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The Longest War

June 2024
22min read

The fight we’re in didn’t begin on September 11; it started thousands of years ago. It’s the struggle between East and West, and history can both encourage and help us—if we read it properly.

ABOUT AS MANY AMERICANS WERE KILLED IN THE TERRORIST attacks of September 11 as at Lexington and Concord, at the Alamo, at Fort Sumter, on the Lusitania, and at Pearl Harbor combined, all of which precipitated Americans’ entry into major wars. Where else can we turn but to history to make sense of such carnage? Yet many facile comparisons that are being made with the past are fraught with error. They tell more of our own popular perceptions of culture than of the real lessons of history, and they misinform us about every element of the situation, from its underlying politics to the nature of the terrorism involved, the proper role of the military in our nation’s survival, the broader cultural context, and the true philosophy of war itself.


Many Americans, gazing in horror at passenger jets crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, asked themselves what the nation had done to deserve such hatred, forgetting that history teaches us that wars often break out over professed rather than authentic grievances. In a famous passage in Thucydides’ history The Peloponnesian War , the Athenians say that the source of conflict hinges on a state’s perceived sense of “honor, fear, and self-interest.”

In this classical way of thinking, irrational statesmen (Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo) often provoke conflicts over perfectly rational goals (more land, natural resources, subject peoples), by inflaming their audiences with appeals to rectify past injuries that are, in fact, nonexistent. The Japanese and Germans were not starving in 1941, but rather were proud peoples who wanted those whom they deemed inferior to serve them.


In truth, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban have very few legitimate grievances against the United States. We intervened in the Muslim world during the last two decades in part for our own interests, but we also saved the Afghanis from communism, the Kuwaitis from the Iraqis, Shiites and Kurds from Saddam Hussein, Somalians from hunger, and Bosnians and Kosovars from Christian Serbians. Millions of Muslims have been butchered on battlefields over the past 30 years, but their killers have been Islamic Iranians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Afghanis. If Thucydides’ exegesis on war’s causes is still relevant, bin Laden is more correctly seen as an inherently evil man who hates and envies us for our clout and our influence. He may rightly understand that America is the chief obstacle to his wish to lord over a medieval caliphate spanning a united Middle East, under a brand of thirteenth-century Islam that makes decadent Westerners cower in fear. That simple explanation seems to offer more consistent logic than do all the neo-Marxist or Freudian-inspired critiques of our foreign policy, or all the reasons bin Laden himself has proffered for his hatred of America: our military protection of Saudi oil, Israelis on Palestinian land, the hateful modernism of global democracy and capitalism, Jewish American women walking in the land of Mecca, and so on.

What does the past teach us about bin Laden’s undeniable appeal to his followers? Is his magnetism the harvest of real oppression brought on by years of American colonialism and imperialism? Our own history argues against it. Millions in Mexico and Africa are poorer than the hijackers and their followers, but they have not rallied to the cause of an international terrorist. The Ottomans, another Muslim state, ran much of the Middle East from the fifteenth to the early twentieth century, far longer and with a much heavier hand than the British or the French ever did, and Americans had no real foreign role in the Muslim world before World War II.

Have American economic policies more recently impoverished the Arab masses, giving bin Laden a receptive audience? Far more forcefully than either Asia or South America, the Muslim world has rejected the twin forces of global capitalism and democracy. In fact, there is not a single Arab consensual government in existence, and in most countries the state has a near stranglehold on utilities, the media, banks, and industry, ensuring a bloated and ineffective public work force and a complete absence of either foreign or domestic competition. Failure to emulate Western market economies and constitutional governments is probably the chief reason why living standards in the Middle East, despite extravagant oil and natural gas deposits, lag so far behind those of other continents. Revolutionary Islamic movements, which promise Muslim Utopias based on strict adherence to the Koran and the exclusion of foreign ideas, have, in fact, ruined their countries.

What, then, is the allure that millions of Muslims find in bin Laden’s hatred? We know he is a multimillionaire who can hire thousands and reach tens of thousands more through media and public relations. Like a blackmailing Mafia don, he has also received substantial help from governments in Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and, of course, Iraq—all regimes with tightly controlled presses, whose records of bringing freedom, prosperity, and happiness to their populations are dismal. Most of them are terrified of Islamic fundamentalism.


