Our grandfathers ran around as children playing cowboys and Indians. Our fathers played cops and robbers. In the digital age, we have video-game iterations of the same dichotomy like Counter-Strike, a classic and frequently remade title featuring frantic objective-based gunplay between terrorists and the counterforces employed to stop them.
A mainstay of masculine entertainment, the terrorist stands in place of the generic black-hatted villain of yesteryear, all but tying damsels to railroad tracks. As antagonists go, terrorists come readymade, requiring little to no explanation for their menace. They hail from somewhere exotic, believe something bizarre, and destroy as a means to their chosen end. Often, we don’t even care what fuels their violence so long as we get to shoot back. As I think back on terrorist films I’ve watched multiple times, like True Lies or Air Force One, I couldn’t tell you exactly why the bad guys were bad or what they hoped to accomplish. It didn’t really matter. They were there to rally our hate and earn a satisfying death at the hands of our hero.
For a moment, the reality of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent “War on Terror” paused all of that. Suddenly, terrorists weren’t to be taken lightly as make-believe villains. What fueled their violence became a matter of grave consequence. No matter our political perspective, how we thought of terrorists changed dramatically.
For the Left, certainly during the Bush years, the terrorist became the pitiable personification of American imperialism, the sins of a nation come home to roost. For the neoconservative faction of the Right, as institutionalized by the Bush administration and its supporting organizations, the terrorist became the next advent of the Evil Empire, a virulent boogeyman lurking around every corner much like the Cold War spy before him.
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Neither of these perspectives served the American people well. The Left’s refusal to acknowledge the terrorist as a legitimate threat mirrored its refusal to regard the criminal as such rather than as a victim of society. The Right, or at least the powers laying claim to conservatism at the time, recognized the nature of the enemy but rejected any proven means of victory. As much as the Left was ostensibly anti-war, the Right was anti-total-war with its velvet-gloved rules of engagement and concern with winning foreign hearts and minds. So we have been led over a decade through serpentine conflicts with vaguely defined goals.
Glib though it may at first seem, we should turn to our terror-thwarting heroes of years gone by for the proper approach to winning the “War on Terror.” It’s men like Bruce Willis’ cowboy John McClane and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s commando John Matrix who show us how to truly impress hearts and minds, with bullets, bombs, and blades. We need to put the war back into our “War on Terror.”
Let us clarify terms. What makes a war? A nation goes to war when it commits its resources to the destruction or neutralization of an enemy. Short of wiping an opponent from the face of the Earth, unconditional surrender will do just fine. Yet this fails to describe what America and her coalition forces have pursed since 2001.
The problem beings with the term “War on Terror” itself. Where is terror’s capitol? Where are its borders? How do we identify its soldiers, installations, and resources? From whom may we accept terror’s surrender? How can we know it has been defeated? By declaring war on an abstract concept, we declare a futile war on thought. Victory in war first requires an objectively defined enemy, and “terror” isn’t it.
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So the focus often shifts to Islam, and rightfully so. Surely, despite conspiratorist claims to the contrary, the attacks of September 11, 2001, were carried out by jihadists. Just as surely, despite liberal ecumenical claims to the contrary, jihadists live out a literal interpretation of the Koran. However, the ideology of Islam – in and of itself – does not produce the operational capability to maintain an international terror network.
The true enemies in the “War on Terror” are state sponsors of terrorism. Only a state has the ability to invigorate an ideology with the ability to obtain and deploy weapons of war.
Consider, the Second World War was not in concept or practice a “War on Nazism” or a “War on Imperialism,” though it certainly involved conflicts with both. The Second World War was fought among particular nation-states whose goal was the subjugation of the enemy. Victory was declared when one side surrendered and fighting concluded.
It has become popular to characterize the “War on Terror” as a different kind of conflict for a different sort of time. However, the characteristics which distinguish the “War on Terror” from the Second World War prove fairly straightforward. While it is true that modern terrorists and insurgents don’t necessarily wear the uniform or fly the flag of a particular state, certainly they operate as the clients of particular states. So why does our strategy pretend otherwise?
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Speaking in an essential interview regarding his book co-written with Yaron Brook and Elan Journo, Winning the Unwinnable War: America’s Self-Crippled Response to Islamic Totalitarianism, author Alex Epstein brings into focus the principle which ought to inform foreign policy:
The arc of our response to Iran, not just since the nuclear issue arose in the last decade, but for the last three decades, is illustrative of everything that is wrong with American foreign policy—namely, the failure to identify our enemies in unequivocal, moral terms, and an unwillingness to destroy enemies when necessary. When Khomeini-backed thugs stormed the U.S. Embassy [in 1979] and took hostages for 444 days, it should have been made clear to Americans that this is an illegitimate, barbaric, militant enemy regime dedicated to the destruction of Western values and freedom and thus to the destruction of America. If our leaders had done that, the case for using military force to destroy the new regime would have been clear-cut, but they didn’t. (At the time, Ayn Rand said that if we did not act with force immediately, we would never live it down. We still haven’t.)
Instead, everyone from Carter on refused to identify Iran for what it was, and thus was able to rationalize inaction in the face of acts of war, including repeated, Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks…
The essence of a proper American war policy is an ability to clearly identify the enemies that threaten this country, and the willingness to do what is necessary to end the threat with minimum loss of American life and liberty. We are scarily far from that policy.
Again drawing a comparison with the Second World War, consider that Nazis live among us today without raising much in the way of concern. If anything, modern neo-Nazi gangsters serve as the butt of jokes, so weak in both argument and numbers that they have more to fear from us than we do from them. Their weakness droops across a void where state sponsorship once provided strength. It was Nazi Germany which presented a threat to the West, not mere Nazism.
Likewise, the Islamic Republic of Iran and other state sponsors of terror serve as the heart of our modern threat. Destroy such states, or render them impotent, and Islamists will be left with no means to wage anything resembling war against America. When that happens, when Islamic terrorists are relegated to isolated and ridiculed enclaves like modern Nazis, the War on Terror will be truly won.
Check out the previous installments in Walter Hudson’s ongoing series on Video Games, Villains, and Values: