George W’s failure in Iraq and Afghanistan was owing to the fact that he doesn’t know anything about education, not being educated himself. While he took a very Wilsonian approach to spreading democracy, he didn’t understand that the American military is not simply an army; it is an educational institution. It educates with Hellfire missiles, GPS-guided artillery shells, with Predator drones, with commanders who sit in front of computer screens in air-conditioned offices in Florida as the direct weaponry against the Taliban, and so on and so on. The first person I know of who understood the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was the Canadian Marshall McLuhan when the Vietnam War was at its height. In one of his remarkable lectures, McLuhan pointed out at Fordham University in 1967:
Warfare as a teaching machine, warfare as the whole culture acting as a unified educational service, is never more than evident than at the present moment. The educational activity going on in Vietnam is total. It’s not specialist. They’re not getting courses. They’re getting our whole culture by interface. Napoleon educated the Russian in Western ways far more than Peter the Great. He taught them to drive on the right side of the road all through Europe, anyway. Does anyone know if the Russians drive on the right? Well, where Napoleon went, there were technological, military reasons why he wanted the traffic on the right side. He never got to England. They still drive on the left. Never got to Sweden. They’re now spending billions putting traffic on the right-hand side. Wherever Julius Caesar went, he taught organization in the Roman, visual, bureaucratic style, laying out straight streets, and so on.
War as education. I think once people realize that war is a major all-out educational effort, they will quickly abandon it as disgusting. People aren’t fond of education. So war has been misclassified. It is actually a teaching machine. The whole culture in action simultaneously equals war. Education simply consists in putting one little bit of the culture in action under controlled conditions—algebra, history—break up the culture and that’s education. War is the whole culture in action. Now, as I say, these are utterly unexplored, untouched subjects.
Moreover, McLuhan noted that the US was attempting to Westernize Vietnam, while through the electronic technology we were orientalizing ourselves. All great military leaders have understood the educative character of war, if only by intuition, as have very great thinkers as well. Leo Strauss notes that Thucydides teaches that war is a violent teacher that also teaches what violence is.
In his Marfleet lectures in the same year, McLuhan also noted that the Vietnamese had found the right strategy against the technologically more powerful Americans: They were willing to die. The willingness to die outlasts any powerful technology, and it is at work today in Afghanistan, and less so in Iraq as the war winds down there. In Afghanistan, a country that is nothing but an aggregate of tribes, the Taliban don’t fight Americans in conventional warfare. They can’t. Instead, they place road-side bombs and send out suicide bombers, or, at the most, attempt to ambush Americans in remote areas in hit-and-run raids or murder government officials or American allies.
The problem is even worse with the original jihadists. Osama bin Laden’s guerrillas fighting the Soviets in the 1980s with US support and training wanted to die. When they finally formed into the Quaeda they, too, wanted to die in apocalyptic terms. The jihadist is in love with death and thus in love with war and terrorism and the death of himself and his imagined enemies.
When the politicians speak of nation-building, they have no idea what they are talking about, because they see it only as something that happens once the enemies are defeated. They do not see that because war is a violent teacher that bringing the full-brunt of American ingenuity and technological savvy against people who are still living in nearly Neolithic conditions, cannot defeat the Taliban militarily. They have to educate these people out of their tribalism, both by killing them, but also by deciding exactly what it is that we have to do to educate them otherwise. While he was conquering Gaul, Caesar was bringing the Roman way of life in its entirety to the warring Gallic tribes. It hardly took any time afterwards to Romanize the Gauls after they were conquered. Although it was harder to do in Britain, the Romans were able to Romanize them for 300 years.
The failure of the Americans in Vietnam, less so in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan, is the American blindness to war as a teacher of men. Americans take pride in building schools in Afghanistan, but have no idea what ought to be taught in these schools. The Americans would build a road in Vietnam, but had no idea what ought to be driving over that road. In Iraq, Busheviks were so stupid that they thought that the Iraqis would be welcoming Americans with open arms, in great gratitude for ridding them of Saddam. It was only once the insurrection and the Quaeda came to the fore that the Americans finally realized no one wanted the Americans there for two reasons: First, the Iraqis lived under tyranny for so many years that they themselves became corrupt. Second, for years, the Iraqis had been educated to hate Americans. They learned that Americans have only one approach to Arab peoples: to humiliate them and American troops and the neocons did nothing but humiliate vast numbers of these tribal peoples. If Americans were humiliated anywhere, they would fight back with exceptional zeal. So did the Iraqis.