Rather than allow real constitutional change that might lead to democracy, such Arab rulers have instead either quietly paid bin Laden bribe money (the Gulf states) or allowed their censored presses to vent popular anger only against America and Israel (Egypt and Palestine). Here our policy of not intervening to insist on gradual democratization has been understandable, because of our worry over world oil supplies, but it is nevertheless objectionable, most notably when we reinstalled the monarchy in a liberated Kuwait rather than insist on free elections. In an irony of history, the promotion of democratic movements in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq may be our best way to oppose Islamic fundamentalism, even while showing our anger at the often duplicitous policies of our so-called allies and friends like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

We are told we have entered a “new” age of terror.

Much has been made of America’s support for Israel, especially in bin Laden’s own pronouncements and in the scenes of Palestinian crowds cheering news of the World Trade Center slaughter. Yet, like Saddam Hussein, bin Laden embraced the Palestinian cause only when his own future turned bleak. Despite his accusations, our sympathies are not attributable to some mythical Jewish lobby, CIA plot to put down Islam, or worldwide conspiracy of Zionist Mossad agents. Most Americans support Israel because it is the single Middle Eastern state most like us in its commitment to a free society based on the rule of law and the consent of the governed.

The ultimate solution to that quagmire will be the creation of a Palestinian state, with the security of Israel guaranteed by a formal American treaty along with some concessions from both sides. But we should remember that earlier wars waged against Israel had as their goal nothing less than the destruction of the Jewish state, and that if both Israel and the United States were to disappear tomorrow, bin Laden or his successors would nevertheless continue to be agents of terror.


We are repeatedly told that we have entered a “new” age of terror, in which a handful of willing fanatics with a few thousand dollars can negate sophisticated power and the investment of billions of dollars. Yet neither bin Laden nor terrorism is new, and so the solutions to their threats are not only known but time-honored. Our steep initial losses—$100 billion in property, a trillion in capital stock, and of course the dead—resulted far less from any intrinsic weaknesses than from the laxity and naiveté that characterize free democratic societies during times of peace. And we should remember that aroused consensual societies usually find ways to thwart unconventional challenges of terror, be they from Stuka dive-bombers, kamikazes, V-2 rockets, or the burning of oil wells, and that those societies annihilate rather than merely defeat their enemies.

Bin Laden is not a figure of national liberation such as Vercingetorix, Crazy Horse, or Mao. Rather, he is more one of the marginal fanatics of history, the B-team, who, long after their countries were exposed to Western culture, their heritage and future forever altered, have sought to employ terror and mysticism to rally the disaffected around a messianic figure. His ancestors are the Zealots, or Sicarii (“cutters” or “assassins”), who, after the Roman occupation of Judea, tried to murder legionaries before flocking behind Eleazar ben Yair to commit mass suicide on Masada. Similarly, Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi, the “Expected Guide,” wreaked havoc in Egypt and the Sudan between 1881 and 1885, after it was too late. For a brief moment, his followers enjoyed loose hegemony over a million square miles, and they killed or scattered more than 40,000 troops. Like bin Laden, Muhammad Ahmad had traveled widely, knew something of Westerners, and devised a clever propaganda campaign of fundamentalist jihad based on opposition to Westernized Arabs who worked under the British. He met his end in 1885, and his followers were wiped out some years later at the Battle of Omdurman, where there were 27,000 Mahdist casualties and 48 British dead.

In the same manner, the Ghost Dancers of 1890, who were Native American mystics, promised their followers divine invulnerability from enemy bullets and even immortality in a final attempt to expel settlers from the Great Plains and reclaim ancestral lands. They were crushed. Likewise, in the early 19305, Gen. Isamu Cho led a group of fanatical Japanese officers who aimed to assassinate elected Japanese politicians, start a war against Russia in Manchuria, and spread Bushido, the code of the samurai, through the imperial army. He gleaned his rantings from samurai tradition and promised success against Western devils through mystical Japanese courage. The careers of all these insurrectionists, whatever the legitimacy of their grievances, are instructive about bin Laden’s fate. All were both attracted and repelled by Western cultural largess, all sought reactionary remedies for their own fears of shrinking power, all concocted strange brews of religious fanaticism and myth, and all perished before the power of the West, whether that be Roman siegecraft, the U.S. cavalry, Victorian Maxim guns, or the M-1’s of the Marines on Okinawa.


