Thursday, November 03, 2005

Where we're at

Not long after 9/11 -- a few days maybe -- I was thinking about where the "war on terrorism" might take America and the world, and it seemed to me at the time that there were three broad paths it might follow.

One would have been the path of recognition, in which the American people woke up and started asking the hard questions about how we got into this mess, and demanding answers that didn't consist entirely of inane slogans about how the terrorists "hate our freedoms."

That path would have still led to the war in Afghanistan -- it was inevitable -- but we might at least have come to some glimmer of public understanding that the real war was a war of ideas and influence in which America would need all the allies it could get, both inside and outside the Islamic world. Who knows? Maybe the rest of the story would have developed very differently.

But I understood even then how unlikely that scenario was, given our history and our culture. So my best guess was that the war would follow one of two other paths. One would plunge the CIA and the other covert agencies into a filthy, brutal, subterranean campaign to root out Al Qaeda's networks, track down its top operatives, and kill or capture them -- efficiently and ruthlessly. I understood that kidnapping, torture, assassination and "extraordinary rendition" (although I hadn't yet heard the term) would be the weapons of choice. I realized that innocent people, as well as guilty ones, would die; that wives and children would be used as hostages, or tortured in front of their husbands and fathers; that prisoners without names would be buried alive in cells without numbers; that battered corpses would be quietly buried, or dropped out of helicopters into the sea. And I knew that even if Americans didn't do these things themselves, they would find or hire others who would.

And God help me, I supported that war. Because the other path I saw -- the one that haunts me still -- led to an ever-expanding counterinsurgency war in the Middle East, against a constantly growing number of enemies. It would be a war in which a military industrial complex that doesn't know any other way to fight would use technology and massive firepower to try to obliterate an invisible army that swims through the cities and villages of the Islamic world like fish through the proverbial sea. It would be a war in which whole cities would be razed in order to chase out a few hundred guerrilla fighters, in which 500-lb bombs would be dropped on alleged terrorist safehouses that turned out to be filled with women and children, and in which GIs trained to respond to snipers or suspected car bombers with overwhelming fire would kill hundreds and eventually thousands of innocent civilians. And it would be war in which the enemy struck back with suicide bombers and savage propaganda killings -- although I wildly underestimated the kind of carnage that a group like Al Qaeda in Iraq might unleash.

It would be, in other words, a war like the one darkly foreseen by CIA counter-terrorism chief Michael Scheuer, which I wrote about a few weeks back:

Progress will be measured by the pace of killing and, yes, by body counts. Not the fatuous body counts of Vietnam, but precise counts that will run to extremely large numbers. The piles of dead will include as many or more civilians as combatants because our enemies wear no uniforms.

What I thought I saw lurking down that particular path looked something like Vietnam, but on an even grander scale -- a bureaucratic killing machine locked into the logic of escalation, in which the tonnage of bombs dropped and the number of .50 caliber rounds fired might become the measuring sticks of military "success." And when I thought about the effect on American public opinion if 9/11 were to be followed by something far worse, it seemed to me that kind of war could eventually turn into a war of pure retaliation, in which whole cities would die.

Better a dirty war than a genocidal one -- or at least, that's how I rationalized it at the time.

What I didn't suspect -- even in my worst fits of post-9/11 depression -- was that we might get both.



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