In mid-January, waves of outrage swept over the Internet because of a confrontation on the Mall in Washington between a group of conservative high school students from Kentucky and an elderly Native American Marine Corps veteran. The social media mob initially condemned the students for being right-wing jerks. Then, as more video of the incident surfaced, the mob condemned the condemners for jumping to conclusions, and some of those who initially weighed in apologized for doing so. And, finally, in yet another turn of the social media cycle, other commentators condemned the apologizers for backing down. One of the common conclusions reached by many analysts involved the dangers of overreacting and getting caught up in a rush to judgment online. Yet the Twitter mob continues to rage on, because that is the nature of social media.
On Wednesday afternoon, I was the target for a few hours after I published a Post column arguing that, while we can’t win the wars in Afghanistan or Syria, we can lose them by pulling out prematurely. “In fighting these insurgents, the United States needs to eschew its big war mindset. ...,” I wrote. “We need to think of these deployments in much the same way as we thought of our Indian Wars, which lasted roughly 300 years (ca. 1600-1890), or as the British thought about their deployment on the Northwest Frontier (today’s Pakistan-Afghanistan border), which lasted 100 years (1840s-1940s).” To get the word out about my column, I tweeted a link to it along with an abbreviated version of the sentence about the Indian Wars.
Big mistake. I was instantly deluged by Twitter attacks, mostly from progressive journalists and academics, accusing me of advocating racism and genocide. As one professor wrote: “Max Boot wants genocidal war to be our model.” In the next few hours, this “hot take” was endlessly retweeted. It was, to be sure, only a tiny Twitter storm compared to the Category 5 social-media hurricane set off by the clash on the Mall, but when the rain cloud is directly over your head, you’re still getting soaked.
At first, like many of those caught in the eye of the hurricane, I felt like hiding under my bed and pretending it wasn’t happening. But as the tweets continued, I decided to fight back and explain my position. I tweeted: “I wasn’t endorsing the Indian Wars and I apologize if I gave that impression. My point was simply that guerrilla wars can be lengthy and not result in a clearcut resolution.” I further noted that “U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Syria aren’t carrying out war crimes. They are preventing them. ISIS and Taliban are among worst war criminals on earth.”
Clarifying what I was saying and apologizing for any misunderstanding mollified some of the attackers. But other critics kept popping up who reacted to the original tweet and did not see my follow-up. So about three hours after I posted my first tweet, I decided to delete it, explaining my decision by noting that it was distracting attention from the point of the article — which was to defend the U.S. deployments in Afghanistan and Syria, not the Indian Wars. I also revised the column for later editions of The Post to make clear that my analogy was not an endorsement of the Indian Wars but simply an attempt to point out that guerrilla wars are “inevitably lengthy and frustrating.”
But by then my original tweet had gone viral, and it continued to be retweeted by those who had taken a screen shot of it. Even the Russian propaganda site RT got into the act, running an article gleefully claiming, “Neocon pundit Max Boot defended the unwinnable US ‘forever wars’ in the Middle East in an op-ed comparing them to the slow-motion slaughter of Native Americans at the hands of settlers suffused with Manifest Destiny.” This was a reminder, if any were needed, that Vladimir Putin, who is committing war crimes from Ukraine to Syria, would like President Trump to pull U.S. forces out of Syria and Afghanistan in order to remove an obstacle to Russian influence.
An anonymous Twitter user summed up what had happened: “So it seems the United Front piling on @MaxBoot for the crime of making a poor analogy now includes paleocons, the academic far left, assorted ‘non-interventionists’ & ‘anti-imperialists," and Putin's propaganda outlet in the West. Good choice of foes.” This is an example of how a Twitter horde will assemble from different parts of the ideological spectrum, all united in outrage against some perceived offense that is usually taken out of context. This mob mentality is a major challenge to rational discourse in the Internet age.
But I can’t pretend that this brouhaha was all the fault of my attackers. I’m ultimately to blame, because I deployed an incendiary analogy in a clumsy fashion that left lots of room for misunderstanding. My chief lesson is to be more careful in what I write. Analogies, in particular, can illuminate, but they can also obscure and confuse. They need to be handled carefully, like rhetorical high explosives.