On War

Image via Wikipedia

Why do we call it the War on Terror? This “conflict” is very different from the other “wars” in America’s history. So, I decided to make a list of the qualities that I think make it different from the others:

  1. No conscription. (Conscription ended in the 1970’s with the end of the Vietnam War.)
  2. Civilians have not been asked to sacrifice for the war financially. (Admittedly a conditional continuum gradually diminishing since World War II.)
  3. Military casualties are historically small, 5,491 (as of 2010) compared to Vietnam’s 58,151, a ten-fold difference.
  4. The War on Terror started with an attack on civilians, unlike any of our other principal wars.
  5. The number of American civilian casualties, 2,977, are 35% of the total if combined with military losses. This is unique, and the number is significant. It is only one out of every 100,000 Americans, but the deaths occurred on a single day. (It is about the same number killed at Pearl Harbor, but those were mostly military, a big difference.)
  6. The enemy aggressor is not a nation, nor any other internationally-sanctioned entity, but a loosely organized renegade movement of religious fanatics enabled and emboldened by Arab oil fortunes. The foe in all the other wars was a nation. Thus, a politically-negotiated end to this “war”, unlike all the others, is impossible, and thus to speak of “winning” it is entirely subjective.
  7. This is the first all-unconventional war and its different nature has required our armed forces to alter their mission and become more political and sociological. Along with this, the use of specialized civilian “contractors”, often mercenaries, has become ubiquitous.
  8. Electronic media play a larger part in this war than in any before, again a continuum of trend extending back to the use of photography in the Civil War. Because of media technical efficiency, public reaction is at an historically high for maximum impact and likelihood of over-reaction to any event, whether it be an attack or a demonstration somewhere.
  9. Because of the unconventional and guerilla nature of this war, intelligence and secrecy have assumed greater importance than ever before, with the concomitant risk that privacy and the free flow of information may be at more risk than ever before.

How is the War on Terror like the other principal wars?

  1. At the heart of it is the issue of vital material resources, principally oil, and it is this wealth that powers al Qaeda and its allies. Oil is the foundation of wealth for Middle Eastern nations, without which they would otherwise be poor third-world countries like most of Africa. This is inherited wealth, not earned wealth. Little labor is involved on their part. Resources have been an issue in most other wars and where hegemony was prime, beyond that were resources.
  2. Armed forces have been employed to combat the foe.
  3. Public fear has empowered politicians to exceed budgets, and in this case almost without restraint.
  4. Public fear justifies secrecy of operations and provides cover for inefficiency, redundancy and errors by leaders.

In light of this analysis I suggest that the term “war” has been misused. While I don’t discount the need for the involvement of the armed forces, what we should be discussing is an international police problem. In fact, I submit that the changing nature of “war” as discussed here is the principal reason that Congress hasn’t declared “war” since 1941.

Graph demonstrating increases in United States...

The War on Drugs, via Wikipedia

The term “war” has been misused before:

  1. The War on Drugs.
  2. The War on Poverty
  3. The War on Hunger
  4. The War on (name your disease)

Thus, when you hear “The War On . . .”, you had best hold on to your wallet and review your Bill of Rights – both will be in danger.  And if anyone should think America hasn’t over-reacted to the War on Terror, I suggest they read the book, Top Secret America, by Priest and Arkin.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
This entry was posted in Culture, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to On War

  1. IzaakMak says:

    Excellent post Jim! I watched the PBS | FRONTLINE Top Secret America documentary just the other night and was truly appalled by what it revealed. What was particularly worrisome was their saying that no politician hoping to win an election would dare speak out against this awful waste of resources for fear, in the event we were attacked again, of being labeled the one who weakened our defenses when we needed them most. Talk about your Catch-22!


  2. PiedType says:

    Somewhere recently I’ve said much the same thing. War has been a misnomer from the beginning. Early on it was invasion. Then it became nation building. It’s a typical Republican war, someone once said. It’s not a war on a people or a nation; it’s a war on an idea that can’t be won with guns and soldiers. And from the beginning it cried out to be treated like the international crime it is, to be fought the way crime is usually fought, with international police and intelligence agencies, alert citizens, and special ops military strike forces if a particularly valuable target can be pinpointed. Anything more is very expensive overreaction and overkill for reasons that have little to do with fighting terrorists.


  3. ansonburlingame says:


    I think you missed a big point made by Jim and now having read the book (see my blog on the matter) I disagree with how to fight this “war” as you proposed.

    America today is far too “pain adverse” or perhaps another way of saying it is that ALL threats must be “fixed” by government, across the board.

    Does it make you angry that government forces you to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle? It does me. How about seat belts?

    How clean must clean become in terms of drinking water, air, or whatever and how much are we willing to spend to keep raising the bar in such standards?

    How much are we willing to spend to make sure every American has adequate health care? What exactly is the THREAT to America if we fail to spend the money required in such an effort.

    But moving to the subject at hand, what is the REAL threat to America from “terrorism” and how much money are we willing to spend to avoid that threat?

    Well read Top Secret America and just for “intelligence” alone, just intelligence, anyone reading the book will say NOT THAT MUCH MONEY OR DOING SO THAT WAY!!! Same with the report on Wartime Contracting developed after a four year Congressional study (at what cost I ask).

    In every case above, many Americans are “scared to death” that they might drink “bad” water, or breathe “bad” air, or not see a doctor whenever they “get sick”, etc. And you know as well as I do that if ONE underwear bomber gets through our “net” then a presidency will fall.

    Take any given issue and each one goes to the top of someone’s list of priorities. And no politician has the guts to simply take an issue and remove it from the list of “threats” to someone.

    I wonder today, if a group of hijackers actually gained control of a plane in American airspace what would happen today aboard that plane. My guess is some passenger would gather his courage and say, once again, “Let’s roll”. Yes we would lose a plane and about 250 lives. But I doubt that the plane would fly into a building in NYC today.

    Now go back and read Top Secret America and ask yourself if those 250 lives “saved” on one plane are worth the $ Trillions spent to try to avoid ANY hijacking today?

    Terrible question to ask is it not. But now that I have put it out there, try answering it. And when you say “yes” to that question or say “no but….” then answer all the other potential questions about air, water, HC, food stamps, etc. with the underlying theme of how much money is worth countering the threat of doing less, not nothing, but less?

    In other words how intolerant have we become of anything less than perfect across a wide range of topics and how perfect must government become to counter all those threats today.

    Someday soon in America we must learn to prioritize our various threats and the money we spend on each one. Top Secret America is but the tip of the iceberg in my view of how we have failled, terribly, for just ONE threat. Add in all the others and we have a broken nation, spiritually and financially.



  4. Jim Wheeler says:

    Thanks, Anson, for putting the theme of the post in your own words. I agree with them, by the way, except where you accused Pied of missing the point. If you will read her comment again I think you will see that she didn’t. She said (emphasis mine),

    ” . . . international police and intelligence agencies, alert citizens, and special ops military strike forces if a particularly valuable target can be pinpointed. Anything more is very expensive overreaction and overkill for reasons that have little to do with fighting terrorists.”

    I would say she got the message loud and clear.


  5. John Erickson says:

    While I admit being far from an expert on the Vietnam war, and at the risk of invoking both your and Anson’s wrath, I somewhat question your description (in point #7) of the current conflicts being the FIRST non-traditional wars. Wouldn’t you qualify Vietnam as the first unconventional war? No real front lines, an enemy that mixed with the local population, truly asymmetric war (a stereotype, admittedly – VC in pajamas against US armour), and most importantly, a very nebulous “target” for victory. Yes, I understand there was a North Vietnam with a functional military and military-style engagements on the ground and in the air. I would just put forth that a lot of the “definitions” of combat in the War on Terror were first significantly encountered (WW2 partisan activity excluded here) in Vietnam.
    Other than that VERY tiny niggle, very well written and absolutely spot on! I weary of the constant “War on” this or that. Ever try to cure cancer with a 105mm howitzer? You can, but it tends to be a rather brutal solution! 😉


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I agree John, that war has been undergoing change, well, forever. But my point was that the War on Terror is the first so-called “war” that does not involve army against army. Despite the greatly increased use of guerilla tactics in Vietnam by the Viet Cong, there were pitched battles between army units that wore uniforms and assaults on territory, and I am arguing that the War on Terror is the first not to have such things. Now some could quibble by pointing to the assault phase of the Iraq War and skirmishes with Taliban, but I would argue that they were not the enemy, al Qaeda is. Nevertheless, I appreciate the comment and the opportunity to clarify.


  6. sekanblogger says:

    We went from a war on poverty, to a war creating poverty, including the the trickle-up economics here at home (see the new Census statistics on poverty).
    Terror is not something you can have a war against.
    1. Extreme fear: “people fled in terror”; “a terror of darkness”.
    2. The use of such fear to intimidate people, esp. for political reasons: “weapons of terror”.

