Books

Many of Our Present Problems Are Because 9/11 Marked the Beginning of a 'New Kind of War' in the United States

Terror tactics assumed the center stage.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Bob Jagendorf

The following is an excerpt from the new book The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II by John W. Dower (Haymarket Books, April 2017): 

For the United States, the great wars of the twentieth century were all foreign wars. After repelling British forces in 1812–1815, the nation was blessed with territorial security. And after their brutal mid-nineteenth-century Civil War, Americans never again experienced the trauma of battle or bombardment on their own soil, apart from Japan’s surprise attack on military targets in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and the short “forgotten battle” to retake the remote US-owned Aleutian Islands from Japanese forces in 1943.

Servicemen who died in foreign wars were not forgotten: US veterans of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War continued to be memorialized. Commemorations of World War II and the Vietnam War in particular became occasions for reinforcing a carefully cultivated national sense of victimization and sacrifice. Still, this long history of physical isolation from intimate contact with war’s horrors goes far toward helping explain the near-pathological shock that followed al Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and Pentagon in Washington on September 11, 2001.

The general US response to those attacks—carried out in hijacked planes by nineteen Islamist terrorists, fifteen of them Saudis—immediately prompted invocation of World War II. The assault was likened to both Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the suicidal Japanese kamikaze pilots who made an appearance in the closing stages of the Pacific War. Political pundits, especially conservatives, debated whether America was fighting “World War III” or “World War IV” (with the Cold War in the latter case being identified as World War III).

This was not marginal rhetoric as it turned out, for the George W. Bush administration—which included Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, both former Gulf War policymakers and strong promoters of the revolution in military affairs—turned such hysteria into concrete war policy. The United States, it was declared, was now embroiled in a “global war on terror,” sometimes awkwardly identified as GWOT.

On September 15, four days after al-Qaeda’s attack, the CIA produced a top-secret proposal titled “Worldwide Attack Matrix” that called for an anti-terror campaign in eighty countries. Despite the classified nature of this recommendation, top officials lost no time conveying its general intent to the public. Rumsfeld, for instance, told reporters that the United States was looking at “a large multi headed effort that probably spans 60 countries, including the United States.” In a widely quoted television appearance, Cheney stated that the United States would have to work “sort of activities would involve (including torture) would not come to light until several years later, but the open reaction to the September 11 outrage came quickly. US forces, with especially strong British support, launched war against the Taliban government in Afghanistan on October 7 and began preparing to invade Iraq. Seventeen months later, on March 19, 2003, they did so. Neither country had been responsible for the September 11 attacks.

This swift, sweeping, militarized response reflected hubris as well as paranoia at the top levels of government. What changed the world, it has been perceptively observed, was not al-Qaeda’s attack but Washington’s overreaction. “Global war” rhetoric carried with it visions of total and unconditional victory over a clearly defined enemy, as in World War II, a conflict American policymakers evoked frequently in the years following September 11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq. Declaration of war also reflected the overconfidence in US monopolization of cutting edge military violence that was generated by the Gulf War. Invading Iraq, one of Rumsfeld’s outside advisers on defense policy trumpeted publicly not once but twice, would be a “cakewalk.” This was widely quoted.

That the CIA was able to produce a “worldwide attack matrix” covering eighty countries almost overnight may seem impressive at first glance, at least to outsiders. In fact, it was not at all surprising. The military and intelligence community had been deeply engaged in similar global interventions including Cheney’s “dark side” practices—ever since World War II.

A few weeks after September 11, Rumsfeld published an op-ed essay titled “A New Kind of War.” Later, in November 2002, during the buildup for invading Iraq, he told a radio call-in show that warnings of a quagmire were misplaced. “The idea that it’s going to be a long, long battle of some kind I think is belied by the fact of what happened in 1990 [sic],” he said, referring to the Gulf War. “Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.”

Rumsfeld’s forecast was wildly inaccurate. Combat operations in Iraq continued until August 2010, and the last US troops were not withdrawn until the closing weeks of 2011— only to return three years later. By that time, terrorism and insurgency had metastasized throughout the Greater Middle East and northern Africa. By the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century, as the two-term presidency of Barack Obama neared its end, the region was aflame and the United States was embroiled in military operations in Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen, as well as Afghanistan (still) and Iraq (again). Al-Qaeda had been superseded in influence by a host of copycat terrorist organizations. ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant)—also known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or simply IS (Islamic State)—had established a “caliphate” encompassing major parts of Iraq and Syria, and proclaimed authority over Muslims worldwide. While most terrorist atrocities involved Muslims killing Muslims, attacks had accelerated in Europe and the United States.

The title of Rumsfeld’s op-ed essay, on the other hand, was unwittingly prescient. The war on terror and subsequently on grassroots uprisings and insurgencies triggered or abetted by the US-led invasions—turned out to be a new kind of war indeed, albeit in ways almost antithetical to the high-tech, smart-weapon, rapid-deployment, small-footprint, in-and-out war he and a legion of erstwhile defense experts in Washington had envisioned. “Asymmetry” did indeed become the watchword of twenty-first century conflict, but the almost religious faith in victory through “technological asymmetry” and “full spectrum dominance” was turned on its head. The Gulf War proving ground for the revolution in military affairs turned out to be less a harbinger of future warfare than a mirage of irresistible American power.

