Wars Of Choice, Wars Of Necessity

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There are wars of choice, and there are wars of necessity. Wars of choice--Vietnam, Kosovo, even the Gulf War--are fought for reasons of principle, ideology, geopolitics or sometimes pure humanitarianism. Passivity might cost us in the long run. But we do not have to go to war.

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A war of necessity is a life-or-death struggle in which the safety and security of the homeland are at stake. The war on terrorism is such a war. So was World War II. Fifty years is a long interval, and it shows. The habits of waging such a war have atrophied. The language we have mobilized to wage this war of necessity is the language of wars of choice, heavily freighted with moral anguish, obsessively concerned with proving how delicate and discriminating, how tolerant and sensitive we Americans are.

The most ridiculous example of this solicitousness is the talk in Washington of hurrying the fighting so as to finish before the onset of Ramadan. We'd already limited air strikes on the first Friday of the war in deference to Muslim sensibilities. This is odd in the extreme. The Arabs had no compunction about launching the Yom Kippur War on the holiest day of their enemy--and during their own Ramadan. Indeed, Egypt celebrates the 1973 Yom Kippur War not just as the October War but as the Ramadan War.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked about Ramadan, he gave the judicious answer: We will not necessarily be constrained by that consideration, but we understand the concern. Why such sensitivity? We were attacked. Our enemy chose the date. We have no choice but to fight back--on our timetable. The enemy cannot murder thousands of innocents then call time out for piety.

Or take another example of extreme solicitousness: the fetish for coalition. We have been running around the world begging and borrowing Muslim allies so that we can claim that this is not a war against Islam. Why? We never declared war on Islam. This war, unsought, was declared against us by fanatics proclaiming jihad in the name of Islam. Why do we need borrowed legitimacy to fight back?

More sensitivity still: we have been scrupulous in saying that this is a war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban and not on the Afghan people. We have even risked the lives of pilots to drop food and medicine to refugees. It is true that the Taliban do not represent all Afghans. But in a war of necessity one may not have the luxury of that distinction. The Nazis did not represent all Germans. But with the need to destroy the enemy lest he destroy us, those niceties could not be observed. Churchill's wartime speeches had few endearing words for those he insisted on calling the Hun. His bombers made the point with emphasis.

We obviously do not want to harm civilians. But the Taliban are storing weapons in mosques and using schools as barracks. Do we leave them unmolested? The enemy deliberately murdered American civilians. Now he is counting on American sensitivity to inadvertent civilian casualties to protect him--so he can live to slaughter American civilians again.

It is that slaughter that begets necessity. The anthrax attacks give but a hint of the kind of mass murder possible today. A smallpox epidemic could kill tens of millions and effectively destroy American society. As could loose nukes. According to Boris Yeltsin's former national security adviser, Russia cannot account for all its tactical nuclear weapons. Iraq and Iran are working on nuclear weapons of their own. On Sept. 11, it took just 19 conspirators to shock America. It would take just 19 more, each with a suitcase nuke, to destroy America.

Yes, these are improbable events. But how probable were four simultaneously hijacked planes turned into kamikaze guided missiles?

"Weapons of mass destruction" is a bland euphemism. These are weapons of genocide. And Osama bin Laden has openly declared his readiness to use them on the infidel. The enemy has declared total war. Yet we eschew all but limited war. The asymmetry is potentially suicidal.

Before the Gulf War, Iraq was given to understand that any use of biological or chemical weapons against American forces would be met with weapons that would wipe Iraq off the face of the earth. We will never know if President Bush would have carried out the threat. But the threat was credible enough to stay Saddam's hand.

Are we credible still? Are we even prepared to make the same threat to whoever would commit an American genocide? If we are not prepared to wage total war in response to total war, we risk disaster on a scale we have never seen and can barely imagine.