Thursday, January 24, 2008

Rules of War and Victory in the War on Terror

From Francis Lieber

``Military necessity does not include any act of hostility which makes the return to peace unnecessarily difficult.''

``Men convinced of the justness of their cause will rarely accept limits on how they pursue it.'' [paraphrase of Lieber's thought by David Bosco]

From Colin Powell

What terrorists cannot do is to change the nature of who we are as an open and generous society, as we always have been. That is our greatest weapon.

I found Bosco's review of the correspondence between Francis Lieber and Henry Halleck during the US Civil War to be intriguing. I find it interesting that the discussion of the issues of rightful conduct during the prosecution of war goes back so far in the American tradition. It is especially interesting to see what was being said during the US Civil War as during the Union invasion of the Confederacy, a good deal of the hostilities were with irregular bands of militiamen who were indistinguishable from civilians.

The article only briefly touches on what I think is the most difficult part of invading and occupying a foreign power, the tension between what is required to win a war and what is required to win the peace. As Lieber noted, if force is used in such a fashion that it makes a return to peace more difficult (or even impossible) then it cannot truly be said to be necessary. But on the other hand, as Machiavelli and others have noted, to use force `compassionately' in a time of war is often to be more cruel as such actions tend to make for a far longer conflict with a far less definitive (and consequently, far less lasting) peace. Where the balance lies between Machiavelli's concept of ``cruelty well used'' and Lieber's notion of what is truly necessary at a time of war is a difficult puzzle. And it seems to me that the tension that underlies this question is one that favors irregular forces. The chief goal of irregular forces is chiefly to deny the ability of their foe to find that balance.

And this is why I think the Qaeda are winning the war on terror. The evidence isn't so much found in the streets of Baghdad, Islamabad or Kabul. It isn't found in the occupied territories of Palestine, in the Golan Heights or the Kashmir. The evidence that the terrorists are winning was found in the ballot box all across the US when the GOP campaign theme of ``9/11 24x7'' came home to roost. By voting for four more years of the George W. Bush administration, the American public illustrated their acceptance of the ideology of those like Mitt Romney ...

Our most basic civil liberty is the right to be kept alive

If the terrorists can convince the average American of the truth of this statement, they will have succeeded in reducing the US to a totalitarian state of the sort that would make Thomas Hobbes proud. Hobbes entire political philosophy stems from this single principle, that the right to self-preservation is the sole natural right and takes precedence over all other rights. If this view is adopted, all alternatives to death become reasonable.

But this view is rather un-American. From Patrick Henry's famous sound bite ``Give me liberty or give me death!'' to the observation in the Declaration of Independence that every individual human being has (at least) three inalienable rights `life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,'' Americans have always thought that there are some things worth dying for. In the view of the Hobbeses and Romneys of this world, the American Revolution would have been an irrational idiocy. The American Patriots put their lives on the line for liberty. Romney and Hobbes both would have had them put down for being terrorists.

Fortunately, the American voting public seems to have moved on from 2004. If so, the terrorists victory over the US may prove to be short lived. Like Colin Powell said, there are things that make the US a great nation, our generosity, our openness, our freedom. It is only by getting us to reject these qualities as a nation that the terrorists can win over us. Regrettably, some politicians buy into the reasoning of Romney and Hobbes that our self-preservation trumps these other American ideals. But count me in with the Patrick Henrys of the world. I believe that some things are worth dying for.