Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Changing Nature of Warfare after Pearl Harbor

Victor Hanson's piece earlier this week over at Townhall looked at the changing nature of war since Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. He notes that September 11, 2001, is our Pearl Harbor, but we no longer fight wars in the same manner as we did during the World War II generation:

It’s been five years since Sept. 11. After such a terrible provocation, why can’t we bring the ongoing “global war on terror” — whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere — to a close as our forefathers fighting World War II could?

Is our generation less competent?

Not really. The United States routed the Taliban from Afghanistan by early December 2001. America’s first clear-cut victory against the Japanese, at Midway, came six months after Pearl Harbor.

Do we lack the unity of the past?

Perhaps. But we should at least remember that after Pearl Harbor, a national furor immediately arose over the intelligence failure that had allowed an enormous Japanese fleet to approach the Hawaiian Islands undetected. Extremists went further — clamoring that the Roosevelt administration had deliberately lowered our guard as part of a conspiracy to pave the way for America’s entrance into the war.

Are we in over our heads fighting in both Afghanistan and Iraq?

Hardly. Within days after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. found itself in a three-front war against Germany, Italy and Japan — an Axis that had won a series of recent battles against the British, Chinese and Russians.

But there are significant differences between the “global war on terror” and World War II that do explain why victory is taking so much longer this time.

The most obvious is that, against Japan and Germany, we faced easily identifiable nation states with conventional militaries. Today’s terrorists blend in with civilians, and it’s hard to tie them to their patron governments or enablers in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Pakistan, who all deny any culpability. We also tread carefully in an age of ubiquitous frightening weapons, when any war at any time might without much warning bring in a nuclear, non-democratic belligerent.

The limitations on our war-making are just as often self-imposed. Yes, we defeated the Axis powers in less than four years, but it was at a ghastly cost. To defeat both Japan and Germany, we averaged over 8,000 Americans lost every month of the war — compared to around 50 per month since Sept. 11.

So far the United States has encouraged its citizens to shop rather than sacrifice. The subtext is that we can defeat the terrorists and their autocratic sponsors with just a fraction of our available manpower — ensuring no real disruption in our lifestyles. That certainly wasn’t the case with the Depression-era generation who fought World War II.

And in those days, peace and reconstruction followed rather than preceded victory. In tough-minded fashion, we offered ample aid to, and imposed democracy on, war-torn nations only after the enemy was utterly defeated and humiliated. Today, to avoid such carnage, we try to help and reform countries before our enemies have been vanquished —putting the cart of aid before the horse of victory.

Our efforts today are further complicated by conflicting Internet fatwas, terrorist militias and shifting tribal alliances; in short, we are not always sure who the enemy cadre really is — or will be.

Hanson argues that certain paradoxes arise from this comparison. One of these is that the United States -- more affluent, larger, and dramatically stronger than in 1941 -- is tied down like a modern day Gulliver by a modern-day aversion to the exercise of decisive power.

Over at the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Shelby Steele discussed America's shackling from the moral relativism of our postmodern approach warfare. Steele notes Americans fought earlier wars unambiguously, with unconditional surrender the final objective:

But today, as Nancy Pelosi recently put it, "You can define victory any way you want." And war, she said, was only "a situation to be resolved." If this sort of glibness makes the current war seem a directionless postmodern adventure, it is only because those who call us to war have themselves left the definition of victory wide open. And now, as if to confirm that this is a "relativistic" war meaning everything and nothing, there are at least three national commissions--the White House, the Pentagon and the Baker committee--tasked to create the meaning that will give us a dignified exit. Of course America is now quite beyond any possibility of dignity in this situation save the one option all these commissions have or will likely dismiss: complete military victory.

Why don't we know the meaning of this war and our reasons for fighting it? I think the answer begins in the awkward fact that America is now the world's uncontested superpower. If this fate has its advantages, it also brings an unasked-for degree of dominion in the world. This is essentially a passive dominion that has settled on a rather isolationist nation, yet it makes America into something of a sheriff. Whether the problem is Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, Iran, North Korea or Darfur, America gets the call. Thus our youth are often asked to go to war more out of international responsibility than national necessity. This is a hard fate for a free and prosperous citizenry to accept--the loss of sons and daughters to a kind of magnanimity. Today our antiwar movement is essentially an argument with this fate, a rejection of superpower responsibility.

And this fear of responsibility is what makes us ambivalent toward the idea of victory. Because victory is hegemonic, it mimics colonialism. A complete American victory in Iraq would put that nation--at least for a time--entirely under American power and sovereignty. We would in fact "own" the society as a colony. In today's international moral climate this would both undermine the legitimacy of our war effort and make an ongoing demand on our blood and treasure. If we are already a good ways down this road, complete victory would only take us further.

Is it any wonder, then, that we have failed to completely win this war? Since World War II, American leaders--left and right--have worked out of an impossible double bind: They cannot afford to win the wars they fight. Thus the postmodern American war in which the world's greatest power deconstructs its own motives for fighting until losing becomes a better option than winning.

Sometimes commentators refer to the World War II age cohort as "the greatest generation." I don't love the term, because I think Americans -- of all ages -- are a great and exceptional people, and each generation renews the promise of this nation's history. Still, when we compare historical eras, the quality of national unity and purpose that Americans demonstrated toward the totalitarian threats of the 1930s and 1940s does elicit a special nostalgia for a previous degree of moral clarity that seems missing today.

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