Collateral Damage

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Sept. 17 2001 9:30 PM

Collateral Damage

Missing person

This is war. On that everyone seems to agree—or, at least, they agreed for a while. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, not just politicians but many pundits joined President Bush in declaring "war" on terrorism. But now, with the aid of some critical distance, a few observers have started asking whether that word doesn't obscure more than it illuminates. 

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

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After all, a conventional war—a conflict between states or groups of states—is pretty straightforward. There is a clear-cut objective (control the other guy's territory) and a clear-cut methodology (kill the other guy's soldiers—who, conveniently, are often dressed in distinctively colored uniforms). Once you've obtained the objective, you can relax: Your enemy surrenders, and the game is over.

That none of this is true of a "war" on terrorism has started sinking into the national consciousness. ("What Would 'Victory' Mean?" asked a headline in yesterday's New York Times.) But I think the most dangerously misleading thing about the "war" metaphor still hasn't dawned on many people. We by and large haven't reckoned with the possible new meaning of the phrase "American casualties."

Suppose that, as part of our metaphorical war against terrorism, we declare an actual, literal war on Afghanistan. The average American will realize that, this being war, the enemy will fight back, and American soldiers will come home in body bags. But the average American might not realize that the enemy could also fight back by parking truck bombs in American cities—that Americans who are already home may wind up in body bags.

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll illustrates this blind spot. How many Americans favor responding to the terrorist attack by taking military action? 93 percent. And what if this means war? 86 percent. And what if it means civilian casualties abroad? 77 percent. And what if it means large numbers of U.S. troops getting killed? 69 percent. And what if it means large numbers of American civilians getting killed?

That's the question the pollsters didn't ask. They're still thinking about "war" in the conventional sense of the word.

Admittedly, President Bush has stressed that this is a new kind of war. Still, he has singled out our men and women in uniform as the ones who must gird themselves for combat. So when he stresses that this war could go on for years and involve great national sacrifice, pretty much everyone imagines the "greatest generation" kind of national sacrifice: Troops go off to die, and the rest of us plant victory gardens—and arrive at airports three hours before scheduled departure. Almost no one is imagining America turning into Israel, a place where every loud noise scares you to death. But it could well happen if our "war" on terrorism sufficiently inflames Islamic radicals.

I can hear the replies to this column now: Don't you understand? They're already killing American civilians. That's why we have to stop them!

Yes, we do have to try to stop them, and this may well mean taking military action. But note that this whole line of rhetoric—they're already killing us, and we must stop them—is itself a warped byproduct of war-think. It uncritically assumes the binary nature of conventional war. In a conventional war, once the killing begins, the enemy is fully committed to your destruction, so there's no need to worry about further antagonizing him. And completely stopping the enemy—winning the war, once and for all—is plausible. Neither of these things is true today.

Radical Islamic hatred of the United States is a variable that can go up or down. The commitment of the "enemy" to killing us isn't now anywhere near its theoretical maximum, and it may never reach zero. So one of our main jobs, for years and probably for decades, is to manage that variable. As we proceed on the various fronts we must now proceed on—including the military front—we have to keep radical Islamic hatred as low as possible.

It may sound like we've reached the reductio ad absurdum of my argument. I seem to be talking about fighting a war while trying to avoid antagonizing the enemy! But I submit that this is the weird new reality we face. And if the language we're using to describe that reality makes it seem inconceivable, then it's time to find some new language.

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