Along the Tracks

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Total war

I’ve been reading the biblical book of Joshua lately. It’s hard reading in our present context, as it describes a people convinced they are singled out for God’s blessing. They also find those sitting on their promised homeland utterly without value. They have no compunction about slaughtering them in the thousands, men, women and children. The narrative’s fervor for bloodshed is almost hypnotic, as battle after battle, we learn people were “slaughtered with a very great slaughter.” Invariably, the people chosen of God find they lose favor not for brutality, but for compassion.

In Joshua, the blood which washes away all sins is not of sacrificial animals or a future messiah, but that spilled from the people inhabiting Canaan.

As I said, hard reading, and hard to interpret. If one can get past the gore, and make it on through Joshua to the next book, Judges, one can begin to make sense of the moral underlying what seems to be such an amoral account. You see, after the Israelite leader Joshua dies, the people are living in the promised land as clans and tribes mixed in with many of the original people of Canaan. If Joshua is an “experiment” in a total war which failed, Judges provides the “results”: Regular bouts of warfare between Israelite tribes and those original landholders, coupled with periods of digression from the monotheistic faith of Abraham to apostasy and idol worship.

This weekend, the 60th anniversary of the first use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima is being observed. World War II, much like the Israelite conquest of Canaan told in Joshua, was a total war. All people – military, statesmen and civilians – were involved. Action could occur anywhere. All targets were justified as legitimate. Victory and defeat could only be declared unconditionally. People can sit in rooms today and debate the necessities of this or that action by the Allies; they would have found little time to do so in 1945 when parents feared for sons returning from Europe and destined for an invasion of Japan.

Certainly many at the time felt use of the atomic bomb was beyond the pale, even for a “total” war. Similar (and well-founded) criticisms were made of bombings against Dresden, Tokyo and other civilian centers. Yet, for those making the difficult decisions, it was clear as early as 1940 or ’41 that the war against the Axis was something deeper than “politics by other means.” Lines on maps, transportation lines and access to resources were mere surface decorations: The ideology underlying Italian fascism, German Nazism and Japanese militarism was one with power as ultimate good, with the weaker properly subjugated and the individual crushed in the mill of the state. The only crimes were limits to power, and righteousness found in power’s exercise.

For liberal states of the day, a loss to this ideology was indeed equivalent to the end of existence. Total war, in their eyes, was justified, not because it was necessary to defeat the Axis in battle, but because it was necessary to defeat the ideology underlying the war inside the cultures where it grew. The people of Germany, Italy and Japan, in this view, were the soil from which this apocalyptic danger grew; the thorns of Nazism and militarism must be torn up, yes, but the soil must also be sterilized.

The enemy we face in the War on Terrorism – Islamic totalitarianism is as good a description as any – is also rooted in a culture. Perhaps it is fortunate that this war has begun before the Islamists had an opportunity to solidify their control over the wider Muslim culture. Still, in many ways, the Islamic world teeters on the edge of accepting the teachings of its extremists as not only viable, but necessary.

Total wars are generally rapid wars, because each side will stop at nothing and surrender or death are the only terms. Negotiations are superfluous.

We are not fighting a total war today. We are fighting a carefully executed “pinpoint” war (even if mistakes and setbacks raise questions about that execution). A “reverse domino” strategy is playing out, and the process takes time.

All wars are bloody, and this one is no different. But considering World War II, and the Israelite conquest of Canaan 3,000 years ago, the slaughter, though heart-wrenching, has been less than “very great.”

If, however, this strategy is not followed through to its conclusion – a free, democratic moderate Islamic world - which could well take decades, then the Islamists will bounce back from their early defeats and build stronger support systems, stronger national identities and stronger attack strategies. Should the Islamists succeed in killing thousands or tens of thousands in the West again, the choice for us all – particularly for the United States as the free world’s leader – will be between total war and surrender. At that point, victory delayed – by careful air wars, one-at-a-time invasions or criminal prosecutions – will inevitably lead to victory denied.

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