Historically Speaking, Shit Happens
by David A. Bell
IMAGINE THAT on 9/11, six hours after the assault on the twin towers and the Pentagon, terrorists had carried out a second wave of attacks on the United States, taking an additional 3,000 lives. Imagine that six hours after that, there had been yet another wave. Now imagine that the attacks had continued, every six hours, for another four years, until nearly 20 million Americans were dead. Okay, I know we’re talking a fantasy here, but just roll with it. Guess what? This is roughly what the Soviet Union suffered during World War II, and I don’t remember Uncle Joe Stalin getting his panties in a bunch about it. Maybe these stoic Bolsheviks could teach us crybaby Americans a thing or two about perspective in our current “war” “against” “terrorism.”
This historical thought experiment raises several questions. Has the American reaction to the attacks in fact been a massive overreaction? Is the widespread belief that 9/11 plunged us into one of the deadliest struggles of our time simply wrong? If we did overreact, why did we do so? If we did so, why are we still doing so, and how can we best stop doing so? By show of hands, how many of us have navels that are “innies”? Does history provide us any insight?
Of course it does, dumbass. Lucky for you that one of us has a Ph.D. in the subject.
Okay, certainly, if we look at nothing but the objectives of our “enemies,” I suppose it is hard to see any indication of an overreaction. The people who attacked us in 2001 are, admittedly, hate-filled fanatics who would like nothing better than to destroy this country. But let’s face it, so are the Boalt Hall law school faculty, and nobody is seriously talking about a pre-emptive strike on Berkeley. Desire is not the same thing as capacity, and although professors can certainly do huge amounts of harm around the world, very few of us have access to chemical weapons or Volvo gun turrets; effective containment of any threat is usually a simple matter of inexpensive research grants, tenure, and campus parking privileges.
Yet a great many Americans, particularly on the right, have failed to apply this important historical distinction to our current “War on Terror.” For them, so-called "Islamo-fascists" have inherited not just Adolf Hitler's implacable hatreds but his capacity to destroy. Neocon lunatics like Norman Podhoretz have gone so far as to say that we are fighting “World War IV.” Excuse me Norm, but last time I checked, the UN says Iran is at least three years away from a workable holocaust strategy, let alone a Persian version of the Volkswagen.
No disrespect to the victims of 9/11 or to the men and women of our armed forces, but by the standards of past wars, 3000 yuppie bond traders and a couple of high-rise developments is basically geopolitical chump change. Okay, so the widdle Jihadis want to level an occasional Manhattan office building, let the baby have his bottle. As the big star on the international stage, the United States needs to show it is secure enough to take a few zingers from the B-list comedians at the annual global Friars Club Roast. When we nuked Hiroshima, did the Japanese whine and bitch and send their armies to invade us out of spite? No, they made a couple of Godzilla movies, got over it, and moved on to making transistor radios and Toyotas. In the history biz, we call this “making lemons into lemonade.”
Here’s another interesting statistic: even if one counts our dead in Iraq and Afghanistan as casualties of the war against terrorism, which brings us to about 6,500, we should remember that roughly the same number of Americans die every two months in automobile accidents. Let’s face it, this means we could each probably get a low deductible no-fault terrorist policy from Allstate for $30 or $40 a month. We could also save another 50% by switching to Geico and cutting down on our geopolitical road rage.
Of course, the 9/11 attacks also conjured up the possibility of far deadlier attacks to come. Ooooohhh, booga booga booga. Despite the nightmarish fantasies of the post-9/11 era (e.g. the TV show "24’s" nuclear attack on Los Angeles), Islamist terrorists have not come close to deploying weapons other than boxcutters, knives, guns, conventional explosives, and maybe a little anthrax here and there. And despite the nightmarish fantasies of 1980s slasher movies, these lumbering, inept, under-armed Islamist Jasons and Freddy Krugers can be easily be avoided if we only remember two little rules: (a) do not split up in the woods, and (b) don’t go on a moonlight skinny-dip with the hot blonde chick. A war it may be, but does it really deserve comparison to an existential battle against a demonically-possessed ventriloquist doll?
So why has there been such an overreaction? Unfortunately, the commentators who detect one have generally explained it in a tired, predictably ideological way: calling the United States a uniquely paranoid aggressor that always overreacts to provocation.
