U.S. History and the War on Terrorism
In what direction will the United States’ military power take it?
April 25, 2009
In the U.S. war against Muslim fighters, it is high time to ask three fundamental questions:
First, why are the groups and communities we Americans fight proving to be so tough and tenacious? Why are they so strong, able to take on and frustrate even the greatest military on earth today?
Second, why do we Americans see so many of these groups and communities rising up everywhere across the world?
And third, what are we doing? What is our fighting engagement with the non-state really achieving?
To get the answers, just for a moment, look at the United States during its Civil War — specifically, December 13, 1862, the eve of the Battle of Fredricksburg.
Looking from the heights above the town, 145 years ago, along the sunken road, the clamor would have been loud and insistent. The federal forces had pushed their divisions over the river and fought street by street, all day long. This Victorian-era Fallujah took 9,000 Union shells.
It was America's first real street fighting, its first urban combat — and it was not pretty. General Lee remarked later that the Vandals themselves could not have looted a town better.
The Battle of Fredericksburg is a stark but potent reminder to us Americans that we once collectively felt the passion of jihad, whether on the Federal or Confederate sides.
All who watched this terror unfold swore that those Union men charging up the hill bore an expression of "seriousness and dread."
This was the face of those about to die. American men on both sides pledged to sacrifice themselves for freedom and democracy, America's two sacred words.
Sixteen desperate and failed Union assaults, all for nothing. Thousands of wounded men, clinging to the slope of that hill, would writhe through the night in the Christmas cold, crying out…
Our Civil War's sacrifice was so great that today — if it were to happen to us again — such a war would mean seven million dead, adjusted for the population increase since the U.S. Civil War.
Hard though it may be for Americans today to imagine, this is how close American Mujahideen came to immolating the American idea. What drove them on?
War binds a people together, and their shared sacrifice realizes, celebrates and renews identity. If we seek meaning together — that is, a collective identity — then we realize the importance of belonging and its transcendence through shared ritual and narrative.
War achieves this by creating a "sacred" story, a core narrative that can be repeated again and again in rituals of celebration — and then by renewed generations hence in another war.
In other words, war creates identity through narrative. Creating the narrative is the goal. Thus, war serves identity as its very liturgy.
The United States of America has done this in each of its great wars — of revolution, civil war and world war. Accordingly, we collectively remember these respective narratives through ritual every Memorial Day, Decoration Day, Flag Day, Veterans Day, Pearl Harbor Day and the Fourth of July. These are our versions of Saints' Days.
This is not to deny the practical and material dimensions of war. Rather, the sacred dimension of war is essentially practical — it is war's very essence. It is not that making the fight sacred makes people fight harder, though it does.
Fighting itself becomes enormously affirmative — acts of creation as much as defiance. Fighting can also lead to shared transcendence made eternal in narrative: A people's sacred narrative.
Reflecting on our own history is a penitent reminder to all Americans that what we fought for over 140 years ago is the very same sacred and creative resistance that fighters in the Trans-Sahel and the Arab world have now enjoined. When we refer to that part of the globe as "them," what we really mean is "us" — in our collective history.
Just so, the building of sacred narrative is just what we see in the world of the non-state today: in Hizbullah and Hamas, in the Taliban and Tamil Tigers, among Chechens and Kurds.
We, in fighting "them," become their intimate helpmate. Let us not forget that fighting us — the world military leader — elevates and legitimates them. But perversely our "engagement" weakens local states and allied regimes we seek to rescue. The fissures become cracks, not necessarily today, but over the long term.
Our long term "engagement" contributes to a hollowing out of the state. The threatened leader tries to defend its fragile system with heavy blows. We are defending what is already brittle with destructive force.
The United States is now the great creator of failed states. Americans are midwife to the new — even if the new is not yet visible to us.
We tell ourselves we need to fight to keep the world as it is and make it more like us. "Let the barrios, favelas, gecekondas, chawls, ghettos and mega-slums strive to be more like us!" we say. But we can't see the necessity of authentic human change.
But how could we? Not only can we not feel their pain, we cannot even hear their cries. Are they not the criminal, the radical, the deviant?
In fighting identity, we are fighting worldly change itself, blind to the paradox that we are advancing the very change we fear.
We cannot see the thing itself. Our forever war with the left behind is a world change-relationship. This is not war, but rather a productive relationship promoting human change — not ours, but theirs. Hence it is not the fighting that counts, but rather our culturally creative and fruitful relationship with the communities we fight.
We are not just raising them up and legitimating them. Americans are actually working with them to craft the sacred narratives that will become new identity. We are helping them build the story of the future.
By making fighting identity our nation's main national security mission, we militarize our relationship with much of the world.
Our wars accelerate the embrittling of the state, just as they encourage the coalescence of the new.
War binds a people together, and their shared sacrifice realizes, celebrates and renews identity.
It is not the fighting that counts, but rather our culturally creative and fruitful relationship with the communities we fight.
When we refer to that part of the globe as "them," what we really mean is "us" — in our collective history. We, in fighting "them," become their intimate helpmate.
Americans once collectively felt the passion of jihad, whether on the Federal or Confederate sides.
The United States is now the great creator of failed states. We are midwife to the new — even if the new is not yet visible to us.