Not merely terrorist leaders but terror itself has been met and trumped in the past. At Okinawa, in 1945, American GI’s faced tens of thousands of Japanese diehards (backed by suicide bombers in planes and on boats) concealed in coral caves and often emerging in banzai charges with explosives strapped to their bodies. Despite 2,000 kamikaze attacks, 34 ships sunk and 368 damaged, more than 12,000 American dead and 38,000 more wounded, and 100,000 Japanese killed, plus another 100,000 civilian casualties, the Americans took Okinawa in less than three months, albeit at such a cost that similar attacks planned on the mainland were shelved in favor of atomic weapons. Moreover, after the first 2,000 kamikaze sorties, the Japanese air force had real difficulty finding volunteers, kichigai (madmen), for the squadrons of the “Divine Wind.” They had to begin forcibly conscripting pilots, many of whom often sought to divert their planes and return home.

In short, throughout history, the opponents of Western civilization who have lacked its discipline and firepower have turned to terror and suicide in their struggles to even the odds. They have caused great loss of life and spread fear through European and American societies, which themselves have no traditions of suicidal corps, but without exception they have been beaten by the greater terror of discipline, resolve, vigilance, new tactics, and the firepower of industrial weaponry.

As we acclimate ourselves to the reappearance of terrorists, we should remember that they are not, and have never been, completely secretive in their operations. They need bases, banks, transportation, and lodging, and therefore they must have friendly host governments that can be cajoled, threatened, or destroyed if they offer sanctuary. Pakistan’s sudden reversal in sentiment and Libya’s gestures of help are indications not of inherent goodwill or moral conversion but rather of fear of the appearance of American warships on the horizon.


Americans heard horror stories of a landlocked and rugged Afghanistan, the quagmire that had purportedly swallowed Alexander the Great, nineteenth-century British colonialists, and Soviet communists alike. Yet Alexander, in fact, first overran Afghanistan, and with fewer than 30,000 troops, despite factional rivalries in his army and his self-destructive murdering of his own top lieutenants. Britain withdrew after the First Afghanistan War because of errors of arrogance, logistics, and tactical incompetence but returned to pacify the country by 1878 and went on to run it from India without incident until 1919. The Soviets lost largely because the United States gave billions in aid and weapons to their enemies, while they made a foolhardy and evil attempt to wipe out Islam. The Russian army in the last decade of communism was inadequately supplied, and demoralized, clearly not of the caliber of the one that had stopped Hitler in the far more difficult street fighting at Stalingrad. Yet before the arrival of countless American Stinger antiaircraft missiles and sophisticated Chinese machine guns, it was approaching victory.

The past wars in Afghanistan offer clear caveats. Attempts to create a satrapy through the destruction of local religions and tribal affinities while introducing foreign customs usually fail, as do large conventional land armies forced to be stationary while they impose colonial rule. Yet the country offers little vegetation and is ideal for air operations; as in Vietnam, indigenous forces on the ground, backed by special-operations troops and American airpower, have already shown that they can destroy the morale of the Taliban without suffering crippling losses. Also, unlike prior invaders, Americans have been prepared to strike with no illusions about the ease of their task and with no wish for conquest, lucre, or obeisance. Our generals are neither arrogant nor naive, and we have no interest in occupying the country or in turning its people from medieval Islam to preferring the benefits of popular American culture.

Comparisons are often made between the present conflict and Vietnam. Again, few recent wars are more misunderstood. In the 1960S and early 1970S, we were fighting a distant battle against foes supplied by our two chief nuclear rivals, China and the Soviet Union, both of which had sent thousands of active advisers and combatants there. Our list of permitted targets in the North was small, and it often shrank. We defined our goal as creating an enlightened democratic culture in South Vietnam, where none had ever existed. The draft ensured that our youth in universities would take to the streets. Even with all that, our forces fought superbly. At the so-called debacle at Hue, the Marines lost fewer than 150, killed some 5,000, and freed the city in the worst street fighting since the Korean War. The siege of Khe Sanh was an enemy failure that resulted in more than 1,600 communist dead for 250 Americans lost. In the horrific Tet offensive, a surprised American military inflicted 40,000 fatalities on the attackers while losing fewer than 2,500.

