Adopting the tools of our enemies, a path to victory

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.

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…

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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9 thoughts on “Adopting the tools of our enemies, a path to victory”

  1. I can’t quite understand if you’re making the argument for the sake of wordplay or instead as a legitimate tactics against our enemies. We, as well as most major powers, have supported groups implementing questionable tactics for decades, if not centuries, so to suggest this is some change in tactics in the scheme of the war on terror seems like the former.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The point is exactly that this is typical, which I find many people do not realize.

    “have supported groups implementing questionable tactics for decades,”

    Agreed. But few with the stunning degree of hypocrasy displayed in the WOT (if these reports are correct): declaring a war on terror, then backing terrorist groups. A crude analogy would be as if in the cold war the CIA aided the French communist party to aid the US in a trade war with France.

  2. Clearly from the statements you quote, Britain or the US never took their moral stance against bombing of civilian targets seriously. And you don’t mention the most heinous violations of it, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Your original question seemed to be: can we use terrorist tactics against terrorists, and will that work? Socrates would laugh you out of the agora for using a word as imprecise as terrorism. The strict meaning of the word would be something like “non-state actors who use violence against civil or military targets as a way of achieving political ends.” In this sense, the answer to your question is no — since terrorists by definition can’t be part of the structure of the state. There is no terrorist “twin towers” which we could bomb in order to harm them.

    In the case of Iraq, instead of terrorists you probably mean “insurgents”. Can we use insurgent tactics against insurgents in order to defeat them. I think the answer again in no, since we will always be the occupier, unless the insurgents become the dominant power,, in which case they are no longer insurgents. We can’t use IED’s against insurgents because they don’t patrol the streets in large vulnerable vehicles.

    Still, there is the Rumsfeld doctrine, or 4GW, which seem to say we can go into a country on the same level as, in the same terrain as, the insurgents and beat them at their own game. If you use the metaphor of white policemen going into an inner-city ghetto, you can see the possible complications of that approach.
    Fabius Maximus replies:

    “Clearly … Britain or the US never took their moral stance against bombing of civilian targets seriously.”

    Clearly that is a guess. Perhaps they changed their minds.

    “And you don’t mention the most heinous violations of it, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

    I believe I made the point quite adequately, thank you, with no need to bludgeon readers any more.

    “In the case of Iraq, instead of terrorists you probably mean “insurgents”.”

    The structure of this series required that I use President Bush’s term, since he was on both sides of the equation.

    “Can we use insurgent tactics against insurgents in order to defeat them.”

    This series discusses our rumored aid to terrorists inorder to weaken Iran, not the insurgents in Iraq.

  3. FM: “This series discusses our rumored aid to terrorists inorder to weaken Iran, not the insurgents in Iraq.”

    After re-reading your reply to Daskro, I see that your original question was rhetorical — i.e. answered itself.

    However, in order to make this rhetorical point, you have to rely on Bush-talk, which used to (possibly no longer) describe Iran as a terrorist state. This is a contradiction in terms, since a state can’t be a terrorist organization, and all we can say about Iran is that it reportedly supports groups we call terrorist (Hamas, Hisbollah), though that is highly disputable when you consider either of them in relation to their main antagonist, Israel.

  4. “Clearly … Britain or the US never took their moral stance against bombing of civilian targets seriously.”
    “FM reply: Clearly that is a guess. Perhaps they changed their minds.”

    We know, from historical records, that at least the Brits did not have much compunction about bombing civilians, and this long before WWII. A few quotations:

    “All available aircraft must be collected, the attack with bombs and machine guns must be relentless and unremitting and carried on continuously by day and night, on houses, inhabitants, crops and cattle.”
    — J.A.Chamier, wing commander, future air commodore and secretary of the Air League.

    “The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within forty-five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape.”
    — Arthur Harris, the future “Bomber” Harris.

    Both writing at the time of the 1920-1921 rebellion in Iraq. Bibliographic references are easy to find on the Internet.
    Fabuis Maximus replies: Point made! These are powerful counter-examples!

  5. And practical considerations warp predetermined policy, to make “unacceptable” ways of waging war “acceptable”. Particularly when the degree of commitment i extremely high.

    The precision high altitude air strikes on Japanese factory sites by B-29s, prior to Curtis E. LeMay’s fire raid campaign, were essentially failures.

    1. The attack altitude was too high.
    2. The wind conditions during the fall of bomb to target were too difficult to predict and allow for.
    3. The recovery time for an airstruck factory to regain most of it’s productivity was too short.
    4. Far too much of the war production was deemed to take place in small establishments sited amongst civilian populations. These were never targeted by the high altitude precision strikes prior to LeMay.


