American Enterprise Online
May 5, 2003
By Alan W. Dowd

An aircraft carrier leaves port crammed not with its usual complement of F-18s, F-14s and Navy aviators, but with an odd mix of transport helicopters and 1000 Army Special Ops forces.

America’s amphibious warriors—the Marines—fight a pair of land wars without conducting an amphibious invasion, covering some 300 miles on the ground en route to Baghdad after hop-scotching across landlocked Afghanistan.

Elements of the most sophisticated Army in human history, equipped with GPS devices to navigate unknown lands and lasers to guide missiles onto faraway targets, ride into battle on horseback.

Throwing safety and caution into the desert wind, fighter jets are converted into mid-air refuelers. Heavy bombers change carefully scripted missions literally on the fly, using their payloads like a sniper uses his rifle.

The twin doctrines of containment and deterrence are supplanted by preemption and regime change. In the span of 16 months, two of the world’s most virulent and remote sources of terror are removed, their ruling regimes utterly destroyed even as their subjects are spared. And after decades on the defensive, a resolute America asks not “when will it end?” but “who’s next?”

These are more than just scenes from America’s war on terror, more than tangible proof of a commander-in-chief in command. (Proof of the latter was on display even before the president’s historic address aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. Recall that it was George W. Bush who explained in 2001 that the war would be “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.”) They are evidence that the American people and their military have been transformed.

On September 11, 2001, the enemy launched an audacious attack on America. Planned and rehearsed over perhaps four years, the attack was crafted with an incredible measure of patience, its execution demanding total sacrifice. In a sense, it embodied the very opposite of what the American people and their military brass had become in the post-Vietnam period, which was marked by a series of push-button, almost-bloodless wars. In the shadow of Vietnam, the American people would tolerate nothing more. The Pentagon and the politicians delivered, each mini-war conditioning the American people to expect less blood and less sacrifice than the previous conflict. And this, in turn, conditioned the American military to be overly cautious, curbing its audacity and leading inevitably to more low-risk, low-impact wars.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, this cycle has been broken. The US military has replaced timidity with audacity, and the American people have traded their impatience and squeamishness for resolve. Of course, we are not the first generation to witness such a transformation.

In April 1942, just four months after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor awakened a slumbering America, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle used Navy aircraft carriers to launch Army bombers into the skies over Tokyo. The bombers arrived in broad daylight, throwing a psychologically stunning counter-punch at Japan's once-invulnerable homeland and foreshadowing the war's devastating final blow.

In 1944 and 1945, General George Patton stabbed the U.S. Third Army like a knife deep into the heart of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. Doing the impossible, his troops raced from the footholds around Normandy through France, over the Rhine, into Germany, and as far east as Czechoslovakia. They liberated 81,522 square miles of territory and some 12,000 cities and villages, took 765,483 prisoners, and killed 144,500. The Germans may have invented the blitzkrieg, but it was Patton who perfected it.

When Stalin tried to squeeze the allies out of Berlin by blockading the city's western half, Lt. Gen. Curtis LeMay blended the principles of strategic bombing with the efficiency and ingenuity of a Detroit assembly line to win the first battle of the Cold War. From June 28, 1948 to September 30, 1949, U.S. pilots flew 277,000 missions and delivered 2.3 million tons of supplies into Berlin.

A year after the airlift, when all seemed lost in Korea, Gen. Douglass MacArthur did the impossible by swinging around and behind the massive communist armies and landing some 70,000 troops at Inchon. In a matter of days, they recaptured Seoul, smashed the communist invaders and reversed the momentum of the Korean War. The war would continue for another two years, but South Korea's existence would never be threatened after MacArthur's daring amphibious landings.

In short, audacity and patience became almost second nature for America after Pearl Harbor. But the halfhearted war in Vietnam changed that. It’s only now becoming clear just how much September 11 has changed America yet again.

In an improbable armada of pilotless planes, invisible Stealth Bombers, and B-52s designed and built just a few years after Doolittle retired (although now refitted with the latest in high-tech gadets), there is the spirit of the Doolittle raid. In the Third Infantry Division’s sweep through Iraq, one sees the unmistakable outlines of Patton’s lightning advance. In the ambidexterity of a military that drops JDAMs and MREs with equal ease and frequency, builds roads and liberates prisons crammed with children, we catch a glimpse of the airlift that saved Berlin. And in the unorthodox—indeed, risky—lunge into Baghdad, there is an echo of MacArthur’s daring amphibious landing.

The American people are different, too. In a wordless, instinctive way, Americans believe what Tony Blair expressed just days after the attacks on Washington and Manhattan: “We have been warned by the events of 11 September,” he intoned. “We should act on the warning.” Like Blair and Bush, the American people have connected the dots from terrorist groups to terrorist states—and from September 11 to a future deformed by a nuclear-armed alliance of the two. They have concluded that it is better to carry the battle to the enemy and risk diplomatic isolation than to win the friendship of UN bureaucrats and risk a cataclysm. It is better for terrorists to live in terror than for the innocent to live and die in fear. It is better to wage a war of unknown duration than to await attacks of unknown origin. And given the choice between civilians being evaporated in peacetime and US troops risking their lives in combat, the American people have reluctantly opted for the latter.

Like Churchill after North Africa, they sense that victory in Iraq is not the beginning of the end, but only the end of the beginning. Beyond Baghdad lie all the other purveyors of terror, some of them as close as next door. As Bush observed aboard the Lincoln: “The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11th, 2001, and still goes on.” And as one Iraqi delegate warned at last week’s post-Saddam planning conference, many challenges remain inside Iraq. “We are not ready to handle this yet,” he sighed. “Saddam’s orphans are still alive.” As if to reassure him, Bush promises that America “will stand with the new leaders of Iraq as they establish a government by, of and for the people.”

In a word, the Iraqi people need America to be as patient and audacious in peace as we were in war. And it appears that a transformed America is equal to the task.