Victor Davis Hanson on the War on Terror on National Review Online
F or all the talk of imperial America, and our frequent "police actions," we are hardly militarists. Protected by two oceans, and founded on the principles of non-interference in Europe's bloody internecine wars, the United States has always been rightly circumspect about going to war abroad. The American people are highly individualistic, skeptical of war's utility, and traditionally distrustful of government — and wary of the need of their sacrifice for supposed global agendas.
So we go to war reluctantly. And being human, our support for war hinges on its being short and economical, and waged for professed idealistic principles. Wars that drag on past three years — from the Civil War to Vietnam — can often lead to demonstrations and popular disdain.
By the same token, some politics are more compatible with the American perception of the need to fight.
It was not only Lincoln's gifted rhetoric that got the Union through Cold Harbor and the Wilderness, but after the war's initial months of hard fighting, his reinvention of the North's very aims, from a utilitarian struggle to restore the United States to a moral crusade to end slavery and the power of the plantationists for good. In that effort, he was willing to suspend habeas corpus, sidestep the Congress, and govern large chunks of the border states through martial law.
Woodrow Wilson intervened liberally in Central America. He led us to war against right-wing Prussian militarism. His "too proud to fight" slogan in was no time scrapped for the Fourteen Points, a utopian blueprint for the nations of the world, handed down by a former professor from his high and moralistic Olympus.
Few worried that Franklin Delano Roosevelt not only waged a savage global struggle against Italian, German, and Japanese fascism, but in the process did some pretty unsavory and markedly illiberal things at home. It was no right-wing nut who locked up Japanese Americans without regard for habeas corpus or ordered German agents to be shot as terrorists.
To end the dictatorial and genocidal plans of Slobodan Milosevic, liberal Bill Clinton was willing to bomb downtown Belgrade, commit American forces to a major campaign without U.S. Senate approval, and bypass the United Nations altogether. Few accused him of fighting an illegal war, contravening U.N. protocols, or cowardly dropping bombs on civilians. In all these cases, public opposition was pretty much muted, despite the horrendous casualties involved in some of the conflicts.
Some general principles, then, can guide us in determining American reactions to war, and they transcend even the notion of comparative sacrifice and cost. Progressives such as Wilson and Clinton, who, we are assured, hate war, can intervene far more easily, and are more likely to receive a pass from a hypercritical elite media.
In the end, they always seem forced to fight by circumstances, since their very liberal natures are supposed to abhor optional conflicts. FDR's wartime criminal-justice apparatus trumped anything that John Ashcroft could imagine, but it has remained relatively unexamined even to this day: Liberals must have had very good reasons to put non-white people in camps, so contrary to their innate notions of social justice.
Second, the United States seems to be more united against right-wing fascism than left-wing totalitarianism, perhaps because our elites in academia, journalism, and politics feel authoritarian dictators from the right lack the veneer of egalitarian empathy for the poor. In any case, we are more prone even today to assume the 6-8 million Hitler slaughtered puts him in a category far worse than Stalin or Mao, despite the fact that the two combined did away with ten times Hitler's tally.
During World War II, here at home we experienced nothing like the Rosenbergs or Alger Hiss working for the Axis, even though Soviet-inspired global Communism would end up liquidating 80 million in Russia and China alone. Fighting North Korea or North Vietnam — or even waging the Cold War — was a far more difficult enterprise than opposing the Kaiser, Hitler, Mussolini, or Tojo. Our successes were often due to the efforts of strong anti-Communist democrats such as Harry Truman, who could assure our influential universities, media, politicians, writers, actors, and foundations of the real danger, and the fact that the president had little choice but to go to war.
In this context, many had some apprehensions about the present so-called war on terror. Ostensibly, the Islamists who had pulled off September 11 largely fit past definitions of fascism and so should have galvanized universal traditional American furor.
The tribal followers of bin Laden advocated a return to a mythical age of ideological purity uncorrupted by modernism, democracy, or pluralism. Islamism certainly held no tolerance for other religions, much less any who were not extreme Muslims. Sexism and racism — remember bin Laden's taunts about Africans, ongoing slavery in the Sudan, and the genocide in Darfur — were an integral part of radical Islamist doctrine. Al-Qaeda was not so much chauvinistic as misogynistic. Substitute bin Laden's evocation of "believer" for the old "Volk," and the crackpot rants about world domination, purity, and the anti-Semitic slurs of "apes and pigs" fall into the old fascist slots.
It is no accident that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf are still popular sellers among zealots in some capitals of the Arab world. Was our war on terror, then, going to be morally clear to even the most progressive utopian, since our enemies lacked liberal pretensions and the charisma of a Stalin, Ho, Che, or Fidel that so often duped the gullible?