Friday, July 14, 2006


A friend of mine said yesterday that he believes Israel and the United States have reached the limits of their power. He believes the battle is joined, is highly asymmetric, and has ground American and Israeli forces to a halt. He wasn't gloating, but was hypothesizing.

He might be wrong. Having power assumes a monopoly of violence. As we restrain our power to appeal to our allies and win friends on the ground, Islamicists do everything they can to monopolize violence through random acts of terror. They're quite unrestrained in that pursuit, and on that level, we are neck-and-neck with them for control on the ground. The battle for the monopoly of violence is symmetrical in this war because we restrain ourselves from unleashing our full fury. My friend assumes that we will restrain ourselves indefinitely, and so we have reached the limit of our power.

My friend will be right -- that the Israelis and Americans have hit their wall -- only if we continue self-restraint. We've made war with our seat belts on. There's no guarantee that things can't get to a point where further self-restraint makes no sense.

I am chastened when I consider the unlatching of our seat belts. Real war is total, not self-restrained. Real war is horrible for both sides, when everything is at stake; when everything can be lost. Real war is a desperate struggle for survival. Since 2001, we have not been fighting that kind of war, though the battles have been many, the losses tragic.

If July, 2006 marks the beginning of real war, I will have to take my friend's observation with a healthy dose of skepticism. Our force must be fully unleashed before his hypothesis can be proven. Once we get to a point to where we really believe we are fighting for our lives, the limits of our power will truly be tested.

In the years to come, we may wonder how this thing started. We may look back through a haze and wonder why 9/11 happened, and why we went into Iraq. Our moral and political calculus will have evolved after the fury is unleashed. It isn't for us to say today how our current motives will be interpreted by the survivors of this great war.

Part of me wants to see our self-restraint maintained; we have the keys to Hell's door, a Pandora's Box that is best kept shut. Another part of me wants to see our civilization's enemies mercilessly vanquished. We can't have it both ways forever.