Much Sound and Fury: Popular Conceptions of the Global War on Terror

“America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war. America is at the mall.” This thought was scrawled across a whiteboard one day in Ramadi, Iraq.[1] It was apparently put there by a Marine who had spent a fair bit of time ruminating about what was bothering him; enough time, in fact, to distill his thoughts into as few words as possible. The statement belies a great chasm between the popular imagination of conflict, which has largely been ginned up by the chattering classes, and the realities of the modern world. Never before has so small a proportion of the West’s citizens been involved in major international conflicts, nor have they ever been as far removed as they currently are from the hard edges of life that are so evident across much of the globe. The result is that fundamental, often deliberate, misunderstandings are used by academia and the media to provide fodder for unwarranted and ill-informed critiques based on partisan politics and ideological conformity. Think of it as an international game of intellectual ‘Gotcha’.

  1. ‘What the Hell Are We Doing?’

The ‘War on Terror’ is bizarrely named. Terror is a tool, not a thing that one can go to war against. And it’s really critical to name your wars properly. The ‘War on New Zealand’ would have some pretty obvious implications. At the very least, it would mean that those who fight for the Kiwis are our enemies, as are their supporters, financiers, and organizers (though not, emphatically, every New Zealander everywhere). It would also mean that the war will end when we drive tanks down the streets of Wellington and run a new flag up the pole of their parliament.

A named enemy and an end-state. That’s what every war needs. But this war doesn’t have that. It’s an open-ended conflict against no one in particular and it will end at some point in the indeterminate future, presumably. And it’s pretty hard to get behind such an amorphous idea.

Most people have a pretty good idea that Iraq and Afghanistan, being the two major theatres of the ‘War on Terror’ thus far, haven’t gone terribly well for anyone. But the central flaw is a profound disconnect between what Western citizens know and expect, and what the geopolitical realities really are. It’s as if a stadium full of armchair quarterbacks got to call the plays for the team on the field. Sometimes they do what the crowd wants, sometimes they don’t, but nobody is willing to admit that no one knows exactly what game we’re playing or what the rules are: there’s no strategic direction in which we’re headed. And the biggest problem, as alluded to by the young Marine above, is that no one in the crowd has any skin in the game. In fact, many of them aren’t even sure if there is a game, or if there is, they’re not sure that it’s worth winning.

What’s really going on is that we’re in a war against the radical adherents of a violent and intensely political strain of Islamic thought and practice. And pace Barack Obama, groups like Islamic State are very Islamic.[2] Anyone who wants to can argue this all day long, but in the end it doesn’t matter, because Islamists get to define themselves as Islamic, and they proudly do so.[3] While it is obvious that radical groups represent only a tiny minority of Muslims, they do represent far too many.[4] And their adherents have no qualms about declaring war on the West.[5] Perhaps we should be just as honest. Because at some unknown point of critical mass, radical minorities start to call all the shots and the peaceful majority becomes irrelevant.[6] Ask the Germans.

  1. ‘Lock ‘Em Up!’

Every war has prisoners, and international law has a great deal to say about them. They fall into two categories: lawful combatants and unlawful combatants. Most of the law deals with lawful combatants. They’re defined as such:

The laws, rights, and duties of war apply not only to armies, but also to militia and volunteer corps fulfilling the following conditions:

  1. To be commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
  2. To have a fixed distinctive emblem recognizable at a distance;
  3. To carry arms openly; and
  4. To conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.[7]

Enemy combatants in Afghanistan and Iraq don’t meet that definition. To do so would be bad for their… longevity. So they can’t be considered ‘lawful combatants’ and are therefore not entitled to Prisoner of War (POW) status[8]: I’ll come back to this point shortly. As ‘unlawful combatants’ then, they are criminally responsible for their participation in the conflict. And that’s really all ‘unlawful’ means. They can’t be tortured; they’re not outside the law (the Fourth Geneva Convention deals almost explicitly with ‘unlawful’ combatants), but they are subject to trial, sentencing, and imprisonment or execution.[9] Basically anything they’ve done as part of an armed struggle becomes a crime, whereas POWs can never be prosecuted for merely taking part in hostilities,[10] provided that their actions weren’t in some other way criminal (for example, the ‘Rape of Nanking’).[11]