Vietnam was a military defeat, but that was because of the poor tactics of our generals, who were hobbled by the larger geopolitical situation of the time. Today, America’s political landscape is hardly beset by civil unrest. Instead, there is unity and recognition that our home soil has been attacked. Nor is the country likely to see an overseas war as a nexus of domestic racial, sexual, and cultural unrest. Our present Secretary of State and national security adviser are African-American, our military is coed, and its officer corps is fully integrated and diversely represented. Criticism of the current war therefore will not be couched in the lexicon of Vietnam, especially when those most likely to die in the war are American civilians at home and highly trained and professional pilots rather than reluctant adolescent draftees.

Western nations from Greece on have been lethal.

During the initial phases of the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan, impatient critics raised false analogies with the past in attempts to dismiss the effectiveness of airpower. It is true that bombing has been greatly misunderstood, partly because of the inflated promises of early Air Force advocates and partly on moral grounds, recalling the horrendous civilian losses inflicted on Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, undertaken after World War II, suggested that strategic bombing hadn’t greatly altered the war’s outcome since German industrial production had stayed the same or even increased after 1944. But most historians now concede that the methodology of the study was severely flawed, and its conclusions cannot be trusted. The survey sought to weigh damage to industrial production against the staggering losses in Allied aircraft, without asking critical questions about the toll taken on the German economy by the forced relocation of plants and distortions in weapons production.

For instance, Germany retooled after sustained American and British bombing to produce 10,000 antiaircraft guns, expending resources that could have been better used against advancing Russian and American armor. Thousands of German aircraft were lost in the sky and on airfields in homeland defense, and fatal decisions were made to retaliate against incendiary attacks with rocketry and jet bombers when the precious industrial capacity that provided them should have been allotted to ammunition, tanks, and fighter planes. And B-17s and B-24s used tactically—to disrupt transportation in France before the Normandy campaign, to bomb German armor in preparation for the American breakout—were deadly.

The fire raids by B-29s on Japanese cities are highly controversial in terms of their brutality, but not in terms of their effectiveness. Essentially, Gen. Curtis LeMay incinerated the main urban centers of Japan in a matter of weeks, mined its major harbors, and drastically curtailed even widely dispersed industrial production among residential neighborhoods, ensuring that naval and air resistance by mid-1945 would be minimal and that large land forces, such as those at Okinawa, could not be supplied from the mainland.

Bombing since World War II is equally misunderstood. Despite restrictions on targets, devastating air attacks by B-29s during the Korean War restored equilibrium and, with help from American artillery, devastated the Chinese army. Many of China’s purported one million dead in Korea were annihilated by tactical bombing, which explains why the nation was not eager to enter the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, the record is more checkered; it worsened as ever more dramatic results were demanded from airpower on its own. Carpet attacks on rural areas in the South proved ineffective and inhumane, in sharp contrast with the more limited raids on Haiphong and Hanoi, especially during the last months of the war, when first-generation smart bombs brought the communist leadership back to the peace table. Airpower alone could not have won the Vietnam War, but the freedom to strike continuously and unrestrictedly at command and control in the North in the mid-1970s might well have brought the hostilities to a standstill.

The last decade has witnessed a revolution in bombing, as the old banes of airpower—ineffectiveness, collateral damage, and aircraft losses—have been vastly reduced through technological breakthroughs. What was once seen as a very costly and often inhumane method of attack has now been transmogrified into a relatively precise, tolerable, and safe tactic of retaliation, permitting the houses and offices of the enemy, rather than merely a country’s industrial and military assets, to be singled out for selective demolition. In that regard, the quickness of the land war in the Persian Gulf was due largely to weeks of preliminary bombardment. The attacks in Kosovo proved to be exclusively an air campaign, and the Serbian leadership gave in without a single American fatality.

The lesson, then, is not that airpower can alone win wars. It cannot. Rather, with new generations of complex ordnance and sophisticated technology, bombers can increase their already prominent role to match the importance of conventional ground forces, shorten the war, and thus save lives on both sides.