The inability to see war as education is what makes the guerrillas in these odd countries powerful. A lot changed with the Obama administration, because President Obama knows how important war is to education. When the Busheviks gave up getting bin Laden, they gave up on the most powerful lesson the US could give to the Quaeda and to all who are sympathetic to them. Obama understood how important it was to kill bin Laden in the just the same way that bin Laden understood how to educate the Americans to the jihad by killing them en masse. Terrorism is educative, and no one understood that better in recent years than the IRA and bin Laden and his Quaeda. In any war, you want to kill the command and control, because it is an educative act as well as a means of throwing the enemy into confusion. During World War II, the American intelligence discovered Admiral Yamamoto’s flight path. The American command ordered fighter planes to find that plane and kill Japan’s top commander. They succeeded, shooting his plane down. This kill had a profound lesson in Japan, especially as the Japanese propaganda machine at that time was not admitting defeats. The Japanese military government had to admit that Yamamoto was killed to the Japanese, because Yamamoto deserved an honorable funeral. During the American Revolution, before the Battle of Saratoga, General Gates ordered his snipers to kill as many officers as they could. By the time British General Burgoyne fought the battle, his forces were in disarray and the British lost the battle decisively.
The argument that the US should have captured bin Laden and put him on trial is misplaced. Bin Laden was the head of an army that formally declared war on the US. He was not a normal criminal who has American or international rights. He was a general of a vicious army. Bin Laden was not assassinated. He was shot in a just another battle. To treat him as an ordinary criminal is not to recognize what bin Laden was and how he regarded himself. To sentimentalize or attempt to diminish what bin Laden was in life, command and control, who masterminded the murder of nearly 3,000 people in the US, and great numbers of others in other countries, is to avoid what war is. It sanitizes war. Bin Laden knew that the Americans were in his compound; he could have raised his hands and surrendered. He chose death instead. The jihadist wants to die, the nihilist that he is.
It is important to approach war’s straightforward chaos and violence straightforwardly, or else we cannot see how terrible war is. We do not learn from war. War has no real rules, no real laws, and there is no rationalizing war as something that can be conducted with little violence. As such, it is against all order, and what is so terrible about war is that humanity uses violence to end violence. Chaos must be ended through chaos in war. To attempt to make war anything else except the chaos that it is will not help to end wars. Aggressive wars should only be fought as a last resort. Diplomacy must be given precedence. Americans have no learned the horror of war unless they were personally engaged in it. War is just something that is seen on television in a 24-hour news cycle or it is something we find in a Hollywood movie with fake deaths. War has been sanitized in the US in the same way that death in general is sanitized here in peace. We hide death and we hide the legal murder of people in our prisons. War cannot be sanitized any more than we can sanitize how people die, whether naturally or by legal execution.
By sanitizing war and death both legal and natural, we also diminish life and how precious it really is. For example, the Busheviks, fearful that the war would become too unpopular, did not allow photographs of the coffins returning to the US for burial. They made no public ceremonies to honor the dead. Thus, Americans could not be educated about how terrible it is to kill so many Americans soldiers for the lie of weapons of mass destruction, and could not see how truly terrible it was that so many non-Americans were killed as well. Sanitizing death in the US gives the false effect that people don’t see what death is and what importance it has to our social lives. Before the 20th century, death was everywhere, natural and legal and in war, and it stunk in the streets and in the fields. It was always nearby and ready to take you. Dying young was common. The effort to sanitize death and shutting it away when it happens was an attempt to be civilized and to alleviate the fear of death. It has not alleviated the fear of death; it has only deadened our knowledge and social experience of death in all its forms. If we faced death directly instead of sanitizing it, we would be far more hesitant to go war. We would go back to diplomacy, and use war only as a last resort and when unjustly invaded and attacked.
[Similarly, the effort by the Busheviks to sanitize torture with euphemisms of “enhanced interrogation” is just as bad as it does not allow us to see how truly horrible torture is. The lie about torture and that it led to the killing of bin Laden is manifest. It is only a way to claim credit for something the Busheviks could not do, because they didn’t understand war as a teaching machine. The Busheviks only educate people throughout the world that we are barbarians.]
In ancient Athens, mourning dead soldiers was carefully controlled and especially controlled were women. Men feared that if women, i.e., mothers, were allowed to mourn in any full expression of their grief, they would question war and believe that their sons had died in vain. No war is worth the death of a child. Athens feared that mothers would rise up and not allow their sons to go to war. So, the Athenians had very rigid rites of mourning, where only the glories of war and love of the city were the context. Sanitizing death is the way of governments that look to war to expand empires without objection of mothers and fathers who love their sons and daughters.
The reality of war is chaos and death and there is nothing that can be said and done to make it any other way. We must have the courage to realize that or else American soldiers will end up on the grounds of more exotic places with no aims and for no reason.