Unlike conventional conflicts, including the Gulf War, the new kind of war did not involve a clash of uniformed forces representing sovereign states and engaging one another in relatively fixed formations. The new antagonists were non-state actors who had neither a formal military structure nor fixed geographical identity. While American policymakers tried to argue that some sort of state support lay behind the September 11 attacks—thus rationalizing the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—their immediate response was an acknowledgement of the elusive transnational nature of terrorism. The CIA’s “worldwide attack matrix” reflected this reality of an amorphous, ubiquitous, place-shifting, shape-shifting, name-shifting enemy. What it did not reflect—despite a full decade of intense and often agonizing inter-service strategizing about low-intensity conflict and chaos in the littorals—was any genuinely serious appreciation of the deep schisms and contradictions in Middle Eastern societies or any serious expectation that foreign invasion would ignite indigenous blowback extending to violent insurrection.

Both Afghanistan and Iraq provided opportunities for US forces to display their awesome firepower in the opening stages of their two invasions. In Afghanistan, along with precision-guided bombs and missiles, this included several 15,000-pound daisy-cutters (dropped on caves in which Osama bin Laden was thought to be hiding) and more than 1,200 cluster munitions that scattered several hundred thousand bomblets. The invasion of Iraq opened similarly with media-pleasing “shock and awe” pyrotechnics that included some four-score cruise missiles fired at Baghdad (plus four satellite-guided 2,000-pound “bunker busters” that missed their targets). Two-thirds of the opening air campaign involved precision-guided “smart” munitions (as opposed to less than 8 percent in the Gulf War), and their contribution to the quick downfall of Saddam Hussein was decisive.

Almost as quickly, however, it became clear that once Iraq’s overwhelmed conventional forces had been dispatched, high-tech weaponry was of limited use against lightly armed “pop-up” moving targets. The terrorist (and, later, insurrectionary) foes were far from being Luddites. They made effective use of cell phones, laptop computers, the Internet, and social media. Their more sophisticated theorists even produced tracts that call to mind the CIA and School of the Americas manuals of the 1960s through 1980s, which similarly used academic scaffolding to reinforce tutelage in terror. An even closer analogy is to be found in the case-study textbooks churned out by Western business schools. A text whose title translates as The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through which the Umma [Islamic State] Will Pass became the epitome of this. Published on the Internet in 2004, this tome (268 pages in translation) makes extensive reference to American and European management studies.

Such up-to-date touches in the terrorist camp meshed with a shrewd grasp of popular psychology. This extended not just to exploiting the resentments of potential recruits but also to an uncanny ability to bait and unnerve distant and ostensibly far more powerful and “rational” enemies. At the same time, the weapons of the terrorists generally remained primitive: Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, devastatingly effective improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and of course suicide bombers. Fighters crisscrossed the battle-space in pickup trucks, relying on extreme brutality and waves of grassroots insurgency provoked, in large part, by the foreign invasions. These low-intensity tactics proved significantly more effective—and more rational, given the setting—than America’s carefully networked maneuvers and gold-plated arsenals.

This new kind of irregular conflict—pitting governments and their allies against opponents motivated less by ideology than by religious fervor, sectarian differences, tribal and ethnic rivalries, and plain misery—forced the planners who rested faith in technological asymmetry to rethink their premises. Encountering near-anarchy firsthand brought this, painfully, out of the realm of 1990s-style armchair theorizing. There were no jugular-piercing spear points or quick faits accomplis. There was, on the other hand, intense blowback as death and dislocation mounted among the ordinary people of Iraq and Afghanistan. As one chastened American analyst eventually put it, “The real revolution in military affairs is forcing modern states to use the advancement in military technology to focus on minimizing civilian casualties and collateral damage rather than destroying the enemy.”

In a way, terror and psychological warfare were flipped in this new kind of war. Terror tactics are as  old as warfare, and state terror runs a close second in historical precedents. Terror bombing, on the other hand, has a certain modern and contemporary ring. From World War II through the Korean and Vietnam Wars, this was associated primarily with air attacks on urban centers and noncombatant populations aimed at destroying enemy morale. In Vietnam, however, all-out air war was already proving counterproductive. The enemy did not break psychologically, while media depictions back home of these terrifying attacks contributed to erosion of American popular support for the war. (Contrary to the “Vietnam syndrome” thesis, this revulsion had little to do with adroit North Vietnamese propaganda and a great deal to do with television coverage of a shocking intimacy absent in World War II and Korea.) Military planners welcomed the relatively “bloodless” nature of smart weapons in the Gulf War not just because this kept American casualties down but also because it promised to all but eliminate the stigma of deliberately targeting noncombatants.

In the new era of post–September 11 warfare, it was the terror tactics of al-Qaeda and its successors that assumed center stage. These atrocities differed in nature and scale from mechanistically killing civilians at a distance. Their perpetuators flaunted them as a signature statement. The physical proximity and suicidal relationship between the bomber and his or her victims compounded the horror in the public eye, as it was meant to do. There was, in these more intimate acts of murder, a macabre element of theater.

The character, manipulation, and destabilizing effectiveness of such terrorism differed in numerous ways from the state terror long practiced by large and small nations. In the digital world of instantaneous mass communication and sensationalism, this, too, was a new kind of war. Religious fanaticism compounded the horror of this latest incarnation of callous terror. The bedrock objective of breaking the morale of perceived enemies, however, was old.

Excerpted The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II by John W. Dower (Haymarket Books, April 2017). 

Click here for 50% off your purchase of this book. This discount to AlterNet readers was provided by Haymarket Books.

John W. Dower is professor emeritus of history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His interests lie in modern Japanese history and U.S.-Japan relations. He is the author of several books, including Ways of Forgetting, War Without Mercy, Cultures of War, and Embracing Defeat, which received numerous honors (including the Pulitzer Prize), and, most recently, The Violent American Century.

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