The Lessons of 9/11: Twenty Years Later

I post this every year around 9/11, so here it is again with some revisions.

Today is the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned from two decades of perpetual warfare. I offer them somewhat dogmatically, as a mere laundry list (mostly) minus examples, but I have a feeling that the lessons will ring true enough for many people, and that most readers can supply appropriate examples of their own.

(1) The inevitable gap between normative theorizing and political practice
A war can be justified in principle as a proportionate response to unprovoked aggression, have a rational object, have clear and publicly stated conditions for victory, and still not be worth fighting because there’s no guarantee that it’ll be fought on the grounds that were publicly given for fighting it.

Even if a war seems perfectly justified in every respect as a matter of abstract principle, it’s worth remembering that wars are fought in the real world, not ex hypothesi or in neatly simplified thought-experiments. Every theoretical simplification you make in thinking about a war will be more than matched by some unforeseeable complication that arises in the fog of war. Those complications may well be significant enough to nullify everything else you managed to think of, and destroy the best abstract case for “going.”

Lesson for theorists: Take the time to reintroduce the complications after you’ve done abstracting them away “for ease of exposition” or “simplicity” or “clarity.” No matter how many complications you end up re-introducing, you’ll inevitably fall short of the complications out there in reality. But that reality is what you’re theorizing about.

(2) Post bellum considerations
It’s always easier to grasp the immediate and supposedly urgent reasons for going to war than to conceive, in detail, the post bellum conditions that the war is supposed to bring about–much less to predict them. But in considering any suggestion that “we need to go to war,” try to imagine and predict how things will go in the end game, starting with the best-case scenarios and moving to the worst. You’ll find it hard enough to imagine how to bring about the best-case scenarios, at least in any fine-grained way. The harder you find this, the better the case for not going.

(2*) One notable but easily-overlooked post bellum consideration: refugees. If you decide to fight a war, expect a refugee crisis, and figure out what you intend to do about it ahead of time.

(2**) Given the chaotic evacuation of Afghanistan in mid-August 2021, it would be cheap to say, “If you decide to send troops somewhere, and create allies during the course of an extended occupation, have a viable plan for evacuating them when it’s all over.” But that’s cheap because it’s much easier said than done.* You evacuate a country in the relevant sense when you’ve lost the war: an evacuation is a retreat. But an army in retreat is at its most vulnerable. There’s no way to keep an evacuation plan secret. But precisely because it’s a plan, it’s bound to be predictable. The more predictable it is, the more vulnerable to attack. So the idea of an “orderly evacuation” is a contradiction in terms. To demand order during an evacuation-in-retreat is to demand the impossible. (The classic example of an “orderly” evacuation leading to mass slaughter is the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, where mass murder was facilitated precisely by the predictability of the train schedules by which people fled across the border.)

When people suggest that the US should have extended its exit of Afghanistan over a longer period of time than the frenetic few weeks that it took, and done things in a more orderly way, they forget that doing so would have made the evacuation a promising target for a series of bloody terrorist attacks, not the single attack that took place. The evacuation could no doubt have been done better, but could also have gone worse. There’s no point in second-guessing it, unless one is an expert in logistics with knowledge and experience on the ground. Few of us are.

Better simply to resolve to do right by the consequences closer to home, and in our control–the welfare of the evacuees themselves. I’ve expressed my own emotional ambivalence about that here. But morally, there’s no room for ambivalence, however one feels: we owe these evacuees, whether Afghan or American, our hospitality and our care.

(3) The crudeness of just war theory
The conceptual apparatus that philosophers apply to war consists of a set of extremely crude tools for dealing with the actual conduct of warfare. Given that, we face the following dilemma: either we should go to war in the knowledge that our best tools for dealing with it are pathetically crude, or we should, if possible, avoid going to war in the knowledge that our best tools for dealing with it are that crude. Ceteris paribus, the latter fork provides the better way out of the dilemma.

