The best-selling military historian John Keegan
has recently published a book entitled Intelligence
in War. Although it only discusses the so-called War on Terror in passing,
it does, I think, contain a couple of important historical lessons that are
of immediate applicability to the current world situation.
Keegan describes the attempts by resistance movements during the Second World
War to disrupt the German occupation in France, the Netherlands, Poland, and
elsewhere. Although a kind of romantic ideal of the French Resistance (among
other resistance movements) grew up after the war, Keegan concludes that none
of these resistance movements had any significant effect in sabotaging the German
military or the economy of the occupied countries. "Resistance certainly
harmed the German occupiers scarcely at all," writes Keegan (345). The
Germans themselves appear to have been little concerned with these movements
and never considered them a threat. For example, they never bothered to divert
any regular army units to use against the resistance, and they devoted relatively
small resources to opposing irregulars.
At best these resistance movements were ineffectual, but Keegan goes further
and concludes that in most instances they were actually counterproductive. For
one thing, even though the Germans were not really concerned about sabotage,
the justification of looking for saboteurs provided the Germans with an excuse
for rounding up Jews and others whom they wished to eliminate anyway.
There have, of course, been widespread guerilla movements that have done real
damage – indeed, the current guerilla war in Iraq may be one such example. Yet,
the lesson from the German occupation of World War Two seems to be that bands
of saboteurs, even when supplied with weapons and explosives from opposing countries,
are unlikely to present any serious threat to disrupt a modern society.
The application of this lesson to the "war on terror" seems obvious.
If a large, well funded and well supplied group such as the French Underground
was unable to seriously damage the German economy or war machine, it is highly
doubtful that al-Qaeda cells potentially operating in the United States pose
a serious risk. The French Underground for example, enjoyed widespread popular
support, could easily blend in with the population and could rely on financial,
intelligence, and material support from major powers (including dropping weapons
and explosives from allied aircraft, and the direct participation of British
and American commandos). In comparison, al-Qaeda operations in North America
enjoy none of these advantages and seem pathetic in comparison.
One might argue that with the advent of atomic weapons a resistance movement
is potentially able to do far more damage today than one did 60 years ago. While
that is true, al-Qaeda has yet to acquire any such weapons. The basic weapons
at its disposal, small arms and explosives, are exactly the same sorts of weapons
used by saboteurs in World War Two. It is also safe to say that the vast majority
of "security measures" (such as metal detectors in airports and government
buildings, more police in train stations, on bridges, and so forth) are directed
precisely at the kind of small-scale sabotage using conventional explosives
that was used (ineffectively) 60 years ago.
This is not to argue that terrorists cannot cause real death and suffering,
but that the "struggle for survival" and "threat to our way of
life" language we often hear associated with the "war on terror"
is wildly exaggerated. The tens of billions of dollars a year being spent on
security measures need to be balanced with a realistic assessment of what terrorists
could actually accomplish, not with overblown rhetoric.
Another point Keegan makes about the Second World War is the effect that the
Doolittle raid on Tokyo had on the Japanese military. As everyone knows, in
1942 the United States bombed Tokyo using long-range bombers launched from an
aircraft carrier. The planes did virtually no damage at all to Tokyo, but the
Japanese considered this an affront to their dignity that could not be permitted
to happen again, no matter what the cost. Important military resources were
diverted from actually fighting the war to protecting the Japanese home islands,
though it clearly violated any rational cost-benefit analysis. Instead of ignoring
the Doolittle pinprick, the Japanese changed their entire war strategy and were
provoked into risking (and ultimately losing) their carriers by attacking Midway.
In many ways, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center seems much like
the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. Although the loss of three thousand lives is a
tragedy, the hijacking of four flights and the destruction of two buildings
was of extremely minor significance from any objective standpoint. The direct
economic damage in an economy of $10 trillion was negligible. However, the cancellation
of over 150,000 commercial flights and the shutdown of the entire U.S. air network
for a week was not negligible. The launching of the whole "war on terror"
and the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars for this effort is not negligible.
Like the Japanese response to Doolittle, the actions taken probably do not
stand up to any rational cost-benefit analysis, but the actions taken are about
maintaining "national dignity," not about rationally weighing costs
Proponents of the war on terror seem to think that this is a new kind of war
unparalleled in history. That, of course, is nonsense. As military analyst Bill
Lind is constantly pointing out, this type of attack by small bands of non-state
actors is as old as the human race. The denial of historical antecedents, however,
may well prevent a rational analysis of the current situation.