The Long War: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Protracted Conflict-and Defeat

The Long War needs a story of World War Two-like significance.  The enemy is not only powerful, it is also the "enemy of civilization." 

Early this year America entered a third stage in the war that began on 9/11, when a new narrative for the conflict was unveiled: "The Long War."

In war, narrative is much more than just a story. Narrative may sound like a fancy literary word, but it is actually the foundation of all strategy, upon which all else-policy, rhetoric, and action-is built. War narratives need to be identified and critically examined on their own terms, for they can illuminate the inner nature of the war itself.

War narrative does three essential things. First, it is the organizing framework for policy. Policy cannot exist without an interlocking foundation of "truths" that people easily accept because they appear to be self-evident and undeniable. Second, this "story" works as a framework precisely because it represents just such an existential vision. The "truths" that it asserts are culturally impossible to disassemble or even criticize. Third, having presented a war logic that is beyond dispute, the narrative then serves practically as the anointed rhetorical handbook for how the war is to be argued and described.

In the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review Report, the phrase is recurrent, with "long war", "long, global war" or "long, irregular war" appearing 34 times, including the title for the first chapter: "Fighting the Long War." The banner headline on the defenselink.mil announcing the report reads: "The United States is a Nation Engaged in What Will be a Long War."

 

The Story of War, Twice Transformed

 

This war-the Global War on Terrorism, or gwot-has had three distinct "stories." Or perhaps it would be better to say that the story of this war has been twice transformed. Its initial incarnation as a "war against terrorism" was a simple story of righteous retribution: kill the terrorists in their mountain lairs. The second began with the president's declaration of an "Axis of Evil." This represented a metamorphosis from "terrorist" enemy to the image of an evil league of enemy powers, and thus the entire significance of the war was elevated. At one rhetorical stroke it was now possible to assert a war narrative equal to the most protean of American struggles. The war could now be given a commanding meaning equal to the mythic claim of World War II itself. Thus it instantly became a grander enterprise, where the transformed narrative actually demanded great efforts and even greater events.

It is the collapse of this enterprise that has birthed yet another story. This third incarnation is a tortured response to debacle in Iraq, where messianic goals and millenarian promise went south. Thus the "Long War," formally unveiled in Rumsfeld's February 2006 speech to the National Press Club: "The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war."

But the image of a long war-a dogged, "twilight struggle"-is not particularly attractive, especially if American failure and losses in Iraq are thus implicitly translated into a slow-bleeding vision of forever war. Such a picture certainly does not make the blood rush or the pulse race. To keep this effort up for "generations" as the president is fond of saying, the purpose driving this war must be great of course. But even more-and this is its greatest challenge-such purpose must explain the need for generations of pain and sacrifice.

As a template for the narrative of the "Long War", World War II no longer works, since we continue to slog past anything like a v-j Day endpoint. The Long War needs, if such a thing is possible to imagine, a story of World War II-like significance, but with an even bigger claim on us. Thus in the president's words, this war is "the unfolding of a global ideological struggle, our time in history." The enemy is not only powerful, a "great evil", it is also, a "mortal danger to all humanity", the "enemy of civilization"-as though these men were somehow the antithesis of human and, perhaps even, inhuman. The enemy is not only "evil" (a word invoked like a litany), it also wages "war on the idea of human progress itself." Are not the "Islamofascists", in the president's words, the successor evil to "the struggle against communism in the last century?"

There is the clear suggestion here that without U.S. intervention, the radicals would succeed, and a Caliphate would reign. This is what the official Long War briefing says. If we explicitly fight "Islamofascists" we must just as explicitly oppose everyone who supports or even sympathizes with Muslim resistance-and who knows how many Muslims "sympathize" at some level: a third, the majority? We are determined to reform and rehabilitate degraded Arab and Persian worlds.

Already the narrative of the Long War has won over the faithful. Freerepublic.com is probably the biggest "red" community blog. Most talk on the war there moves quickly to declarations like: "History shows that wars only end with a totally defeated enemy otherwise they go on . . . Either Islam or us will quit in total destruction." Or another: "Will it take an American Hiroshima to awaken the majority, to mobilize our masses against the Islamic quest of world domination?"

Moreover, pushing the mythic card to its fullest has worked in Washington politics. Its authority has trumped all opposition. Woe to Democrats (or even Republicans) who question the American mission in a great war. It has been narrative as fiat and law, and as fiat and law it has served this administration well.

 

Islam's Counter-Narrative

 

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