    5. A particularly savage attrition had worn the air arms of the Japanese Empire almost out of effective existence by early 1945. This opened a window of acceptable risk which had not been open prior. Thus, the fire raids, starting on March 9-10 against Tokyo, and continuing on right up to the end of the Pacific War.

    Of course, it would have helped if the man who organized these raids was something of a psychopath. The Army Air Force found their man in Curtis E. LeMay. Given his role in SAC until his forced retirement in 1965, we were lucky not to have paid a far higher price for this than the one we did pay.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thanks for this background context on these events!

  6. I hate to throw my 2 cents worth in with people who seem obviously smarter than me, but I did anyway.My thoughts ended up being to big to post as a comment that I posted on my site: “Notes On War“, Ronin of the Spirit, 4 September 2008.

    But here’s the conclusion: Despite I or anyone else feels about, governments, including ours, will continue to pay unsavory characters to fight unsavory characters, regardless of semantics.

  7. Then under your theories, there shouldn’t be any problems using nuclear weapons in a unilateral pre-emptive way. You are {snip}.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Personal comments like this are absolutely forbidden on this site. Repeated violators will have future comments moderated. However well-intended — even when accurate — they pollute the discussion. Tempers overheating and the quality descends to schoolyard taunts. We have all seen this many times elsewhere.

  8. That makes no sense. My point was morality in warfare evolved from what has been effective in the past. Treating your enemy as well as possible generally creates the most long term profit during the occupation, and post occupation. For this reason it became “moral” to do so. How would turning your enemy’s country into a sheet of radioactive glass provide any post conflict profit? There are no resources left to take, and no laborers to exploit.

    Soviet Russia chose to influence countries by outright take over. The Unites states chose to influence countries through other means. The Soviet Empire collapsed. The US empire has not. Obviously, the “moral” way works better. If, throughout history, the Soviet way always worked better, history would tell us that it was moral, and we would view the US way with same suspicion that we have for Communism.

    That was my point: traditions that work become morals. Morals then serve as guidelines, which are freely broken when the cost to benefit ratio is high enough. We like to judge people who violate these guidelines but there simply isn’t enough data to do so. We say that the events of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden were horrible and evil, and rightly so. It is perfectly safe for us to say so, because we have no idea what a world would look like without those atrocities.

    You can’t quantifiably say that war could have been won without those atrocities. The question is not “Were those acts evil?” Of course they were evil. Thats the point of war: to do things that in any other context would be evil, so that the enemy cannot do so to you. The question is “Were those acts of evil worse or better than the acts of evil that would have been done by the enemy had he prevailed?”

    You can say that our atrocities were not necessary to victory, but you can’t really know. There isn’t real objective data on the subject. The only things we know for certain is that we did win, and 60 years later the vanquished are our allies. The Soviets also commited atrocities and 60 years later their vanquished are our allies and not theirs. Our atrocities apparently work toward victory and theirs do not.

    All is fair in love and war.

    Finally, taking the my theory to the absurd conclusion of a unilateral pre-emptive strike doesn’t prove my theory is wrong, it merely proves that you took it beyond its logical usefulness.

    “Turn the other cheek” is a good philosophy. Taken to its furthest conclusion it would mean that self defense is a sin.
    Just because something is not true in the most ridiculous and unlikely situation a person can think of doesn’t mean it’s not true most of the time.

  9. As one who experienced the war in a different way, we (and I include crew members of our ship) were over-joyed, yes, over-joyed, when the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasake, because we were going to be in on the invasion, carrying 2,000 men from the west coast to Japan. The troops we were bringing back from Europe, also scheduled for that invasion after they’d had a 30 day leave, felt the same way.

    The newspapers were giving advance figures like a half a million casualties among the Allied forces, and these estimates were based upon an under-estimation of Japanese aircraft available to hit the invasion forces by about 50%. In 1944 I witnessed a ship that blew up with 580 men aboard off Algiers, the S.S. Paul Hamilton, all hands lost. Don’t throw statements about “ruthless bombing” at me; don’t talk to me about fire-bombing. I saw the results of bombing in England by the Germans. I saw the films of Pearl Harbor and Chinca. The point is moot. We did it. We won. We survived.

    I hate to think of what would have happened in this country if we had lost! The Rape of Nanking would have been a bush-league baseball game by comparison. Impossible? Had Japan only had an Einstein . . .just one Einsteain, think about it! I have, many times. So have other veterans I have talked with. If they live with a vision of a cloud that took 58,000 (or more) lives, I live with one that took 580 lives and I feel the same about it.

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