The Laboratorium
October 2001

Seven Ways of Looking at a War


Seymour M. Hersh has an article in the 7 November New Yorker about a Special Forces raid on Mullah Omar's residence that went badly awry. In a complex and large mission, dozens of helicopters dropped off hundreds of soldiers for an armored assault. The sheer size and firepower of the operation made it noisy and slow, and the Taliban reinforcements proved numerous and surprisingly tenacious. The team had to pull back and withdraw under heavy fire.

As Hersh notes, the policy at work here is "cover your ass." It is not quite that military planners are afraid to commit American forces; rather, they are terrified of not committing enough. Even slight casualties can be public-relations disasters, and even a small mistake can be fatal to one's chances for promotion. Their instinct is to ensure that no mission ever fails for lack of firepower. Thus the helicopter bombardment. Thus two hundred Rangers instead of six. And thus an institutional inability to act with stealth, surprise, and flexibility.

We're having this problem now, I think, because we were maintaining such a large standing army, one that was out of all proportion to the actual conflicts facing it. The results: an officer corps institutionally discouraged from taking risks, a cultural preference for firepower over flexibility, and the paradoxical inability to deal with small problems. The American military has the institutional equivalent of obsessive-compulsive disorder: it knows that it shouldn't worry about every last detail, but it just . . . can't . . . stop . . . washing . . . its . . . hands . . . before . . . every . . . mission.

Bert from Sesame Street has been popping up on posters with Osama bin Laden. (See here for a full explanation). In brief, a net.geek had created a "Bert is Evil" web site, placing the Muppet at the Kennedy Assasination, on the Jerry Springer show, and in other questionable locations. Someone out there, inspired, put Bert and bin Laden together in a picture; that picture then somehow got used as part of a collage of bin Laden photos on posters held by anti-U.S. demonstrators across the Arab world.

As usual, most of the attention has focused on the (assumed-to-be) Western prankster who first doctored the photo. But me, I'd like to know what was on the minds of the people who made the collage poster and who carried it with anger towards the country and culture that produced Bert. Did some puckish assistant at the printer's pick out the image to mess with American minds? Did he simply not notice Bert at all? How many of the protesters looked up at their posters and puzzled over the scowling yellow puppet next to bin Laden?

Blame the Internet, blame globalization. Even a vehement anti-American protest includes a popular American children's figure. And even a picture that started out as a joke, when hyperlinked and forwarded and cropped and reprinted, becomes something more. There was irony here, in a former life, but it's been swallowed up by the larger and more tragic ironies of the world.

Limited disclosure causes other problems. It becomes difficult to distinguish one's ordinary beliefs about the world from other, more sinister possibilities: the reassuring evidence is just plain missing.

I think Osama bin Laden exists. I think. There's evidence from other sources: protesters waving flags with his image, videotaped statements, Taliban table-thumping on his behalf. But, but, but. Maybe he doesn't. Maybe when unexplained bombings started happening a few years ago, we started setting up a blameable figure, and now that we're really desparately looking for the culprit, we have a useful nonexistent stand-in hiding somewhere unspecified in a remote location we can't easily target. And when we find the real mastermind and quietly take him down, "Osama bin Laden" will be killed in a sudden and bloody raid.

Or maybe kept alive to justify the rest of law enforcement's wish list. You start thinking conspiracies like this; you just can't stop. You ask, do we really want him alive? Do we want a ponderous trial? Could we possibly do it in a way that appears fair and appears forceful, let alone is fair and is forceful? What else is really on the agenda for him, and for us?

There's something disturbing about the Taliban's refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden: on the facts of the matter, they're in the right. The United States has refused to present direct evidence for his guilt in the September 11 attacks. Were the United States presented with an unconditional request of this sort, under similar legal circumstances, it is impossible to envision it complying. It is a request of the sort with which no sovereign government could be expected to comply.

The position of the United States and its allies is not entirely unreasonable: Claiming to be in possession of compelling proof for bin Laden's guilt, they also assert that the Taliban cannot be trusted with that proof. It is said that rather than trying bin Laden on the supplied evidence, they would simply turn it over to him and thereby expose the informants who supplied it.

