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The World & I
January 2002 
By Alan W. Dowd

"I have lived through a period when one looked forward, as we do now, with anxiety and uncertainty to what would happen in the future," Churchill sighed in February 1934, reflecting on the Great War and contemplating an even greater war. "Suddenly something did happen – tremendous, swift, overpowering, irresistible."

Sixty-eight winters later, with the carnage of September 11 behind us and the chaos of a strange, new war ahead of us, we can relate well to Churchill’s feeling of uncertainty and angst.

After being saturated with news and images about the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, our information-hungry society has been left with the very opposite when it comes to the early counterstrikes of this war on terror. And we can expect more of the same as the war progresses. As President Bush blandly explained in a letter to Congress, "It is not possible to predict the scope and duration of these deployments [or] the actions necessary to counter the terrorist threat to the United States." His advisors and war cabinet talk of an invisible, unconventional war. Echoing the president, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sprinkles his speeches with words like "shadowy...nuanced...subtle." In his own words, the battle plan crafted for the War on Terror is "distinctly different from prior efforts."

Of course, we didn’t need to be told this war would be different. That much was clear at precisely 8:48 a.m. on September 11, when the first of four airliners became a guided missile and slammed into the World Trade Center’s north tower. A month later, even as we tried to return to normalcy, the anthrax blitz re-reminded us that this war had carried us deep into uncharted territory. But if the methods and tactics of the war are different, the objectives are not. This first war of the 21st century, like the great wars of the 20th century, is a battle for civilization itself. And as before, the United States is reluctantly marching to the front.

What Is Civilization?

It may be helpful to define what civilization is and what it is not before considering how it has been defended over the last hundred years. Indeed, one person’s civilization is another’s Philistia. (Of course, even the Philistines achieved a kind of civilization, which emphasizes my point.)

Contrary to popular opinion, civilization is not necessarily found where there is Bach or Rembrandt, running water or electro-power grids, interstate highways or Internet access. These things and others may be the byproducts of civilization, but they are not the signs of civilization. Nor is their absence necessarily an indicator of barbarism. Civilization is at once much more and much less than the trappings of modernity.

It is the intangible, not the material, which separates the civilized world from the barbaric. It is what motivates a culture or society or group that determines whether it is a part of civilization or an enemy of civilization. Consider the authors of September 11, for example. They possessed vast stores of creativity, exhibited remarkable sophistication, mastered the tools of civilization and modernity, and yet conceived and executed an act of unthinkable barbarism. To paraphrase Churchill’s assessment of the Nazis, the men who carried out the homicidal hijackings and suicidal mass murders of September 11 spliced together "the latest refinements of science [with] the cruelties of the Stone Age."

Some of them were educated at the great institutions of higher learning in Europe and America. They were polyglots and world travelers, speaking Arabic, German and English, while living in Hamburg and Cairo and Boston. They had all the trappings of wealth, relied on computers and cell phones, and were trained to fly the most modern of jet aircraft. But they were anything but civilized. And thousands of their kind still roam the earth.

No matter how many Koranic suras they twist to justify their crimes or salve their consciences, these men are as barbaric as Attila. And Islam isn’t any more responsible for spawning them than Russian Orthodoxy is to blame for Stalin. (The second Soviet dictator was studying to be an Orthodox monk in T’bilisi when he re-channeled his religious fervor from hagiography to Lenin-worship.) The Islamic world, which helped preserve and protect the discoveries of Greek antiquity, has contributed much to civilization in its own right, from science to government administration to philosophy. As the president said, the men who bankrolled and hatched the attacks of September 11 "are traitors to their own faith [and] blaspheme the name of Allah."

Like Stalin and Hitler, they were incubated in a crevice of rage and lies. We have caught a glimpse of that crevice since the attacks of September 11, and it paints a graphic picture of what civilization is and what it is not:

Civilization strives to protect the weak, the unarmed, the innocent. Its enemies target and murder them. Civilization weeps when innocents are slaughtered. Its enemies dance in the street. Civilization is sickened by the hecatomb of September 11. Its enemies are emboldened by it.  Civilization teaches that war is an evil to be avoided, its enemies that war is a divine commandment to be followed.

