Ten years on

Note: This is not meant to be commentary of any kind. It’s nothing more than personal musing and reflections on the human condition, from a fiction writer’s perspective.

On the morning of 11 September 2001, I was daydreaming. While my teacher tried to teach some English concept or other, I let my mind wander through a wilderness of words mated with moving images. Schoolwork meant little to me; I had embraced the art of storytelling, and where others sought grades, I quested for the next big story. The real world was irrelevant, my writing was everything. I was all of twelve years old, and I was ready to be The Next Big Thing in writing.

When night fell, a friend called me, telling me there was an accident at the World Trade Center in New York. I thought little of it – I had homework to do – and hung up. When I finished my work, I turned on Cable News Network in time to watch the Twin Towers ablaze. Reporters and news anchors from CNN, BBC, and every other news channel I could find were talking about the same thing: two planes flew into the Twin Towers, a third hit the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed into a Pennsylvania field. A few minutes later, the Towers collapsed.

I was twelve then. And already I knew the world had changed forever.

My school officially did nothing. There was no commentary, no announcements, nothing about the deadliest act of terror in human history. My teachers would only refer to it in passing. We were all children, and to us, passing the examinations was more important than three thousand deaths half a world away. Except for me.

George Bush declared his War on Terror. Though I didn’t know it then, I started mine.

The moment I found some free time, I booted up my computer. For the first time, I started Microsoft Word. Not for homework, for myself. I opened a reference book, played that little projector in my had, and wrote. And wrote. And wrote.

Over the weeks and months, the story came to life. In the near future, Earth is invaded by aliens. Once they called Earth home, before leaving for the stars. Now they are returning to reclaim what they saw was their world. Their preferred strategy was to attack population centres and arm local insurgent groups, in order to intimidate global governments and populations. In response, a secret organisation deployed a small army of special forces personnel to destroy the alien menace. Employing the technologies of the day after tomorrow, they could go anywhere and do anything, free from government oversight, their names and activities censored in the press. The aliens recruited humans to do their bidding, with one of them rising to lead the campaign against Earth. That human was a former US Army soldier. The story ended with the death of the alien leader – but the war would still go on.

I completed the novel in late 2002. Looking back, I wonder at the parallels with the real world. Under the Umayyad dynasty, the Caliphate ruled over much of the known world, with territories in Hispania, North Africa, Persia and the Indus Valley in Pakistan. The power of the Caliphate would shrink over ensuing dynasties, until Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first President of Turkey, abolished the role of the Caliph. al-Qaeda would claim spiritual succession in the 21st century, and attempt to instate a new caliphate. al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations attacked civilians to intimidate governments. Intelligence agencies and special forces around the world stood at the front lines of this new War on Terror. Militaries – conventional and otherwise – would employ some of the technology I described in my stories in the real world. States pledged to cooperate against terrorism. Osama bin Laden, once trained by the Americans to fight the Soviets during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, embraced the way of terror while cloaked in religious zeal, and became the de facto head of global terror. He was killed on 2 May 2011, and the War on Terror continues to this day.

I was just twelve years old then. I didn’t even do much research for that novel. It was never meant to be a metaphor, only an action-packed novel. It was more Rainbow Six (book and video game series) and X-COM: Enemy Unknown than the War on Terror. I spent more time writing firefights than developing plot or structure. I wrote the story completely by ear, doing only enough research to get some of the technology right. I studied only enough military tactics to describe close quarters battle, not military and intelligence strategy. I didn’t even look into the history of terrorism or Osama bin Laden. All I did was sit at my desk, day after day, and bang out a few hundred (or thousand) words on my manuscript each time.

Thinking about it now sends chills down my spine. I don’t call myself prescient. I didn’t see any of this coming. But I was, and am, a writer, and the events of 11 September had indelibly marked my work. For better or for worse, I grew up when the Towers fell.

I would write more stories, and those would more explicitly deal with the War on Terror. I would do more research, pore over biographies and case studies and white papers. From where I am now, it seems that every generation in recent history is defined by war.

The wars of my grandparents’ were industrial wars between the ancient nation-states of the Old World – of the European, and later Asian, powers with many centuries of history behind them. Historians, pundits, and students came up with many reasons: resources, expansion, ideology, revenge, national security. To my grandparents, war was about powerful states attempting to define the future of Europe, and the world. When both wars ended, the balance of power swung towards the great powers of the New World: the young nation known as the United States of America in the west, and the experiment called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the east. The end of the World Wars was supposed to have ushered a New World Order, a time of peace, prosperity and international cooperation.

There was a New World Order. Just not the one many people wanted. This time there was a new war. One side claimed to fight for freedom and democracy, the other for freedom and communism. They didn’t directly engage each other, though, so history called it the Cold War. The Western allies competed with the Eastern bloc for influence over the rest of the world, engaging in small wars and propping up useful political leaders. Historians, pundits and students came up with many reasons: resources, expansion, ideology, revenge, national security. The Cold War saw the New World Order tread slowly, surely, ever-so-inevitably towards nuclear annihilation, before taking a few steps back. The defining war of my parents’ generation was the Vietnam War, in which a conventional army was frustrated and eventually defeated by guerrillas. In their generation, the big wars were about a superpower moulding the world in its image through force of arms. When the Soviet Union died on Christmas  in 1991, the world heaved a collective sigh of relief. The United States stood alone. While Moscow sought to impose order through tanks in its sphere of influence and foreign aid outside it, Washington sought to make money with friendly nations and send soldiers only in troublesome faraway states. It was something the world could live with. The end of the Cold War was supposed to have ushered a time of peace, prosperity, and international cooperation. Military action would be limited to punishing rogue regimes, aiding the downtrodden and keeping the peace in less fortunate lands.