In a recent book, for instance, political scientist John Mueller evaluated the threat that terrorists pose to the United States and convincingly concluded that it has been, to quote his title, "Overblown." But then he screws up his whole awesome argument by adding that the United States has overreacted to every threat in its recent history, including even Pearl Harbor. Rather than trying to defeat Japan, he argued – get this -- we should have tried containment! Can you believe that guy?? For crying out loud, almost 3000 people died in those attacks! Any country would have naturally retaliated, with all guns blazing, and…
Um, okay, bad example. But Mueller forgets the three critical differences between the experiences of Pearl Harbor and 9-11: (a) we limited our retaliation to the actual Japanese, Germans, and Italians who performed the attack; (b) we had permission from France; and (c) in Pearl Harbor, we were probably the good guys.
To be fair to America, there are many other stupid paranoid countries throughout history who have seen international conflict in apocalyptic terms, viewing every “threat” as existential. Not surprisingly, most of these stupid paranoid countries are full of white people. Paradoxically, it all goes back to one of the most optimistic periods of human history: the 18th century Enlightenment.
Until this period, most people in the West took warfare for granted. There was lots of pillaging and limb-hacking and broadswords and impalings and maces upside the head. Then there was the post-bubonic plague baby boom, with medieval flower children singing anti-war protest madrigals on their amplified lutes, and ladies-in-waiting began wearing sexy mini-bodices that revealed their bodacious rococo tatas. The Enlightenment officially began during 1767’s “Sommyr of Love.”
The Enlightenment popularized the notion that war was a barbaric relic of mankind's infancy, an anachronism that should soon vanish from the Earth. This was particularly true during the Enlightenment’s “Glam” era, when ribald young European fops and dandies abandoned the ultra-butch military look in favor of androgynous powdered wigs and satin breeches.
This led to an unexpected consequence: those who considered themselves "enlightened," but who still thought they needed to go to war, found it hard to justify war as anything other than an apocalyptic struggle for survival against an irredeemably evil enemy. This, of course, led directly to the nightmare of modern total warfare, and birth of the advertising industry.
The Enlightenment was followed by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, which touched every European state, sparked vicious guerrilla conflicts across the Continent and killed millions. Then, things really turned ugly after the invention of soccer.
During the hopeful early years of the 20th century, journalist Norman Angell's huge bestseller, "The Great Illusion," argued that wars had become too expensive to fight. Then came the unspeakable horrors of World War I, which really screwed Angell’s royalty deals for the paperback rights.
Then there were a bunch of other wars, and finally the end of the Cold War, which seemed to promise the worldwide triumph of peace and democracy in a more stable unipolar world, which was been followed by the wars in the Balkans, the Persian Gulf War and the present global upheaval. In each of these conflicts, the United States has justified the use of force by labeling its foe a new Hitler, and has deployed menacing redneck bohunk Toby Keith to intimidate dissent.
Yet as all those dead Rooskies should remind us, the war against terrorism has not yet been much of a “war” at all, let alone a “war to end all wars.” It is a messy, difficult, long-term struggle against exceptionally dangerous criminals who actually get their rocks off by being compared to Hitler. Can you imagine a better recruiting tool? “Yo Hassan, you want to join the Haifa Street Rollin’ 88s? The Great Satans say we straight up old school Nazi gangstas.”
To fight these petty scofflaws effectively, we need coolness, resolve and stamina. We need to let these at-risk cultures know we’re keeping a sharp eye out for any shenanigans, and aren’t afraid to apply a little tough love when or where appropriate. Coupled with innovative Midnight Suicide Bombing leagues, we can develop a comprehensive program to channel them away from holocaust gangs, and avoid expensive global thermonuclear conflict and reform school.
But we also need to overcome long habit and remind ourselves that not every enemy is in fact a threat to our existence. Boys will be boys, and we need to allow for some horseplay. Besides, how can you know these guys are a potential existential threat, if you never give them a decent chance to prove it?
Hey, don’t look at me, man. World history is world history. I’m just telling it to you, it's up to you to deal with it. If you'll excuse me, I’m late for class.
David A. Bell, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and a contributing editor for the New Republic, is the author of "Cannonballs and Pantaloons: The Enlightenment For Dummies."