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Fighting terror with terror


As our Republican leadership crumbles, I am heartened by increasing signs of rationality shining through the cracks in what has been omnipresent darkness. There is a building consensus that our Iraq crusade has failed. The Republican Man-O-War is becalmed and taking on water. And every day it seems that the previously scale-covered eyes of another segment of our citizenry behold our buck-naked chief executive.


All of which makes some remaining facts puzzling. Who are the 37 35 34 percent of Americans who still support the imploding Bush administration? What successes do they see in the thicket of domestic and foreign failures stretching toward the horizon?

But perhaps the biggest mystery is why the Administration has aggressively pursed torture as policy. Every expert seems to agree that torture is virtually useless as an interrogation technique. John McCain, who occupies the unquestionable moral high ground on this issue, condemns administration policy, as does Colin Powell. Yet the Administration has mounted consistent legal and political defenses of the morally and strategically indefensible.

There is an excellent essay in the November issue of Harper’s. William Pfaff’s article, “What we’ve lost: George W. Bush and the price of torture,” is an important read. It brings together a great deal of familiar information, and paints a bleak picture of the moral failings of our leaders. But I had a terrible flash of insight when I read this:

“Terrorism and guerrilla warfare demoralize because they are unpredictable and without rules. There is no predictable way to recognize enemies, no structure to determine what is and is not allowable, and so reciprocal atrocities indiscriminate violence, and the collateral killing of civilians are invited.”

Think back on the Vietnam War, the crucible of all current thinking about American military policy. Whether you think the fight was inherently hopeless or that it was lost on the home front, it is not debatable that the asymmetry of the forms of warfare employed by the two sides was a huge factor in the outcome. The conditions Pfaff mentions were all in evidence. And when Americans responded with indiscriminate violence of our own, and massacred all of the residents of a village called My Lai, the resulting blowback at home had a huge effect on support for the war and, eventually, the ability of our government to continue to wage it.

It gives the architects of our current quagmire both too much and too little credit to say that they have not learned from this history. It gives too little credit because the sadistic lessons they choose to extract they learned well; too much because ignorance is less morally culpable than the murderous scholarship now being applied.

I noted the lesson this administration learned from Iraq War One more than a year ago: “The lesson George W. Bush learned from his father's experience is now obvious: the mistake was not in ending Operation Desert Storm too soon: it was in letting the war end at all.” That conclusion is no less valid today. For a long time I thought Iraq War II showed the Bush Administration had learned no lessons from Viet Nam. But now I realize the terrible lesson they learned was about how to respond to asymmetrical warfare.

The techniques by which small insurgent forces can beat a larger and stronger occupying force through asymmetrical warfare have been understood for more than half a century. They were used by Mao to beat the Chinese Nationalists; they were used by the Viet Cong to wear down the United States; and Colin Powell, Bush Senior and many others foresaw that they would have been used to stalemate us in 1991 if we had tried to occupy Iraq the first time around.

Orville Schell is the author of numerous books on China, covered the war in Indochina and is now Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote in 2003:

“Above all, counseled Mao, weaker forces should avoid major engagements and settle instead with a victory of attrition by means of repeated, small-scale raids.

Elaborating on the teachings of classical Chinese strategist Sun Zi, Mao wrote: "The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue."

The effectiveness of these techniques, and of the tactics of terror the insurgents have added to them, is beyond debate. The neoCons grasped that they could not win an asymmetrical war, so they sought to even things up. Even these buffoons knew it would be absurd to bring the battle into balance by converting the insurgents into the military arm of a nation-state. The terrible lesson the neoCons learned from Vietnam – the way they are seeking to fight a symmetrical war – is to fight terror with terror.

Thus the new calculus: the insurgents become suicide bombers; we level cities the insurgents have already abandoned. The insurgents behead; we waterboard and crucify. The insurgents plant roadside bombs; we incinerate civilians with white phosphorus. For every indiscriminate, random horror they perpetrate, we offer our own in response.

This hypothesis is horrifying in its implications, and it is only a hypothesis. But it is a hypothesis that solves a lot of mysteries about our leaders. It explains why they are undaunted by the consensus that torture will not yield useful information – they don’t expect to get any. It explains why they are so insistent on holding tens of thousands of prisoners whether or not there is a reasonable basis for their incarceration – they are not making any attempt to separate combatants from the bystanders. It explains the horror of white phosphorus unleashed on civilians, and aerial bombardment of our supposedly democratic client – tactical military concerns are secondary at best. The randomness of the violence, abuse and destruction is not an unavoidable byproduct of an otherwise sane policy; the randomness is itself the very object of the policy.

And of course, our descent into such unspeakable tactics explains another, shameful mystery: why the evil we fight has become so difficult to distinguish from the evil we have become.

John Steinberg is a Senior Recidivist with the Poor Man Institute for Freedom and Democracy and a Pony. He bloviates regularly @


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