The "direct action" killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs triggered a powerful emotional catharsis among Americans of all ages and political creeds. Some critics deride these reactions as abhorrent and instead advocate sober contemplation. While a deficit of thoughtful and realistic analysis is indeed one facet of our many strategic difficulties, celebration is to be expected because people are always emotionally invested in armed struggle -- and in this case the triumphalism is mostly harmless.
The decade-long struggle against al Qaeda is a multifaceted conflict that comprises both shadowy cloak-and-dagger spycraft and detective work, and pitched force-on-force battles between soldiers and dug-in irregulars with Soviet-era hardware like Operation Anaconda. It is true that we are not in an existential struggle with al Qaeda -- but to both bin Laden and the SEALs that killed him in direct combat, the stakes were far from limited.
The military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz argued that war consists of a paradoxical trinity -- the rationality of state policy, the chaos of the battlefield where military "genius" comes into play, and the rage of the people. Battle between two adversaries always creates "fog and friction" that provides space for military creativity. Hostile feelings and intentions result in passion and primordial violence. Strategy is ideally set by overriding political ideals and aims, but Clausewitz recognized that in practice politics rather than rational policy sometimes drive conflict.
Clausewitz observed firsthand how the French Revolution used nationalism and popular fervor to mobilize large armies and drive them to feats of nearly superhuman endurance. He understood that popular enmity and the drive for victory is a basic and inescapable element of conflict. We cannot avoid throwing our emotions into war even in an age of increasing automation and decreasing tolerance of risk. We cannot somehow turn the page back to the largely passionless 18th century "cabinet wars" that directly preceded Clausewitz's military experiences in the Age of Napoleon.
Even if we could, would such detachment be desirable? The reason why the "cabinet wars" provoked such indifference was that they were waged to satisfy the whimsy of kings. The public had no say and did not participate. Popular participation, for better or worse, creates powerful passions that are difficult to control because the people have a stake in the outcome. These passions sometimes manifest in jingoism and xenophobia, but they also pressure policymakers to justify their strategic choices and help soldiers endure constant danger and deprivation.
Most importantly, it is far from clear why we should be ashamed of positively marking the end of a mass murderer whose minions and admirers deliberately killed thousands of innocents from New York to Nairobi. Bin Laden was killed in a technically impressive operation that was almost completely bereft of civilian casualties. Whether dead or imprisoned, the world is surely better off without Bin Laden providing strategic guidance and inspiration to al Qaeda's operational planners and foot soldiers. Moreover, the celebration is driven not by a ghoulish satisfaction at bin Laden's killing but a powerful need for closure.
As Americans, we desire a clear-cut endstate to our military operations and are intolerant of ambiguity -- despite the fact that our wars are largely strategically inconclusive. We want the World War II-style victory parade even though that war's troubled ending led directly to years of Cold War competition and sowed the seeds of future ethnic and religious conflict. The fluid and borderless conflict with al Qaeda -- marked by deep political divisions, the fear of apocalyptic terrorism, and often self-defeating strategic choices -- is no exception to this rule.
A flamboyant and odious figure like bin Laden is not only a substitute for a strategic endstate but an easy target for popular rage. Moreover, it's difficult to see how the conflict could not have become personal. "Small wars" in which bands of guerrillas and terrorists assassinate military or civilian officials and strike at innocent civilians before dispersing into elusive base areas are always personal in nature. Drones and sensors do not change the basic fact that these wars, at their core, are about small groups of men hunting other men. A combat arms soldier -- not a robot -- shot bin Laden in the head at close range.
The celebration over bin Laden's demise does not even have much to do with his death. There would have been an equally powerful reaction if he had been brought back in chains. Instead, the revelry is an inarticulate but sincere outpouring of relief and optimism. Such expectations of closure may be wishful thinking in the face of al Qaeda's resilience and harsh geopolitical realities, but optimism (even if misguided) bears little resemblance to the ghoulish jingoism that pundits denounce.
The long-shot operation itself is also a welcome example of American grit and ingenuity in a time of political, military, and economic failures, partisan rancor, and a pervasive feeling of national decline. It is unfair to begrudge the American people for a display of hope and optimism, and it's unreasonable to expect Vulcan-like levels of calm and reflection in the place of raucous celebration. The idea, expressed in frequent Facebook quotations of various pacifist figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., that it is morally wrong to celebrate bin Laden's end is a curious denial of human nature.
Instead of scolding the revelers singing and chanting at the White House gates, we ought to use the passion of the people (as a tool) to further the most important part of the Clausewitizian trinity -- the rational policy of the state. Popular elation could grant policymakers political cover to make strategic changes that face up to the difficult reality that our ability to exert substantive political-military power abroad -- especially in protracted state-building projects -- is far more limited than many believe. But we can do so without reprimanding people -- after a decade spent in the shadow of war -- for merely being human.