If this is true, it would make of the Taliban what Hannah Arendt called a "criminal regime," one whose laws and institutions fundamentally run counter to justice. And in such a case, there would be a reasonable case under international principles for removing the Taliban and replacing it with a more just regime. This appears to be exactly what the Bush administration is trying to do. It is not, however, what the Bush administration claims to be doing. Which is entirely understandable, in a political coalition-building sense, but is an unpleasant precedent to be setting.

It may be the measure of one's imagination how far September 11 took one beyond the ordinary. When the world changes so deeply, do your thoughts change with it? Or is there a place in the System for that, too? Is the mindset that can turn the events of that day into evidence for some preexisting point of view to be trusted with anything?

It's all too easy to read through the responses and see how strongly old habits condition the mind. Larry Ellison thinks a national-ID Oracle database would be an excellent idea; the S29 protests go ahead as planned; the anti-encryption folks rally 'round the flag. Andrew Sullivan thinks that liberals are being left behind by history; Edward Said thinks that Western democratic ideals and Arab nationalism must make common cause. In hindsight, the hushed silence of that first week feels less like shock and more like a frantic search for palatable spin.

The joke bears repeating. The drunk is on his hands and knees beneath the lamppost, looking intently at the sidewalk. Asked what he's doing, he replies that he's looking for the keys he dropped over in the alley. So why doesn't he look there? Because the light's better here.

What does the United States do about terrorists possibly hiding in caves in the hinterlands of a country with little infrastructure and less high-tech weaponry, whose most effective defenses are probably individually-carried weapons and the long-term willingness to use guerilla warfare? Bomb, from high altitude, the airfield at the capital and other highly-visible targets. It's not that the terrorists are there; it's just that that's where the light's best. The Pentagon is notorious for the cost of its hammers; right now it's looking for nails.

It's barely even a meaningful question to ask what it could be doing better. Given the current open options, it's not at all clear that any other military tactics would be any more effective. But still, one may perhaps wonder about the inordinate expense that went into buying such an inappropriate military infrastructure. If what we really need are special forces and better human intelligence, couldn't the money spent on main battle tanks, tactical nuclear weapons, and attack submarines been spent on something worthwhile, like schools or poverty relief in the Third World?

With the exception of certain ultra-hawks too Manichean even for the National Review, the consensus opinion in the United States has come down firmly against harassment of Arab-Americans. Led by President Bush, Americans have been proudly proclaiming their willingness to distinguish between terrorists and peace-loving Muslims. It's not okay to beat up Arab-American neighbors, or to call them names, or even to stare at them funny.

All of which is admirable, but it seems like all this empathy comes at a price. How many of the white Americans so busy expressing concern for the innocent Arabs being racially profiled in the U.S. are as concerned about the innocent Arabs being bombed in Afghanistan? You can be hassled for Flying While Swarthy in the U.S., but you can be killed for living in the wrong residential neighborhood of Kabul, or for trying to flee Afghanistan and being trapped foodless in a refugee camp near the border.

It's pleasant to know that the U.S.-Them boundary has pushed a little further outwards in the last few years, but the line itself remains sharp as ever. America has a way of getting things morally wrong even when it gets them right. There will likely come a day when as many people have been killed by the War on Terror as died in the attacks that sparked it. Who will even notice?

In his infamous videotaped statement, Osama bin Laden blames the West and moderate Islam, for, among other things, the deaths of Iraqi children under U.N.-imposed sanctions.

To review, the sanctions, along with the entire Gulf War, were designed to restrain Saddam Hussein's regime. At the time of the Gulf War, Iraq was a leading regional power because the U.S. had been backing it so heavily against Iran, at the time considered the most dangerous state in the Middle East. At the time of the Iran-Iraq War, Iran was a leading regional power because the U.S. had sold it upwards of $10 billion in arms before the Revolution, in the hopes of building a stabilizing regional power.

It's not really correct to say that the world has changed irrevocably since the simple clarities of the Cold War. More accurately, the world was never that simple, and we're still paying the social costs for the casual country-wrecking and military mindset of those days. There are no new messes; only botched cleanups of old ones.