A Wildly Exaggerated Threat

The best-selling military historian John Keegan has recently published a book entitled Intelligence in War. Although it only discusses the so-called War on Terror in passing, it does, I think, contain a couple of important historical lessons that are of immediate applicability to the current world situation.

Keegan describes the attempts by resistance movements during the Second World War to disrupt the German occupation in France, the Netherlands, Poland, and elsewhere. Although a kind of romantic ideal of the French Resistance (among other resistance movements) grew up after the war, Keegan concludes that none of these resistance movements had any significant effect in sabotaging the German military or the economy of the occupied countries. "Resistance certainly harmed the German occupiers scarcely at all," writes Keegan (345). The Germans themselves appear to have been little concerned with these movements and never considered them a threat. For example, they never bothered to divert any regular army units to use against the resistance, and they devoted relatively small resources to opposing irregulars.

At best these resistance movements were ineffectual, but Keegan goes further and concludes that in most instances they were actually counterproductive. For one thing, even though the Germans were not really concerned about sabotage, the justification of looking for saboteurs provided the Germans with an excuse for rounding up Jews and others whom they wished to eliminate anyway.

There have, of course, been widespread guerilla movements that have done real damage – indeed, the current guerilla war in Iraq may be one such example. Yet, the lesson from the German occupation of World War Two seems to be that bands of saboteurs, even when supplied with weapons and explosives from opposing countries, are unlikely to present any serious threat to disrupt a modern society.

The application of this lesson to the "war on terror" seems obvious. If a large, well funded and well supplied group such as the French Underground was unable to seriously damage the German economy or war machine, it is highly doubtful that al-Qaeda cells potentially operating in the United States pose a serious risk. The French Underground for example, enjoyed widespread popular support, could easily blend in with the population and could rely on financial, intelligence, and material support from major powers (including dropping weapons and explosives from allied aircraft, and the direct participation of British and American commandos). In comparison, al-Qaeda operations in North America enjoy none of these advantages and seem pathetic in comparison.

One might argue that with the advent of atomic weapons a resistance movement is potentially able to do far more damage today than one did 60 years ago. While that is true, al-Qaeda has yet to acquire any such weapons. The basic weapons at its disposal, small arms and explosives, are exactly the same sorts of weapons used by saboteurs in World War Two. It is also safe to say that the vast majority of "security measures" (such as metal detectors in airports and government buildings, more police in train stations, on bridges, and so forth) are directed precisely at the kind of small-scale sabotage using conventional explosives that was used (ineffectively) 60 years ago.

This is not to argue that terrorists cannot cause real death and suffering, but that the "struggle for survival" and "threat to our way of life" language we often hear associated with the "war on terror" is wildly exaggerated. The tens of billions of dollars a year being spent on security measures need to be balanced with a realistic assessment of what terrorists could actually accomplish, not with overblown rhetoric.

Another point Keegan makes about the Second World War is the effect that the Doolittle raid on Tokyo had on the Japanese military. As everyone knows, in 1942 the United States bombed Tokyo using long-range bombers launched from an aircraft carrier. The planes did virtually no damage at all to Tokyo, but the Japanese considered this an affront to their dignity that could not be permitted to happen again, no matter what the cost. Important military resources were diverted from actually fighting the war to protecting the Japanese home islands, though it clearly violated any rational cost-benefit analysis. Instead of ignoring the Doolittle pinprick, the Japanese changed their entire war strategy and were provoked into risking (and ultimately losing) their carriers by attacking Midway.

In many ways, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center seems much like the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. Although the loss of three thousand lives is a tragedy, the hijacking of four flights and the destruction of two buildings was of extremely minor significance from any objective standpoint. The direct economic damage in an economy of $10 trillion was negligible. However, the cancellation of over 150,000 commercial flights and the shutdown of the entire U.S. air network for a week was not negligible. The launching of the whole "war on terror" and the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars for this effort is not negligible.

Like the Japanese response to Doolittle, the actions taken probably do not stand up to any rational cost-benefit analysis, but the actions taken are about maintaining "national dignity," not about rationally weighing costs and benefits.

Proponents of the war on terror seem to think that this is a new kind of war unparalleled in history. That, of course, is nonsense. As military analyst Bill Lind is constantly pointing out, this type of attack by small bands of non-state actors is as old as the human race. The denial of historical antecedents, however, may well prevent a rational analysis of the current situation.

Read more by Paul Clark