    Jim, although oil and resources may (and most likely do) have something to do with our actions, there are other lines of reasoning for these actions. We had good security concerns when we went to Afghanistan, but then the Bushies and Cheney saw a chance to feed their buddies in the infamous military/industrial complex.

    Yes, the public (duped by propaganda) and government over-reacted, making Al-Queda the real winners here. Yeah, so we killed OBL, but sacrificed everything we stood for in the process.
    Now we have real, big problems, brought on by our own actions.


  7. sekanblogger says:

    I have to wonder why I still get moderated here?


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Really, sekan, I see nothing untoward in your comments. Disagreement is spice in civil application.

      As for the role of oil in foreign affairs, I am reminded of the recent Wikileaks revelation about confidential and quite personal disparagement of various foreign leaders by the Secretary of State and others. The reason statesmen, er, statespersons make nice to one another is that they all want something from each other, either now or in the future. It’s not about anything personal, it’s about money and power, and when you think about it, money IS power, and oil is a form of commodity money – probably as good as gold is.

      And speaking of the Military Industrial Complex, even Anson agrees that the War on Terror has been a veritable and terribly wasteful feeding frenzy on the public’s credit card.

      Keep on pluggin’. 🙂


    • John Erickson says:

      Sekan- I don’t think you’re getting moderated for content, I think the “You comment is awaiting moderation” prompt from WordPress is their equivalent of “we’re posting it, give our slow computers a few minutes, please”.


  8. sekanblogger says:

    So, I must assume you just prefer to moderate your commentators?
    Nothing wrong with that.
    The only time I ever had to moderate was when several very nasty tempered and unreasonable people from a radically right-winged site targeted me for one simple comment on their site.
    Thanks for your reply!


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @ all,

      Just for the record and relative to sekanblogger’s concern about “moderate”, I have not failed to “approve” any comment to my blog except in instances of blatant profanity, comments devoid of meaningful discourse. There was one, and might have been two – I forget. I have it in my head to “unapprove” comments devoted principally to incivility, but have not had to do so thus far. John is right, sometimes there is a time delay, not so much for the computers but for me to attend to other matters. (I usually get to the computer about mid-morning.) Somehow I still have a part of my life distinct from blogging. 🙂


  9. ansonburlingame says:

    to all,

    Well, when “even Anson agrees” there must be a kernel of truth in there somewhere, right?

    Appologies Pied. Perhaps you did get the point. You are about my age so you obviously are “smart”!!!

    Now John, related to Vietnam as the first big change in war on the part of America. Britain would disagree, perhaps. Our Revolutionary War was much like Vietnam with “us” being like the Viet Cong was it not? We were unable to win “pitched battles” against a “superpower” for years until we finally “wore them down” or “out”, the British I mean?

    I am also sure that many in Britain wondered for decades afterwards, “how did we lose that one?”

    Hell they even came back in 1812 and tried, again, to win it. We at least did not do that in Vietnam.



  10. IzaakMak says:

    Hi Jim,

    Here’s something I think is relevant to the “government over reaction” aspect of your post. Did you hear on the news about fighter jets being scrambled on 9/11/2011 to escort a plane in for landing at Detroit due to the “suspicious behavior” of several of it’s passengers? I first heard of it in a post (Jets Scrambled For Sex Romp in Airplane Toilet) mocking the (apparent) stupidity of choosing a flight on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 to play “mile high club” games in the toilet.

    Another reader later posted a link (“Half-Arab, half-Jewish housewife” terrorized on 9/11 for Flying While Dark-Skinned) to a report that revealed it all to be “a terrible misunderstanding.” It was in that article that I found a link to a WordPress blog post written by the actual woman involved in the case: Some real Shock and Awe: Racially profiled and cuffed in Detroit.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      As you may know, I am an advocate of the Israeli profiling approach as opposed to making suspects out of every passenger. It there had been professionals trained in profiling and procedures appropriate to for that, I predict these incidents would have been handled better and more quickly. However, having said that, I have to note that many passengers have suffered worse from flight delays while sitting on the tarmac waiting for weather to improve.

      Thanks for the contribution, Izaak.


  11. sekanblogger says:

    I’m just too sensitive that I’ve pissed someone off.
    Carry on, don’t worry about me.
    My computer and wordpress have been doing some funky stuff last 24 hours.
    Time to check out my MacKeeeper and see if anything weird is going on.
    I like this bunch I’ve stumbled into commenting with!


