The human mind seeks patterns. It’s in our nature. When confronted with something new, we try to find parallels to past experiences so we can figure out how to deal with the present. And war is no exception.
Both sides are engaging in this with the war in Iraq, and to a larger extent the war on terror. The Left repeatedly likens it to the war in Vietnam, the great shaping experience of their history. This allows them to portray themselves as the good guys, valiantly fighting against the evil warmongers and side with the oppressed. And most importantly, it casts them on the winning side.
The Right (and on this matter, I put myself on their side) prefers to cite World War II. The scope of the conflict, the sudden, surprise attack, the threat to freedom, and the promise of bringing freedom to enslaved people has a great appeal to those who live and die by the metaphor. And, as with the Left, it lets us cast ourselves as the good guys who eventually win.
But setting aside the politics of the matter and going strictly on the historical facts of the matter, I think we might have to skip back beyond the 20th century for a better paradigm. In fact, if we set the Wayback Machine to a full two centuries ago, we just might find something useful.
In the dawn of the 19th Century, the United States faced its first real foreign challenge, with the Barbary Pirates. These buccaneers roamed the northern western coasts of Africa, freely raiding European and American shipping. They even ranged as far north as the North Sea, raiding Europe at will. The loose confederation of city-states demanded tribute from the West, and in exchange for the bribes would reduce (but never eliminate) their depredations.
After we established our independence, the Barbary Pirates noted the change by realizing that we would no longer be covered by England’s bribes, and sought to come to terms with us. But Thomas Jefferson said, in an epic declaration, “millions for defense but one one penny for tribute.” The US Navy, in its first major challenge outside of American waters, fought the pirates. It took a series of wars against the city-states of northern Africa over 15 years, but in the end the power of the pirates was broken and we never had to pay tribute again — and, most importantly, the role of the US Navy in securing the freedom of the seas worldwide was firmly established.
Now, as before, we face the challenge of Islamic militants, backed by loose confederations and organizations, but lacking a coherent nation-state behind them. Now, as before, we find ourselves fighting when other nations preferred to come to accomodation with the enemy. And now, as before, we find ourselves in an overarching “war” that could span a decade — or longer — that would be marked by a series of lesser “wars” against individual factions of a nebulous enemy.
I’m no scholar of the wars of the Barbary Pirates, but my own limited knowledge seems to indicate there might be even more worth looking at.