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As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap
7 January 2002
'Americans can take comfort in military superiority. But their high-tech weapons may come back to haunt them.'
Three times in the past century, an American president announced the birth of a new world order. Each time it was at the end of a war.
At the end of the First World War, the new order was to be kept by the League of Nations, very largely Woodrow Wilson's invention. Its failure was most brutally marked by the Second World War, from whose end came the United Nations, taken under the wing of Harry Truman's presidency. Successful in much, the United Nations could do nothing with the division of the world into two ideological blocs.
When, at the end of the Cold War that had frozen that division, George Bush the elder announced a third new world order, some cynicism was forgivable. But curiously, that cynicism has proven to be less merited than in the past. The third world order has kept us out of any grande guerre. If it is Pax Americana in a world that is not everywhere happy about the Americana, then at least it is Pax.
And is likely to stay so. China, the only serious long-term threat to the Western powers, is a state that, for all the cruelties it visits on those of its citizens it deems deviant, shrinks from confrontation -- including over Taiwan, which it regards as a crucial matter of sovereignty.
A war does threaten between two nuclear-armed states, India and Pakistan. But I would take a large bet that the conflict remains low-key. And I would also wager on another effort to settle the issue of a Palestinian state -- tortuous and slow as it will be, it will reflect the fact that neither Palestinians nor Israelis want war, for both will lose by it.
Are we living in yet another world order, the first of the new century? Many would say so -- have said so. Sept. 11 is seen, in a thousand essays on the passing of 2001, as a radical break with the rhythms of the past. Its iconic image of two 20th-century engineering triumphs -- a plane and a skyscraper -- destroying each other, has exercised more power over our media-fed imaginations than anything since the Second World War.
But the power of the image may beguile us. We are likely to still be in the last world order of the 20th century, though kept in it by new means.
Some of these means are now becoming clear. The rapid success of the feeble infantry and tank forces of the Afghan Northern Alliance in routing the Taliban was due to precision U.S. bombing. Detachments of U.S. special forces on the ground beamed co-ordinates to B-2 and B-52 bombers for satellite-controlled bomb drops that could achieve such precision that one run could do more damage than a bomber squadron of the last war. Tomahawk missiles can now be guided via satellites to approach their targets from every which way, so that air defence systems cannot get a bead on them.
Even more revolutionary were the Predator drones, unmanned aircraft capable of hovering silently and invisibly over a target for 24 hours, sending back high-resolution images to their command centre. In one case, a Predator spotted a Taliban convoy moving at night, registered that it was stopping at a hotel, called up a strike that destroyed the hotel -- and then used its own Hellfire missiles to destroy the fleeing survivors. The victims could have had no idea they were being tracked: Among their last thoughts must have been one of bewilderment -- how did these things find us?
There is no defence against these techniques. They are the result of an unparalleled marriage between technological innovation, industrial efficiency and great wealth. When used against enemies such as the Taliban, they resemble in their disproportion nothing so much as the old imperial or settler invasions down through the ages. This is the Romans against the Gauls; the Spanish against the Incas; the British against the Africans; the white settlers against the native Americans.
At the end of the movie Zulu, which tells vividly the story of a successful stand by the Welsh Guards against greatly superior numbers at Rourke's Drift during the Zulu wars of the 1880s, one of the two officers commanding the outpost exclaims, "It was a miracle!" "If it was a miracle," says the other, surveying the mounds of bodies, "it was a breech-loading Lee Enfield miracle."
Technology wins in the end: The sword beats the club; the gun beats the sword; the Tomahawk (missile) beats the Kalashnikov (submachine gun). "The only way to win against the United States," a U.S. administration official told the International Herald Tribune, "lies in finding ways to keep U.S. air power from getting close." Once it's within range, an air force that no longer needs pilots will simply destroy whatever is its target.
Thus, with American know-how, are the ghosts of Vietnam triumphantly laid to rest.
Peace, which has been an invention only of the past two centuries -- and one that barely touched Afghanistan -- is still assured by American power, as it has been, in one way or another, through all three 20th-century world orders. The difference with this last one is that it is obvious to all but the most purblind fanatic -- Osama bin Laden would seem to fit that description, with his utter disregard for the lives of his followers and allies, as well as of his enemies -- that America is unbeatable.
That is good news for those of us who live under its benign sway. The downside of it -- it was the largest lesson of the past year -- is that living there will not be so easy as it has been in the past. The war technology created on the way to Tomahawks and Predators and smart bombs is lying about the globe, and can be plundered or bought or copied by those who hate America and its friends. Every scenario that fed the fantasies of Hollywood now becomes operational guidance for our security forces, and ever-present fear for those who live near tall towers or travel by plane -- or, for that matter, open mail, drink water, breathe air.
Rich Westerners have to accustom ourselves to living in two kinds of societies at once: in the midst of great wealth, as compared to much of the rest of the world; and in the midst of great risk. Most of that risk lies in those weapons we have created to defend ourselves -- nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. It is a risk that teams of fine minds have engineered into our environment.
Our wars, from now on, will have at their core the struggle to defend ourselves in new ways against real threats from those who may use the means we invented to defend ourselves against threats that never came.