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Declaring Victory?

I have long admired and valued James Fallows’s work, and so I write the following with respect and some reluctance. Mr. Fallows interviewed me over the summer for his article “Declaring Victory” (September Atlantic). We had a long discussion, and I provided him with a copy of a piece I had written giving an assessment of the war on terror after five years, based on what I believe al-Qaeda’s current perspective is likely to be.

Mr. Fallows refers to that piece in his article, and the quotes he provides from it are rendered accurately. I would like to note for the record, however, that what I wrote in my assessment in no way supports Mr. Fallows’s conclusion that “We Win.” The entire thrust of the piece I wrote leads to a conclusion that is 180 degrees opposite of Mr. Fallows’s—in essence, “We’re losing.”

With respect for Mr. Fallows and all of the experts he interviewed, I would submit that a better title for Mr. Fallows’s article would have been “Whistling Past the Graveyard.”

Michael F. Scheuer
Falls Church, Va.

While most of James Fallows’s article makes sense, I believe he is mistaken when he states that “loose nukes” are “the one true existential threat to the United States.” A reasonably well-coordinated nonnuclear attack by terrorists on this country’s transportation system is feasible and would have devastating effects—subjecting millions to potential starvation, for instance. Or again, our limited number of remaining petroleum refineries constitute a target set that is vulnerable to rather crude, easily delivered nonnuclear weapons. Protecting refineries from this threat is probably impossible, and such an attack would severely damage our consumer economy. We could expect to be returned to approximately the economic level of 1910.

James Wooster
Lake Tapps, Wash.

James Fallows makes two related arguments. First, that Americans have less to fear today from a terrorist attack than we did in September 2001; second, that our government’s response to such actions poses a greater risk to our nation than the attacks themselves. In light of recent events in London, his first proposition is getting more attention. But the truth of Mr. Fallows’s second point does not depend on the truth of the first; and it is the more important of the two. Why is it that we, the United States of America, persist in responding to terrorist attacks with behaviors that so obviously do not favor our survival? How have we, as a free citizenry, become so easy to manipulate into patriotic foolhardiness? And how has military action become America’s first resort, instead of our last?

One possibility is that military fool‑ hardiness is an unexpected consequence of the all-volunteer military. As our domestic economy has hollowed out, there are now fewer opportunities for making an honest living. A young American can now aspire to careers in symbol manipulation (finance, marketing, computer programming, or online poker), but rarely in manufacturing or family farming. The U.S. military—our uniformed services and our weapons industries—is the employer of choice for a growing percentage of our wage earners. Thus, we are naturally less inclined to welcome criticism or doubts about its centrality to our culture. And with no one serving against his or her will, the natural gung-ho spirit of the career military has no offsetting cynicism from the unwilling grunts and their families.

John S. Detwiler
Pittsburgh, Pa.

James Fallows demonstrates the need for caution in characterizing major events and historical eras. By declaring, repeatedly, that the United States is engaged in a “war on terror,” politicians and pundits have entrenched the concept deep in the national psyche. Like the terms Kleenex and Post-it, the phrase has been “sold” as an unquestioned, official state of being.

To uproot this mind-set—that is, to convince the citizenry that the war is over and that we have won—we would need a flexible, reflective, informed audience. Five years of war-talk saturation and conditioning have probably not prepared the American public for substantive change. Ordinary folks have become mentally comfortable in the familiar Cold War rut of angst and fear.

This situation requires a persuasive, credible, informed, and intelligent person who, by example, summons trust and commitment. Few leaders match that profile today. But then I remembered An Inconvenient Truth, and Al Gore. Is that also Fallows’s thought?

Frances Monteverde
Austin, Texas

James Fallows is undoubtedly correct that the U.S. could move beyond the war-on-terror mind-set by declaring victory and putting the threat of terrorism in perspective. But this is not going to happen, at least not in the next two years. The Bush administration learned right after 9/11 how easily it could use fear to manipulate the public. It’s not going to forgo a strategy that it hopes will ensure political victory in 2006 and 2008. Instead of saying that “we could use a leader to help us understand victory and its consequences,” Fallows should have focused on how the leaders we have will continue to do just the opposite.

Ralph H. Brock
Lubbock, Texas

James Fallows replies:

I like and respect Michael Scheuer, and his standing to speak in this field is unquestioned. As mentioned in my article, he was for years the head of the CIA’s (now-abandoned) anti–bin Laden unit, and his books Through Our Enemies’ Eyes and Imperial Hubris have stood up well. Of course I cannot tell him what he really thinks, but I believe that the full analysis presented in my article is not so totally at odds with what Mr. Scheuer has written and said.

As a reminder, my chain of reasoning for “declaring victory” was this:

“Al-Qaeda Central” itself, the organization run by Osama bin Laden and responsible for the 9/11 attacks, has been seriously harassed and interfered with in the years since then. This reduces the risk of a devastating, large-scale assault that would amount to “another 9/11.” The airline-bombing plot foiled by the British this summer actually illustrates this change. Whether or not the cell that planned the attack was directly related to al-Qaeda, British police knew about their operations for months and could disrupt them when they chose.

Around the world, “copycat” or “self-starter” groups inspired or motivated by al-Qaeda will continue to pose a serious risk, as has already been demonstrated in England, Spain, India, and elsewhere. But—as events in those same countries show—the groups do not pose an “existential” threat to those societies. Nor will they to the United States, even if and when they succeed in carrying out an attack here. Indeed in the long run the greatest menace of their terrorism is in provoking societies to destructive overreactions (for instance, the United States being provoked by 9/11 to invade Iraq, which by all accounts has become the major training ground and rallying point for anti-U.S. extremists).

Therefore the best defense against the ongoing threat from such groups is to deny them sources of support; to carefully judge our response to provocations; and to emphasize the tools of intelligence, surveillance, and penetration that have historically proven most effective against them. The first area is where, as Mr. Scheuer says, the United States is most clearly losing,” by alienating Muslims worldwide and jeopardizing its moral standing. Many of its mistakes come from excesses made more likely by the state of war (for instance, Guantánamo detentions, perceived as an us-or-them showdown between the United States and the Islamic world). But in all areas, the concept of an open-ended war on terrorism” has outlasted its usefulness, for reasons elaborated in the article. The U.K. bombing plot, again, was broken by patient surveillance work, not by speeches about making war on Islamic fascism.

Mr. Scheuer might still challenge this formulation. But it shows how recognition of failure in one area, and recognition of ongoing threat, can be reconciled with declaring a successful end to the original war against Al-Qaeda Central itself.

I agree with James Wooster that nonnuclear attacks could make life difficult in America. In his excellent Global Guerrillas blog, John Robb (whom I mentioned in the article) has written extensively about the way such “system disruptions” allow small, weak groups to damage big, powerful targets. This underscores the importance of maintaining the right efforts to penetrate, destroy, and deter such groups.

I also agree with John Detwiler that reliance on an all-volunteer military has been a crucial part of the political calculus of this war. Those Americans in uniform, whether on active duty or in the Reserves or National Guard, have been called on for extraordinary sacrifice over the last five years. But they represent well under 3 percent of the total U.S. population. The rest of us have not even had to pay higher taxes for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or the larger war on terror. Practically speaking, there is no chance of restoring a military draft. But its absence obviously makes it politically easier to go to war.

As for Ralph Brock’s point, over the last five years I have done all I could to examine the way the leaders we have” made the choices they made. And to Frances Monteverde I say: the imagined presidential oration that closed the article was meant to set a general standard rather than identify a particular candidate. But if I’d had any real-world figure in mind, it would have been Dwight Eisenhower.

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