Saturday, March 12, 2005

War on Terrorism, World War IV, or War on No War

A friend recently led me to an article about the War on Terror by Tom Engelhardt. The article was at and also on Tom’s personal site Tom tackles the question of whether the War on Terror is in fact a World War IV and certainly does a good job. I agree with most of what he has said but still feel the need to put in my own thoughts.

It is quite silly to think of the War on Terror or the Cold War as World Wars. While the Cold War mobilized large segments of society and shaped global society and was fought in various places, at various times, to varying degrees it in no way was a World War in the same way as World War I and certainly not World War II. The two World Wars were wars of immense scale that forced nations to mobilize all resources and take command of their economies and societies for a single-minded effort towards survival. While this was true to some extent in the beginning of the Cold War (in the early years there seemed to be no likelihood of co-existence) as the Cold War wore on into the later years the US and the United States had clearly developed their ability to co-exist with each other. While the likelihood at the outset of the Cold War was the destruction of one by the other, or the mutual destruction of each other, by the end it just turned into who could outlast the other like one extended staring competition amongst quarrelling children. In the end one blinked and it was over. It was rather an anti-climactic event in retrospect. Throughout the whole thing individuals in both societies had managed to function in relative independence of the War compared to people living during WWI or WWII.

The War on Terror cannot remotely compare to a World War. The War on Terror is a war on fundamentalist Islamic bandits. This decentralised and largely uncoordinated group of groups have only their religion in common. Outside of fundamental Islamic tenets and a hatred of the West for varying reasons there is no true unifying force in this wide-ranging group. These groups all have various ends and it is only their means to those ends that unify them. Tom Engelhardt points out these groups are probably best tackled with policing techniques rather than traditional notions of War. Aside from lacking a truly identifiable enemy or state to fight the War on Terror lacks any comparative degree of mobilization of national resources as either WWI or WWII did. Life goes on in large measure for all people outside very particular areas of fighting. The structure of global society and how resources are managed goes on just the same as before the war began for most.

So what is World War-like about the War on Terror? It is the same element that made the Cold war something World War-like: the idea of civilisation under attack.
Arguably WWI and definitely WWII had the common element that an idea of preferred civilisation was under serious threat of destruction. The Cold War certainly maintained this element too although it lacked the same mobilization of resources and society as WWI and WWII. All three were never short of rhetoric and neither is the War on Terror. Perhaps this is the only element that brings the War on Terror to the rank of World War.

The War on Terror does not lack the grand civilisational battle narrative. The difference between now and the rest of the century is that now this narrative is a flagrant construction of political convenience. The scourge of terrorism is held up to be a uniting cause for all free peoples to rally around and once again the Americans take their position at the front leading the rest of the world in the head on charge. The difference this time is that it is patently obvious that the threats are exaggerated and the rallying cry is much more a cry of wolf. Hidden behind this cry of wolf is the wolf in shepherd’s clothing, America. This exploitative and opportunistic America aims to consolidate its position in the world as the pre-eminent pre-emptive powerhouse by putting its paws all over the precious oil of the Near East. The hope for the spread of ‘freedom’ in the Middle/Near East is nothing but a grab for the taps that will presage the continued dominant position of America over its rival China and potential rival Europe. The generation of the freedom narrative further serves to maintain a societal discourse focused on a critique or attack of the external while serving to deflect criticism away from the internal functions of those in the ‘coalition’ of ‘freedom’. The enemy is the focus of our anxieties, anger and dissatisfactions rather than our selves. Parsimonious social spending and action is all but forgotten or at least excused in this time of crisis. The cloak of the freedom narrative and the war on terror provide the perfect cover for maintaining an American position of benevolent dominance.

Soviet International Affairs expert Georgi Arbatov, at a meeting in 1988, said to Western reporters,

“We are going to do something terrible to you. We’re going to deprive you of an enemy.”

Now they have a new one, however real or not.


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