April 9, 2004

Total War vs. Total Faith: Al Qaeda Moves Ahead

By Franz Schurmann

Since World War II American military doctrine has been based on “total war.” Total war allows for any means that bring enemies to their knees. The Korean War was a total war that destroyed everything above the ground in North Korea. The Vietnam War was not a total war because America feared Chinese intervention, as happened in Korea. America’s wars against Afghanistan and Iraq were quasi-total wars that brought about “shock and awe,” not only among soldiers but also too many civilians. But in all these wars, total war has come up against a formidable opponent — faith.

America smote Afghanistan with total war less than a month after 9/11. But two and a half years later, the Afghan resistance is ready to retake some cities. Recently, Washington cajoled Pakistan to mount a big military attack in its autonomous northwest territories, and rumors flew that Ayman al-Zuwahiri was cornered. But all Pakistani forces got was tribal fury and deeper commitment within Pakistan to the Taliban.

A year ago, the Pentagon smote Iraq with a tempered down total war. Yet the Iraqi resistance gets more and more recruits, including potential suicide bombers.

Vengeance is only a part of what’s happening in the Middle East. Islamic suicide bombers are waging their own total war. But unlike shock and awe, their voluntary death shows they believe they are part of a higher cause, in this case a new turn in Islam.

Throughout the billion-plus Muslim world, a new ideological schism has been opening. Essentially it’s between those who want to work with the Americans and those who hate them. But, because of American use of total war, the pendulum of history is swinging to the latter. William Tecumseh Sherman, often considered the creator of total war because of his ravaging of Georgia during the American Civil War, probably knew about this danger. He wrote in his memoirs: “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity-seeking.”

In World War II, Germany and Japan had at first excelled in total war. But then the USA inflicted an even greater total war as it firebombed their cities. An example from the Battle of Stalingrad (December 1942 to February 1943) shows how faith can triumph over total war. After spreading destruction all over Russia, Hitler’s hordes reached Stalingrad, where they believed they were on the threshold of final victory and hunkered down for the winter. But the Russians poured waves of soldiers into the fray and broke the German ranks. The faith that moved many Russian ranks into certain death was loyalty to Stalin, who was viewed as a kind of demi-god and was educated in an Orthodox Christian Seminary. When Hitler’s troops had advanced to the Volga River, commonly called Mother Russia, Stalin reopened all churches.

The Japanese also used spiritual faith in war. Their kamikaze pilots almost halted the American juggernaut, giving their lives because they believed their emperor was the “Son of Heaven.” When the Son of Heaven made peace with the Americans, almost to a man they stopped fighting. However, if the Emperor had overruled his generals and commanded his people to fight to the end, they might have obeyed. American deaths could have reached a million, and the Japanese figure would have been many times that.

Spiritual faith is playing a major role in the current war. This mindset is called in Arabic, “takfir wa hijra.” An Islamic website explains takfir: “Muslims are not allowed to wage war on each other, but they can on unbelievers. If a society or group can be labeled as unbelieving, it becomes acceptable to engage them in armed battle.” Hijra refers to the new world that the Prophet Muhammad proclaimed in the many years of his Medina exile. (“wa” just means “and.”)

Until Saddam Hussein, backed by the United States, invaded Iran in the summer of 1980, Muslim states overwhelmingly abided by the God-given law that they must not kill other Muslims. But Saddam broke that law. In October 1981, the group Muslim Brethren assassinated Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, who had become an ally of the United States. Those two events pushed many young Arabs, including Osama bin Laden, to mull over life, death and destiny beyond life and death. That mulling led many into “takfir wa hijra,” and some of them to become suicide bombers.

Aside from the suicide bombers of 9/11 and those in Israel/Palestine, there were few suicide-bombers in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Though no terrorist attacks have taken place in the United States since 2001, in 2003 rashes of suicide bombings occurred and have continued this year. It seems that total war is waning while bombings, both suicide and non-suicide, are waxing. For now, Al Qaeda seems ahead of America on the Middle Eastern chessboard.

American total war and “takfir wa hijra” are two sides of the same coin. They both indiscriminately kill and maim. The only way the world can get out of the waning of one and the waxing of the other is by destroying the coin. A first step in this new destiny is for George Bush and Osama bin-Laden to talk to each other, face-to-face. Even if this occurs secretly, it still means a first step in a needed destruction.

Schurmann (fschurmann@pacificnews.org) is emeritus professor of history and sociology at U.C. Berkeley and the author of numerous books.

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