Summary: Follow-up to Is the War on Terror over (because there are no longer two sides)?— which discussed reports that the US has supported terrorist groups seeking to overthrow Iran’s government. This post considers what this means for the War on Terror (it is over) – and historical precedents for adopting the tools of our enemies (it often works).
What does supporting terrorism mean for the War on Terror?
It ends it. We defined the war with the us-them distinction being a tactic. We adopt the tactic, the war ends. As if after the First Crusade Europe adopted Islam.
But would it stop the fighting? In our counterfactual, would there have been more wars between the Europe and the Middle East (just with a less nifty label)? Probably, as the structural causes remained. So it is today, with the global hegemon (that’s us) resisting the rising power of the Shiites, fueled by the oil wealth of southern Iraq and Iran. As Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., President of the Center for Security Policy explains in “Sarah Palin’s experience“ (2 September 2008):
At present, one can only infer Sarah Palin’s grasp of the danger posed by today’s principal enemy: adherents to the brutally repressive and seditious program the Islamists call Shariah, a program they seek to impose worldwide through violent means and “soft jihad” (including, Shariah-Compliant Finance, influence operations, subversive proselytizing and recruitment in our mosques, prisons and military, etc.)
Gaffney might regard supporting terrorists against Iran to be fighting fire with fire. I doubt it would lessen his enmity towards them, let alone his ferocity.
Note: what historians consider a “war” was often seen by participants as a series of wars. As in the “War of the Roses”, the “Thirty Years War”, the “Last wars of Nation-States” (1914-1945). Historians repackage these into more elegant memes in their quest to convince us (and themselves) that events have meaning and be understood.
Must history repeat itself?
Yes, because some tactics reliably work. Modern forms of terrorism are adaptations to state’s mastery of modern technology, both to wage war and maintain control of their people. Like most weapons, it works well on both defense and offense.
Example #1, comfortably far in the past
Edict of the 29th Canon of the Second Lateran Council (1123):
to forbid under penalty of anathema that deadly and God-detested art of the crossbow and archer be in the future exercised against Christians and Catholics.
Within the next century they became accepted as normal weapons of war. For example the Franciscan philosopher John of La Rochelle allowed crossbows for their use against Christians in just wars (explained in his “Summa de Vitiis” — On vices and sins).
Example #2, closer to home
Firepower directed against military targets works well, but with great difficulty and cost. Firepower on civilian targets, however, works well but is morally wrong. Or so we thought…
At first the nations of the world sounded a clear verdict:
The League of Nations Advisory Committee, in resolution adopted September 27, (1937) solemnly condemned the bombing of open towns in China by Japanese planes and declared that ‘no excuse can be made for such acts which have aroused horror and indignation throughout the world.’ In a statement the following day we at the State Department supported this finding and said we held ‘the view that any general bombing of an extensive area wherein there resides a large populace engaged in peaceful pursuits is unwarranted and contrary to principles of law and of humanity.’
— Cordell Hull, FDR’s Secretary of State, from his “Memoirs”
The leaders of the Free World spoke clearly about this terrible tactic.
The ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centers of population during the course of hostilities which have raged in various quarters of the earth during the past few years which resulted in the maiming and in the death of thousands of defenseless men, women, and children has sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity. … I am therefore addressing this appeal to the Soviet government as I have to governments which have been engaged in general hostilities, publicly to affirm its determination that its armed forces shall in no event and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or unfortified cities.
— President Franklin Roosevelt, 1 September 1939
The military takes its strategic direction from its political leaders.
The Air Corps is committed to a strategy of high-altitude, precision bombing of military objectives … Use of incendiaries against cities is contrary to our national policy of attacking only military objectives.
— General Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold, 1940
We pledged not to use this hideous tool, holding fast to this even after the outbreak of war.
We will not bomb open towns. We will not attempt to defeat the Germans by terrorising their women and children. All that we will leave to the enemy.
— Sir Samuel Hoare, Secretary of State for Air, 27 April 1940 (source)
America was a bystander in the war but a moral leader.
The bombing of helpless and unprotected civilians is a tragedy which has aroused the horror of all mankind. I recall with pride that the United States consistently has taken the lead in urging that this inhuman practice be prohibited. I am glad that the International Red Cross, at its meeting in London in 1938, urged that joint steps be taken by the governments to prevent such outrages in the future.
— Franklin D. Roosevelt, letter to the Convention of the American Red Cross, 1 May 1940
Of course, the pressures of war sometimes lead people to a new view of things.
I ought not to sit down without referring to the mammoth air raid delivered by the Royal Air Force on the Cologne region during the night of 30th-31st May. In this triumph of skill, daring and diligence against the enemy, all previous records of night bombing have been doubled and excelled. … In fact, I may say as the year advances German cities, harbours and centres of war production will be subjected to an ordeal the like of which has never been experienced by any country in continuity, severity or magnitude.
— Winston Churchill speaking in the House of Commons, 2 June 1942 (source)
Sometimes we can believe the Ministry of Truth.
We hear that “our planes are to bomb, burn, and ruthlessly destroy in every way available to us the people responsible for creating the war.”
— British Minister of Information, August 1943
Strategy must always drive tactics, not vice versa.
But the twin roots of all our evils, Nazi tyranny and Prussian militarism must be absolutely destroyed. Until this is achieved there are no sacrifices we will not make and no lengths of violence to which we will not go.
— Winston Churchill speaking in the House of Commons, 21 September 1943
Sometimes the truth is too difficult to speak.
Headquarters, United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe, reply to Washington’s inquiries about the February 1945 bombing of Dresden:
(1) it had always been the policy of the American forces that civilian targets were not suitable military objectives
(2) there had been no change in the American policy of precision bombing of military objectives…
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Other posts about military theory
A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual, 20 March 2008
Dark origins of the new COIN manual, FM 3-24, 23 March 2008
Insights about modern war from the NIC’s 2020 Project, 11 April 2008
COIN – a perspective from 23rd century textbooks, 10 June 2008
Justifying the use of force, a key to success in 4GW , 8 July 2008
Is COIN the graduate level of military hubris?, 30 July 2008