A war that nobody wants to fight

The carpet bombing in Afghanistan confirms the dreadful power of the American military machine. But it also reveals a sense of powerlessness within the US (and British) political elites.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

The carpet bombing in Afghanistan confirms the dreadful power of the American military machine. But it also reveals a sense of powerlessness, of things spinning out of control, within the US (and British) political elites.

The attempt to destroy everything from the air is an act of desperation. It is born out of uncertainty about what to do next. Despite the odds being overwhelmingly in their favour, the leaders of the Western world seem unable even to agree on what would constitute victory, never mind how to achieve it.

For weeks we have been told that a major ground offensive is ‘imminent’. Maybe it is. But we have seen no sign of it yet, beyond the made-for-TV raid by the American special forces three weeks ago – a PR stunt which, it is now clear, almost ended in disaster.

This indecision is sending a message to the Muslim world, but not the one that President Bush and Prime Minister Blair intended to send through their global propaganda war. ‘It’s not war yet’, one Taliban supporter in Jalalabad, Afghanistan told a reporter from The Times (London). ‘Let the American troops come down to the ground and then there will be a real battle….The Russians were much more tough and brutal, but the American soldiers are much softer and will not be a good match for us’ (1)

Leaving aside the obvious bravado, it is not really surprising that many in the developing world should now see the West in this way. The apparent ‘softness’ the Taliban talks of is not cowardice. It is a lack of conviction, an uncertainty within the West of what we stand for in the twenty-first century. The continual reassurances from high places that this is not a war against Islam only begs the question as to what it is that the US-led coalition is supposed to be fighting for.

Despite the feelings of anger and empathy stirred by the terrorist attacks of 11 September, there has been no major wave of old-fashioned war fever in America, and far less in Britain. Young people are not queuing to join the West’s armies to go and fight for their flag, and indeed some of those already in the armed forces have been quoted complaining that they would not have signed up if they had known they might actually be expected to go and fight.

This contrasts with the start of past conflicts when people were told that the future of their civilisation was on the line. At the beginning of the First World War in 1914, whole towns and villages of young British men volunteered to fight for the Empire. There was also a widespread willingness among Britons to fight the Nazis when the Second World War began in 1939 – and among Americans to fight the Japanese after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

In those conflicts, many felt that there was something worth fighting for, to defend what they believed in. This sentiment was often strongest in the middle and upper classes; the officer class took heavy casualties leading its men ‘over the top’. The world wars evidenced outpourings of genuine selfless courage, of the kind that has recently been dramatised in films like Saving Private Ryan and the current TV series Band of Brothers.

In many ways the turning point was the Vietnam War from the 1960s to 1970s. Many middle-class American youth refused to fight in a war they did not support, and for the first time ‘draft-dodging’ became seen by them as a noble thing rather than an act of cowardice. The working class did the fighting in Vietnam and the supporting back home – as symbolised by the so-called hard hat riots, when construction workers were mobilised to attack student anti-war protests.

Today, while they agree that something must be done to avenge 11 September, even fewer middle-class young Americans are keen to go and fight in Afghanistan. Working-class Americans still seem the ones most firmly behind military action. Yet even they have displayed relatively little of the unquestioning patriotic fighting spirit of the past.

The failures of intelligence services both before and after 11 September starkly illustrate how far Western states have lost the will to fight. It has become clear that spies have been increasingly unwilling to get their hands dirty and take risks. There is a distinct whiff of the decaying Roman empire about their unwillingness to put themselves on the line. But then, why should we expect anything else from the agents of our risk-averse, faith-lite societies?

In his latest speech to the American people, on Thursday 8 November, President Bush claimed that the crisis had made the USA stronger: ‘Through the tragedy, we are renewing and reclaiming our strong American values.’ In fact, the confused and fearful response to 11 September has raised many questions about what those values are today.

The only practical direction Bush seemed able to give people was advice to volunteer to work in hospitals, which could respond to future terrorist attacks. This seems a far remove from the ‘Your country needs you’ call to arms which galvanised Western nations in the past. Unable to convince people to fight, it seems, today’s political elite has to resort to asking them to care. This reflects the anxious, inward-looking outlook of many post-11 September, who have been far more concerned about how to protect themselves from an anthrax attack than how to win the war in Afghanistan.

The widespread unwillingness to fight for anything can be interpreted as evidence of the inner bankruptcy of Western capitalism. It invites a defiant response from those who sense that terrorist attacks can traumatise our societies. They see that, even when the West wants to hit back, many now find it hard to come to terms with the thought of taking casualties. How many in the rest of the world really have the taste for a jihad also remains to be seen.

For now, the Western loss of conviction helps to explain why so many were astounded that the terrorists were prepared to martyr themselves on 11 September – and why some leading conservatives have even expressed something approaching admiration for their fanatical opponents, who at least seem to have the courage of their convictions.

When a society can no longer give people anything that they deem worth fighting and possibly dying for, it raises doubts about exactly what collective goals we are living and striving for.

We certainly should not admire the nihilism of terrorists. Nor should we support this aimless and destructive war. Nor, too, should we wish for a return to the days when patriotic youth marched off whistling towards death in wars fought on behalf of empires. But the crisis and the response to it in the West does powerfully illustrate the need for a full and frank debate about who we are now, and where we go next, if we want to fight for something worthwhile.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked, and is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

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(1) I watch Pakistanis join the Taleban, The Times, 9 November 2001

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Topics Politics


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