The war on terror has been a tough one so far, but recently I had an idea. Somebody in government or the army or at a newspaper somewhere should ask the terrorists to surrender. Normally, the possibility of surrender—the idea that the other side might give up—is one of the underlying rationales for going to war, and important surrenders in American history are memorialized in dates and the names of famous places: Appomattox, V-E Day, V-J Day, Yorktown. But over the last fifteen years, as far as I can tell, public discussion of terrorism has never featured the idea that the terrorists might formally lay down arms.
When George W. Bush stood on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier and delivered his “Mission Accomplished” speech in May 2003, he described the defeat of the Hussein regime in a number of ways. “The tyrant has fallen,” he said, “and Iraq is free.” He talked about “breaking an aggressive and dangerous regime” with precision weapons. In the “images of fallen statues” that had blanketed cable news for weeks, Americans could see “the arrival of a new era.” But he never mentioned the various Republican Guard and other Iraqi army unit surrenders that made his speech possible; in fact, the word doesn’t appear in any of his major speeches from the war’s build-up and early years.
Why can’t we imagine terrorists surrendering? Public officials mostly say that we will “hunt them down,” meaning that we will kill them, or that we will “bring them to justice,” which also means, excluding cases of indefinite and therefore immoral detention, that we will kill them. Matters are complicated by the statelessness of terrorist groups, but not hopelessly so. Al Qaeda was a tightly organized group with a world-famous figure at the top of its hierarchy. Seal Team Six could have stormed Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, worked their way up to the second floor, and then said, “put your hands up!” But they were never going to do that, not for one second. ISIS lacks a charismatic public figurehead—outside of his own group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remains shadowy and reticent—but it is still an aspiring state. It has territory under its control that grows and shrinks in increments I can follow in the news, whose borders are sharper than those left to us by Sykes-Picot, plus a bureaucracy that features regional governors, a cabinet that advises its commander in chief, security and legal councils, et cetera. Granted, it doesn’t currently enjoy any international recognition, but neither did Jefferson Davis’s Confederacy. That didn’t stop Grant from working out terms with Lee.
Of course, “we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” according to both Jack Bauer and Dick Cheney, and even an unconditional surrender can only be the product of negotiations. That may be part of the problem. Negotiations require as a precondition that each side recognize the other’s capacity for reason, and this is a recognition that American politicians have never been willing to grant al Qaeda or any other terrorist group. Instead, terrorists are understood to be insane religious fanatics who “hate our freedoms.” Or, in the case of ISIS, they are members of a “death cult,” people with no project whatsoever outside of brutality and violence. (While the appeal of ISIS to disaffected, angry young men is sometimes noted, the economic or social conditions for that disaffection are generally not, let alone the assistance of US invasions in fostering those conditions. The disaffection is treated as a kind of embryonic mental illness that comes to full flower in terrorist acts.) There also exists an equally prevalent and equally false notion that terrorism represents an existential threat to the US. Taken together, these fantasies make terrorists seem more like zombies than like political actors, although more like the fast zombies from 28 Days Later than the traditional, Evil Dead–era models. As with zombies, the only way to resolve a conflict with terrorists is to kill them all.
One of the main effects of this consensus has been to forbid any discussion of terrorist organizations’ political goals, which really do exist, regardless of how grotesque, unrealistic, or unacceptable they may seem to the US. As retired Army officer and professor of history Andrew Bacevich very succinctly notes in his recently published book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, ISIS is probably best described as an “anti-state” that wants to “demolish the state system created by nineteenth- and early-twentieth century Europeans who had reconfigured the Greater Middle East to suit their own imperial purposes.” Hamas, which is approaching its twentieth year as a US Department of State–designated terrorist organization, still refuses to recognize the state of Israel. But it has also repeatedly declared that it would agree to a truce with Israel in exchange for the creation of a referendum-approved independent Palestinian state along the borders of 1967. Al Qaeda seeks the withdrawal of western forces and influence from the Middle East, as well as the toppling of the region’s pro-West autocrats. Al-Shabaab has fractured in significant ways since its emergence in 2006, but it is still accurate to say that it seeks the overthrow of the Somali Federal Government and its replacement with a government conducted according to fundamentalist Islamic law. For none of these groups is the murder of Americans and others the goal—the terrorism is the tactic by which the goal might be achieved. But US politicians insist on continuing to mistake the tactic for the goal.
When writers compare the US wars in Iraq and Vietnam, their focus has tended to be predominantly military, mulling over the internal contradictions of counterinsurgency tactics or the weird assumption that airstrikes and an invading army might succeed at winning the love and admiration of the people whose country is invaded. But the Vietnam War was also prosecuted on the basis of a similar misapprehension of the political situation. It seems likely, in fact, that this misapprehension was one of the war’s prerequisites, that Vietnam simply could not have happened without it. As Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon escalated the country’s commitments to South Vietnam, they all justified the fight by citing what they said was North Vietnam’s commitment to spreading Soviet influence in Southeast Asia. But while Ho Chi Minh was very much a communist, he didn’t want Vietnam to be a client state of Soviet Russia. He was first and foremost a nationalist seeking to get Vietnam out from under French or any other kind of colonial control. What he wanted was a unified Vietnam. This did not stop Truman’s State Department from cultivating myths that would persist for decades. “If there is a Moscow-directed conspiracy in Southeast Asia, Indochina is an anomaly so far,” the Office of Intelligence Research found in 1948. Nevertheless, its report concluded, as the historian Marilyn Young put it, that “if there was no evidence Moscow was giving the orders, then obviously the Vietnamese didn’t even need orders; that’s how obedient they were.” The following year, Secretary of State Dean Acheson concluded that Ho’s anti-colonial project would inevitably be followed by his eager “subordination [of the] state to Commie purposes.” Getting Ho’s motivations wrong went some way toward dooming the American military effort in Vietnam from the outset, as the US spent years trying to crush an authentic nationalist guerrilla uprising in the south that they mistook for a sham insurrection orchestrated by the north at Soviet instigation. The fantasy of the Soviet puppeteer made the American war possible and unwinnable at the same time.
It has often been said that the Iraq War was launched on a false pretense. That claim is true, but it doesn’t describe the whole picture. If the Bush administration made its case for war in Iraq by pointing to nonexistent stores of nuclear and chemical weapons, the war on terror as a whole was also launched with a lie. The lie was that what terrorists ultimately wanted was to kill American civilians, full stop. This was the consensus belief of Democrats and Republicans alike from September 12, 2001 onward, and it immediately lent the war an existential quality that has yet to completely dissipate. If terrorist aims can be boiled down to a desire to commit mass murder repeatedly, then of course you have to pursue them with military force until they’ve all been destroyed. Otherwise America may ultimately be overrun by religious maniacs. Sustaining this fiction has meant refusing to acknowledge the regional politics and goals of these groups, and this has muted public debate on the war. It’s not very hard to imagine why debate might have been muted in this way: considering the terrorists’ real goals would require politicians to ask whether America’s military still has any meaningful role to play in the Middle East.
The inability to imagine terrorists surrendering may be a relatively minor aspect of a political discussion that has been minimized and suppressed in so many ways, but it is a telling aspect. A political system that cannot imagine the enemy’s surrender is also a political system that cannot imagine the war’s end.