Sometimes it seems as if the country has fallen into a high-stakes, all-consuming global conflict, and sometimes it seems that nothing has changed at all.
In the war on terrorism, American soldiers and intelligence agents are active on every continent. At home, our cities gird themselves for a major attack. The country, Vice President Cheney and others argue, faces an "existential" threat. We are pitted, one contributor to The Wall Street Journal wrote, against "an enemy who will stop at nothing to achieve world domination and force a life devoid of freedom upon all."
Yet most Americans live very much as they did before Sept. 11.
To historians, the situation poses an intriguing paradox that has sparked fresh interest in the concept of "total wars," conflicts that burst through the old boundaries of fighting and came to define warfare for at least the first half of the 20th century. The idea was first articulated during the mechanized horror of World War I, but historians today are pushing for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon, an effort that may yield insights into the conflicts unfolding today.
I think World War 2 will be the last "total war" in a conventional sense. Total war today would be nuclear and ultimately self-destructive because the devastation would fall on everyone eventually. So what we have left is the sorta-kinda war on terror.
The old tactics won't work. Right after 9-11, a lot of the fanatics were calling on us to do something like nuke Mecca. But terrorists have no capital or central authority. There is no knockout blow for terrorists and striking against Mecca would only serve to enrage more people than before.
As I've said before, terrorists might be widespread geographically, but they don't exist in great numbers in any particular place, so a police approach would be more effective against them than any sort of mass destruction. By their nature, terrorists are stealthy and quick, and so the help of locals is vital to interdicting and eliminating them. Iraq has shown us that old-school tactics such as invasion and occupation do more harm than good.
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