The fighting in the Middle East must also be seen in the context of the long tradition of the Western way of war itself. Across some 2,500 years, the real danger for a Western power has always been another Western power. More Greeks died in a single battle of the Peloponnesian War than in all the fighting against the Persians; Alexander killed more Greeks in a day than did Darius III in three years. The Boers killed more Britons in a week than the Zulus did in a year. More Americans died at Antietam than in 50 years of frontier fighting. We can draw assurance from the fact that America is not fighting Britain, Germany, or Japan, or even a semi-Westernized China or India, nations that desperately seek to emulate our military organization, training, and armament.

Western nations from the Greeks to the present are not weak at war but enormously lethal, far out of proportion to their sometimes relatively small populations and territories. This is not an accident of geography or a matter of natural resources or genes. The climate of Egypt of the Pharaohs did not change under the Ptolemies, but the two were still quite different societies. The Mycenaeans (1600 to 1200 B.C.) spoke Greek and raised olives, but they were a world away from the citizens of the city-state (700 to 300 B.C.) that arose amid their ruins.

Nor is our power merely an accident of superior technology; rather, it is founded on our very ideas and values. The underpinnings of Western culture—freedom, civic militarism, capitalism, individualism, constitutional government, secular rationalism, and natural inquiry relatively immune from political audit and religious backlash—have always brought carnage to adversaries when applied on the battlefield. Setbacks from Cannae to the Little Bighorn have led not to capitulation but rather to study, debate, analysis—and, finally, devastating reprisals. Too few men too far away, a bad day, terrible weather, silly generals like Custer, or enemy geniuses such as Hannibal, all can usually be trumped in the long run by the systematic approach to war that is emblematic of our culture. The terrible protocols of the West at war have already made themselves known to the terrorists we are fighting, who had no idea what they were arousing. Instead of parading pictures of bin Laden in the streets, the Taliban would have done better to study the history of the names of the American ships off their shores: USS Peleliu , Enterprise , and Roosevelt .

Indeed, our Western ideals revealed themselves even during and right after the terrorist attacks: doomed airline passengers voting to storm the hijackers to prevent further carnage to their countrymen; Congress freely voting to find vast sums of capital for military operations; bizarre military hardware and frightening weapons of death flashing on our television screens as they headed eastward; media critics and pundits openly lauding and criticizing U.S. actions past, present, and future, and thereby helping us define the nature of both the threat and our response; individual rescue workers, aided by huge and sophisticated machines, devising on their own initiative ad hoc methods of saving victims and calming a devastated city. The Taliban and their supporters in the Middle East, like the Ottomans of old, are, to put it plainly, parasitic on Western civilization. A bin Laden can kill Americans only through terror, stealth, Western technology, and familiarity with American culture. Cell phones, the Internet, frequent-flier miles, and Boeing 767 pilot lessons are not indigenous to the Middle East.

Neither the genius of Mithridates nor the wasting diseases of the tropics or the fanaticism of the Mahdists have stopped the heroes, idealists, megalomaniacs, and imperialists of past Western armies, whose occasional lapses have led not to capitulation but to follow-ups far more deadly than their enemies’ temporary victories. This is a question not of morality per se but of military capacity. It would have been less hurtful for all involved had the thug Pizarro stayed put in Spain or the sanctimonious Lord Chelmsford kept out of Zululand.


In our peace and affluence, we Americans of a complacent era have forgotten the lethal superiority of the Western way of war: the Greeks losing only 191 at Marathon, Alexander the Great destroying an empire of 70 million with an army of 40,000, Cortés wrecking an imperial people of 2 million in less than two years, or a small band of British redcoats ending the power of Cetshwayo and his Zulus for good in less than a year. We have forgotten that the arsenal of tiny sixteenth-century Venice—a republic based on principles of market capitalism and audit surrounded by a West torn by Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism—launched far better and more numerous galleys than those of the entire Ottoman navy. After the Battle of Lepanto, in 1571, the salvage crews collected the Ottomans’ cannon—themselves copied on Venetian and German designs—for scrap, so inferior were they to their European models. At Midway, the American code-breakers, products of free universities and nursed on egalitarianism and the right to inquire without political and religious censure, helped win the battle before it even began. The Japanese military had nothing like them. In today’s climate of cultural relativism, we are not supposed to say such things, but they are true, and they give us pause for reflection on the prognosis of the present military situation.

If we’re so strong, why are some of us so doubtful?