In thinking about this, the ‘disconnect’ mentioned earlier becomes more evident. POW status can be granted by the ‘detaining power’ to anyone whether they meet the definition of POW or not. But the whole idea of having POWs is that they can be removed from the conflict without the risk of them killing any more of your soldiers. It also alleviates the need to shoot them outright on the battlefield. Indeed, declaring that ‘there will be no prisoners’ is itself a war crime.[12] But the concept of POWs explicitly imagines that they will be repatriated at the end of the war. They’ll be no threat to anyone once the war is over and they can just go home. So what do you do with POWs when you’re fighting a ‘War on Terror’; a war without concrete strategic goals (and thus no fixed ending)? Churchillian demands of ‘unconditional surrender’ seem far too anachronistic for our present circumstances.[13]

The other option, which I said I’d come back to, is to say that they’re not POWs. If that’s the case, then they need to be prosecuted “by a court offering the essential guarantees of independence and impartiality,” treated humanely, and given the protections appropriate to any other accused criminal in custody.[14] But how do you prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the guy with a car battery strapped to his bicycle, who you found riding down the road five minutes after an electrically detonated bomb just killed three soldiers, and whose hands are covered in nitrates, was the guy who dunnit? You can’t, and so you don’t. Or how do you prosecute the financier of the local al Qaeda cell that’s been knocking off your troops for the last six months without calling half a dozen local informants, two undercover CIA operatives, and the really smart kid that decrypts the cell phone traffic, to testify in open court? Again, you can’t, and so you don’t.

So what do you do?

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Gitmo. That’s what you do. Because you can’t shoot them (that would be murder), you can’t give them back when the war is over (if the West doesn’t know what constitutes victory, what will convince its prisoners to go home peacefully?), and you can’t prosecute them (you either don’t have the evidence, or you dare not produce it). Guantanamo Bay was repurposed as a prison by President George ‘Dubya’ Bush and, despite all the Democratic promises made at the end of Bush’s second term, Obama kept it open. Because there’s really no other options. This is not a problem envisioned in International Humanitarian Law.

  1. ‘We Need to DO Something’

The irony should be appreciated that it is only the leading Western democracy, acting on behalf of itself and its allies, that has this problem. Non-democratic states don’t spend time agonizing about whether they’ve treated those who are committed to their destruction with fairness and impartiality. Furthermore, how far do protests and political lobbying get you in Venezuela or China? Not far. So if you want to ‘get your protest on’ you’d best do it in a Western liberal democracy: you’ll live longer.

“Free Tibet” bumper stickers don’t seem to have made the transition onto the latest VW models. That’s only one example of an international outrage that has been pushed aside or just left unmentioned. Not because outrageous abuses don’t happen all over the world: the ethnic cleansing of Tibetans continues apace,[15] as does the persecution of Kurds in Turkey,[16] the murder Yazidis in Iraq,[17] the terrorizing of Copts in Egypt,[18] and the genocide of Christians in the Sudan.[19]

How is it that a group like Queers Against Israeli Apartheid can be prominent on campuses and in the media but I don’t know the name of a single person executed by Iran for the crime of ‘sodomy’, a term which is almost certainly a euphemism for homosexuality?[20] Someone needs to get their head on straight (no pun intended) because if QuAIA were in Palestine they’d have to move to Israel.

The key to understanding all of this is that so much of the world’s outrage is extraordinarily selective. Syria’s death toll of 200,000 doesn’t merit a ‘Syrian Mass-Murder Week’ on university campuses, but Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ can garner worldwide protests at the drop of a hat,[21] despite being the most carefully targeted military campaign ever, with a combatant-to-civilian casualty ratio of at least 1:1. This is a better ratio than any other armed force has ever achieved, probably in the history of warfare[22] [23] [24] and is the furthest thing from the fabled ‘vast majority’ of civilian deaths.

Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen, was captured by the U.S. military in 2002 and held in Guantanamo Bay, ostensibly on charges of terrorism, etc. He has a tremendous following throughout Canada and is a household name who conjures up images of torture and mistreatment by the Canadian and American governments. But few have ever heard of William Sampson, a man who was falsely imprisoned by the Saudi government and was repeatedly tortured and raped over a period of 2 ½ years.[25] Or Zahra Kazemi who was ‘interrogated to death’ by the Iranian government in 2003.[26]

These are both Canadian citizens, and if you haven’t heard of them it probably isn’t an accident, in the same way that Khadr was almost completely unknown in Canada until about 2006 when a Conservative government came to power and Canada resumed active combat in Southern Afghanistan.[27] For the first four years of his incarceration, not too many people seemed to care about Omar.

Activists, politicians, and the media pick their battles along ideological lines, couching their arguments in appeals to ‘morality’, ‘social justice’ or ‘common sense’. But just as some Canadians being held abroad are more ideologically useful than others, so too are many of the world’s various crises filtered out or adulterated to fit a predetermined agenda. It’s not about what you think, but what you can be made to think. And a lot of people are hoping that you’ll be too busy at the mall to notice.


[1] Jay Friess, “’The War Doesn’t Really Touch’ Public,” Southern Maryland Newspapers Online, 13 November 2009,

[2] “Statement by the President on ISIL,” The White House: Office of the Press Secretary, 10 September 2014,

[3] Tarek S. Fatah, “Is ISIS acting according to Islamic Laws when it re-introduces slavery of non-Muslim female POWs?”, Tarek Fatah Blog, 16 October 2014,

[4] Terrence McCoy, “How ISIS and Other Jihadists Persuaded Thousands of Westerners to Fight Their War of Extremism,” The Washington Post, 17 June 2014,

[5] Stewart Bell, “ISIS Urges Jihadists to Attack Canadians: ‘You Will Not Feel Secure in Your Bedrooms,’” National Post, 21 September 2014,

[6] “Brigitte Gabriel Educates Moderate Muslim,” YouTube,

[7] Hague Convention, S.1, Ch.1, Art.1.

[8] Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions (Protocol I), Pt.3, S.1, Art.44.

[9] Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions (Protocol II), Pt.1, Art.6.

[10] Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions (Protocol I), Pt.3, S.1, Art.45.

[11] A classic example of war crimes committed by the Japanese against Chinese civilians in WWII.

[12] Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions (Protocol I), Pt.3, S.1, Art.40.

[13] “Milestones: 1937-1945.” U.S. Department of State: Office of the Historian. n.d.

[14] Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions (Protocol II), Pt.1, Art.6.

[15] Peter Dziedzic, “Tibet Can No Longer Stand Alone: A Call to Interreligious Solidarity,” Huffington Post, 26 June 2013,

[16] Fazel Hawramy, “Turkey Would Rather Jail Journalists Than Address the Kurdish Question,” The Guardian, 14 September 2012,

[17] Jonathan Krohn, “ISIS Slaughtering Yazidis Trapped on Mt. Sinjar Who Refuse to Convert to Islam, Iraq Says,” National Post, 10 August 2014,

[18] “The Persecution of Egypt’s Coptic Christians.” 60 Minutes. 13 December 2013.

[19] “John Kerry Warns of South Sudan Genocide,” BBC News, 1 May 2014,

[20] Benjamin Weinthal, Joanna Paraszczuk, “Iran to Execute 4 Men Convicted of Sodomy,” Jerusalem Post, 17 May 2012,

[21] “Israel-Gaza Conflict Sparks Worldwide Protests.” NBC News. 20 July 2014.

[22] Richard Behar, “The Media Intifada: Bad Math, Ugly Truths About New York Times In Israel-Hamas War,” Forbes Business, 21 August 2014,

[23] Alan Johnson, “Gaza: The Ethical Dilemmas of Fighting Terrorism,” The Telegraph, 12 July 2014,

[24] Steven Stotsky, “How Hamas Wields Gaza’s Casualties as Propaganda,” TIME Magazine, 29 July 2014,

[25] “Canadian William Sampson Who Faced Saudi Torture Dies.” CBC News. 29 March 2012.

[26] “Impunity in Iran: The Death of Photojournalist Zahra Kazemi.” Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. n.d.

[27] A search of and the UofA library turned up no publications prior to 2007.


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