If the Global War on Terrorism ever became sentient, chugged a RipIt, donned a reflective PT belt, lit up a Marlboro Red, and rose up in human form, it would turn fifteen today.
And it would be an ornery little punk.
Fifteen years ago – on September 20, 2001 – President George W. Bush breathed the Global War on Terrorism into life, as he told the American people that we would pursue Al Qaeda and it would not “end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”
But the GWOT is not a human. It is an ideology. Actually, it is an undeclared war on a tactic based on a strategy used by an ideology, which is kind of like making war on a “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” basis. It runs along the lines of America’s other classic wars on abstract ideas: poverty, crime, and drugs. All four have been…well, you know the old adage, don’t speak ill of the federal program that has met its demise.
This is tongue in cheek, but there is a lot of truth in the old adage, “Perception is reality.” And what the American people have perceived over the past fifteen years is that abstract ideas can’t be JDAM’d to death. The problem is, we haven’t come up with a decent ideology to counter that of our enemies; probably because most people in the U.S. don’t even know who our enemies are, what drives them, or – hell – even where they come from. Instead, we’ve created the convenient, easily-absorbed, amorphous being of an inhuman Islamic fundamentalist that is intent only on death and destruction.
And when you’ve removed the human being from any part of the conversation, it all just becomes propaganda. The GWOT – yes, I know we renamed it Overseas Contingency Operations, but it is still GWOT – has boiled down into this pre-Enlightenment idea of the “good” West against the evil “Muslim World.” Hell, there’s no such thing as a “Muslim World,” just as there’s no such thing as a “Buddhist World” or “Christian World.”
What remain after all this reductionism are people – all driven by unique motivators, which combine culture, economics, religion, and all the basic tendencies that humans share. But since people are complex, and – stay with me here – people don’t like complexities (self-loathing, eat your heart out), this is not an acceptable answer. I suppose it comes down to, “Can we shoot it in the face and end the problem? If not, can we throw money at it until it goes away?”
This has essentially been the way we’ve been handling the GWOT from the beginning, which has resulted in a lot of people trying to pronounce unpronounceable place names and bomb them. The military has done its damnedest to carry the fight to the enemy wherever possible, but again, where the enemy has to be reduced to individuals, our economy of scale has become fundamentally tilted. We’re dropping ordnance that costs more than a sergeant will make in a decade of service on a dude with an AK-47. Thus is the price of security.
The greater price – as if the blood and treasure weren’t enough – has been incalculable: it bears the shape of the Syrian Civil War. Because of the backlash against GWOT, America was reluctant to get involved in any sort of conflict in the Middle East when the unrest began back in 2011. And we have remained reluctant, as the Syrian Civil War turned five years old. It is now the single most destabilizing event on the planet, threatening to toss the entire region into a big ol’ shooting war, and flooding the African, Asian, and European continents with refugees – the largest refugee crisis since World War II, in fact. In the meantime, we pretend that it is an isolated incident and was unpreventable.
Would we have intervened back in the beginning, had not the Ghost of GWOT Past been looming in our collective memory? I guess we’ll never know. However, the cost of our non-intervention continues to grow every day. Perhaps it’s time to look GWOT right in the face and talk terms, as one would do with a surly fifteen year-old:
“Look, kid. We’ve made some poor decisions with you. Perhaps you were a mistake. We didn’t raise you the right way. But we’re going to fix that. We’re going to stop treating you like a mistake, and start treating you like our own creation. We’re going to handle you the way we handled Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, back before you were born. You may not like it, there are going to be growing pains, but it’s time to put the past behind us and look to the future. Generations depend on us to make the right decision. Now go to your room and think about what you should become.”
We’d better get on it before GWOT turns sixteen, because we definitely don’t want it driving in its present state.
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