Small Wars Journal
SWJ Blog
Discussion Board
Daily News Links
SWJ Magazine

Research Links
Events Calendar
Reading Lists

Site Info
Submit Content
This article was published in the April 2005 volume of the SWJ Magazine.

How Do We Fight a War of Ideas?


Secretary Rumsfeld has heralded a battle of ideas in the War on Terrorism.  He is absolutely right because this war must be viewed as a counter-insurgency on a global scale.  It truly is a fight for legitimacy between liberal constitutional, democratic nation-states with free market systems and those who would return the world to a Middle Ages system of rule.  Although many want to view this as a religious war, it is not about religion, even though for Bin Ladin, Al Qaeda, and Jemah Islamiyah it is about establishing fundamentalist Islamic states.  It is about ideas and ideology.  The terrorists’ long term goal is destruction of the secular states because they are the antithesis of their fundamentalist beliefs.  A nation without a state religion goes against all that the terrorists believe (or would so have us believe).  They believe that over the long term they will be successful because, through their asymmetric and asynchronous approach, they will wear down the will of people of the United States and other free nations of the world. They believe that the perceived decadence of our so-called godless societies will lead to collapse and their ultimate victory.  Time, in their mind, is on their side.

What has been the response to this “threat?”  We have focused very tactically on finding and either apprehending or killing the leaders and members of Al Qaeda and their supporters.  We have tightened our borders and increased security to prevent another 9-11 tragedy through such efforts as the Patriot Act and the establishment of a Department of Homeland Security.  The inevitable witch hunts were launched to find out which political leaders and government agencies from the current and past administrations were responsible for 9-11.  We invaded Afghanistan (rightly so) to destroy Al Qaeda and liberate it from the rule of the Taliban.  We have provided the only significant, but still minor assistance to one country in Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and we have invaded Iraq and ousted Saddam (again, rightly so) all as part of the War on Terrorism. 

However, we have not fought this war at the strategic level.  First and foremost we must remember that the values set out in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution are incontrovertible.  They cannot be challenged as they are “inalienable” and “held to be self evident.”  We need have no fear of any other ideology challenging our way of life.

There is good news and bad news here that we must face.  First is that we cannot lose and the terrorists will never be able to break our will.  The American people and freedom loving people around the world cannot be dissuaded from ever giving up our way of life with the individual freedoms we hold so dear.  It will not happen and it is as fundamental as that.  Although General Boykin is being severely criticized for his remarks on religion (mostly because of the perceived political damage that they may have done), what must be kept in mind is that he has the right to his beliefs not because the United States is founded on a Judeo-Christian tradition but because we live in secular country that values individual freedom higher than anything else and this includes every person’s right to worship the God in which he believes and express his beliefs without any fear of retribution.

The bad news is that we cannot win a war on terrorism.  We can never eliminate terrorism and no one is going to come out of a cave in Afghanistan or a Baranguay in the Philippines or an island in Indonesia and wave a white flag and present his sword in surrender. The problem is we are not fighting against a nation state with a homogeneous population with territory that can be invaded and occupied.  We cannot cause the regime change of terrorists.  It is a hydra-headed monster.  Terrorism has always been and always will be used by those who are disaffected politically and will always be a tool of extremists.  We can never be successful in identifying and stopping all terrorists as we can never predict what individuals (e.g. Timothy McVeigh) or even certain organizations will resort to using the tools of terrorism.  Most important though is that to try to defend against every possible terrorist act (and we do very well in planning to defend against the last act) we run the risk of violating the age old military adage of “he who defends everything defends nothing.” 

