9-11: Not a New Kind of War

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Ms. Haldi is an adjunct assistant professor in the department of political science at Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pa.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a number of U.S. political leaders have said that the United States is now engaged in"a new kind of war."

Is terrorism really a new kind of war? What, if anything, is new about it? In fact, the only thing"new" is that the United States has decided to treat it as war.

What shocks us most about terrorism is that it targets civilians. That innocent men, women and children are the targets of terrorism offends our sensibilities. Nonetheless, targeting civilians is neither new nor restricted to terrorists.

American nuclear strategy during the Cold War was designed to deter the Soviet Union from attacking the United States and its allies by threatening it with nuclear destruction. Although intended as a defensive measure, the United States would still have killed astronomical numbers of civilians in a nuclear exchange.

During World War II, civilians in the cities of Dresden, Tokyo and London endured carpet bombing attacks that incinerated tens of thousands. And in August 1945, the United States attacked civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weapons. Thus targeting civilians for attack does not make terrorism a"new kind of war."

What about the claim that terrorists"hide behind civilians?" Does that make this a new kind of war? This claim presumes that the recent attacks on New York City and Washington were committed by a transnational organization. But it is hard to imagine that such a sophisticated, coordinated attack could have occurred without the support of a state.

State support of terrorism is not new. For example, the"Black Hand," a group of Serbian ultra-nationalists, fired the opening shot of World War I on June 28, 1914, when one of its members assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. But now it is well known that the Black Hand was closely linked with the Serbian government. Today, the U.S. State Department identifies Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria as state sponsors of terrorism.

Terrorism is not a new kind of war, but rather a type of attrition strategy. It is a strategy that attempts to bypass an enemy's strengths and attack his weaknesses. In the case of the United States, terrorists bypass the U.S. armed forces, the strongest in the world, and take advantage of America's open society -- a"weakness" that Americans nevertheless hold dear. The strategy seeks to force the United States to change its foreign policy by inflicting widespread pain on American citizens.

States may use terrorism in an attempt to coerce the America into withdrawing from the Middle East or the Korean peninsula. The common characteristic of the states on the current State Department list of terrorism sponsors is that they are weak states with international goals hostile to those of the United States. They choose a strategy of terrorism because they are too weak to attack us in a more conventional manner. The common bond of these states is found in their weakness and hostility, not Islamic fundamentalism or other ideology.

No, terrorism is not a new kind of war, nor is it a new kind of war for the United States. What is new is that the United States is finally treating terrorism as the act of war it truly is and always has been, instead of as a"mere" criminal action.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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More Comments:

Ronald Karr - 9/19/2001

A few quick questions:

1. Is the IRA a terrorist group? If not, why not?

2. If so, which state is sponsoring them?

3. If they lack state sponsorship, how have they managed to endure?

Ronald Dale Karr
University of Massachusetts Lowell

Tristan Traviolia - 9/18/2001

The fact that terrorist acts killed 5,000 civilians and caused billions of dollars in property damage during "peacetime" is something new in history. This was not Sarajevo in 1914. It does show that terrorists will use absolutely any assets at their disposal to cause maximum damage. The Grand Alliance used all assets at their disposal in devastating attacks on Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki towards the end of a "declared" war against totalitarian regimes actively overseeing genocides. The connection to terrorism is poorly made. The Germans never carpet bombed London. World War II was not the first war to target civilians. Civilians have been the main targets in warfare throughout history. America and Russia had identical MAD strategies during the Cold War. Why is only the United States clearly identified with MAD? States might support modern terrorists, as the Serbians supported the Black Hand, but they do not exert complete control on terrorists. State sponsorship is akin to starving a mad dog and then taking its leash off, there is no control over what might happen.Attrition is a term relating to casualties between combatants, the battle of Verdun is the most despicable example. I doubt if the American, Canadian, British, Mexican, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Muslim, Christain, Jewish, Catholic, Hindu, and Buddhist men, women, and children killed in the World Trade Center bombing thought about themselves as combatants on the morning of September 11.Terrorism is not a legitimate implementation of state strategy. Terrorists acts are never acceptable alternatives for "weak" states to advance otherwise legitimate disagreements. Terrorism is as unacceptable as the United States using its strength, nuclear weapons, to attack weak points in opposing societies, their humanity. The article recognizes terrorism as an act of war, but develops this viewpoint by looking at terrorism's past. The problem is that terrorists now have access to "new" assetts, nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. This makes the "war on terrorists" different from past encounters.