Civilization borrows from the best of every culture it encounters, creating something new and better than before the encounter. Its enemies lack the self-confidence to take such a risk. Civilization glories in difference and diversity, its enemies in sameness and submission, conformity and control.

And it has always been this way. When Pharaoh denied Moses’ request for a day of worship, it was a battle between civilization and barbarism. But ironically, it wasn’t Pharaoh, with his modern armies, sprawling metropolises and gleaming architecture, who represented civilization. It was Moses, with little more than a splintery cane and a profound idea: Let people choose their own god and worship it in their own way.

The battle has taken countless forms since then, but at its core it always has to do with control and power, and how they are used. To his credit, the president grasps this truth: "Its goal," Bush said of bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terror syndicate, "is remaking the world and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere." That is why, in Bush’s view, America must rally the civilized world to "the destruction and defeat of the global terror network."

Four Battles, One War

Even so, many scoff when "civilization" and "America" are used in the same sentence. French statesman Georges Clemenceau’s sneering assessment of his wartime ally still captures what many believe on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific: "America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization."

Moreover, the scoffers argue, America has only played a part in the ageless battle between civilization and darkness for a couple centuries -- barely the blink of an eye in the millennia of recorded history -- and it has been in the lead role for just 80 of those years. But in those eight decades, civilization has faced perhaps its sternest tests and darkest hours. And it was often the United States that held back the curtain.

Indeed, who was left to rescue the Old World from the war it unleashed in 1914 – a war which, it pays to recall, began with an act of terror?

Regardless of what the kings and princes of Europe thought, America saw its entry into the Great War as nothing less than an effort to save Europe from itself – and civilization from Europe.

In fact, during his war address, President Wilson argued that "civilization itself" was teetering in the balance. He wasn’t accused of hyperbole, and for good reason. As Churchill would later write, it was during the Great War that, "All the horrors of all the ages were brought together." Even after a century of mass-murder, the costs are staggering: a million Brits, 1.7 million Frenchmen, 1.8 million Germans, perhaps 2 million Russians, and some 10 million non-combatants. Perhaps Clemenceau’s swipe would have been better directed at his side of the Atlantic.

Gasping at what Europe had wrought, Wilson called the cataclysm, "the most terrible and disastrous of all wars." He howled against submarine warfare as "a challenge to all mankind...a war against all nations." After describing submarine attacks against hospital and relief ships, he even conceded that he was "unable to believe that such things would be done by any government." Wilson vowed to make the world "safe for democracy...to vindicate the principles of peace and justice" -- principles that from his vantage point only America understood.

Less than a quarter-century later, Roosevelt would echo Wilson’s shock at the behavior of another faraway empire. For Roosevelt and his generation, it was Imperial Japan. "The United States," he thundered, "was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government," even as the bombs began to fall on Oahu.

To Roosevelt, the sneak attack was as dastardly as the Kaiser’s submarine warfare a generation earlier. And for its day, Japan’s undeclared, unannounced war on America was arguably as shocking as the twin assaults of September 11. "Always we will remember the character of this onslaught against us," he concluded. "We will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again."

When Churchill heard the news of Japan’s attack, he is said to have responded not with dread, but relief. For the first time in months, he later wrote, "I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful." Churchill knew what Clemenceau was too arrogant to admit: America was civilization’s best hope. "With her left hand," he marveled in the months following that first day of infamy, "America was leading the advance of the conquering Allied armies into the heart of Germany, and with her right, on the other side of the globe, she was irresistibly and swiftly breaking up the power of Japan."

