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Fighting The Last War—and The Next
Our government called the terror attacks on our country an act of war and replied with a declaration of war on terrorism. What can history teach us about our prospects in such a war?
November/December 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 8
When the Confederate States of America vowed to enslave any black Union soldier taken prisoner, Abraham Lincoln ordered that if this occurred, captured Confederate soldiers would be set to work in chains. In the wake of this public vow, captured black soldiers were not systematically enslaved. Similarly, Adolf Hitler, not a man easily restrained from atrocity, was deterred from using poison gas against armed enemies by fear of reprisals. No one should pretend that reprisals work reliably; sometimes they set off an escalating spiral of atrocity. If we destroy a state, we will not, of course, deter suicidal zealots. But we may well deter some states that are considering sponsoring them.
Whatever we do, we will surely be called imperialists. But we are called imperialists now, by which our enemies presumably mean impotent and risible imperialists. The existing rules of the international covenant say that we cannot, or at any rate must not, break a state; the numbers of our dead suggest that we may be willing to change the rules. The rules of the state system sometimes change after decisive wars. Perhaps that is the sort of war we should be thinking of refighting.
Another sort of war we might consider refighting is the one that breaks the enemy’s morale. Not all military defeats produce dedicated or resourceful would-be martyrs; some defeats make the defeated party lose all taste for a fight. So we might consider as additional models wars that did not produce quick, decisive victories but that in the long run changed international norms in ways that have so far proved permanent. The U.S. Navy’s campaign against the Barbary pirates spanned 14 years, and the Royal Navy’s campaign against the slave trade lasted longer. But piracy and slavery are nowadays pretty marginal evils, in both cases because although weaker states clung to them tenaciously and profited from them, the practices were systematically put down by force of arms. It may not be likely, but it is scarcely impossible, that the same may become true of state-sponsored terrorism.