Greece’s hoplites, like all Western armies, defined discipline not in terms of swordplay, captive taking, or individual bravado but in terms of keeping in rank, marching in time, drilling, and attacking in unison. And so at the Battle of Cunaxa, in 401, they slaughtered their Persian opponents while incurring not a single fatality. Roman legions, Spanish harque-busiers, and British squares followed in the same tradition and left corpses all over the globe. After the disaster at Cannae, where Hannibal’s genius killed 600 legionaries a minute, the Roman legions still grew, while Carthage’s mercenary armies shrank. Such civic militarism is a trademark of Western armies, whose soldiers are not serfs or tribesmen but fight as citizens with rights and responsibilities. The last radio transmissions of doomed New York City firefighters reveal not just professionalism but a true sense of egalitarianism and democratic affinity.

In the months to come, American ground and air forces, with better weapons, better supplies, better discipline, and more imaginative commanders, audited constantly by an elected Congress and President and scrutinized by a free press, will in fact destroy the very foundations of radical Islamic fundamentalism. Indeed, virtually the only check on the terrifying power of Western armies, other than other Western armies, is not enemy spears or bullets but the voices of our own internal dissent: a Bernardino de Sahagún aghast at his people’s cruelty in Mexico, a Bishop Colenso remonstrating against the British government about the needless destruction of Zululand, a Jane Fonda going to Hanoi to protest the war in Vietnam, or a CNN broadcasting unverifiable reports of civilian deaths. The Taliban and the hosts of murderers with bases in Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria may find solace in the words of Western clergy and academics, but they will not find it in the American military.

America is not only the inheritor of the European military tradition but in many ways its most potent incarnation. Our multiracial and radically egalitarian society has taken the concepts of freedom and market capitalism to their theoretical limits, to the great worry of critics on both the left and the right. While it is easy to ridicule the crassness of our culture and the collective amnesia of our masses, we must not underestimate the lethal military dynamism that such an energetic and restless citizenry accrues. Right now, background means little in comparison with our present ambition, drive, and ingenuity. For all the talk of a cultural mosaic, we are still a nation and a melting pot, as the composition of our military and its resulting effectiveness show.

Look at a sampling of the names of dead firefighters in New York: Weinberg, Mojica, Brown, Angelini, Schrang, Amato, Hanley, Gullickson, Guadalupe. These rescuers were united not by hue or accent but, like those in the legions, by a shared professionalism and desire for action. So our creed is not class, race, breeding, or propriety, but unchecked energy, as so often expressed in our machines, our competitiveness, and our unabashed audacity. These are powerful assets when we turn from the arts of production to those of destruction.


If we are so strong, then, why have so many Americans been doubtful about the future and poorly acquainted with their past? Certainly the devastation of the first two world wars, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the fiasco of Vietnam predisposed them to see history in therapeutic rather than tragic terms. Out of those horrors of the twentieth century, social sciences emerged to prove that war itself—rather than particular unjust and unnecessary wars—was always evil and therefore preventable. Indeed, during the International Year of Peace, 1986, a global commission of experts concluded that war was unnatural and humans themselves unwarlike.

Consequently, we now tend to believe that war always results from concrete, rather than professed, injustice, especially poverty brought about by colonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism, and so on. As a result, dialogue and mediation have been elevated to the grand science of conflict-resolution theory, a sort of divorce counseling on the international level. And such naivéte and relativism have affected the very way we look at our current conflict, when we imagine that bin Laden is either ignorant, insane, or partly justified, rather than purely evil, and that his followers can be counseled, instead of annihilated like the fascists of Germany and Japan.

Moral equivalence has often trumped the idea of the just war in the media coverage of our bombing campaign in Afghanistan. We have listened to suggestions that we are “killing babies.” In fact, we do know that thousands of innocent civilians were murdered on September n, but we do not have sure knowledge of how many Afghani citizens have been killed from the air by misplaced American bombs, Taliban shells falling back among their citizens, or Taliban executions and terrorism against their own people. We do know that it was the deliberate policy of the Taliban to put their combatants among mosques, hospitals, and schools to ensure their survival out of the expectation that Americans, unlike them, would not deliberately kill civilians. If our enemies know that moral difference, why do not our own citizens?

Our salvation depends on our leaders’ knowing history.

