Wishful Thinking? On Whose Part?

Joe directed us over to a TCS column by Lee Harris, taking Helprin to task for the column I comment on approvingly below.

Harris’ points are straightforward: Helprin is misinterpreting our situation as a war, when in fact it is some kind of deeper social event. He says:

But who is the someone upon whom we should have declared war? And what should have been the target of our coup de main?

It is by asking such questions that the latent wishful thinking in Helprin’s apparent Realpolitik becomes self-evident. Helprin wants to believe in the war metaphor because this metaphor permits him to think that if only the United States taken suitable actions two years ago, we could have already won the war on terrorism. The only difference between Helprin and the administration is that Helprin’s wishful thinking is expressed as nostalgic regret for a lost opportunity, while the administration’s wishful thinking still remains their blueprint for victory.

and so begins to lay out a theory which both points to the more liberal ‘9/11 was a crime’ approach, in which we look on the actors who plan and perform terror as conspirators and criminals. He goes on:

It is wishful thinking to believe that what we have before us is simply another war, of the kind that we have fought in the past. And no amount of hit ‘em hard or hang tough talk will alter this fact in the slightest bit. Though it may serve to make us feel better, such a response is as unrealistic in the present crisis as it would be in fighting a renewed outbreak of the bubonic plague.

Yes, 9/11 was a colossal act of violence, such as occurs in war. But war, as we have come to understand it, is akin to Aristotle’s idea of a work of art: it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It begins with a political demand that one’s opponent will not, or cannot, accede to — hence the long and painfully drawn out diplomatic wrangling that precedes the declaration of traditional war, as in the War of 1812 as well as America’s entry into World War I and World War II. War is the acknowledged and official act of a classical nation-state: it is not Hitler or Roosevelt that declare war, but the nations, and the people, that they represent.

I’ll straddle a bit here and say that on one hand, I do believe that what we are seeing is something different than we have traditionally conceived of, and planned for, as ‘war.’ It has roots both in conflicts of religion and interest, but also I have argued (over and over) in deep philosophical fissures here in the West. But…on the other, I think that Harris is both flat wrong in his characterization of war in a kind of surprisingly uninformed way, and wrong about the facts on the ground in this war as well.

Wars, as he sets them out, are neatly bounded in space, time, participants, and causes. History shows us that this is certainly not the case. The technology of warfare did in fact bound wars in space; the economics of different eras bound them in duration. But wars do not always have a clear duration or structure; many wars (from the Peloponnesian Wars onward) lasted generations and ebbed and flowed as the combatants found the energy and focus to fight. Wars are certainly not the product of ‘a classical nation-state’ – they have been around a bit before the relatively new ‘nation state.’

He is right in the notion that ‘colossal acts of violence’ now can be more widely dispersed in space and time than a traditional war as we saw them. But that is in part because in the past, those who conducted dispersed acts of violence were hunted down and killed en masse, along with the populations in whom they lived, and in part because technology both expands the level of violence available to an individual, and allows more precise focussing of that violence by an army.

The history of war can be grossly divided into three broad eras: the era of tribal, total warfare, in which kin groups (some as large as small nations) fought other kin groups, sometimes in ritualized, formalized, and contained ways; and then the era of ‘professional war’ – formalized wars, often fought by mercenary armies on behalf of a an interrelated noble class, fought carefully to ensure that the productivity of the peasant class was interfered with as little as possible; this was followed again, by the era of ‘strategic war’, in which we began to move back toward the notion of total war, this time on a national, industrial scale. It appears that we’re now moving back toward the ‘classical’ notion of a focussed war as technology – used by guerillas or terrorists or by specialized military forces – makes it possible for war to interpenetrate civilian life and specifically target enemy forces. This focused violence raises a whole new set of issues about defining war in time and space, and I believe that this is what confuses Harris.


I’ve talked about terrorism a bunch in the past, and raised the notion that this wave of Islamist terrorist aggression is just the first in a set; that the fruits of Bad Philosophy will yield an ongoing group of people willing to kill and die for their grand visions, and to escape “the meaningless fluff our continent had become so enamored with.”

I still believe that.

But I also believe two other things: that to commit large acts requires large resources; and that terror, like anything else that people do, can become a career and industry. The resources – today – at the scale that can drive major, sustained campaigns of terror – whether in Afghanistan against the Soviets, or in Israel against the Jews – come from nations, who use the informal organizations as proxies in their well-defined conflicts. And there are those who make a good living off of terror – who see it as a viable career.

This is because terrorism on a global scale requires three things that are hard for freelance terrorists to get: 1) documentation; 2) territory in which they can openly train and recruit; 3) a ‘haven’ in which they can interface – through financial connections, communications, and political connections – with the ‘overt’ world. These come from nations; no other entity controls passports, territory and finances at the level global organizations require.

And so the immediate goal is to dry up the state support for Islamist terrorism through regime change and behavior modification of those regimes that remain.

And that looks pretty much like actual, as opposed to metaphorical, war to me.

4 thoughts on “Wishful Thinking? On Whose Part?”

  1. AL, Regards documentation: The availability of information is increasing by leaps and bounds. That is going to continue. We will find ourselves in a decade or two at a point where a single person will be able to carry a rather light object that contains as much information as is in all the books in the Library Of Congress.

    As for what is a war: What definition of war is useful? That’s the hard part. If violence can be directed and sustained (even if only intermittently) to achieve a political goal then it seems to me that a war is on-going.

    As for whether a government has to support a faction: not necessarily. In some civil wars there have been factions that were totally domestic in terms of where they got their support. This is true even if they bought arms on the international black market.

    I think the general trend is toward the ability of *increasingly smaller groups being able to carry out large acts of violence.* So I don’t see government support as necessarily being a part of the long term equation.

    In the longer term I don’t know what the solution is. It is a real problem.

  2. I’m not sure if “government support” is necessarily the right way to put it. “Government tolerance” maybe? A nation may not actively support a terrorist organization, but if that nation can’t or won’t take the steps to actively stop it it amounts to the same thing in my book.

  3. If you listen to Bin Laden and his ilk you will see that they consider their jihad against the West to be a continuation of the conflict between expansionist Islam and the infidel world that has been going on since the birth of Islam.

    Nothing new. This is an old war that has flared up again. Islam’s borders have always been bloody. After their succes in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Lebanon, the Jihadists have gained momentum. Unfortunately, they do not need hordes of suicidal warriors to fight. Terrorism on agrand scale will, so they think, drive the West out of the lands of Islam, the house of Umma.

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