Then the Twin Towers fell.

The powerful militaries of the Old and New Worlds were mobilised and brought to bear against a faceless, stateless, amorphous foe that based its tactics on guerrilla warfare. Historians, pundits and students came up with many reasons for this brave new war: misunderstanding, resources, expansion, revenge, national security. One side says it fights for civilisation, freedom from brutal dictators, and democracy. The other says it fights for civilisation, freedom from foreign oppressors, and Allah. Both sides are struggling to impose their vision on the rest of the world.

The face of battle changes. The soul of war doesn’t.

But there is one critical difference between the wars of my forebears and the war I live: the conditions for victory.

The industrial wars of the First and Second World Wars had a concrete endgoal: the defeat of the opposing alliance. Victory would come when the political leadership sued for peace following the destruction of sufficient military forces and the capture of strategic territory.

The Cold War had a definite endpoint: the demise of the opposing political system. One side could declare victory if the other’s political infrastructure collapsed under the weight of revolution and reform. Or if both parties were vapourised in nuclear fire.

While the industrial wars and the Cold War were conflicts between states, the War on Terror is a war on an idea that dates to the Sicarii Zealots of the 1st century. The basic notion of this War on Terror is the belief that one can use bombs and bullets to kill and intimidate something that has no physical existence. This belief is patently ridiculous, but it continues still. And so long as it remains, there is no end point in sight. Now, all it takes is proof of  involvement with terrorism, or credible threats against national or regional security, and the drums of war will begin to roll. The casus belli of the Iraq War was a continuation of the War on Terror, justified by claims that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction and would consequently threaten regional stability. The Israelis invaded the Gaza Strip to prosecute Hamas terrorists, and Lebanon to destroy Hezbollah. The War on Terror has spread from a concerted campaign against al-Qaeda and its allies to assorted terrorists calling themselves Muslims, with no end in sight.

Bush outlined the goals of the War on Terror in 2003. But Iraq had little, if anything, to do with international terrorist groups. Saddam Hussein had no reason to tempt the might of the United States. But the proposal to invade Iraq was packaged as part of the War on Terror anyway – and the American public approved. If the invasion of Iraq could have been passed off as part of the War on Terror, I wonder what else will.

I’ve seen arguments about justice, national security, and international stability to justify the War on Terror. Some of them may even have merit. Regardless, the War on Terror continues, and there is no end in sight. It’s difficult enough to destroy al-Qaeda as it is. The death of Osama bin Laden merely marked a new chapter in the War on Terror, not the epilogue. The victims of 9/11 may have been avenged, but they remain dead, and a war is still fought in their names.

A war without focus is a war without a clear objective, and without a clear objective, blood and treasure would be spent pursuing goals that may or may not lead anywhere. Current enhanced security measures are better remembered for invading privacy and causing inconvenience than defeating terrorist threats – and for failing counterterrorism security exercises. The war in Iraq, ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, and American unilateralism have been packaged as proof that the United States is hellbent on oppressing Muslims and conquering the world, inspiring many youths to join the nearest terrorist cell. Or to start their own.

I thought the War on Terror was supposed to make us safer.

Terrorism is an idea. You can’t kill an idea. Not with the weapons of war. I think what can realistically be done about terrorism is to reduce it to a manageable problem. I don’t think it can be eradicated: it is an idea and a strategy, which has worked in varying degrees. Pandora’s box is open, and there is no closing it. I’m no expert, and what I can offer are arguments repeated elsewhere.

The War on Terror would probably be won with soft power, not hard. The use of hard power, of military and security forces to crack down on terrorists, should be used sparingly, only to seek justice for victims, or prevent attacks. This would tend to discourage terrorists from mounting attacks, without giving them any more reason to attack you or any more ammunition to draw recruits and money.

The real focus should be on presenting an alternative to terrorism. Different people in different people have different reasons for joining terrorist groups; they must be given reasons to stay away. True believers become martyrs out of religious conviction – they need to learn that no religion condones violence against civilians. Politicals take up arms to express dissent – the people and the state must cooperate to air differences and meet the needs of the people. The poor sign up with insurgents to make money for their families – create legitimate jobs and make terrorism an unappealing career path. We need to understand why people turn to terrorism, look at personal, societal, and national causes, and systematically cut off means and motivations to embrace terrorism while simultaneously build superior alternatives to terror. Every culture and region have different circumstances, and solutions must be tailored to meet them. It won’t eradicate terrorism. Not by a long shot. But it might just reduce terrorism to a manageable problem, and take the peoples of the world to a time when they need not obsess about terrorism and worry when the next big attack will come.

But I’m no expert. Make of it as you will.

It’s been ten years on since 11 September. For better or for worse, 9/11 has left its mark on me through the way I write, through what I write. The war of my generation seems to be the War on Terror, and if it continues the way it has been, it looks like it’s shaping up to be a forever war.

Looks like we’re living in interesting times.

Ten years on

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