In the end of any war the "winning" side will find that what they got from winning wasn't worth the cost of fighting the war. (Though they'll deny it).
The "losing" side will be shattered. The cost of fighting, the cost of losing. They'll probably be occupied/assimilated by the "winners". Only the neutral will have a chance of not losing, but even they cannot win.
This is a rather complicated way of stating that war is a negative sum game. The total wealth and output of both sides will always be lower afterwards. In less interdependent days, the victor could sometimes still come out ahead economically. Now, with the interdependence of the modern world, that is impossible. God bless free trade; it's the best enforcer of world peace in history.

After a discussion with Uberfetus, I'd like to expand on my point a bit. War is, in the modern world, always an economic loss. However, that does not mean war is never justifiable. There are times when the alternatives are worse, such as when national survival is at stake or when one side is behaving in a genocidal or otherwise monstrous fashion. There are certainly things worse than war, and in that sense a war can have a winner. Otherwise, war is a losing strategy.

In the wake of the World Trade Center calamity, George W. Bush was heard several times to say things along the lines of "We will win this war." I would submit that this is not actually possible; not because the United States military is incapable of running roughshod over whomever they see fit, or even because the United States will lose people or resources in fighting it (although of course they will.) The U.S. cannot win this war because they have nothing to win.

A war is traditionally fought between two or more sides over disputes in resources, leadership, ideology, or a similarly contentious issue. As of yet, the only side in this war that we know of is that of the United States, and everyone is scrambling to get on it. While the names of Afghanistan and Palestine, among others, have been floating around as potential targets for U.S. retaliation, the governments of both countries have already decried the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and have not, as nations, given the U.S. any reason to declare war.

The U.S. has already given Afghanistan an ultimatum; hand over Osama Bin Laden or face the consequences. This overlooks two things:

- One: The government of Afghanistan has no control over Osama Bin Laden. While they have apparently received communications from him, there is no indication that they even know where he is. Also, as Afghanistan is currently in a state of civil war, there is no reason to believe that the Taleban government is capable of getting him if he doesn't want to go.

- Two: While Osama Bin Laden is, by default, the prime suspect in the World Trade Center attacks, the actual evidence against him is barely enough for a lenient judge to issue a highly dodgy arrest warrant. This raises the question of what the U.S. would do with him if they got him.

Now, I am no fan of the Taleban government. I think the human rights abuses that are transpiring in that country are apalling. However, I would say that the defining characteristic of war is that it is never the people in power who are harmed (at least, not in most cases, and never until the very end.) Also, U.S. military actions have in the past been terribly indiscriminate. What people must realize is that the people who killed so many on September 11th are dead. There may be others as yet at large who helped them; there may not be. There may be a link to some foreign oganization, and then there may not be. Above all, I would urge everyone to remember that we know nothing for certain. As much as people may want to see someone pay for the attacks, bombing Afghanistan at this point is about as justified as bombing France.

Finally, the most important point: When you can't really win, how do you know when to stop? The thing that scares me the most about all of this is that, without any real goals in mind other than base revenge, the length of this war is a function of nothing but the time is takes for the U.S. to tire of killing.

If the U.S. does decide to attack whatever Middle Eastern nation it sees fit, it will not be the first occasion that they have done so. However, it will not mean the start of a war that will in any way diminish terrorism. It will not be a war that will punish any of the people involved, except possibly as a side effect. What it will do is exactly the same as what the four hijacked planes did: it will kill hundreds of people in order to make a point.

Update (April 21, 2004): I haven't been around E2 much recently, but it's been almost three years since I wrote this, and it's been suggested that I update it. While it's certainly possible to compare what I've written above with events as they've actually fallen out (this seems to be a pretty comprehensive metanode on the subject, although nobody seems to have written about the condition of Afghanistan since 2002), I think this was always meant to be something of a time capsule; it was a reaction to a war that hadn't happened yet. That said, it should be noted that "thousands" has turned out to be more accurate than "hundreds," and we still don't know very much more about the WTC attacks now than we did at the time.

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