Like his wartime predecessors, Truman would rally the nation yet again to civilization’s defense. His 1947 address to Congress, which described the deteriorating state of affairs in Greece, Turkey and all across Europe, amounted to a declaration of war – a conflict perhaps similar to the one the United States entered September 11, if only in its strangeness and newness.

For the plain-speaking Truman, this still-nameless war was nothing more than an extension of World War II, which America fought so that "we and other nations [would] be able to work out a way of life free from coercion." According to Truman, that goal could not be realized unless the United States was "willing to help free peoples maintain their free institutions and their national integrity."

Calling on Congress to send a staggering $400 million to Greece and Turkey, Truman explained that the next battle for civilization would be fought and won not just with weapons, but with money – lots of money. "We are the only country able to provide that help," he warned. "Should we fail to aid Greece and Turkey in this fateful hour, the effect will be far reaching to the West and to the East."

Truman went on to sketch the grim outlines of a postwar world without America in the lead – "terror and oppression" in Europe, "disorder...throughout the Middle East," the peace of the entire world at risk, and the welfare of America itself endangered. With Moscow’s conquest of Eastern Europe in full view, Congress agreed. And so began the Cold War. Over the next four decades, the United States would sacrifice 100,000 lives, build and man more than 600 overseas bases, and spend some $5 trillion to wage and win the last war of the 20th century.

It wasn’t French treatises, Italian frescos or Austrian concertos that preserved civilization during the terrors of the 20th century – it was blood and bullets. The same holds true today. As historian John Keegan argues in his History of Warfare, "All civilizations owe their origins to the warrior." And since America alone stood as the last line of defense between civilization and a second Dark Age, in a very real sense modern civilization owes its continued existence to the United States – civilization’s reluctant but tenacious warrior.

And that brings us to what President Bush calls "the first war of the 21st century" – the War on Terror.

Like Wilson and Truman, Bush has framed the war as a struggle for civilization itself. "This is the world’s fight," he explained during his own war address to Congress. "This is civilization’s fight."

Like Roosevelt, Bush has allowed his simmering rage to boil over with words of shock and revulsion, calling the masterminds of September 11 murderous, barbaric, and evil, while promising to defeat and destroy them. "We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail," he intoned, as if reading from a decades-old script handed down from Wilson to Roosevelt to Truman. "We have found our mission and our moment," he added, standing where those others rallied a hermit republic to civilization’s rescue: "The advance of human freedom...now depends on us."

Although every corner of the globe is within terrorism's reach – the horrors of September 11 make that clear – perhaps for the first time in the history of terror, the carriers and breeding grounds of this scourge are finally within reach of justice and punishment. That’s because, as Bush explained in his address to Congress, the world profoundly and dramatically changed on September 11. According to Bush, friend and foe alike now "understand that if this terror goes unpunished, their own cities, their own citizens may be next."

Indeed, it was as if America’s fair-weather friends and critics awoke on September 11 to catch a glimpse of their wildest dreams come true – an America shaken, bloodied, humbled and ready to retreat. And what they saw frightened them and forced them to re-evaluate their place in the world.

For others, the day of terror silenced decades of criticism directed at Tel Aviv. Finally, they saw the true nature of the enemy Israel had battled for a half-century. And in that moment, perhaps they realized, like Kennedy at the Berlin Wall, that the civilized world must stand together: In Kennedy’s time, we were all Berliners. Today, we are all Israelis; we are all New Yorkers.

Warning Signs

If the rhetoric of this new war echoes that of other wars, so does America’s pre-war obliviousness to the likelihood of war. The carnage of September 11 is only an exclamation point to a half-century of terror--much of which went unpunished, and all of which led inexorably, if indirectly, to that awful Tuesday morning. Only now has the battle been joined. Indeed, the terrorists have been waging this war far longer than Americans care to admit.

