One of the peculiar features of life in modern society—in which appeal to rationality and principles is but one of multiple options—is that processes that may have begun rationally enough, thus based on principle, can go on indefinitely for no good reason whatsoever. The war in Afghanistan is an example. Principles derived from game theory suggest that it’s rational to meet an attack with an equivalent counter-punch. Natural law permits self-defense. The corollary of this initial reaction is that if the other party then subsides, we should do the same. Escalation is bad strategy.
In modern times, however, where power appears to depend on the emotional state of large collectives, symbols used to rally the public take on an ever greater role. The 9/11 attack on three buildings was linked to a single person, Osama bin Laden, and an elusive movement called Al-Qaeda. We attacked both but did not achieve what we call “closure” today. But we did destroy bin Laden’s camp and drove Al-Qaeda underground. That should have satisfied us. After achieving that, we should have subsided. We did not.
We did not because symbols we raised and caused to become much larger than life persist. Our leadership raised those symbols to shape and manage public expectations, thus to maintain itself in power. And this process continued even after the leadership changed. Notice the evolution of the symbolism. It began with the names of one leader and one group. It became a “war on terror” (however one is to define that) or “Islamic terrorism,” which suddenly had us fighting all of Islam. We’ve also worshipped—ever since it escaped our grasp in Vietnam—something we’ve called Victory, and for the same reason. But this concept is sufficiently vague under current circumstances so that we cannot claim it. What is wrong?
Al-Qaeda had no borders. It just happened to have its camps in Afghanistan. We expanded the conflict to Afghanistan as a whole—and specifically to the Pashtun group that then controlled it, the Taliban—in search of a “closure” that had been expanded in definition to what? The eradication of a whole civilization or, at least, its way of life? A rational and principled response to an attack on one of our centers with an attack on the centers of those who presumably caused the attack on us has evolved into a war against Afghanistan and, because of very permeable borders, with parts of Pakistan. No end in sight. We’re now at war everywhere in a small way at least. In this process we’ve also engineered a war with Iraq for which no rational grounds existed at all.
I ponder this now that the definition of “victory” is once more complexifying. Evidently it means that Afghanistan must be turned into a republic recognizably like our own, with regular elections, a consumption culture, competing parties, a real economy, and people who look reasonably like our own so that we can finally relax. But this isn’t in the cards.
I wonder if humanity has ever encountered this particular problem before—namely one in which vast masses of voters, manipulated by symbols, call the shots without wishing to do so and cause the leaders to behave in entirely irrational ways that the public, although it does wish to do so, cannot stop.