The U.S. Military, al-Qaeda, and a War of Futility
By Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt TomDispatch
In his book on World War II in the Pacific, War Without Mercy, John Dower tells an extraordinary tale about the changing American image of the Japanese fighting man. In the period before the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, it was well accepted in military and political circles that the Japanese were inferior fighters on the land, in the air, and at sea — “little men,” in the phrase of the moment. It was a commonplace of “expert” opinion, for instance, that the Japanese had supposedly congenital nearsightedness and certain inner-ear defects, while lacking individualism, making it hard to show initiative. In battle, the result was poor pilots in Japanese-made (and so inferior) planes, who could not fly effectively at night or launch successful attacks.
In the wake of their precision assault on Pearl Harbor, their wiping out of U.S. air power in the Philippines in the first moments of the war, and a sweeping set of other victories, the Japanese suddenly went from “little men” to supermen in the American imagination (without ever passing through a human phase). They became “invincible” — natural-born jungle- and night-fighters, as well as “utterly ruthless, utterly cruel and utterly blind to any of the values which make up our civilization.”
Sound familiar? It should. Following September 11, 2001, news headlines screamed “A NEW DAY OF INFAMY,” and the attacks were instantly labeled “the Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century.” Soon enough, al-Qaeda, like the Japanese in 1941, went from a distant threat — the Bush administration, on coming into office, paid next to no attention to al-Qaeda’s possible plans — to a team of arch-villains with little short of superpowers. After all, they had already destroyed some of the mightiest buildings on the planet, were known to be on the verge of seizing weapons of mass destruction, and, if nothing was done, might soon enough turn the Muslim world into their “caliphate.”
Al-Qaeda was suddenly an organization against which you wouldn’t launch anything less than the full strength of the armed forces of the world’s “sole superpower.” To a surprising extent, they are still dealt with this way. You can feel it, for instance, in the recent 24/7 panic over the thoroughly inept underwear bomber and the sudden threat of a few hundred self-proclaimed al-Qaeda members in Yemen. You can feel it in the ramping up of the Af-Pak War. You can hear it in the “debate” over moving al-Qaeda detainees from Guantanamo to U.S. maximum security prisons. The way some politicians talk, you might think those detainees were all Lex Luthorsand Magnetos, super-villains incapable of being held by any prison, just like the almost magically impossible-to-find Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in the wild borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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