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A Brief War Primer
by James V. Schall, S. J.

Editor's Note: Since September 11, 2001, the United States and other countries have been involved in what has been termed a "war on terrorism". There has been much serious discussion among Catholics, especially after the war in Iraq began, about the justification for war, and the present conflict in particular.

In the essay below, Father James Schall, professor of politicial science at Georgetown University, offers insightful observations on this unique conflict, which he says is "at its heart a 'civilizational' war". The essay is published here with the author's permission.

Since and because of 9/11, 2001, this country and other nations have been at war. For many people, it is difficult to form a clear idea of what it is all about. In most wars, the enemy side is a nation state. Certain formalities, both on the enemy's side and on our side have been reached. This war, at first, seems to be a different kind of war, and it is. But it is still a war.

It might be of some use to spell out, as a matter of opinion, the main elements of what this war is about. The most dangerous position is the one that does not know that a war does exist and we are its main target because, evidently, we are the only power that is willing or able to stop the enemy, in his own estimation, from achieving his end.

1) This is a real war with an active, dangerous enemy. It is at its heart a "civilizational" war, however reluctant we might be to acknowledge it. It is not due merely to a few "fanatics," not forgetting that the few have always led great movements.

2) The enemy is not directly a "nation-state," but that does not mean it is not dangerous or incapable of highly damaging activity. It does use nation-states who will cooperate with its goals. Had all ten or twelve planes, evidently planned to be used on 9/11, reached their targets, probably the White House, the Congress, the Court, the Sears Tower in Chicago, perhaps the Golden Gate or George Washington Bridge, or other similar targets, not only American, this country would have been much more seriously paralyzed than it momentarily was. The order to ground all planes on 9/11 was little short of brilliant.

3) Recently, al-Qaeda planners are surveying the American financial institutions or power grids. This plotting suggests that the enemy is shrewd and knows how to inflict maximum damage at the heart of a modern, complex society. It is probable that these organizations have or will have some nuclear capacity that need not be delivered from the sky. Nothing indicates that this enemy will not use such weapons when he can. If they are not physically stopped, they will use them.

4) Above all, this is not a war against "terrorists." This definition of the enemy has been most unfortunate. It has obscured us from seeing the face of an enemy that must be dealt with. The word "terrorism" makes it sound like those who attack us are members of a political science sub-set that appears out of some oft-recurring aberration throughout the globe. It abstracts from the cause that actually motivates this enemy. Terrorists, supposedly, can be "explained" in terms of just reaction to mal-distribution of goods, or by poverty, or some social justice excuse. Little or none of this sort of explanation applies here. These men are not motivated by these reasons.

5) The war is caused, planned, and carried out by specific religious groups within Islam. They claim, and probably justly according to their own lights, to be implementing the demands of their religion. They have a pious long-range purpose, to destroy the opponents of Allah, to make everyone else a believer. Generally speaking, we are so indoctrinated with ecumenism or liberalism that we cannot comprehend how this thinking could be credible, even though, in the long history of Islam, its own expansion and consolidation were largely due to such successful military forces. Islam did not, except in rare cases like Indonesia, expand by "peaceful" means. It expanded by war and military control, particularly against, but not only against, Christian peoples.

6) Not all Muslims follow these movements, but many, probably the majority, are sympathetic with their goals, especially when they seem victorious. From within Islam itself, it is almost impossible to oppose these movements except by Muslim government forces, themselves often under threat from these same movements if they do not support them.

7) This war is not "caused" by Israel. Obviously, Israel provides grounds or pretext of complaint. No one, even itself, holds that Israel has done everything right. But if Israel were to disappear tomorrow, the same problem would exist, probably on a greater scale. Israel may well be the most visible example of what our cities and country-sides would be like once similar militant Muslim forces began operating effectively with similar tactics within our borders or in those areas in Europe where Muslim populations are steadily increasing.

8) This is not a war of American imperialism caused by a misreading of the doctrine of Woodrow Wilson about making the world safe for democracy. Every one, including the President and the Pope, would like to see a "democratic" government in Islamic countries, where there are at best presently only one or two. The basic pattern of Islamic government is a military overlord elevated to some monarchal status, usually in control of the army. Recently, Afghanistan and Iran, and some others, have seen more specifically religious leaders take over rule.

9) Almost nowhere within Islamic states is there anything like freedom of religion. What is meant by tolerance is merely second-class citizenship as opposed to elimination. There are no "conversions" except to Islam permitted. All non-Muslim religions are placed under legal constraint, when not subject to violence. There has been a constant flow of Christian martyrs within Muslim states in the last half century, Sudan being the most notorious. Christians within Muslim lands have largely now fled to the West when they could.

10) The purpose of this war, from the American side, is very straight-forward to seek out, identify, and destroy those al-Qaeda and other Muslim militant forces that have initiated the war and continue to carry it out.. There is no "dialoguing" with these forces. They have a "mission" and intend to carry it out. The only thing that will stop them is force. No argument, dialogue, pressure will be effective against them. The failure to understand the nature of this implacable enemy is itself a cause of his continued success.