Some examples of the conceptual crudity of some commonly-invoked ‘principles’:

  • The so-called non-initiation of force principle merely tells us that for any x, if x is an instance of force, x ought not to be initiated. It doesn’t give us any indication of the permissible range of values for x, and doesn’t tell us what to do, all things considered, if we face an instance of initiated force. That’s a lot to omit.
  • The so-called ‘last resort’ principle is, on its own, merely a directive to engage in warfare (or ‘force’) as a last resort; it gives no criterion of ‘lastness’ in resorts, and gives no criterion to determine what counts as a ‘use of force’ (often conflating ‘force’ with ‘warfare’ in confusing ways). Paradoxically, it can be hard to distinguish first from last resorts to force, depending on when you start the “resort” clock. The principle doesn’t say where.
  • The so-called principle of proportionality appeals to a quasi-mathematical metaphor that is, in practice, very hard to make literal or apply in any determinate way. And that’s before we introduce the inevitable epistemic complications. 
  • The so-called principle of discrimination tells us to target combatants but not non-combatants, but it doesn’t define ‘combatant’ or ‘non-combatant,” much less apply that distinction to hard cases, or tell us what to do when non-combatants are innocent shields of combatants. Nor does it deal with the obvious but little discussed fact that ex post facto reports of ‘civilian’ fatalities in battlefield conditions are extremely imprecise, and more easily fabricated than reported with accuracy (in either direction, whether under- or over-statement, depending on who’s telling the tale and why). All this implies that two people can agree with “the principle,” and yet adopt radically different targeting strategies. Stranger things have happened, and do.

(4) The inevitable unreliability of allies, both moral and strategic
Either you go to war alone or you go with a coalition. If you go alone, you fight the war isolated from the rest of the world, so that your adversary can count on active or passive allies throughout the world. If you go with a coalition, the problem becomes that you can’t control what your coalition partners do, no matter how insane or immoral they turn out to be. Just ask the Israelis

To this day, it’s unclear whether we should have allied as closely as we did with the Soviet Union during World War II; it’s also unclear whether we should have allied so closely with right-wing dictatorships during the Cold War to fight the Soviet Union, Communist China, and their proxies. The same unclarity extends to the alliances we’ve more recently formed to fight Islamist terrorism (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the UAE) as well as the alliances we’ve resisted or fought for the same purpose (Russia, Syria, Iran).

Before the Trump Presidency, it hadn’t occurred to me to add the obvious: it’s probably a mistake to make an alliance or agreement of any kind, ever, with the United States of America. 

(5) The inadvisability of ‘reconstructing’ another country, whether for your good, theirs, or both
A country that still suffers race riots over its own legacy of slavery and racial discrimination probably can’t be relied on to reconstruct other countries that suffer from their problematic historical legacies—especially when the people engaged in reconstruction are hated as imperialist interlopers, are ignorant of the history of the countries they’re reconstructing, lack the resources to engage in reconstruction, are confined for security reasons to well-fortified barracks, don’t speak the native language, and are politically hostage to a public back home that’s totally uninterested in what they’re doing.

It tends not to help that the problematic legacies of countries that are candidates for ‘reconstruction’ arise in large part from ill-conceived prior attempts at reconstruction produced by centuries of imperialism. But isn’t that just a straightforward description of the whole world?

(6) Truth as the first casualty of war
Truth really is the first casualty of war, in large ways as well as small. Once war begins, wait for the lies and half-truths to proliferate—from all sides, about all things.**

And don’t assume that you’ll have the luxury of sifting truth from falsehood during wartime, either. The informational imperatives of wartime are simplicity, digestibility, and internal consistency. If reality doesn’t fit that template, reality will be sacrificed to wartime imperatives, and it’ll be decades (if that) before anything like a more rational or objective equilibrium is restored.

