Understanding our enemies

    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 that it is passe to wage war in pursuit of
    such objectives. Most Americans and Europeans cannot 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.