America’s “War on Terror” Should Not Be Seen as Another World War II

D-Day, June 6, 1944: The day the Allies commenced the campaign to liberate Europe.

D-Day, June 6, 1944: The day the Allies commenced the campaign to liberate Europe.

As the memory of World War II starts to fade away and even the realities of the Cold War start to become stuff for history books, it is easy to forget, in our present realities of terrorism, that there once was a time when war was an easier concept to understand.

This is not to say that war is ever absent of moral or political ambiguities. Even World War II saw atrocities committed by the Allies, if the firebombing of Dresden, Germany is any indication. But the political realities of the Second World War makes our current “War on Terror” seem more like a game of chess than tic-tac-toe.

America’s war against al Qaeda and the Taliban is full of messy complications where elements of culture, politics, religion, economics, and history make things not as simple as the “good guys versus the bad guys.” As people everywhere across the world pay tribute to the veterans of D-Day, that fateful day on June 6, 1944 when the Allies stormed the beaches of France to liberate Europe from Nazi occupation, it is a grim reminder that we still are not ready to live in a world without war.

World War II offered us a relatively simple situation where three fascist governments in German, Japan, and Italy (Spain was also fascist under Francisco Franco’s regime, but they remained largely neutral during the conflict) went on a militaristic and imperialistic crusade against their neighbors and “enemies.” These conflicts were largely limited to nationalistic boundaries as it was a nation versus nation struggle, not culture versus culture.

The Allies were a coalition of nations who opposed this form of right-winged militarism and decided to take military action to stop it in their tracks. Their mission was to simply liberate the occupied territories and battle the opposing forces till their respective governments surrendered. The war ended when the German, Japanese, and Italian governments unconditionally surrendered to the Allies and agreed to end all military action immediately. This day, known as VE-Day (for Victory in Europe Day), was on May 8, 1945 and officially ended the reign of terror of Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich.

But today, America’s enemies will not go down that easily. Today fundamentalist terrorism is a threat much more complicated than fascism of the 1930s. That was a war against an enemy drawn from traditional national borders. They followed orders from a government and a definitive leader. Once that government surrendered, the people who followed it did likewise. In the Second World War, we fought against soldiers from a military. Terrorists today are not soldiers trained to fight a traditional war. They are hired thugs who are brainwashed by a hateful quasi-religious system of indoctrination. Very different from Nazism.

Which is not to say that terrorism cannot be defeated. Indeed, President Obama is confident that sending 17,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan will help stamp out the Taliban insurgency once and for all. He is right in wanting to increase the Afghan people’s confidence in the corrupt and at times incompetent government. There cannot be stability without security. Our “surge” in that country will attempt to bring about that security.

This is the reason why the Allies were the true “liberators” in the sense that George W. Bush foolishly believed we would be seen as in Iraq. He often compared Saddam Hussein to Adolph Hitler and his chemical attack against Shi’ite Iraqis to the Holocaust. It is true that Saddam Hussein was a murderous dictator. No one can deny that. But was he a Hitler? Not by a long shot. Hitler went on a militaristic crusade around the European continent. Saddam started a war against Iran in the 1980s and attempted to invade Kuwait in the early 90s. Hardly the same, wouldn’t you say?

The hard lessons of the Vietnam War and our quasi-wars in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Greece, Chile, Nicaragua, and other parts of the world during the Cold War should serve as a reminder that the “simple” days of World War II are over. No longer will the enemy conveniently wear a military uniform. No longer will they fight like a traditional army. No longer will they even be governments. Terrorist groups today prove that the “enemy” can span many different countries, speak many different languages, and come from a diverse number of cultures. Al Qaeda is hardly a unified organization anymore, as if they were to begin with.

As people everywhere remember D-Day and the sacrifices our men and women in uniform made to liberate the world from tyranny, we should remember that that was a different time and a different place. A war in Europe and the Pacific will be significantly different than a war in the Middle East, Africa, or Latin America. Presidents, Prime Ministers, and monarchs need to stop comparing today’s “War on Terror” to World War II. That was then, this is now. Wars are like snowflakes: no two are ever alike.

But this returns to my original point. Is war ever easy to understand? The concept of putting on a uniform, carrying a gun, and shooting at people that your government tells you to is never easy to wrap your mind around. The world is not a simple black and white place to live. There exists plenty of ambiguity that makes living difficult. Living through the realities of war is one of those things that we may never understand.

But the GI-Joe days of war is over. There are no crystal clear good guys and bad guys anymore. As tragic events like the My Lai massacre or the Haditha killings in Iraq prove, the “villains” can belong to your own team. As the recent skirmishes with those Somali pirates prove, the “bad guys” can be just a group of aimless youngsters who will do anything to make a living. Somalia has never been without civil war in my lifetime. It is no wonder why those pirates are comprised of men my age and younger.

Presidents Bush and Obama have been criticized that increasing the American military presence in the Middle East will only further radicalize young Muslim men and encourage them to pick up an AK-47 and choose violence instead of peace. Seeing innocent Palestinian casualties on the evening news following an Israeli bombardment certainly doesn’t help bring an end to that conflict anytime soon. In today’s culture wars, sending troops into harm’s way can do more damage than good.

President Obama recently visited Egypt to speak to the “Muslim world” about his desire to restart America’s relationship with Islam. The strains caused by the Bush policies should be erased and a new friendship based on mutual respect should begin to develop. Obama is right in wanting to ameliorate our relationship with the Muslim world. That is the first step toward achieving long-lasting peace.

However, ironically, increasing our military presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan can actually do the opposite and make matters worse. One can only wait and see.

This proves one thing: that war in the 21st century will not be a clean and easy endeavor. There will be cultural, social, economic, and technological factors that the “Greatest Generation” of the 1930s and 40s could never have dreamed of. This is one reason why honest and open dialogue with our “enemies” is crucial to ending future conflict. Picking up an M16 and shooting has been, unfortunately, counterproductive.

As time passes and the memory of the Great World War II fades into the history books, people are mourning that more WWII veterans are passing away every year. Pretty soon there will be no one left who remembers that fateful day when the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy and ended one of the greatest threats to world peace in human history. But with that passing of an era, there is also another passing. That is the passing of a time when war was simply defined as “us versus the bad guys.” No longer will war be that straightforward.

As we move further into the 21st century and the rise of Islam, China, India, and globalization begins to challenge Euro-American dominance, we should remember that human conflict should never be reduced to terms that a child would understand. “Good guys” and “bad guys” dehumanizes the other side and makes us more likely to commit atrocities that we would never have done otherwise. We should remember that we are all people who depend on each other for survival. In today’s world of globalization, the “bad guys” are more likely to live right next door to you than on the other side of the world. Just remember that you can one day become a villain to someone yourself.

Try to wrap your mind around that.

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