Idea Of The Day

Historians and War

“The West,” writes the historian Noel Malcolm, “has been good at winning wars, because it has been good at other things of even greater importance. Now that our leaders are declaring a new kind of war, against an unseen enemy who fights by none of the old rules, we must hope that this principle still holds true.”

Yet, how far is this, as President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair maintain, a “war against terrorism“? And if it is a war, will the usual laws governing armed conflict apply? The well-respected military historian Michael Howard is adamant that the campaign to capture the leaders of al-Qaida is not a war and that to describe it as such cannot be useful:

Today we are threatened by a transnational conspiracy; not against any specific national or imperial authority, but against the entire international order. In dealing with it the rhetoric and expectations of “war” are counter-productive and much military experience irrelevant. With skilful political management and patient police-work, backed up where necessary by armed force “in aid of the civil power,” this particular conspiracy can, perhaps, be eradicated. But “the war against terrorism” cannot be won, for terrorism will always be available as a weapon in the hands of people desperate and ruthless enough to use it. One would like to believe that the world is becoming so peaceful, just and prosperous that such people will soon no longer exist. But I would not like to bet on it.

Or as yet another historian, R.W. Johnson, argues: “One of the 20th century’s least celebrated discoveries was that terrorism works. …The terrorists believe the US can still ‘go home’. By which they mean, pull out of the Middle East, stop supporting Israel, stop harassing Gaddafi and Iraq. But America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil means that such a retreat would imply a de facto retreat from superpower status. Underneath the dreadful images lie these enormous strategic choices.”