The American Legion Magazine | 1.1.02
By Alan W. Dowd

It is rare that a turning point in history can be traced to a specific day, rarer still to a single moment. 8:48 a.m., September 11, 2001, was such a moment—a nightmare-come-to-life that changed the world forever.

Within two hours of the twin attacks on New York and Washington, the WorldTradeTowers fell from the Manhattan skyline, their majestic silhouettes reduced to rubble as a world gasped. Smoldering and flaring for almost two months, the ruins even now resemble a man-made volcano. The Pentagon burned for only five days, but the gash in its side serves as a ready metaphor for the physical and psychological wounds inflicted not just on America’s mighty military, but upon America itself.

As the debris continues to be cleared away from the mass grave that once was the World Trade Center, some grasp at history to make sense of the senseless, comparing September 11 to other moments of man-made carnage—Oklahoma City, Pearl Harbor and Antietam are commonly cited. But the comparisons are woefully inadequate. September 11 was one of those moments without precedent, parallel or equal. And as such, history can offer little solace. What history can teach us, however, is what lies ahead. And that is war—a long, complicated war.

The opening shots of this war—fired not by tanks or fighter-jets, but by mass-murderers disguised as vacationers, heroin-dealers and sadists masquerading as holy men, and anonymous assassins wielding envelopes laced with poison and plague—underscore just how complicated this first war of the 21st century will be. And terror’s far-flung training grounds foreshadow just how long it will be.

Vengeance Is Not Victory. When America endured its first day of infamy sixty years ago, President Roosevelt responded to Japan's sneak attack with a promise: “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion,” he thundered, “the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”

It would be years before America made good on that promise, before the shock and infamy of Pearl Harbor turned into the fury of Midway, Dresden, Normandy and Hiroshima. The same holds true today.

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. As President George W. Bush explained, the War on Terror “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” That will take years, if not decades.

Still, there are vast differences between World War II and what tomorrow’s historians may call World War III. (Before scoffing at that prospect, consider the facts: Yet again, the world is splitting along the jagged fault lines of ideology and self interest—on one side, democracies and would-be democracies; on the other, revisionists and revolutionaries. North America, Europe, Russia, India and Japan are all mobilizing for war—and so are the terrorists who live within their borders and the barbaric governments that spawned them.)

The enemy that attacked Pearl Harbor struck military targets, and he had the courage to show his face. When Doolittle struck back four months later, he didn’t have to rely on intelligence estimates or circumstantial evidence to find his target. And although the nation’s sons had been bloodied at Pearl Harbor, the homeland 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 jetliners, symbols of our freedom and modernity, turned against our cities. The other disappeared moments later, in a flash of flame and a shower shrapnel.

All of this should remind us that we’re in uncharted territory. America itself is on the frontlines. The enemy has no flag to capture, no capital to occupy. And that is why we cannot expect this to end—at least not on our terms—after 11 weeks of air strikes, a hundred hours of desert combat, three months of coalition-building or even the overthrow of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. It will end only if we fight with the same ferocity as other generations of Americans scarred by war—and with the same audacity as our enemies.

The wartime words of Winston Churchill are instructive: America and her allies in the War on Terror must “convince the enemy, not by words, but by deeds, that we have both the will and the means not only to go on indefinitely but to strike heavy and unexpected blows.”

New War, Old Mistakes.Even at this moment, American servicemen are landing those blows, 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. And like their fathers and grandfathers, they are fighting these early campaigns without the tools and firepower they need.

As the Kosovo War revealed a scant two years ago, the military lacks the heavy lift capabilities to move large numbers of troops and equipment rapidly. The U.S. Army strained to transport just 24 Apache helicopters from Germany to Albania during the Kosovo campaign. When the Navy diverted carrier battle groups to the Mediterranean, the Pacific was left exposed. When the Air Force needed more warplanes to support the campaign, they were yanked from duty over Iraq, putting Kuwait and Saudi Arabia at risk.

All of these contortions are being repeated in Operation Enduring Freedom, but on a much larger scale—and at much higher stakes. Indeed, U.S. forces are stretched so thin that the Pentagon had to ask NATO for a fleet of AWACS planes to monitor our own coastlines.

