On a daily basis in summer I stand on the back deck looking over my backyard. For the most part, except for those nasty dandelions, it is well groomed and up to the standards of my neighborhood. Dandelions: I can’t keep ahead of them; the more I knock them down with my riding lawnmower, the quicker they reappear.
In many ways my dandelion problem is a metaphor for the “War on Terror.” We have been told it is a defining moment in our country’s history; our resolve will be tested as never before. Our president reminds us we have an obligation to future generations to see this through to victory. In many ways I agree; in others I’m confused.
As with the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Poverty,” a war against a thing is elusive and unclear. Unlike our great undertaking against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan when we fought regimes that espoused hatred and expansive policies, we find ourselves in a conflict against an ideology with no recognized central authority.
Beyond the obvious differences of our “enemy” is the question of how will we know when we’ve won? There was no confusion in our battle against Fascist Germany. We defined victory easily when the Third Reich signed the unconditional surrender, it was over. The same held for Japan. When the white flags were raised, the war ended. We were victorious.
Our current war isn’t so easily defined and I’m afraid, won’t be as easily “won.”
Just before our invasion of Iraq, I was in my usual location on the couch watching television. This particular day a respected neocon, Richard Perle was being interviewed on a Sunday morning news show. He was asked a simple question, “How do we win this War on Terror?”
He gave an equally simple answer, “We must kill them all.”
The interviewer, taken aback and somewhat incredulous responded, “You mean we must kill every terrorist out there? Is that possible?”
Nonplussed, the responder was even more emphatic, “Absolutely, when we kill all of them we will have won the war.”
These were the days when America had been ginned up to go to battle. We were anxious for revenge after 9-11, even if the real enemy was hiding in a cave in Afghanistan. America has the greatest military in the history of the world; there is no enemy we cannot defeat. This war, we were told, would be no exception.
I wasn’t so sure. After nearly six years, 4,200 American deaths, countless thousands of Iraqi dead, $500 billion of treasure spent, many of my countrymen are now asking similar questions.
For me, the answers can be found in dandelions. I cut them earnestly every few days; they return in greater numbers than before. Our war on terror has changed into a war of attrition with no end in sight. We kill them in large numbers, delude ourselves into a false sense of security, convinced we will rid the world of Islamic fascists (the latest catch-phrase in geopolitical speech). But, we are no nearer to ridding the world of these dangerous ideologues than we were six years ago.
In my battle against dandelions, I’ve learned to take a longer, more systemic approach. The only effective way to win against this insidious enemy is to dig them out by the roots one by one. It takes time, effort, and patience. It isn’t as emotionally gratifying as running across the top of them with a high-tech killing machine.
Likewise, I am convinced our efforts at defeating terrorism require an understanding of the root causes of their extreme ideology. Why do they hate us so much? How do the systemic issues of poverty, hopelessness, illiteracy, fundamentalism and political atrophy feed their actions? What can we do to get at the roots of this hatred? How can America positively influence the millions of peaceful Muslims, who in turn, can influence radical sects and eliminate the fertile recruiting grounds for future martyrs? How is American policy interpreted in this region of the world? How can the perception that America is not a fair and honest broker for peace be changed?
Finding the answers to these questions are the keys to winning the War on Terror. The real question is whether America has the leadership and collective wisdom to take this path.
America is the greatest country on Earth with nearly unlimited resources and a people who still hold to the self-evident truths laid out for us over 200 years ago. We will do the right thing if asked. We instinctually know that the tenets of self-government, individual freedom, and respect for the differences of others serve as our best weapons against any enemy, home or abroad.
If only our leaders had the faith and wisdom to allow America to be what it has always been, a beacon of hope for the rest of the world.
America can win this war. Come over and look at my backyard someday and see for yourself.
Tony Hamlin of Milo is a high school history teacher.