Saturday, September 04, 2004

Asymmetrical Warfare

Go for the headlines. Grab a soft target, full of civilians - hundreds, or better yet thousands. Wait for the media to arrive. Let it be known that your hostages are suffering horribly, and refuse any assistance. When the inevitable police raid comes, kill as many hostages as you can.

That, apparently, is the new mode for the Chechen separatists who, completely unable to face Russian forces on the battlefield, now use a wide range of terrorist tools against the Russian people. Airplane bombings, truck bombings, suicide bombings, and from time to time (because all of that is apparently now mundane) a mass hostage-taking guaranteed to become a bloodbath.

When George Bush lies about progress in the "war on terror", or reverses (with no one in the media batting an eye, let alone accusing him of "flip-flopping") his accidental confession that you can't actually win a "war on terror", I can't imagine that he doesn't know what he is doing. Rumors to the contrary aside, he can't possibly be that stupid. He's pitching an absurd line of propaganda that, shamefully, our media puffs and conflates into a psuedo-reality. Why? Perhaps the truth won't sell newspapers. Perhaps the people who compose our media suffer the same sort of cognitive dissonance Bush wishes to create in the voting public - even if at some level they know it is a load of crap, they aren't comfortable thinking about the alternative. Maybe it's "too hard to explain".

This, however, seems to be the new face of asymmetric warfare. Putin falsely declared his own "war on terror" five years ago, to partially justify his invasion of Chechnya. Since that time, Russia has used absolutely atrocious tactics to try to end that conflict on terms they deem favorable, and with each new Russian atrocity (all's fair, after all, in a "war on terror") terrorism has increased.

Of course, this phenomenon is not isolated to that conflict - it is more that the Chechen terrorists have been willing and able to take on some major civilian targets in Russia, whereas in most conflicts the terrorists are either fighting in their own lands or are unable to reach the softest targets in their enemy's land. Perhaps in the past, and perhaps with some terrorist groups, there's also an element of being "unwilling" to engage in such acts, but I sense that any such "scruples" are fading.

Atrocities, whether committed by the military power or by the terrorists, are used by each side to paint the other as pure evil - under the rationale that "anything goes" when you're fighting evil. And that self-justification is usually punctuated with, "... so we have no choice." And so each side ratchets up the amount of violence and misery it is willing to inflict on the other side's civilians and innocent bystanders - because there is "no choice". Until it becomes okay to bomb a densely populated civilian neighborhood in the hope of assassinating a single suspected terrorist leader, or okay to send suicide bombers into a public stadium or to take hostage the entire student body of a large school with every intention that the end-result include mass casualties.

Ask the side of the military power what they think of the latest military atrocity, and you'll hear those same rationalizations... "We're good; they're evil", "We had no choice", "We weren't trying to kill civilians, so it was a purely military mission", "They brought it on themselves", "There are no civilians on their side - they're all terrorists". Ask the civilian population targeted by that military and, as the conflict escalates, you will find fewer people willing to speak out against the terrorism, save perhaps in the form of, "I oppose the terrorism, but...." Followed by "We're good; they're evil", "We have no choice", "We can't reach military targets, and really - given what they're doing - they're all legitimate targets". And so it goes on, ever more violent, with peace becoming more remote with every new "military operation" or terrorist bombing.

Meanwhile, don't expect Bush to speak about the significant increase in U.S. military deaths and injuries in Iraq this past month. Don't expect him to speak about the increased use of terrorist tactics against coalition forces, foreign civilians, or the interim government. Because, after all, "we're winning".


  1. Today's Guardian brings us a quote on the terrorist from "Lawrence Durrell in Bitter Lemons, a classic account of the 1950s Eoka insurgency in Cyprus:

    "His primary objective is not battle. It is to bring down upon the community in general a reprisal for his wrongs, in the hope that fury and resentment roused by punishment meted out to the innocent will gradually swell the ranks of those from whom he will draw further recruits."
    The scary thing is, while the author of the piece believes that modern governments forget that lesson, I don't agree. I think that many modern governments relish in the backlash, and the fact that the public's knee-jerk reaction is to give them more power and vote them back into office - no matter how incompetent their policies, and despite the fact that these military tactics often result in near immediate, often devastating blowback. ("I'm a war President!", "We can't show weakness!", etc...)

    The shameless exploitation of tragedies, and perpetuation the asymmetric danse macabre with the terrorist groups which bring them, seems to be a part of modern political life.

  2. Krugman quoting Chris Hedges on the manichean mindset of a "nation at war":

    War, Mr. Hedges says, plays to some fundamental urges. "Lurking beneath the surface of every society, including ours," he says, "is the passionate yearning for a nationalist cause that exalts us, the kind that war alone is able to deliver." When war psychology takes hold, the public believes, temporarily, in a "mythic reality" in which our nation is purely good, our enemies are purely evil, and anyone who isn't our ally is our enemy.That psychology certainly plays out in a lot of conflicts.

  3. Wow. And on the next "virtual page" (would it sound better if I sad "virtually the next page"? In the print edition, I suppose, it would be on the same page...), David Brooks gives us an example of that psychology in action....

    We should by now have become used to the death cult that is thriving at the fringes of the Muslim world. This is the cult of people who are proud to declare, "You love life, but we love death." This is the cult that sent waves of defenseless children to be mowed down on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war, that trains kindergartners to become bombs, that fetishizes death, that sends people off joyfully to commit mass murder."We're all good, they're all evil". Boy, that sure helps ignore all of the things that contribute to the asymmetric conflicts from which most terrorist violence seems to emerge.... And we don't even need to seek solutions to those conflicts because, according to Brooks, "This death cult has no reason and is beyond negotiation.".

    People like Brooks are either intellectually incapable, or otherwise unwilling, to separate the rights and wrongs of the underlying conflict from the acts of terrorism. They're the type who insist we must elect the "war leaders" who fan the flames, make things worse, then demand additional terms of office and expanded military authority "so we won't show weakness".

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