This is one of the tragic, if predictable consequences of neglecting the military. Almost 15 years ago, with the Cold War thawing, we shoved defense spending into a freefall. It spiraled from 6.1 percent of GDP in 1987 to 2.9 percent in 2000, prompting 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 1940, the nation devoted a paltry 1.7 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.

Like Churchill’s predecessors, we should have seen this coming. The terrorists have been waging this war far longer than a shortsighted America cares to admit. Only now has the battle been joined. Indeed, the attack on Washington and New York was just an exclamation point to decades of terror.

As British historian Niall Fergusson observes, “Since 1968, there have been 500 hijackings around the world and more than 4,000 recorded terrorist bombings.” But terrorism’s war on America crescendoed in the 1990s. In 1993, terrorists threw their first blows at the WorldTradeCenter, killing 6 Americans and injuring 1,000. 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 KhobarTowers in Saudi Arabia. The blast claimed 19 airmen and injured 200 others. In 1998, terrorists bombed a pair of American embassies in East Africa, murdering 224 civilians and injuring more than 5,000. And last October, 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, 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: As a result of the slow-motion carnage of September 11, some 6,000 Americans have been added to terrorism’s death toll.

A Changed World.  The United States may have sleepwalked through the decade past, but to paraphrase Yamamoto, the giant has awakened.

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 the world profoundly and dramatically changed on that awful Tuesday morning in September. America's friends finally began acting like friends, America's enemies finally were treated like enemies, and the American people finally awoke to the nightmare that always lurked just beyond their gaze.

NATO's rapid decision to stand with America, invoking its “all for one” clause for the first time in history, was an early sign that our allies grasped the gravity of this moment. Noting that more of his countrymen died in the World Trade Center massacre than in the Gulf War or Falklands War, British Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to join America in destroying “the machinery of terror.” If we fail, Blair warned, terror’s next salvo could be a nuclear weapon. 

Scores of other countries have since closed ranks, with new allies springing up in such unlikely places as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

But perhaps nothing is more illustrative of how much the world has changed as Russia’s actions. Remarkably, Moscow cleared its airspace to U.S. warplanes; allowed the former Soviet republics of Central Asia to open their territory to U.S. equipment and troops; increased military aid to the Northern Alliance, a pro-Western group in Afghanistan; and conveniently conducted armored maneuvers on the Afghan border.

Wary cold warriors have asked why, but the answer is simple: As Dmitri Rogozin, chairman of the Russian Duma’s international affairs committee, concluded, “Just as 60 years ago, Russia and the United States have a common enemy again.”

At home, there is broad support for the anti-terror campaign, fueled by a sense that both blood and liberties will need to be shed before peace can be restored. However, in waging this war, America must maintain a delicate balance between freedom and security. Freedom cannot become the next casualty of the War on Terror. As Ronald Reagan warned during another time of troubles, “Regardless of their humanitarian purpose, those who would sacrifice freedom for security have chosen a downward path leading to totalitarianism.”

Bin-Laden and his foot soldiers intend to destroy the American way of life, but they can't succeed without our help. The fact that we are free is the very reason terrorists can so easily attack us. And it's the major reason they want to attack us: They despise the free society built within America and the democratic society being built around the globe. To them, these symbolize not progress, but infection and imperialism.

Target List. There is every indication that the Bush Administration is using the carnage of September 11 as grounds to attack global terrorism at its roots, no matter where they reach. The tendrils and branches may be most visible in the lacerated soil of Afghanistan, but like a poison weed they wrap around the globe. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently revealed that bin Laden’s al-Qaida network “has cells in 50 or 60 countries.”

Even so, according to the State Department, the roots of terror run deepest in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea and Sudan.

Hamas, for example, has offices in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, controlled by Syria, is a training ground for Hizballah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Palestinian Islamic Jihad—all covered in the blood of innocents.

In the lawless deserts of Sudan, Yemen and Somalia, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Qaida run boot camps for hijackers, suicide bombers and mass-murderers. When they graduate, they scurry into the shanties of Gaza, the crevices of Europe and Russia, the festering underside of Malaysia and Indonesia, the dark corners of North America.

