Posted by: Kevin | August 30, 2006

A Category Error

That’s what science fiction writer Dan Simmons calls the Great War on Terror in has April 2006 message to his fans seen here. 

“Having stated or defined a problem so poorly that it becomes impossible to solve that problem through dialectic or any other means.”   

His message buried within a well written (if alarmist) scifi story, is that we’ve defined the war we are fighting so poorly that it is impossible to win it.  I agree, although I don’t share his pessimistic view of the consequences.  To use Simmon’s analogy, declaring war on terrorism makes about as much sense as FDR declaring war on aviation after Pearl Harbor.  Terrorism is a tactic and a weapon, like aviation, blitzkrieg or firearms.  It is someone’s means to an end, our end. 

Terror tactics have taken a role in all modern conflicts but what we call terrorism today operates best in situations of relative peace.  During large scale conventional wars, such as the World Wars, governments are able to take extreme steps to ensure that their populations are loyal.  Additionally, the large scale destruction yielded by conventional arms and tactics would render small scale Terrorist actions trivial in comparison. 

In other conflicts, terrorism was the primary weapon.  The first attempt by the Serbians to take over Croatia, Bosnia, etc. relied primarily on terrorism acted out by groups such as the Black Hand, in the hopes of destabilizing Austria-Hungary.  Various European separatist movements have relied on terrorism to attach their opponents.  As well as communist movements and anarchists of all stripes.  In times of relative peace, the terrorist can strike and then melt back into the population.  As they aren’t “attached” to states there is no one to strike back against. 

However, terrorists are supported by states as there are very few individuals with the means to support their activities.  As long as that support exists, so will the problem.  Communist inspired terrorism in Europe dropped significantly with the crumbling of the Soviet Union.  Their support dried up, they couldn’t recruit new members, train them and arm them.  That left a few small separatist groups in Europe who could count on manpower from their ethnic group but had little monetary support. Terrorism has only reappeared in Europe with the exportation of radical Islam to Europe and the increase in Arab funding for terrorism. 

So who should we have declared war on? And how should we have defined the problem? 

My answer, al Qaeda, a group dedicated to (amongst other things) our destruction, and every nation we can prove deliberately provides them with support.  This justifies our first move in Afghanistan and would compel us to finish the job there.  The tricky part is the “every nation we can prove deliberately provides them with support” this is open to manipulation but it also allows us to control the timing of the next move.  In 2003, this could have been used as a modern version of “The Big Stick” from Teddy Roosevelt’s days.

Iraq changed that.  In addition to our first category error, the Great War on Terror, we have another, the Liberation of Iraq.  Again, the problem was defined so poorly that success wasn’t possible.  Liberating Iraq didn’t increase our security because we didn’t understand what we were liberating.  In the case of Iraq, that was long simmering sectarian tension.  Once the lid was removed, the pot boiled over.

So what is our problem now?  How is it defined and thus how can we solve it?

Our problem is we still have a collection of groups dedicated to (amongst other things) our destruction, led by Al Qaeda.  In addition, we have a conflict in Iraq that must end with a stable Iraq.  What do I think the solution is?  That’s a story for another post.

Hat Tip to the AmbivaBlog for the original link to Dan Simmons’ story

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Responses

  1. […] Category Error Thats what science fiction writer Dan Simmons calls the Great War on Terror in has April 2006 message to his fans seen here. Having stated or defined a problem so poorly that it becomes impossible to solve that problem through dialectic or any other means. His message buried within a well written (if alarmist) scifi story, is that weve defined the war we are fighting so poorly that it is impossible to win it. I agree, although I dont share his pessimistic view of the consequences. To use Simmons analogy, declaring war on terrorism makes about as much sense as FDR declaring war on aviation after Pearl Harbor. Terrorism is a tactic and a weapon, like aviation, blitzkrieg or firearms. It is someones means to an end, our end. A Category Error My Thinking Corner […]


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