Terrorism became part of life in Europe 30 years ago, and in the Middle East even earlier. In fact, Michael Walzer argues in his book Just and Unjust Wars that terrorism emerged as an identifiable strategy for revolutionary groups soon after World War II. British historian Niall Fergusson adds, "Since 1968, there have been 500 hijackings around the world and more than 4,000 recorded terrorist bombings." And as Paul Johnson writes in his landmark survey of the 20th century Modern Times, by 1980 there were some 1,700 international terrorist incidents annually.

And even then, the terrorists didn’t limit their attacks to the helpless people and politicians of Belfast, Cairo, or New Delhi. They imprisoned American civilians in Tehran, kidnaped American emissaries in the Middle East, and bombed American servicemen in Berlin and Beirut. By the mid-1980s, terrorism had claimed well over 250 American lives.

In short, we should have seen this coming. Step by step, the terrorists have been creeping closer and growing bolder.

However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that global terrorists were able to strike American targets at will – both at home and abroad. In 1993, the terrorists threw their first blows at the World Trade Center, killing 6 Americans, injuring 1,000 and shattering the peace of mind of millions. Later that year, Saudi expatriate Osama bin Laden first made news by taking credit for the ambush in Mogadishu, which claimed 17 U.S. soldiers. In 1996, a truck bomb exploded outside the U.S. military's Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. The blast claimed 19 airmen and injured 200 others. In 1998, bin Laden’s network bombed a pair of American embassies in East Africa, murdering 224 civilians, injuring more than 5,000, and foreshadowing the group’s capacity to plan and execute coordinated attacks. And in October of 2000, terrorists used a rubber boat to blast a hole in the USS Cole, killing 17 sailors. All of this occurred against a bloody backdrop of global terrorism. In fact, the year 2000 saw an 8-percent increase in terrorist attacks worldwide. According to the State Department, 21,000 people were killed or maimed by organized acts of terror between 1995 and 2000. The numbers for 2001 are not yet tallied, but we know this much: More than 4,500 people, almost all of them civilians, were added to terrorism’s death toll on a single day of slow-motion horror in September.

Democracies and Dinosaurs

Rather than heeding all the warnings--rather than taking the war to the terrorists and their sponsors before the unthinkable came upon our homeland--we sleepwalked through a decade, hoping that stern words and pin-pricks would be enough. In this way, we were no different than countless other democracies, some of them no longer on the face of the earth, that waited too long to awake.

Why it takes a December 7 or September 11 for America to answer civilization’s distress call could be the subject of a book. The eminent American diplomat George Kennan reasoned that such complacency is just one of the many undesirable byproducts of democracy. As he explained in the early hours of the Cold War, a democracy is something like a dinosaur blithely frolicking in the mud: "He pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath -- in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed," Kennan observed. "But once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat." This seems especially true of the American democracy.

Viewing America through the distorted and grimy prism of our own popular culture, our adversaries don’t understand that beneath the soft outer edges of democracy there exists muscle and bone that can unleash an unspeakable fury. In this new war, those muscles will be flexed -- and strained -- like they haven’t been in 60 years.

America clearly has the capacity to handle the strain: Any nation that can withstand the body blows of September 11 has a vast reservoir of resilience. What remains to be seen is whether the country has the audacity and patience for the War on Terror. The latter-day kamikazes who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had plenty of both. Planning and preparing for the attacks may have taken three to five years. And the operation itself was so audacious that no one in Washington had even considered it as a possibility – until 8:48 a.m. on September 11.

The American military must now match the enemy’s audacity, while the American people imitate his patience.

The latter will be far more difficult. After all, America is the land of fast food, FedEx and fax machines. Patience has never been a virtue for Americans. A quarter-century of push-button, nearly-bloodless warfare has not helped to prepare us for what lies ahead. And what lies ahead of us, in front of us, and all around us is a war for which we are ill-equipped.

