Has war been reinvented in Iraq and Afghanistan? Sometimes it seems so, with the confusion that has come with the instant communication offered by the Internet, YouTube and satellite television — along with the new arts of precision destruction via high-tech weapons such as drones and GPS-guided weapons.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, soldiers don't quite disappear into distant theaters abroad. Instead, they can e-mail or call their spouses from halfway across the world.
As those in the West become ever more affluent, it is harder to ask our children to risk the good life in distant wars against those for whom violence and poverty are accustomed experiences? The West has the technological edge. But thanks to globalization, the Internet and billions of petrodollars, terrorists can get their hands on weapons that often prove as lethal as those used by U.S. or NATO troops.
That Osama bin Laden did not have an aircraft carrier did not prevent him from taking down the World Trade Center.
Nonetheless, many old rules apply amid the modern fog of war. Human nature, after all, does not change. And since civilization began, the point of war has been for one side through force to make the other accept its political will.
We should remember that and get back to basics. Our leaders must remind us that war offers only two choices — bad and worse.
We could leave Afghanistan. That would allow the Taliban to return to power and be the hosts of more radical Islamic terrorists.
Or we can persist in a dirty business of trying to stabilize a consensual government that will fight terrorism. Both are dangerous: Withdrawal has long-term risks; staying may become hellish in the short-term.
We also should define the enemy. Who are we fighting? Afghans? Arabs? Terrorists? Radical Muslims? Most of the public is unsure after eight years of war.
There certainly are plenty of horrific thugs such as the Taliban throughout the world whom we often ignore. But what made radical Afghans of interest to the United States was a willingness to help radical Arab Muslims kill Americans on a wide scale.
What unites al-Qaida and the Taliban is a shared murderous radical Islamic ideology, one antithetical to ours. Americans should hear that without politically correct euphemisms.
The president must explain what victory in Afghanistan means. Are we there until we destroy the viability of the Taliban and their terrorist allies — by fostering an elected government that will eventually secure the country? If so, we need to hear exactly that.
If not, the president can talk of deadlines, troop withdrawals, cruise-missile attacks and Predator-drone bombings — all efforts to now and then bother, but not end, the Taliban and al-Qaida.
War typically concludes when one side cannot fulfill its political objectives. Sometimes both sides quit, as in the Korean War. But usually, as in Vietnam or the Balkans, violence ceases when one side is tired of losing more than it hopes to gain — and admits defeat.
If our leaders could consult great generals such as the Roman Scipio Africanus or William Tecumseh Sherman, they might receive the following advice:
Prepare the public to shoulder human and financial costs.
Be candid about why enduring the horrors of war is preferable to risking costlier violence later.
Talk always of winning, never leaving or quitting a war.
Have no apologies for crushing the enemy. The quicker the enemy loses, the fewer die on both sides.
Inform the public of the other side's losses as you do your own.
Be magnanimous to the defeated — after the war, not during the fighting.
Nation building may be fine and even necessary. But war always involves "a military solution." How can there be economic prosperity or political stability if civilians are afraid of getting killed by enemy terrorists? The president talked of many things in his recent Afghanistan speech. But he never mentioned the words "victory" and "win." All that may seem like an out-of-date idea to postmodern Americans.
But it is a very real one to the premodern Taliban, who seem to understand the ageless nature of war far better than we do.
TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES