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Originally posted
September 22, 2001

Fighting a New War
Lessons from Our Past
J. C. Adamson

Author's Note: This article refers to war in Afghanistan. It was written nearly a year before we knew we would embark on the insane strategy of invading Iraq.

America's New War, one of the cable TV channels calls it. There are no fronts in this war. We're not sure who the enemies are—or where they are. We think we were attacked first—but the enemy may think he was. If we win this war, we probably won't know exactly when the triumph happens; we may not even know with any certainty that we have won.

I've been thinking of America's first war—the revolution. In a way, it was a civil war, with British subjects fighting British subjects. In a way, it was a world war: During the revolution, England was fighting separate confrontations in India and Africa, and was at war with Spain. France was occupying West Indian Islands, and became an ally of the rebelling American colonists. Spain and Portugal were sparring over South American colonies. And Russia was campaigning in Eastern Europe.

The British were the masters of war. They had a fearsome regular army, led by experienced, educated commanders. They had a navy that was unparalleled. Their military power allowed them to project their political power all across the known world.

But these masterful soldiers never quite accustomed themselves to being shot at from behind rocks and trees by guerillas. Before the war was over, they certainly refined their tactics, but they never became very skilled at the new kind of warfare the colonists brought to them. Their proud red coats symbolize their failure to learn and adapt to the realities of their new war.

In the end, the colonist rebels won simply by not losing, and not quitting. Perhaps George Washington's greatest accomplishment was in never losing so great a battle that he couldn't continue to fight. After years of conflict, the British finally had to just give up. The price of going on was too high, monetarily and militarily. Had they continued to try to maintain the American colonies, they would probably have suffered unsustainable losses elsewhere in the world. Indeed, they might have been overrun at some point by Spain, or another nation.

The situation of today seems very much like the Revolutionary War—but this time, we are the Brits. We are in great danger if we do not fully understand how different this war will be from all the wars that have come before it. If we begin the fight in Afghanistan, it will be tempting to compare the battlefield to Viet Nam. We'll find it like Viet Nam in many ways, but it is not just Viet Nam with mountains. Physically, politically, culturally, Kabul is as far from Saigon as it is from Seattle.

Nor will this be like Korea or Europe or the South Pacific. The methods of this war will be as different from the battlefields of World War II as firefights in the eighteenth century Pennsylvania woods were from the formal European battles the British Regulars were accustomed to fighting.

If we are to be successful in our new war, we must not only accept that we are fighting a different kind of enemy, with a different kind of motive and method, we must devise strategies and tactics that can best that enemy decisively. We must become the masters of the new war. We must defeat these enemies not in the ways we would like to defeat them, but in the ways that they are vulnerable to defeat. We'd prefer to win with missiles and stealth aircraft—because that's what we have. But our adversaries don't fight with missiles and aircraft, at least not in conventional ways—and they may not be vulnerable to conventional armaments.

I'm not saying that we must fight as the enemy fights. Had the British taken off their coats and taken to the woods, they might well have conquered the colonists. But if we resort to our enemies' methods—terrorism and the slaughter of innocents—we will lose the essence of ourselves and of the battle. We must find other ways to overwhelm this enemy—methods different from any we have ever known, and different from any the terrorist enemies use.

We must not underestimate these enemies. We sometimes use simplistic language to pretend an understanding of that which defies understanding. We say that these enemies are cowards. But they are not cowards; they willingly face certain death for their cause—and when they do not die, they resolutely face lifelong imprisonment, never seeming to crack. When they don't succeed, they return again and again to their struggle, until they ultimately prevail. When we observe such qualities in our own soldiers, we don't call them cowards; we call them heroes.

We often label these terrorist enemies as crazy, deranged or twisted. But they are not insane; they are brilliant, deliberate, patient and dedicated. They are shrewd.

Our President tells us they hate freedom. That doesn't ring true, either. They may hate us—and they may hate us because we are free. But they don't seem to seek enslavement of us or of others. They don't seem to hate freedom. Perhaps they even covet it. Perhaps they covet freedoms they perceive us to be denying them.

If we stop at just labeling these enemies, and imagining explanations for what we don't understand in them, we play into their hands. If we are to defeat them, we must know them and understand them far better than we do today. We must be able to anticipate their moves, and better their strategies. We must become students of their attitudes, their manners and their mores.

When we truly look at why they hate us, we might also have to face some truths about ourselves. We may see that we have imposed our values on other cultures without invitation. We may see that we have demanded the vital resources of other peoples with little regard for their well-being. We may see much more. None of this self-searching will justify the actions our enemies took on September eleventh. Nothing could ever justify such atrocity. But if we don't assess our own mistakes, we may never understand the true nature of the battle to come, and we may not be able to win the struggle ahead.

The British never understood the colonists. They never understood why we fought, so they never understood how we fought. They never believed we could defeat them, so they never had a chance to escape that relentless defeat. They never understood how their actions and attitudes had made inevitable the revolution, and ultimately their defeat.

If we want The United States to survive into the twenty-second century, we had better study anew the awesome lessons of the eighteenth century. We'd better learn why these enemies hate us, and why they fight such a desperate and relentless fight. We'd better be ready to know some new truths. We'd better learn to understand the battlefield in the same way that the enemies understand it. We'd better be prepared to abandon our coats of pride and break our rigid ranks. We'd better be ready to fight a truly new war.

© J. C. Adamson, 2001


copyright © 2010, J. C. Adamson