If you’re interested in ‘getting involved’ in the efforts behind a genuinely justified war, ditch the idea of a military draft or compulsory national service and try an anti-rumor campaign: induce people to stop believing rumors, to stop spreading them, and to criticize any rumors that come their way. You’d be amazed how much harm is done by rumors, and how hard it is to counteract them.***

(7) Domestic liberty as the next casualty of war
The next casualty of war is domestic liberty, along with the ever-present temptation to declare ongoing states of ‘emergency’ demanding ‘emergency measures’—in part by expanding the scope of the concept of ‘emergency’ to cover anything and everything, at whim. Try coming up with a serviceable definition of “emergency,” and try to stick with it.

(8) Civil defense as an alternative to war
If you really want to avoid being attacked by foreign aggressors, consider the possibility of coming up with a civil defense policy that (a) blunts the force of any aggression, (b) costs fewer lives than a war would, (c) gets the whole population involved in the “war” effort, but (d) doesn’t sacrifice domestic liberty in the process. It’s a tall but not necessarily impossible order–no more impossible than the proverbial war that leads smoothly to victory. 

I got a lot of flak when I first wrote the preceding paragraph, from people who found the idea of “civil defense” laughable in the face of terrorist threats. Not that I thought of this when I first wrote this essay, but a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, I feel a bit of vindication at what I said. A pandemic is literally a form of foreign aggression. Had we taken the threat of pandemic half as seriously as we’ve taken “jihadism,” we wouldn’t be facing the public health catastrophe we now face, one that dwarfs anything that Islamic terrorists have done to us. At this point, we’ve suffered the equivalent of 216 9/11 attacks in eighteen months at the hands of COVID-19. And it’s not like we didn’t have advance warning. We were just too busy fighting the last war to notice.

Civil defense would have required a systematic commitment to public health. Instead of provoking a war with Iran, we could and should have been preparing for the predictable onslaught of coronaviruses and other disease vectors heading our way. If we’d started just a year before the pandemic struck, we might well have created and trained the equivalent of a well-paid professional army of contact tracers, among other things. As it stands, the U.S. is doing a lot of what needs to be done on the fly, at the lowest common denominator of competence, often with the tacit sense that doing it is, at this point, a fool’s errand.****

(9) Speak up, speak out
If you oppose the idea of going to war on a given occasion, say so–a lot, to everyone, including your political representatives. People may well regard you as a monomaniac, but better a monomaniac than a cipher. It takes just a few monomaniacs to start a war, but it takes more than a few to end one.

Some applications: either don’t permit organizations like this one to indoctrinate students in K-12 schools, or give equal time to both liberal-centrist and radical organizations on the other side of the issue. If anti-war activists can’t get equal time in schools, they should feel free to cancel the shit out of the other side (within the limits of the law and of basic moral decency): denounce them, picket them, boycott them, and if they’re getting public funds, work to de-platform and de-fund them.

While we’re on the topic of de-funding: JROTC should just be thrown out of the schools and ended altogether. And military recruiters should either be persona non grata on K-12 campuses, or else allowed on condition that their opposite numbers are also given access. 

(10) Patriotism
Induce people to stop flying the POW-MIA flag. When a supposed call to remembrance exists to promote amnesia, it’s well past time to take it down.

*For morally cheap and facile advice, I don’t think anyone can beat Fernando Teson’s impossible-to-caricature prescription: “The United States should have continued to fend off the assault of the Taliban with the contingent it had. This would have been morally preferable, I contend, even if the United States troops would have had to stay forever.” What if all of the troops had been wiped out within a year? Is Teson willing to insist that they commit suicide on his deontic command, on the basis of arguments borrowed from Cecile Fabre?

**The best historian of American duplicity that I’ve read is Eric Alterman.  Alterman’s When Presidents Lie is a must-read classic, focused on presidential duplicity in foreign policy. 

***It’s a tough call whether you should join a government-sponsored anti-rumor campaign. I recently applied for a job with one myself, but was sort of relieved when my application was passed over in dead silence. I guess they agreed with Wittgenstein on that one. 

****I highly recommend the book I’ve highlighted in the image, Michael Osterholm and Mark Olshaker’s Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs.   Also worth reading for the larger picture is Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Put the claims of these two books together, and you get a good sense of the epidemiological threats we face, along with our socio-economic vulnerabilities to them. 

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