11) Can we lose this war? It is quite possible, particularly if we fail to see that it is a war of civilization in the eyes of those who attack us. The Spanish election was a case in point. Blowing up a train just before an election was enough to panic the Spanish electorate to vote for the weakest possible opponent. In all probability, this is the al-Qaeda strategy for the American elections. The fact that Bush, not Clinton, was in the White House when the bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001 (recall the inept response of the earlier attempt in 1993) took place was probably one of al-Qaeda's great miscalculations. This is why, from all we can tell, al-Qaeda is making every effort is to defeat Bush in this election, something even Kerry seems to suspect, hence his war-hawk transformation during the Democratic Convention..

12) Is President Bush's effort to make Iraq into a democracy feasible? Practically no one thinks that Islam and democracy are compatible. On the other hand, both American and Catholic theories hold that nations ought to be ruled with this form of rule, when possible, and that anyone can learn it with proper opportunity and instruction. It is certainly worth a try, though it is not unreasonable to settle for something less. But the normal occurrence of murdering democratic leaders when they do arise in such societies makes one very cautious

13) The war is not against Iraq or Afghanistan as such, but against al-Qaeda in any country that protects and harbors these movements. Without some sort of national protection in the Islamic world, this movement would have never gotten off of the ground. Saudi Arabia is a particularly difficult problem since much of the current terrorist theory comes from the Wahabbi sect, while the oil money of the Saudi is used to finance, under freedom of religion, mosques and schools all over the world, including in the United States, that foster this radical version of Islam on the march. The House of Saud itself is in proximate danger of being taken over by this movement.

14) In today's ecumenical world, about the only thing we hear about the Muslim religion is that it is a religion of peace and that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God. The differences between what the religions hold are put on the back burner in popular parlance and the practice is practically unknown. Islam denies the two basic Christian positions, the Trinity and the Incarnation and the version of the Bible in which these positions are established. This makes Christians dangerous enemies. Muslim states, following their own positions on the duty of state to religion, restrict in almost every way the religions within their borders. The state power is generally at the service of religion. The distinction of state and religion is unknown, when not considered blasphemous . The state should foster the religion and suppress its enemies.

15) Historically, and even today, Muslim armies have attacked and occupied not only Christian lands, but those of the Hindus, Buddhists, Chinese, the African tribes. Muslim armies came within an inch of conquering western Europe twice. Al-Qaeda Islam takes seriously its central notion that the world is intended by Allah to be Muslim. War is a legitimate means to accomplish this goal, which, though it is difficult to comprehend, is a spiritual tool.

16) Suicide bombers are a form of martyrdom. They have become a particularly effective weapon in recent decades in part because of their effectiveness in causing chaos, and in part as a deep expression of Muslim faith. Because such bombings violate almost every human instinct and principle, they are particularly difficult to handle both morally and militarily. They bring terror and war to everyone's bus stop. Indeed, suicide bombing may prove to be a much more lethal weapon than any of the unused nuclear weapons we have been worried about. No doubt if a nuclear weapon is used in some American or western city, it will be set off by a suicide bomber who will consider himself a martyr. Likewise, like the 9/11 pilots, he will be an intelligent man probably trained how to use it in some American or European school or university.

17) Religious opposition to war is based on a laudable preference for "peaceful" means, such as dialogue or unending negotiations. No dialogue is possible with this particular enemy except as a tactic to gain time. Religious leaders are not in charge of defending us in actual concrete situations. It is unfortunate in this case that religious leaders have not accurately seen the nature of this enemy, what he is capable of, and how and why he must be stopped, indeed of his religious motives. The older tradition in which religious leaders better understood the need, even for religion's sake, of a measured and adequate creation and use of force would have better served the only real peace that is possible as long as the world-conquering intention of al-Qaeda types is present and operative. Al-Qaeda is capable of operating from almost any point in the world, including from American and European cities. They need to be met where they are. It is a world war in that sense.

18) Can the United Nations handle this problem? If the UN handled Iraq, Saddam would still be in power. Not a few would accept that. In some respects, the United Nations is part of the problem. The United Nations has no forces adequate to meet this particular challenge and no effective political will to do so. The United Nations Charter did not set up a world government, but a place where problems might be discussed and in certain carefully defined cases, acted upon. But it left to individual nations the major responsibility of effective action against movements that actually attacked other countries. The alternative is not the United States with its allies or the United Nations. The alternative, in effect, is the United States or no effective action at all. Al-Qaeda leaders know this. This is why they would seek the weakest possible American government, with a people least informed about what they really stand for.

19) One final time, this is a real war. The men who are responsible for attacking us consider that we are a decadent society whose influence would corrupt their peoples. They are not wholly wrong about this. What they seek is a religious goal, all the world subject to Allah. That is their peace. To accuse them of anything less is to do a disservice to them. This particular group will only be stopped by intelligent and adequate force. Military defeat leads to a theological crisis within Islam. At some level, the question of the truth of Islam has to be faced. It is not enough to say that we all worship the same God. If this is so, on their own terms, there is no reason why the al-Qaeda dream should not conquer. Their conquest would prove their point.


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