In my series on al-Marri and beyond, I made some suggestions for taking prisoners in this conflict. They involved the concept of incarcerating people “for the duration,” a standard practice in warfare. But we face a special problem in this particular struggle: how is end of the “duration” going to be determined, and are we prepared to detain people in a conflict that could easily last decades?
It’s true that for any war we never know the length of “the duration” in advance; not exactly, and sometimes not even generally. WWI is a case in point, and a typical one for its times: initially it was thought by most on both sides it would all be over quickly, and yet it dragged on and on, and was ended only by armistice. But it did end after “only” five years (although some would say WWII in some ways represented the unfinished business of WWI).
Our attitudes have changed so much that nowadays, when a war begins, people shout “quagmire” before (or shortly after) the first exchange of hostilities. But there’s a certain point they are making, absurd as it may seem, and that is that the current run of asymmetrical wars against an implacable and religiously fanatical foe, dealing not in regular armies but in guerilla and terrorist tactics, dictate that the wars in which we engage these days will ordinarily be very long, even if the formal warfare between the ordinary armies that might be involved tends to be very short. Failure to recognize that the “informal” hostilities will go on and on (and I think that, in some ways, the Bush administration failed to recognize that in its behavior, even though it paid lip service to it in its rhetoric) is a grievous error.
In addition, the duration is long partly because of the broken societies and political systems involved in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and the need to rebuild and change those systems in some basic ways. When WWII began, the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe was not envisioned as being part of it, nor was the long occupation of Germany and Japan. If you take these events into consideration, that war was very long indeed (we already know it was very harsh and bloody), and the aftermath, of course, included the Cold War and the long struggle involved in the division of the world into free and Communist.
This article about the legal fine points of the war against Islamic totalitarianism points out that, whatever we call the incarcerated terrorists/militants—illegal enemy combatants or POWs (a status they do not qualify for, but could receive if we decided to bestow it)—the “for the duration” conundrum comes into play, and raises the specter of keeping them indefinitely. This is certainly a unique prospect in recent history, and a disconcerting one that makes many (including myself) uneasy. And yet it is difficult to see a way out of it.
We may not be happy with the prospect of a lengthy duration for the hostilities is facing us. But that’s the way it is. The timetable has been set not by us, but by an unusually patient enemy who sees history in terms of centuries, not years.