  12. ansonburlingame says:

    to all,

    I have not heard about a possible “mile high club” reason for the escort of the plane going into Detroit. The story that I heard was three “middle eastern” men stayed in the “heads” for a long time and the flight attendant became concerned. She notified the Captain and here comes the escort. But if there were both men and women in the “head” together, so what. They COULD have been screwing around in various ways, dangerously or “just sex”.

    Sounds like a good reason to put jets into the air to me, particularly in view of the warning issued before that day.

    I agree with Jim on the profiling issue. If “grandma” by hearself had stayed in the head too long, so what. But a “middle eastern man” doing so would get my attention and I would be banging on the door and searching his ass when he finally came out. Wonder if there was an Air Marshal on board as well and what he would have done?

    As well just think “what if” a real problem had been present and the three men were in fact ready to do something really bad. Would we have shot down the plane?

    This event along with causing a “dark skinned lady” problems boarding a plane, is yet again a reminder that we are still in a post 9/11 world. The question also remains, what are we going to do about it as a society?

    I also know what I would do if I was now “running Al Qaeda”. I would find the most pissed off white woman that I could find, probably a “grandmother” and get her to blow up a plane. And yep, I know where to put the bomb as well!! And you can bet that somewhere in our intelligence morass today someone is worried about just that scenario and trying to figure out how to prevent it, today.

    Yep, War is hell and like it or not that are some folks out there that are still at war with us today.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Just one observation to your comment, Anson. I am unaware of any white person acting as a suicide terrorist thus far. Do you know of one? I’m not saying it’s not possible of course, I’m just saying I think it is still way, way down in statistical probability at this point in time. It’s similar to what doctors say about diagnosing – it’s better to look for horses than zebras.



  13. ansonburlingame says:


    Of course you are correct that no “white person” has yet blown themselves up for the “cause”, at least that we know about. So if we are willing to take that chance that no “white person” would EVER do so, then…….?

    Another way to approach the problem is to strip seacher every “middle eastern man” getting on a plane coming to the US from anywhere and only do the same for every 10th or 100th or 1000th “white person”. Oh, my. Try explaining that approach to…..???

    Now do you think that radical Islamists have NOT thought of the idea of recruiting “white people”. Might one be in the “pipeline” as we exchange views of this issue?

    Comes down to “how safe is safe” it seems to me. Now go back and read TSA to find out how much money we are spending to try to achieve 100%.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      You seem to be reasoning in circles here, Anson. I hope we agree that trying for 100% is the wrong thing to do, which was my point. And of course the radical Islamists have thought of using a white guy. Apparently the pool of morons is pretty dry right now.



      • ansonburlingame says:


        Sorry, I can’t resist.

        Does the “dry pool” mean that no white men are morons or just not white Islamic morons?? I know I can find a lot of the former and if I tried hard I bet I could find a few of the latter.

        Again, sorry but I just couldn’t resist such “circularity” along racial lines.



  14. sekanblogger says:

    For Christ’s sake. Let’s not make this about skin color.


  15. ansonburlingame says:


    It is NOT about skin color, which is simply determined by the melaine content within ones body.

    But it sure as hell is about “culture”. So go figure out a way to “see” someone’s culture. Until then……..???



    “Circular”??? Well I am all for profiling if you want to know where I stand and I would use every tool available, including skin color if needed to do so, politically incorrect as that might be to some. All about skin color? Of course not, but……? For sure I would NOT IGNORE the color of someone’s skin as being off limits to profile them in other ways as well, including a strip search.

    For now at least I would take the chance on a WHITE grandma in a wheel chair. But if she was “mideastern” looking, well……???? Does that make me a bigot, Sekan?

    Anson again.


  16. Jim Wheeler says:

    @ sekan and Anson,

    What I know about profiling I have gotten from reading and television, not from experience. However, one would be foolish in my opinion to ignore any factor, including skin color, simply out of racial or ethnic sensibilities. That practical need, I suspect, is a major reason why we have not adopted the policy – too politically incorrect.

    American culture is terribly sensitive about such things as we all know, too much so if you ask me, but I think the effort should be made to educate the public about it. Simple statistics should point the way – look for ethnicity, including skin color, language, accent, dress, averted eyes, perspiration, nervousness, evasive answers to questions, and probably more. I would be interested in a poll of American Muslims on whether they would be offended by such a policy. Maybe I am naive, but they just might be OK with it.

