December 28, 2005 | Scripps Howard News Service

An Old-fashioned War

To be fair to our enemies, they are only doing what comes naturally. We are the historical oddballs.

Wars have been fought since time immemorial. The vast majority have been over power and resources, to defeat rival civilizations, to vanquish hated “others.”

Why did Spartans, Persians, Macedonians and Romans fight? What motivated Bonaparte to take on the Austrians, the Ottomans, the Russians and the English? What caused Imperial Japan to attempt to conquer Asia?

Almost a thousand years ago, Genghis Khan provided a candid and classic answer:  “Man's highest joy is victory: to conquer his enemies; to pursue them; to deprive them of their possessions; to make their beloved weep; to ride on their horses; and to embrace their wives and daughters.”

Sure, grievances may be a contributing factor. The Germans were angry over the way France and Britain treated them after the First World War. But it was to dominate the world — not to redress insults and injuries — that the Nazis left a trail of blood from one end of the continent to the other.

Similarly, while workers may have gotten a raw deal in the Industrial Revolution, Bolsheviks and Maoists had more in mind than raising wages and securing health care for those who labored on assembly lines.

Nazis attempted to establish the rule of the “Aryan race.”  Communists attempted to unite a broader swath of humanity: workers of the world as well as those whose fingernails were clean but who proclaimed themselves the proletariat's vanguard.

Militant Islamism – the 21st century's most dynamic and dangerous form of totalitarianism — is attempting to appeal to 1.2 billion Muslims living in more than a hundred countries. Non-Muslims are encouraged to convert. Indeed, Osama bin Laden expects many will once it becomes clear which side in this global struggle has the stronger will to power.

Again, there are grievances to cite as justification: For the poverty, unemployment and oppression that plague many Muslim societies, Militant Islamists blame Christians, Jews, Hindus and the “apostate” Muslims who collaborate with these “infidels.” They charge that “Crusaders and Zionists” are stealing Islam's resources.

The fact that a quarter century of rule by radical mullahs has left Iranians worse off than they were before the Islamist Revolution is elided. That Saudi and Gulf sheiks are among the wealthiest individuals in the world does not, in the radical mind, contradict these claims.

Bin Laden and his ideological brethren promise that the conflict that has begun will not end until Muslims have the lands, power and status they demand and deserve. Lesser peoples are to be annihilated or subjugated. The Caliphate, the ancient empire established by Mohammed in the 7th century, is to rise again – and mosques will be built where churches and synagogues now stand. Tolerance and mutual respect among the great religions are, in their view, ludicrous concepts. More than that: They are blasphemous because they put the true religion on an equal footing with false faiths.

Only one aspect of all this is new and novel: the Western conviction that it is passé to wage war in pursuit of such objectives. Most Americans and Europeans can not imagine fighting other than in self-defense or against severe oppression.

That is admirable; less so the lack of imagination that leads so many in the West to “mirror-image,” to delude themselves into believing that everyone sees the world as they do.

To win a war requires more than boots and bullets. It requires understanding the enemy's motives and goals, and perceiving how intensely he is committed to victory.

Postmodern Americans and Europeans may believe wars of conquest are obsolete, a discarded relic of the distant past. They may even see war itself as an aberration, an unnatural disruption of what they have convinced themselves is the “normal” state of peaceful coexistence. But our enemies view the world differently. Their perspective is of an older vintage.

“The ordinary theme and argument of all history is war,” observed Sir Walter Raleigh in the early 17th century. Wishing that were no longer true does not make it so. We infidels pretend otherwise at our peril.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

Read the Spanish translation.