have thus far proven far less triumphant.

Fast forward to 2013, and the face of war has changed. Unlike a campaign of belligerence with an identifiable adversary – like the Kingdom of Japan – the War on Terror is a war not against any one entity, but against a nefarious tactic.

However, what exactly is “terror” – that tactic Western governments purport to deplore?

Various countries, Canada and the U.S. included, have striven to formalize ‘terrorism’ and terrorist acts. The definition they’ve devised is typically some variant of “ideologically motivated violence, or the threat thereof, against civilians.”

A predator drone, of the sort used by the Obama administration to carry out an unprecedented assassination campaign. Image c/o U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt

A predator drone, of the sort used by the Obama administration to carry out an unprecedented assassination campaign. Image c/o U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt

But that definition exposes Western states engaged in the War on Terror to the charge of hypocrisy. What were the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, if not ideologically motivated violence against civilians? What, indeed, are drone strikes that terrorize Pakistanis, Yemenis, Afghanis, that have slaughtered not only suspected militants, but hundreds of innocent people too? What was the shelling and subsequent invasion of Iraq, or for that matter Afghanistan?

Following the cataclysmic events of September 11, 2001, in which more than two thousand Americans perished, the U.S. government faced a dread decision. The first option was to pursue through international legal mechanisms the culprits of the crime that befell New York City and Washington on that fateful day. It was a choice that would have required that most elusive form of bravery – the courage to be vulnerable. But it was one that would also have spared innumerable lives.

The second choice, the one the U.S. unfortunately chose, would send the country tumbling headlong into a trap.

In 1996, the editor of London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al Quds al Arabiya, Abdul Bari Atwan, became one of few Western journalists to interview Osama bin Laden. He recounts being told by the infamous insurgent of a plan to lure the U.S. into a series of self-destructive military engagements overseas, to bankrupt the country and mar its international standing.

“It seems the invasion of Iraq fulfilled Osama bin Laden’s wish,” Atwan reflected in a 2007 interview with Tony Jones of ABC News.

“He told me personally that he can’t go and fight the Americans and their country. But if he manages to provoke them and bring them to the Middle East…where he can find them or fight them on his own turf, he will actually teach them a lesson.”

Today, more than $16 billion in debt and having both lost and extinguished thousands of lives in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, the U.S. still shows no sign of curtailing its foreign military interventionism.

Even if one accepts the premise that al Qaeda and other shadowy organizations are the true enemies in the War on Terror, the prospects of victory are poor. While many champions of violent Islamic jihad have indeed perished as a consequence of the drone campaign, the spectre of enmity toward the West remains. There is no telling the extent to which Western violence will further radicalize young men in Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere – some of whom have lost, or will lose, innocent loved ones to lethal Western assaults, including so-called ‘double-tap’ drone strikes by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

But there is no doubt that wars in Muslim-majority countries, if not the drone campaign, have served as a persuasive recruiting tool for the cause of violent jihad. If anything, these foreign conflicts have further jeopardized the national security of the U.S. and its allies, rather than enhancing it. Moreover, as citizens of Western countries are increasingly saddled with pernicious encroachments on their privacy and civil liberties, like mass collection of metadata from our online communications, and anti-terror laws that permit pre-emptive arrest and detention, the cause of ‘national security’ is consistently cited as justification.

On the other hand, if one adopts a principle of moral consistency, and rejects the War on Terror’s double standard – that acts of ideologically motivated violence against civilians are tolerable only if the U.S. and its allies perpetrate them – an ineluctable conclusion emerges: that victory in the War on Terror is impossible.

Western state-sponsored terror can no more vanquish jihadi terror, than a flamethrower can douse a fire. And no matter which faction ultimately triumphs in this seemingly endless struggle, terror will have prevailed.

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