The New York Times used an incendiary phrase to describe the beheading of another American reporter in Syria. It was, the newspaper said, an “apparent murder.” The Times simply repeats the assertion of President Obama, who denounced the event as “the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist.” Perhaps it was. But popular American outrage at the barbaric killing and political voices demanding forceful retaliation reveal profound national hypocrisy.
If killing an individual American the jihadists identify as an enemy is murder, then how should we describe the American drone attacks that single out Islamic leaders for execution? For that matter, how do we differentiate the clandestine raids staged by US Special Forces in foreign lands when those soldiers in black capture and kill human targets secretly selected by American intelligence?
The American definition of “murder” in the midst of war now seems to depend upon the technical methodology for the homicide, not the deliberate intentions of the killers. Beheading is barbaric. High-tech bombing picking off individual “bad guys” is okay. In fact, US leaders claim to be conscientiously selective, though the innocent bystanders killed by drones are dismissed as “collateral damage.”
The distinctions between us and them may satisfy American public opinion—but killing is killing. Either way, “bad guys” end up dead. The Islamic State forces seem to recognize the bloody irony. Indeed, they have taunted the American goliath with the comparison. The masked executioner who killed Stephen Sotloff by cutting off his head delivered his video message in English: “Just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.”
Knives or bombs, either way the people are dead. The Islamist relish for gore is disgusting, of course, but it actually captures the profound contradiction that confronts the awesome military power of the United States. If Americans can clear their heads of American innocence, they might realize that our overwhelming advantages in armed force and technological wizardry has led our country into a trap. We are vulnerable because our presumption of unconquerable superiority leads us deeper and deeper into unwinnable military conflicts. Our adversaries in the Middle East and elsewhere seem to understand this.
Here is the fallacy of Goliath’s power. The singular technological might of US forces remains beyond question but has now been trumped by low-tech adversaries fighting Goliath with deadly persistence. When the Cold War ended two decades ago, American warriors claimed an obligation to police the world in defense of peace and democracy. If it chose, the United States could bomb the bejesus out of any troublemaker anywhere in the world. Usually, the threat alone was sufficient to avoid real conflict.
US military planners even encouraged the notion that we Americans could fight casualty-free wars by simply overwhelming smaller adversaries with relentless bombing campaigns. Remember the one that subdued Serbia in the late 1990s? Remember the “shock and awe” strategy that made for short, quick victory in Iraq? Or the easy conquest of the Taliban in Afghanistan? The armchair warriors are now demanding more of the same in Syria, Iraq or wherever (to his credit, President Obama is trying to tamp down political thirsts for yet another war in the Middle East).
But underdog nations and rogue armies have figured out a guerrilla strategy that uses small-gauge resistance in explosive ways—absorbing lots of losses itself (suicide bombers) but frustrating Goliath with effective, bloody surprises (roadside bombs that kill or maim our uniformed troops). The biggest surprise of all was the tragedy of 9/11—a profound shock that sowed deep fright in American culture and fueled rearmament as the US response. The enemy was dubbed “terrorism.” All available means were employed to crush it, wherever it might lurk.
America’s effectiveness was crippled from the start by this misperception. Portraying our enemies as a bunch of bearded freaks and fanatics driven by insane religious dogma effectively masked the geopolitical realities driving resistance and disorder. People have various reasons to take shots at the superpower and some are indeed crazed. But the United States is not an innocent in the world. One of the motives for resisting our power is a longing for self-determination, upholding nation and faith, culture and independence, seeking their own definitions of what matters most in life. Goliath rejects some of these longings and attempts to impose control over them. That is an important part of what feeds the conflict.
Goliath has all the best weapons. But this is what jihadists have figured out: the enemy does not have to win the war. They just have to keep bleeding Goliath one way or another till the superpower grows weary and wants out. To accomplish this, they keep baiting proud and powerful Goliath—creating upsets and horrors that persuade the superpower to wade still deeper into the big muddy. That was the futile script the United States pursued in Vietnam. It is the new battle cry we are hearing now from the armchair hawks.
Let’s bomb the Syrians until they cry uncle. If that doesn’t work, send in the soldiers in black and mercenaries working for killer corporations. If that doesn’t do it, then send thousands of the troops in uniform, more drones, more missiles, more armored personnel vehicles filled with young Americans who will provide fresh targets for the roadside bombs and suicide bombers.
This is the political question now bearing down on the US military.
Will its leaders have the courage to resist the pressure for big interventions? Will the political leaders resist the war hawks and avoid another bloody disaster? One can hope this round will be different, and I do hope that governing elites will resist the usual reflexes of go-to-war Goliath. The orthodox American policy is that if challenged, the United States must go to war to prove itself, to show the world it is still Superman and willing to shed blood and treasure to defend that franchise.
That seems so obviously wrong, we might think the nation is sure to resist a repeat of old tragedies. But there is one more powerful reason why the failed status quo of American power may endure. If the leaders of the country back off and accept a more rational and modest view of our world power, an ugly question will surface for resentful discussion. If those previous military adventures were mistaken, driven by hubris and wrong understandings, then why did all those young soldiers die? What purpose did their sacrifices have? Why were so many innocent others killed or maimed? This is the question American leaders cannot bring themselves to face.