Against this background then the obvious question is how do we deal with this threat.  First and foremost we retain the moral high ground.  We remind ourselves and the world that our values are correct and morally defensible and cannot be compromised.  We remind ourselves and the world that people who have tasted the fruits of freedom will not hesitate to sacrifice to maintain those freedoms. Second, we must eliminate the “bunker mentality” that is a natural response to threats – we hunker down behind large barriers or restrictive rules and draconian measures that go against all that we believe in and most important cut us off from the people we want to influence.  Whether it is in Iraq or around the world we have to remain engaged and not curled up in the fetal position waiting and hoping that another blow will not hit us.  Along with the bunker mentality we must eliminate the risk averseness we have in employing our military forces in conjunction with allies and friends around the world to help them combat the terrorism.  While we have taken great risks with out military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have not demonstrated the same level of commitment in such places as the Philippines and Indonesia where probably the most significant terrorist threats outside of Afghanistan exist.  While we cannot and should not undertake the same type of operations in those sovereign countries we must be willing to demonstrate to their governments and their people that we are willing to sustain the same level of commitment for the long term in order to achieve out mutual goals of protecting our nations’ from the scourge of terrorism.  In one of the unofficial mottos of Special Forces we must be willing to operate in an unconventional manner, “through, by, and with” our friends and allies.  To date, particularly in Asia, we only half heartedly have done so.

Yes we need to stand and fight but in a different way than what has come to be known as the American way of war.  For all our talk about transformation we have to realize that there are not technological solutions to the problems we face.  We have to learn to fight an asymmetric war and be offensive in nature with our ideas and ideals, with more of our actions and less of our words.  We have the big stick and have proven our will to use it.  Now it is time to speak softly as Teddy Roosevelt might have us do.  We still need to kill or capture those terrorists that mean to do us harm but as importantly we need to fight for our legitimacy among the people of the world.  We need to back off our highly visible military operations and begin working behind the scenes to destroy networks and help our allies to do the same.  But most importantly we have to understand the nature of this war and realize that we are operating on the “battlefield of human terrain.”  Our efforts can be neither terrain oriented nor force oriented but truly the battle for the hearts and minds particularly of those who are on the fence and may tacitly or passively allow the terrorists to operate. Technology can provide useful tools but it will not provide any solutions to the underlying problems we face.

There are four key tasks that need to be successfully executed in this fight.  First, we have to deny the terrorists sanctuary, do not allow them the ability to rest, regroup, plan and operate from secure locations.  Second, we have to deny their ability to move throughout the world. This is a task for the world community and must be done on a cooperative basis among governments to prevent terrorists the ability to maneuver.  Third, we have to deny terrorists their support mechanisms.  Again this takes worldwide cooperation among governments and financial institutions.  And finally, we have to separate the terrorists from the population at large.  This is where the battle for ideas must be fought.  We have to undercut the legitimacy of all the terrorist organizations by demonstrating that people have a chance at a better life economically and the ability to practice the religion they believe in by living in a world of liberal constitutional law instead of the shackles of some Middle Age ideology.  We have focused our energies on the first three tasks but not on the fourth.  And by focusing on the fourth it will provide the support we need to execute the first three because to be truly successful in the first three we need the support of the people.

Although it would appear counter-intuitive one of the most important things we must do is to continue to allow immigration from around the world, including from the Middle East and Islamic nations.  Although the naysayers will say this makes us more vulnerable we must realize that only by maintaining the moral high ground do we demonstrate our strength.  Furthermore, if we establish the right procedures, gain and maintain strong international cooperation, and capitalize on the awareness of the public as they are on the lookout for unusual or suspicious activity we will have a better chance of thwarting future attacks instead of being lulled into a false sense of security by the imposition of rules and regulations that only really hurt the legitimate travelers and potential immigrants.

Actions speak louder than words.  We can have the best public relations programs and marketers trying to tell our story but the only way we can tell it is to remain fully engaged in a positive way throughout the world and demonstrating the strength of our values. To borrow from President Franklin Roosevelt, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”  We are not going to lose the war on terrorism because no one can ever take away our ideals.

Colonel David S. Maxwell, U.S. Army, is a Special Forces officer with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and is a graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth.  The opinions he expresses in this paper are his own and represent no U.S. Government or Department of Defense positions.

All original content is © 2005-2007 Small Wars Journal, LLC and subject to our Terms of Use.

About     Privacy Policy     Site Help     Contact