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Frankly Speaking: The War for Humanity - Part Two

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The Absurdity of Fighting Abstract Concepts

Even though you can't expect to defeat the absurdity of the world, you must make that attempt. ­–Phil Ochs

First there was the Cold War, then there was the War on Drugs, and even though we haven't won that one yet, for just over ten years now, we've been waging a War on Terror. 

You'd have thought we would have learned our lesson the first time. All we got for wining the Cold War was a whole lot of nuclear weapons, and we've been terrified that those would fall into the wrong hands ever since they were invented. 

And the drug war, well, our prisons are crowded with nonviolent offenders, the drug cartels in Mexico have become increasingly powerful in recent years, and our policy of eradicating poppy crops in Afghanistan destroyed many inhabitants' sole source of income, which is no way to endear oneself to the local population. Thankfully however, the Obama administration has shifted this policy toward helping Afghani farmers grow alternative crops, but there is still a two-fold problem here—first, Afghanistan is a mountainous desert, so not much else grows there, and second, other crops aren't nearly as lucrative. A better policy might be to buy the poppy crops and use them to make morphine and other painkillers that are desperately needed, especially in developing countries. 

Certainly the impact the War on Drugs has had on our national security and our economy merits further discussion, but right now I want to focus on the War on Terror. The good news is that if we ever manage to defeat fear, there will be nothing left to fight, but honestly, how does one fight a War on Terror? Certainly not with guns—guns are terrifying!

Calling it a War on Terrorism may be a little more accurate, but this still poses a major problem. Terrorism isn't an enemy, it is a tactic, and there are a variety of different groups and individuals that use this tactic, each for different reasons and with different goals. There is no uniting ideal that connects an eco-terrorist like William Cottrell to an anti-government extremist like Timothy McVeigh, to those who terrorize women seeking abortions, to a radical Islamist like Osama bin Laden. To lump them all together in a War on Terror seems a little ridiculous. 

In fact, there are reportedly more than 100 different definitions of terrorism, with 22 different definitional elements. And the only element that everyone seems to agree on is that terrorism involves violence and/or the threat of violence, which usually does not discriminate between the intended target and innocent bystanders. 

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about terrorism however is that it is an act of desperation. It is designed to draw attention to the grievances of an individual or group, whether real or perceived, because that is the only way these people feel they can make their grievances heard. 

Ultimately however, terrorism is impotent. As horrific as the events of September 11 were, even then they felt like a last gasp. This was al Qa'ida at the height of its reach and power; it was and is highly improbable they will be able to successfully carry out such a large-scale coordinated attack on the United States again, especially given the measures we were sure to take in response.

Indeed, by bin Laden's own admission, the goal of the attacks was to draw us into a sustained conflict—to waste our blood and treasure, and turn other Islamic groups against us by getting us to fight on their turf. It took 100 CIA operatives and 300 Special Forces less than four months to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan, yet ten years later we find ourselves engaged in a nation-building exercise, with 100,000 troops on the ground fighting an insurgency that moves freely between Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

It is with good reason that Afghanistan is known as The Graveyard of Empires. Alexander the Great could not hold it. Genghis Khan could not hold it. The British Empire could not hold it, and neither could the United Soviet Socialist Republic. Sure, our objectives were different, but to think our arrival would be treated any differently by the Afghanis, or that we would fare any better than our predecessors, would be folly. 

I am reminded of the scene in The Princess Bride where the Man in Black encounters Vizzini holding Buttercup at knife-point, and in order to free her, challenges him to a battle of wits, to the death. Confident he will prevail, Vizzini accepts the challenge and gleefully exclaims, "Ha-ha! You fool! You've fallen victim to one of the classic blunders! The most well-known of which is never get involved in a land war in Asia…" 

I don't even have to go any further than that. Never get involved in a land war in Asia! It's so simple an eight-year-old can understand it. Still, we managed to get ourselves into a protracted, asymmetrical war that has cost us trillions of dollars and thousands of lives, only to leave us in some respects less safe than we were before. 

We may have started to re-think our policies, but the damage has already been done. Public opinion with regards to the United States has plummeted in the Middle East and around the world, and anti-American groups have recruited hundreds if not thousands of new fighters at least partly as a result of our ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, and our strategies in Afghanistan and elsewhere. So the question now becomes: how do we reverse this trend, and "win the war of ideals," which was one of the Bush administration's stated objectives in the War on Terror?

In fact, the argument can easily be made that winning the war of ideals is the most crucial objective of all—the one that should dictate our overall strategy, and will determine our ultimate success or failure—and yet, it is precisely here that we have devoted the least of our resources, and where our efforts have been most undermined by our own policies. 

Stay tuned for Part 3: The View from the Other Side.

Frank Lee Speaking is a member of the Concerned Citizens Coalition (www.imaconcernedcitizen.org) and Sr. Political Polemicist at SlurveMag.com

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