Idea Of The Day

Eradicating Cancer Cells With a Blowtorch


There has been no fiercer critic of American and British strategy to date than Sir Michael Howard, the historian of war and former professor of history at Yale. A month ago, Howard questioned the use of war as a means of defeating terrorism. In a speech delivered on Tuesday night he reiterated that concern, but he went considerably further. “Figures on the Right, seeing themselves cheated of what the Germans used to call a frisch, frohliche Krieg, a short, jolly war in Afghanistan, demand one against a more satisfying adversary, Iraq; which is rather like the drunk who lost his watch in a dark alley but looked for it under a lamp post because there was more light there.” Howard is referring to the Pentagon hawks who believe Iraq is behind the anthrax attacks and who think that the United States should consider another war against Saddam Hussein. One wonders how many Middle Eastern wars these hawks propose to fight at the same time.

As for the bombing of Taliban military positions and, insofar as one can tell, deserted al-Qaida training camps, Howard says: “I can only suggest that it is like trying to eradicate cancer cells with a blow-torch. Whatever its military justification, the bombing of Afghanistan, with the inevitable ‘collateral damage’ it causes, will gradually whittle away the immense moral ascendancy that we enjoyed as a result of the bombing of the World Trade Center.”

Howard is not a pacifist; he believes that the leaders of al-Qaida must be captured and destroyed. Yet, he says, the campaign is currently being fought on the terrorists’ term, not ours. An organization as deadly and as ambitious as al-Qaida, whose terrorist manualsvaguely echo those of U.S. and British sabotage units in World War II (the Office of Strategic Services and the Special Operations Executive), requires more than cruise missiles and ground troops. “The qualities needed in a serious campaign against terrorists—secrecy, intelligence, political sagacity, quiet ruthlessness, covert actions that remain covert, above all infinite patience—all these are forgotten or overridden in a media-stoked frenzy for immediate results, and nagging complaints if they do not get them.”