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November 04, 2003

Are Iraq Attacks "Terrorism"

Josh Marshall says calling these attacks on US military targets "terrorism" is an Orwellian misuse of language. They should be called "insurgents" or "guerillas" since people who kill soldiers are "by definition" not terrorists.

I'm not sure I buy this.

The question is whether terrorism is about (a) targets, or (b) tactics. The whole division of the world into "civilians" and "military" is a leftover from medievil "just war" theory when peasants were not supposed to be killed during the intermural warfare of knights.

But in modern democracies, that divisions of peasants and knights is less clear. Warhawk civilians can send potentially antiwar members of the National Guard off to war. Was the bombing of the hotel where Wolfawitz, a civilian, was staying an act of terrorism merely because he was a civilian? If the soldiers in Iraq were instead civilian police, would that magically change "insurgency" into "terrorism"? I don't buy it.

Instead of talking about terrorism in terms of targets, it's more useful to look at it as a tactic. When a military operation is designed to actually gain control of territory or destroy the fighting power of enemies forces, that's conventional warfare. But when an attack is designed to break the morale of the society one faces and force them to withdraw or surrender despite greater military strength, that is an act of terror.

Most warfare mixes conventional military actions with acts of morale-destroying terror. The bombing of Hiroshima was the largest single act of terrorism in the history of the world because it had no conventional military purpose, but was designed to destroy the will of the Japanese to fight. It's true that bombing civilians is often a key way to achieve that demoralization, but I think it's more useful to think of killing civilians as a means to achieve terror, rather than its definition. Looking at Iraq, the goal of the bombings cannot seriously be to achieve any conventional military victory; its goal and effects are to demoralize US public opinion and effect a withdrawal by US forces, despite overwhelming strength.

Which all could sound like an apology for Bush's rhetoric, but it's worth remembering that I called our initial "shock and awe" attacks on Baghdad a form of terrorism. The US uses its military quite often as a way to terrorize populations through aerial bombing and other tactics.

It's also worth stating that I don't think all terrorism is bad, especially when the other option is massive death through conventional warfare or surrender to overwhelming opposition power. Hiroshima is often justified as saving lives due to the breaking of the morale of the Japanese on that very basis. And much of what we designate "terrorism" is the only means available to groups lacking any conventional military power.

In a sense, I would argue that we need less discussion of the distinction between "military" actions versus "terrorism" and more discussion of why some forms of terror may be justified in certain situations, while others are evil and wrong. That's a more complicated debate, but I think more fruitful than how both progressives and conservatives talk about "terrorism."

Posted by Nathan at November 4, 2003 09:51 AM