Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

22 July 2015

Twenty Minutes that could Change War Forever


Twenty minutes. That’s all it took. The Islamic State’s financial guru, so-called “Abu Sayyaf,” lay dead. With him lay a dozen others, probably underlings and bodyguards.

Our elite troops captured the guru’s wife, a probable accomplice. They freed one Yazidi slave. There were no US casualties. Our ninjas also captured a treasure trove of intelligence: computers, cell phones, and written records, not to mention the wife.

All in twenty minutes. This was war at its finest and most sophisticated. If we must have war, this is how it should be waged.

The last century’s Germans were a bit premature. They called their then-new, highly-mobile brand of war “blitzkrieg” or “lightning war.”

But lightning strikes in only a single place, and a rather small one at that. In contrast, Nazi blitzkrieg struck on a broad front, with all the usual wide devastation and massive civilian casualties. It was in the mainstream of the kind of mechanized war that had begun about a century before, just more mechanized, more mobile, and faster.

No real lightning ever worked like that, unless it started a forest or a city fire. What our elite troops did in May is much more like real lightning. In fact, it’s a kind of lightning never before seen: controlled and directed lightning. It got the bad guys and no one else. It got an important leader and a massive trove of intelligence. It didn’t even destroy much property.

Just for contrast, consider our fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo in World War II. Tens of thousands of innocent civilians died, and whole swaths of otherwise innocent cities burned. Something similar, but even worse, happened in our nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then think about what Dubya did: invading and occupying two sovereign nations for about a decade each, just to avenge the killing of some three thousand innocent civilians here, and to prevent a recurrence.

Don’t even think about what almost happened in October 1962. It would have killed hundreds of millions. It might even have destroyed the Earth’s biosphere, killing all life on our planet, except maybe for microbes. How can anyone believe that what happened in May was not much, much better?

Our military analysts downplayed the event. No leader is irreplaceable, they said. The hydra will grow another head.

But of course they would say that. Our military folk are not stupid; they’re not pols. They don’t brag about our best weapon. They want to use it, secretly, in surprise, effectively and seldom, but as often as they can.

Notwithstanding our video coverage of “shock and awe” in Baghdad, or our perpetually “embedded” reporters, war is not a spectator sport. It’s an all-out struggle between two clans of humans. Recently it has been based primarily on religion or ideology. But often it’s just based on tribe.

War is a dismal form of struggle that has exhausted all civilized means. It’s Von Clausewitz’ politics by other, bloody means. It’s best carried out quickly and in secret, with a minimum of bloodshed and “collateral damage.” Hence those twenty minutes.

This new type of warfare is the least destructive, and therefore the “best,” type ever invented. But in general application, it has a problem. Over a millennium of history has firmly established the doctrines of sovereign and diplomatic immunity. You don’t kill other states’ leaders, because they might kill yours. That would be bad for leaders and leadership, and ultimately for civilization itself.

Likewise, you don’t kill others’ diplomats or emissaries, even if at war, because they would kill yours. Then who would carry messages, wage diplomacy, and negotiate the terms of peace?

Yet despite its hubristic name, the Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state. It’s a loosely organized, self-perpetuating band of extremists and terrorists using a grotesque caricature of Islam as a mask and propaganda tool. In reality, it’s just a criminal gang, like the Mafia but worse. So its leaders are fair game for our ninjas, or for anyone else’s.

Leaders matter. Today, skilled propagandists matter most of all. Look at Fox. Without its incessant propaganda, we Yanks would have an entirely different and much better nation.

That’s what bin Laden was, a propagandist. He was a miserable fighter, maybe even a coward. He was an abysmal leader of men on the battlefield. Almost every time he went out into battle personally, he and those he led barely escaped death.

But he was, by all accounts, a brilliant propagandist. He made every narrow escape from death, even those due to his own incompetence, “proof” of Allah’s protection and support. He did this with the aid of his family money and modern media. (As with Fox’, bin Laden’s propaganda didn’t have to make sense; it just had to attract attention and turn a few weak minds.)

Yet where was Allah when our Seals dispatched bin Laden? And how credible is all his brilliant propaganda now?

As you may have noticed, since bin Laden’s death, Al Qaeda Central has fallen back into the general noise of the millennial Sunni-Shiite agony. But it still spawns terrorism repeatedly and spastically, like some monstrous dinosaur laying eggs of death.

Why is that? Bin Laden’s sidekick Al Zawahiri is a well-educated medical doctor and probably a far better planner and strategist than bin Laden ever was. And he’s still at large, whereabouts unknown. But he doesn’t have a fraction of bin Laden’s skill at propaganda. So Al Qaeda Central is losing ground to terrorist upstarts like IS and more “normal” civil wars like those in Syria and Yemen.

They say our President was reluctant to approve our ninjas’ mission. Of course he was. He’s an empathetic man. He doesn’t like to kill people.

Colin Powell was reluctant, too. They called him “the reluctant warrior.” But his reluctance and consequent careful planning brought us Yanks our single clearest, simplest, cheapest and least bloody victory since World War II, in our “Gulf I” War against Saddam.

You might say that was our only clear Yankee victory in war since World War II, except in tiny Granada. Powell also had the good sense to advise Bush Senior not to invade Baghdad, and to keep Saddam contained with air power (remember the “no-fly zone”?). That strategy worked brilliantly for well over a decade, until Dubya’s Oedipal madness replaced it.

Leaders matter. Propagandists probably matter most of all. Next come the finance men: you can’t wage war without money.

Kill the skilled leaders, and the enemy grows weaker. Kill the most extreme and brutal ones, and the enemy grows more civilized. Kill enough of the worst, and the so-called “Islamic State” might become a real state, or at least something like Hezbollah or the Palestinian Authority—entities amenable to reason at least some of the time.

Then we might begin to see the other side of Von Clausewitz’ coin. Politics and diplomacy might begin to replace all the senseless beheadings, enslavements, blood, gore and devastation. Some day, the unhappy people of the Middle East might figure out that the fewer people you kill publicly and brutally, and the fewer you enslave, the weaker resistance you encounter. They might even start making deals.

As for us Yanks, thank God we have a supreme leader who is both empathetic and smart. Thank God we have the technology and expertise to train and equip the best ninjas in human history. And thank God, most of all, that the century of horrors driven by the absurd notion of “total waris finally ending. Better late than never, our species is coming to recognize that war, like politics and diplomacy, can show some subtlety and finesse, and that “collateral damage,” aka the wanton murdering of innocents, is just not a good tactic, let alone an effective strategy.

Footnote 1. This characterization of bin Laden comes from Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, undoubtedly the most thorough and detailed study of bin Laden ever penned outside secret intelligence circles. See Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 at 110-120, 137-141, 222-223, 232-234, (Alfred A. Knopf 2006).

Footnote 2. World War I began in Europe on July 28, 1914, about 101 years ago. In the number of its casualties and the obscurity and stupidity of its causes, that war was probably the single most senseless in human history.

It—and not the later Nazis—spawned the sui-genocidal notion of “total war.” The century that followed saw the most horrible war in human history, the Holocaust, the first use of nuclear weapons (against civilian populations), the forcible division of Germany and Korea, the Cold War, which nearly “resolved” in species self-extinction, our abject Yankee loss in Vietnam, two wars in Afghanistan, a close brush with nuclear war between India and Pakistan, and our still-ongoing war in Iraq. Let’s let the passing of that wretched century serve as a marker. Please.

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