    As for scarce morons, I actually had in mind white morons raised in American culture. Most people of our culture tend to be too practical for such stunts. “Let’s see if I understand this. You want me to put a bomb in my underwear, get on a plane and then press the red button, right? Uh, I don’t think so. I may be dumb, but I’m not that dumb.”


  17. sekanblogger says:

    “Does that make me a bigot, Sekan?”
    Only you can make that determination. I am not your judge, only a guy that hopes for unity worldwide.
    It is about culture.
    The folks in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have their own culture and do NOT want us as a part of it. It seems that many feel the same way about their people being here. I think that bigotry works both ways. Bigotry is not something only white Americans do.

    I am only a mediocre disciple of people like Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Mohammed, ML King, etc.


  18. ansonburlingame says:

    OK Sekan,

    I don’t believe Jesus ever expounded on the need for airline security in our modern world. I also have no idea how He might feel about driving an SUV. Those are ultimatedly “Casears” decisions are they not and Jesus did comment on that topic.

    I do believe that the Golden Rule might apply in this instance however. I had long hair and was dressed like a “hippie” in 1972 entering Taiwan. When I went through customs I was taken into a back room and searched. I laughed when I showed them my American military ID card.

    Then i bought a one way ticket using a credit card at the counter for a sudden business trip (before 9/11 but after the Lockerby incident). Again, back room and they searched me and my luggage, piece by dirty underwear piece. I understood why and was not at all upset. In fact I thanked the people conducting the search, around 1995 or so.

    I do appreciate your letting me be my own judge as to bigotry however. Not many that politically disagree with me are as polite. In case you are wondering where I stand, I consider myself very pragmatic and not bigoted. And in determining who to search in an airport I like Jim’s list above which in fact INCLUDES skin color. But it also includes a lot of other indicators, readily available to see by any well trained searcher.

    I would also point out the tremendous value of close selection of anyone and the training they receive before doing such jobs, airline searches or men with deadly weapons in hand on a battlefiedl. “Slugs” whether through bad “character” or bad training have no business in either place, or working in a nuclear power facility as well, just as an aside.

    In all my years associated with nuclear power, do you know the most “painful” thing i endured? It was the one day “selection process” before I was admitted into that program, initially. That is perhaps the most “terrifying day” ever spent in “nuclear power”. I was scared to death and literally crying after I left the last interview and I was 22 years old at the time. I remained in that emotional state for about a week until I was told that I had “made the cut”.

    Then go talk to any SEAL and have him describe Hell Week. He goes through that long before he is ever given a deadly weapon the first time. Before Hell Week the only thing he is given is a telephone pole to hold over his head and run a few miles in the sand.

    Finally, I spent 9 months undergoing “training” before going aboard as a CO of a submarine. I had been in the Navy for 16 years and my career was “on the line everyday” during that 9 months. At the end one classmate noted, “We have gone one on one with victory and defeat and are now unable to distinguish between the two”

    Now that is “training”, a whole career’s worth of training and it never stops in “tough” jobs.



  19. Jim,

    Very nice post; one of your best. Don’t forget, though, that John Kerry was barbecued by Republicans in 2004 for saying essentially the same thing. Watch out for a man with a Rick Perry button approaching you with a couple of skewers in hand.

    I don’t know if you remember when Jim DeMint complained, loudly, that Obama refused to use the word “terror”? I pointed out at the time:

    Not content with merely being at war with Al Qaeda, they want Obama to buy into their larger “war on terror” because such a posture allows for a wide array of possibilities—both domestic and foreign—that will help satisfy their authoritarian cravings. From wanting more warrantless surveillance of Americans to suggesting starting a war with Iran, their authoritarian jones simply can’t be satisfied by a thoughtful, “professorial” approach they claim Obama’s policies represent.

    Not much has changed, given Rick Perry’s—and the other Republican candidates’—remarks yesterday about Obama’s stance on Israel.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      That’s interesting, Duane. I note that your post was written two months before I started blogging, and before I started reading your posts, so I hadn’t seen it before. (Great minds . . . 🙂 ) This kind of political attack preying on the public’s fear is exactly why all the excesses detailed in Top Secret America were enabled, and, I submit, it is also the reason why it is politically impractical for Obama to try to undo any of the excessive bureaucracy, i.e., the DHS and the DNI. Can you imagine the hue and cry if he tried to do that? “Soft on Terror!!!!!”



  20. Pingback: Morality and Secrecy in War | Still Skeptical After All These Years

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.