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The Word War II Delusion

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The recent eruptions of Islamist terror in Europe and elsewhere have once again raised urgent questions of war and peace. The return address of the Charlie Hebdo murderers seems to be Yemen, or Syria, or both.

But before we engage in war, once again, in those places, the first question we need to ask ourselves is be why we failed so miserably last time in our attempt to remake the Middle East.

Posing the question provides the answer: We attempted to remake the Middle East. We thought that war could be a force for good, conquering our enemies while "liberating" entire, grateful nations. That was a delusion. The World War II delusion.

We Americans like to believe that when we use force we benefit our enemies. In this narrative we go to war to make the world safe for democracy, to free the Japanese people from the deadly grip of militaristic leaders, cut the cancer of Nazi rule from Germany, and to nurture those nations back to health when we're done.

When the Allies occupied Japan and Germany after World War II they began a process of reconstruction the likes of which had never been seen before, or since. Japan was given a new constitution, Germany was de-Nazified, new, liberal governments were put in place, starving populations were fed, industries rebuilt, and, in relatively short order, both countries became self-governing democracies.

It was the fastest, most thorough national rebuilding in history. What it wasn't was nation building. The nations were already there.

Germany and Japan were modern industrial states before the war. Their polities and politics were well-developed, their national identities well established (one could say too well established) before they were occupied by the Allies.

The spectacular peace-time successes of those rebuilt nations cast a benevolent retroactive glow on the horrors of World War II.

But World War II was an anomaly. Given the passage of time since, it also seems like an anachronism.

When the Axis powers were defeated, they sued for peace. And peace followed. No non-state actors sabotaged the peace with terrorism; no disaffected groups who had never been part of the states in the first place rendered the conquered countries ungovernable.

But no war since has fit this pattern, especially those the United States has fought in the aftermath of 9/11. Iraq was an unstable mix of 150 tribes and 3 major religions. We shouldn't have invaded it at all, but when we did, it came apart. All we managed to do was unleash a civil war, invite Iran into the mess, and empower the strongest, most ruthless thugs, theocrats and warlords to contend for Iraq's corpse.

The World War II delusion made us believe that war could build a nation from the ruins of Iraq. But no nation was built. Isis was.

Afghanistan is yet another victim of the nation building delusion. While Afghanistan has deeper roots than Iraq, and an enemy we needed to defeat, the idea that we could turn that even more tribal country into a vibrant, modern democracy was, and is, folly.

World War II taught us the wrong lessons about warfare. War is not noble. It is killing, destroying, suffering, misery and death for warriors and civilians alike. Sometimes war is thrust upon you and you must kill or be killed. And the first job of any state, even a peaceful, liberal state, is to defend its citizens.

Defensive war--which is the only kind our nation should engage in, and the only kind we admit to--is about stopping enemies from harming us. It's about destroying their ability to do so. It is about killing them before they kill us. No fig leaf of "nation building" needed.

If we believe the only way to stop violent Islamism from attacking us is to conquer, occupy and build liberal nations out of the countries infested by it, we make a difficult task impossible. We engage in foolish, immoral adventures like the war in Iraq and worse yet, we fail.

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San Francisco based columnist, author, gym rat and novelist. My book, "The Confessions of a Catnip Junkie" is the best memoir ever written by a cat. Available on Amazon.com, or wherever fine literature is sold with no sales tax collected. For (more...)
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