You remember. It was supposed to be 21st-century war, American-style: precise beyond imagining; smart bombs; drones capable of taking out a carefully identified and tracked human being just about anywhere on Earth; special-operations raids so pinpoint-accurate that they would represent a triumph of modern military science. Everything “networked.” It was to be a glorious dream of limited destruction combined with unlimited power and success. In reality, it would prove to be a nightmare of the first order.
If you want a single word to summarize American war-making in this last decade and a half, I would suggest rubble. It’s been a painfully apt term since September 11, 2001. In addition, to catch the essence of such war in this century, two new words might be useful: rubblize and rubblization. Let me explain what I mean.
In recent weeks, another major city in Iraq has officially been “liberated” (almost) from the militants of the Islamic State. However, the results of the US-backed Iraqi military campaign to retake Mosul, that country’s second largest city, don’t fit any ordinary definition of triumph or victory. It began in October 2016 and, at nine months and counting, has been longer than the World War II battle of Stalingrad. Week after week, in street to street fighting, with US airstrikes repeatedly called in on neighborhoods still filled with terrified Mosulites, unknown but potentially staggering numbers of civilians have died. More than a million people—yes, you read that figure correctly—were uprooted from their homes and major portions of the Western half of the city they fled, including its ancient historic sections, have been turned into rubble.
This should be the definition of victory as defeat, success as disaster. It’s also a pattern. It’s been the essential story of the American war on terror since, in the month after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush loosed American air power on Afghanistan. That first air campaign began what has increasingly come to look like the full-scale rubblization of significant parts of the Greater Middle East.