Being a nihilist means you don’t even believe in strategy.
THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT was a source of frustration across generations and ideologies for fighting wars in Korea and Vietnam where it could not be said that the goal was precisely to win in the terms American civilians had come to expect: beat the enemy, capture their territory, overthrow their government and make them behave. One of the signals of an army or a nation’s decline into fatally irrational warfare is an increasing reliance on means of attack that damage the assailant far more than the assailed. Scorched-earth tactics, high-powered boobytraps, and sacrificial missions—of which the attacks on London now appear to have been examples—are losers’ techniques, put to use against an exceedingly powerful foe. Nobody starts out with cavalry charges against Panzer divisions—well, almost nobody. And though the asymmetry of warfare has increased dramatically since the lance-and-saddle days, even the Japanese kamikaze tactic at the close of the Second World War did more to exhaust the Imperial supply of aircraft and pilots than it did seriously jeopardize the success of the American Pacific Fleet.
Modern suicide missions—the kind targeting buildings, aircraft, buses, and metro lines—differ from nose-diving Japanese Zeroes in a few noteworthy respects, however. One man with a backpack, given the proper contents, can wipe a city off a map or poison thousands of its inhabitants (the asymmetry of warfare reaching something like a zenith of imbalance in human history). This works in two ways: not only does the destructive power of a single attacker reach unheralded levels, but the single attacker is himself historically mobile and untraceable—difficult to deter and virtually impossible to defend against.
So it’s not quite as comforting as it used to be to think that the more suicide attacks your enemy launches against you, the better your war is going. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes. What’s worse, catastrophic acts of terror need not be suicidal. A backpack may be left behind on a train; martyrdom in that circumstance would be strictly optional.
The hardest assailant to stop is the one intending to forfeit his life anyway. It’s telling, however, that the short-term genius of this strategy does not bring by default along with it brilliance in long-term planning. Iraqis need not have loved Saddam in order to want the Americans gone, for example, and to be willing to fight to get them to leave. To suppose, however, that in order to run out the Americans Iraqis are willing to start their own civil war is to leave the car of reason at the side of the road. Yet this, or something like it, is the apparent design of al-Qaeda in Iraq—punch those around you until they start punching each other. Clever, maybe, in a schoolyard brawl, but harder to implement as policy, particularly with a series of governments, foreign and domestic, intent upon its prevention. Suicide-enhanced or not, such a self-alienated policy risks strategic stupidity the longer it lasts.
CONSIDER THEN THE latest instance of al-Qaeda stupidity, and one more bit of evidence tending to prove al-Qaeda has no grand strategy, apart from the pursuit of nihilist, anti-anti-Islam butchery: the mass murder and maiming of civilian Londoners. As is well known it’s not quite right to describe our murderous adversaries (and here, to hint, “our” can mean “the English-speaking peoples”) as cowards. Nor can we even fairly write them off collectively as clumsy rubes or amateurs—though as in Palestine those strapped with the dynamite are oftentimes used precisely for their single-minded or limited grasp of reality. Joseph Conrad knew this, and told us so, a century ago in The Secret Agent. But the sort of stupidity really worth pointing out is that taking place on the level of strategy, and the al-Qaeda “masterminds” calling the shots are actually ignoramuses.
Part of the reason randomized slaughter is looked down upon is for its banality, its lack of imagination, its dead-end puerility. The lack of any higher plan—20th-century anarchists suffered from this too—applies certain practical, if not philosophical, encumbrances to victory. The London iteration is no different, but here the technique is not merely unhelpful but actually counterproductive. There is little more stirring to American resolve and heartening to American courage than the stalwart one-upmanship of a wartime British people whose Blitz spirit expresses such a civilizational depth of defiant dignity that it nearly seems brewed in the womb.
WHEN THE BRITISH ISLES are attacked, their inhabitants don’t lose, not matter how long it takes not to lose. Their track record when powerful enough to sail out and pick fights is far more checkered, both practically and morally, but so is everyone’s. Not only has the British not successfully been knuckled under by outsiders since 1066, but their willingness to endure unpleasantness by diligence and understatement is endearing in times of peace and inspiring in times of war. The sentimental end of it couldn’t hold up without stubborn British results, but anyone looking to split the Anglo-American alliance ought to know that that sentimental material can deploy out of the drawing room and into the battlefield in very short order. Of course, it already has; and America isn’t accustomed to living in wartime conditions on the home front itself. But Britain is. And Tony Blair will not, in the manner of the former Spanish government, let Labor be elbowed out of the Coalition in which he, indeed, is the defining partner.
The Alliance is based on the Anglo-American “special relationship,” and the “special relationship” has ironies as well as nitpickers. But here the nitpickers will find too few gnats. The United States of course waited quite patiently for several years before joining the stout hearts of London in beating back Hitler’s armies. But the “War on Terror,” which becomes less nebulous a term the more of our—and allied—people are slaughtered where they work and live, is our—meaning the Americans’—war, and the more that those who are with us are with us, the better by nature we feel.
Only a jerk would jump up and down because dead British civilians have taken the focus of the war off Iraq; as for the rest of us, the null-set logic of our global foe is reason for a stiffening of the upper lip. A bad strategy still hurts, and a losing strategy can lose agonizingly slowly. There is no quick fix for a decentralized, granular army of bloodthirsty fanatics who strike at random in places of their own choosing. People who act this way do not hang up the dynamite simply when your armies leave a particular foreign country. It is the particular disgraceful paradox of al-Qaeda’s broken logic that the terrorists can succeed in starting a war in which both sides can be losing in tandem, and still our duty to deny them even that wretched pleasure.