The anti-strategy of 9–11 and the politics of fear
Twenty years ago, Saudi billionaire Osama bin Laden, working with Pakistani tactician Khalid Sheik Mohammad, saw their brainchild — a major strategic strike against the US — come to fruition in a coordinated attack against economic, military, and political targets: Marriott’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and (failed) the US Capitol Building. 2,977 killed, and more than 6,000 injured. Four and a half billion dollars lost in one fell swoop on the WTC alone.
Because bin Laden hid in caves and traded in “religious” discourse he was called a throwback, a savage, a deadly pre-modern vestige. He was anything but; and this attack would — considered as bang-for-the-buck —be the most successful strategic strike in modern history. But it was not strategic in the conventional modern sense of war strategy.
The September 11 coordinated attack was strategic (the adjective) in terms of the scale of its ramifications, yes, but strategic-scale impact is not a strategy (the noun). In modern-war terms, strategy is a plan built around national or international objectives. Strategy is facilitated by it’s components — campaigns — which are comprised of a numerous tactical actions (battles) in one region. “Strategic” bombing is bombing targets critical for the enemy’s survival . . . or bombing to produce terror sufficient to undermine popular support for enemy leadership.
The conceptual precursor to strategic bombing prior to the invention of aircraft was Sherman’s march. Sherman bypassed many tactical engagements to (1) sow terror and break civilian morale, (2) destroy food, and (3) disrupt major lines of transportation and communication.
The 9–11 attack was designed to (1) sow terror, (2) destroy infrastructure, and (3) trigger an overreaction that would draw the US into a long, bloody conflict abroad . . . the purpose of which was to (1) bleed resources, (2) further destroy the US reputation in Southwest Asia, (3) put US military assets within reach of other hostile forces on the latter’s home terrain, and (4) weaken the US politically.
As to bang-for-the-buck, one Tomahawk Cruise Missile (I’ll let readers reflect on that name) costs $1.87 million dollars. The estimated cost of the 9–11 coordinated attack was around $500,000. At less than one-third of the cost of one missile, bin Laden and Sheikh Mohammad — beyond the damage done on that one horrifying day — compelled American leadership — and the leadership of vassal nations like the UK — to punch themselves into two cosmic tar babies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Around a million killed, more millions displaced, the region destabilized, the hatred of America in the region amplified, the US-Israeli danse du mort reinforced, around 15,000 US deaths, and more than $8 trillion spent in the service of destruction and corruption. Iran ended up winning the Iran-Iraq War, and the Taliban — a US-Pakistani collaboration project — is now running Afghanistan.
Bin Laden won. Big. But he didn’t win in the conventional “modern” sense. He didn’t take ground. He didn’t exert control. He didn’t establish and accomplish some definable objective — a liberal trope about the US defeat in Afghanistan.
“We didn’t have clear objectives, so we got stuck.” Nonsense. Pure technocratic justification.
Bin Laden had no “clear objective,” and he prevailed, even post-mortem.
Just weeks ago, the US withdrew from Afghanistan. Given that the defeat was ensured by going to Afghanistan, leaving Afghanistan was the first US success story contra 9–11. Getting the US out was an objective of the Taliban, to be sure, but not of other actors in the regions for whom the US presence is seen (as it was by bin Laden) as strategically desirable.
The ISIS bomb attack during the withdrawal was almost certainly a tactical provocation, an attempt to reverse the US decision to leave. Opponents of the US knew and know that the occupations are a net drain on the US economy, but more than that — in spite of war profiteers making bank — these occupations degraded and exposed the degradation of the United States.
Economic degradation. Social degradation. Moral degradation.
It wasn’t hard for OBL; it just took some improvisation, some poaching from modernity itself. The US provided all the tools, and the generalizing scope of the modern security state, its altitude so to speak. You have to get high-up to survey all that lies beneath. The altitude of the US state is exactly what blinded it to what went on below the understory.
Modernity supplied the targets, the weapons, and the accompanying metascale discursive practices. So-called “terrorism” (c’mon, a sine qua non of all war is terror) is above all else a media-enlarged method for warmaking. The purpose of a “terrorist” attack is not primarily the damage inflicted, but the anticipated response. And terror is not something new. What distinguishes these post (not pre) modern warriors is not terror, but asymmetry and an appreciation of mass psychology. They don’t confront conventional forces with conventional forces, and they don’t seek little “victories.” They seek a response. The attacks are incidental — the means to engender a reaction.
The Israeli militias that massacred 170 unarmed residents of Deir Yassin in 1948 — an attack that prefigured the rise of modern “terrorism” — were not dispatched there to empty one village. They left some alive to tell the story. They were there to sow enough panic that surrounding Palestinian villages would flee. The goal was not massacre, but large-scale abandonment of the surrounding land. For it to work, it had to be publicized that the Irgun and Stern Gang would rape and slaughter indiscriminately — men, women, and children.
Just as postmodern philosophy turned the discredited categories of modernity against itself, postmodern war turns the artifacts of modernity — forged largely in war — against the modern state. Video training, commercial aircraft, massive hi-tech structures, globalized media . . . all converted into weapons against their source.
Yes, it was unthinkably brutal. Like Deir Yassin, like Wounded Knee, like Dresden . . . I can’t un-remember the horrific 9–11 images of people jumping to their certain deaths from hundreds of feet to avoid being burned to death in the WTC. I can’t un-remember how on edge we all were when we realized three aircraft had hit their targets . . . what was coming next?