But there are some places that offer more than just the right climate for terror. There are barbaric and backward places where the heads of state are themselves terrorists. Tehran, Baghdad and Pyongyang top the list:

Philippine officials have identified North Korea as the prime arms supplier for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is waging a guerilla war in and around Manila. 

In its 2001 report on terror, the U.S. government called Iran “the most active state sponsor of terrorism” on earth. For 22 years, Iranian-trained terrorists have destabilized U.S. allies from the Balkans to the Persian Gulf, shaking the very foundations of global order. Even so, there are indications that Washington’s response to the attacks of September 11 has forced Tehran to rethink its old ways: As U.S. bombs began to fall on Afghanistan, Tehran sent a secret message to the White House promising to rescue any American military personnel who might land inside Iran. Time will tell if this is a momentary change or something more permanent.

The State Department reports that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein began deploying terrorists into foreign cities in 2000, where they have plotted and carried out assassinations. Of course, that’s just a small cog of Saddam’s vast terror machine. In fact, the Israeli intelligence agency traces the September 11 attacks to Baghdad, and Egyptian officials have drawn a triangle of terror connecting Iraqi agents with suicide bomber Mohamed Atta and last fall’s anthrax blitz.

These countries will no longer be underestimated or overlooked. As the president declared in what could be called the Bush Doctrine, “We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” If Afghanistan is any indication, those governments that make the wrong decision are not long for this world.

Patience Is a Virtue. Pentagon planners have no illusions about what will be required to enforce the Bush Doctrine. As Navy Secretary Gordon England dryly concluded, “This is not going to be a short program.” But knowing where terror breeds is far easier than uprooting it, which is why the president’s war council is taking pains to brace the nation for a long war.

Some have asked if this war will be like Kosovo or Desert Storm or Vietnam or World War II. The answer is yes—and no. As we have learned in these first ninety days or so, the Pentagon’s War on Terror seems to be borrowing something from about every U.S. military engagement of the 20th century, and in so doing resembles none of them.

As President Bush explained, “Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” We have already witnessed surgical strikes that call to mind the operations against Belgrade and Baghdad, strategic bombing campaigns reminiscent of the latter days of Vietnam and multi-agency raids that borrow from the war on drugs. Yet to come are sieges and ferocious urban assaults that resemble Mogadishu; 21st-century Marshall Plans to prop up teetering allies; draining tests of will that recall the long, twilight struggle between communism and freedom; and awkward allied endeavors that invoke memories of Sicily or Kosovo.

There will be other battles that we never see—battles fought by cyber-warriors who cripple civilian computer networks, unsavory foreign mercenaries who fight on the terrorists’ terms and turf, and U.S. special forces who kill at close range.

It appears that America has the stomach for such a campaign. 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 attention span and patience for the War on Terror. The latter-day kamikazes who attacked the WorldTradeCenter and the Pentagon had plenty of both. Planning and preparation for the attacks may have taken three to five years.

The president says his administration is equal to the task. “If it takes one day, one month, one year or one decade,” he promised in October, “we’re patient enough.” But can a nation accustomed to fast food, FedEx and push-button wars match that patience? What will America do when the trail to terror grows cold, when we realize that a war for our very way of life requires time? What will we say when our allies bleed, burn and buckle? And will the resolve still simmer when American bodies are dragged through Baghdad or Beirut, when Cairo or Kuwait City collapses, when September 11 is repeated somewhere else?

Only the Beginning. Just as these questions are hard to answer, this war will be hard to fight. But it can be won. Indeed, what some view as America’s greatest weakness—its distaste for war—will be its greatest asset in waging the War on Terror. 

As the eminent diplomat George Kennan explained during the Cold War, the American 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. 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.”

In other words, Americans hate war so much that once they are forced to fight it, they will do anything to end it on their terms. Our adversaries don’t understand this. They don’t understand that beneath the soft outer edges of democracy there exist muscle and bone that, once flexed, can unleash an unspeakable fury. And even now, they don’t understand what they set in motion on September 11. The infamy has passed, but the fury has just begun.