This, too, was predictable. Almost 15 years ago, with the Cold War thawing into a new era of peace, we shoved defense spending into a freefall. It spiraled from 6.1 percent of GDP in 1987 to 2.9 percent in 2000, leading some observers to make ominous comparisons to the post-World War I military draw-down. In 1919, the country invested 16 percent of GDP to national defense. On the eve of war in 1937, as Germany spent 23.5 percent and Japan 28.2 percent of GDP to expand their arsenals, the United States devoted a paltry 1.5 percent to defense. That was enough to protect America -- or better said, to maintain the illusion of protection -- until December 7, 1941. Sudden death and destruction have a way of shattering such illusions.

Churchill’s lament as war clouds gathered over Europe is now ours: "When I think of the immense combinations and resources which have been neglected or squandered," he gasped, "I cannot believe that a parallel exists in the whole of history." It does now, as Washington and New York are forever linked to London by a bond of terror and blood.

Shadows and Twilight

But all is not lost. As William Ewart Gladstone, another of Britain’s redoubtable prime ministers, observed a half-century before World War II, "The resources of civilization are not yet exhausted." And they won’t be as long as there are people willing to fight, bleed and die for it.

Almost 120,000 Americans died in the 18 months of slaughter between Wilson’s war address and the armistice. Four bloody years passed before America made good on FDR’s promise "to win through to absolute victory," before the shock and infamy of Pearl Harbor turned into the fury of Midway, Dresden, Normandy and Hiroshima. And it would take two generations of proxy wars and nuclear stalemate before America smothered Soviet communism.

As the civilized world begins to strike back at terrorism, there is much to be learned from those wars and others. The War on Terror will borrow from all of them, and in so doing will resemble none of them.

As President Bush cautioned, "Victory against terrorism will not take place in a single battle, but in a series of decisive actions against terrorist organizations and those who harbor and sponsor them." Even at this moment, American troops are waging these pitched battles, throwing covert and overt counter-punches at a vast global network of terror. They are fighting in the air, at sea, on land, in cyberspace, close to home, and far away.Yet we have only seen the faintest outlines of this strange, new war.

The early blows of our vengeance, like Doolittle’s, may be swift, but victory will not be. Indeed, it cannot be, if this war is to achieve what most Americans demand -- the end to terrorism itself. To realize that goal, the war will require a little of everything from the Pentagon – surgical strikes like the mini-wars against Belgrade and Baghdad, and sustained bombing campaigns that call to mind the latter days of Vietnam. There will be secret assaults known only to America’s shadow warriors and their targets; draining tests of will that recall the long, twilight struggle between communism and freedom; modern-day Marshall Plans to prop up shaky allies; multi-agency raids that borrow from the war on drugs; mundane detective work at home and methodical campaigns against terror’s financial infrastructure abroad; awkward allied endeavors that invoke memories of Kosovo and Sicily; plans to re-order the world that echo Versailles; failures that awaken the ghosts of Desert One and Mogadishu; and very likely, moments of horror that parallel or even eclipse September 11.

That possibility alone should serve as a grim reminder that there are vast differences between yesterday’s battles for civilization and today’s. The enemy that sunk the Lusitania, torpedoed Pearl Harbor and blockaded Berlin had the courage to show his face. And although the nation’s sons were bloodied in those battles, the nation itself was untouched.

We enjoy neither the pretense of a conventional war nor the illusion of invulnerability today. The first was ripped away from us when those four jets, symbols of our independence and freedom and modernity, turned against our cities. The other disappeared moments later, in a flash of flame and a shower of shrapnel.

In all likelihood, we may never enjoy the thrill and satisfaction of victory either. Indeed, we may not know this war is over until years after the final shots are fired, when we emerge, Lazarus-like, from the tombs and bunkers of our post-September 11 world to breathe the air and feel the sun once again.

When that moment comes, we should treasure it – such moments are rare and all too brief in the history of mankind. But we should not delude ourselves yet again into believing that civilization’s enemies have been vanquished. Civilization will always have enemies. And if we grow complacent, they will strike again – as suddenly and swiftly as they did on September 11, 2001.