Unthinkable brutality provokes a sure response; and the US, led by an insecure macho-posturing blue-blood with little knowledge of the actual world, mounted a response that answered all bin Laden’s martial prayers. The US waded swiftly — with its wounded national masculinity — into an even bigger quagmire than the decade-long occupation of Vietnam.
The media predictably stoked our reactions. The same loop of the planes hitting the towers played over and over and over and over on the networks. There was an overgrowth of flags everywhere. Anger was expected, the more the better. It unified us. Not one out of ten US adults opposed the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, even though most of us couldn’t find it on a map.
Bin Laden disappeared, but someone had to be bombed. Someone had to be killed. Someone, goddamit, had to exact revenge, even though the actual perpetrators had all died in the attack. To leave this attack unanswered, even before we knew the perpetrators, was unthinkable . . . a further exposure of the weakness just exposed.
The psychological economy of revenge-war is not reciprocity, that is, punishing the actual offenders. The psychological economy of revenge-war is — like that of bankers — someone has to pay. A debt paid back in blood and destruction, currencies poured into the ground. Fear, anger, and the jouissance of focused hatred. A whole nation galvanized before its flickering televisions, ready to co-sign the great revenge adventure.
Bin Laden was certainly familiar with American culture. He’d worked with our foreign policy apparatus. He knew how a society as steeped in technological arrogance and militarism would respond. He knew that response would become a juggernaut. He knew that juggernaut would realign our entire society around the fact of those two tar babies —two endless, sanguinary, lost-the-plot occupations.
When Joe Biden ordered the evacuation of Afghanistan, the whole of the US establishment writhed and squealed and snapped against him. Our entanglements were too numerous. Our financial, industrial, communicative, and neural pathways had been re-routed to accommodate and support and parasitize the intractable American military presence in Southwest Asia. A whole generation had gone from birth to the age of majority with this in its background — like a fact of nature. A whole mercenary industry expanded as DOD contractors. The media lapped it up, because war increases ratings. Defense contractors ramped up production. Hordes of experts and consultants were put on the petit bourgeois media’s payrolls, as the whole propaganda apparatus went into high gear to tell us our leaders really did know what they were doing. It worked.
Our minds were conformed to the wars . . . to a new normal. War was resuscitated again as our national liturgy, flags our sacred relics, soldiers and veterans (in the abstract) the objects of our collective veneration. Does anyone remember how CNN and the rest of the media sycophants ooo’ed and ahhh’d about US weapons systems as if they were dancing beneath a golden calf? Wow, they said, behold that we are become gods! Just look at the raw power of our war technologies . . . ooo, ahhh!
I have long believed that a President Gore would have responded to the attack in pretty much the same way that George W. Bush did. Bin Laden wasn’t banking on Bush, he was banking on America. Obama — who within hours of taking office ordered drone assassinations with all their collateral damage — plunged into Afghanistan with both feet. The war spread under three administrations to Libya, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen. As international law-giver and law-breaker, the US abandoned Geneva, declaring the entire world a battlefield (the Global War on Terror), and therefore a state of perpetual exception for black sites, torture, mass surveillance, assassinations, serial violations of the sovereignty of other nations. Air strikes alone have killed around 48,000 . . . directly. No one counts the death, disease, and displacement that comes after the bombs fall.
We won’t count it now for long either. The effects of the September 11, 2001 attack can be most fulsomely understood only in the hic et nunc. Look around. Even as I write this, I am under surveillance . . . even as you read this, you are, too. This is what our degradation looks like right now. The preening technocrats and bloviating Babbitts who “lead” us are terrified of the understory . . . and so they seek to control that, too, even as they themselves are being supplanted by the means they use to seek full spectrum dominance . . . the Rumsfeld doctrine.
When Biden elected to leave Afghanistan — no, I will not engage in ritual denunciation of the means — he broke with his technocrat/Babbitt cohort. The war(s) had become a baseline justification for the liberal embrace of an enhanced security state, explaining why they nearly went mad when Biden showed political courage for the first time in his long and corrupt career. Since 9–11, fear has dominated us all; and refusal to be afraid has become perhaps the most subversive of responses.
Fear is contagious. The fear of the threatening other has expanded to include even ourselves, as the nation remains divided into warring camps. In 2016, another asymmetric attack — using only communications technology — was successfully conducted by Steve Bannon and Donald Trump . . . and it was easy. Not because these guys were evil geniuses, but because they were willing to abandon strategy for a cyclic tactic of hit-and-run and let the news do the rest. Trump was a postmodern phenomenon . . . not in philosophic substance, but in poaching the technology of modernity — a technology originally designed for war — and using it against a geriatric modern political establishment. Donald Trump (Babbitt-i9n-Chief) was a postmodern president, a bedsore growing on the compromised body of a dying epoch.
I’ve probably got this apocryphal story wrong, but I seem to remember that is was Kissinger, speaking with Zho En-Lai, who asked Zhou, “What was the final result of the French Revolution?” To which Zho replied, “Too early to tell.”
Twenty years ago, the attack happened. Today, we live in the permanent state of exception left in its wake. The fascist Patriot Act reauthorized again and again. Today, I see so-called liberals fluffing defense budgets and calling for censorship and enhanced surveillance . . . attacking Biden for abandoning the military-industrial-media complex’s bloody ATM and justification machine. Today proceeded directly from the attack.
Where from here?
Too early to tell.