The dead, of course, are the dead, and their loss is tragic. But there is a difference, a very moral difference, between deliberately targeting civilians in peace and deliberately trying not to in war. Moreover, not even the most just war has been waged with moral perfection. Rather, just civilizations have warred, as America did against Germany and Japan, with the full knowledge that innocents may have to die if mass murder by evil governments is to be stopped.

The civilians of Afghanistan are in large part noncombatants, but they are not all completely innocent, in the sense that many expressed gratification, even glee, as did many in Pakistan too, over the deaths of thousands of Americans. Like those who shouted banzai en masse in Tokyo after the capture of Nanking and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or those who toasted the Fúhrer when he invaded Poland, they must be taught where the logic of their misplaced fury leads—at a minimum in lives and treasure, but taught nonetheless the wages of what Sherman called “hard war.” Our goal is not only to replace the Taliban and dismantle terrorist networks but also, by the annihilation of the Afghanistan government, to teach the misguided and misled in the region that when they let slip the dogs of war against America, it can be a dangerous thing indeed. Only that way will they be vigilant in the future against firebrands who want to take their countries down the same disastrous path as did the Taliban.

Many today, certainly many in the academy, fail to see the carnage of the twentieth century in terms of the classical exegesis of the need for armed preparedness (the Roman military theorist Vegetius’ “He who wishes peace must prepare for war"). We have forgotten that the nightmare of the First World War could have been prevented by stern resistance to Prussian militarism in 1913, that the Holocaust of the Nazis could have been stopped by a firm stand against Hitler in the late 19305, that millions were saved from the carnage of the gulag and the firing squads of the Russians and Chinese—two regimes that killed more in peace than died in all of World Wars I and II—only through the sacrifice of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear weapons.

Real morality does not permit hesitating out of fear of injuring the innocent or suffering casualties but rather can require enduring that and more to ensure that thousands now and millions later will not grow up to be murdered under terror and fascism, whose fruits we know so well from the sordid history of the past century. Lincoln called such sacrifices “the terrible arithmetic.” Sherman said of destroying enemy property, “This may seem a hard species of warfare, but it brings the sad realities of war home to those who have been directly or indirectly instrumental in involving us in its attendant calamities.” In the end, Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman saw that slavery was ended and the Union reunited, despite all the vows from their brave, brilliant, and fiery opponents to fight to the bitter end.

In that regard, it is hard to learn from war, which Thucydides called “the harsh schoolmaster.” It shatters our modernist assumption that we can change the nature of man and eliminate the Neanderthal need to resort to arms. America at the beginning of the millennium, awash in wealth, luxury, and learning, was convinced that our enemies were either ignorant, misinformed, or temporarily insane—not evil, and certainly not rationally evil. And so in place of strong military preparation and the swift responses to aggression that had been the wisdom of the ages, we wanted lawyers to handle war as a criminal matter, or we thought we could avoid it through conciliation and mediation, or by buying off our enemies with money, kindness, education, apologies, or, as a last resort, the occasional Tomahawk missile. It didn’t work with bin Laden. He, after a career of bombing Americans around the world, reckoned that we were decadent and soft and would continue to tolerate the killing of our people.

Much of the relativist and therapeutic thinking in America that allowed such men to flourish is generational. The upper middle classes schooled during Vietnam are now in positions of power. Unlike their fathers, who came of age in the Great Depression, or their children, who have not yet shown a moral earnestness about righting the wrongs of the world—or else!—they went into the universities, media, the arts, government, and foundations convinced that they could reinvent the very nature of American society just as they had stopped the war in Vietnam.

Those of the professional elite now between the ages of 40 and 60 have, in the last few years, often been protected through sinecures, tenure, safe suburbs, select schools, and good money from the traditional checks on utopianism: the unemployment, scant disposable income, muscular work, and physical danger that daily confront members of the working class. In that regard, it is not surprising that the actor Richard Gere was booed off the stage at Madison Square Garden by the relatives and friends of dead New York police and firefighters, after he lectured them on the folly of armed retribution.

Multiculturalism, conflict-resolution theory, postmodernism, pacifism, and a host of other new isms and ologies all sought to achieve a kinder world where equality of results would be enforced rather than equality of opportunity ensured, where injustice, disagreement, and thus war itself could somehow disappear. History and literature, the age-old instructors of war, were often crowded out as the proper guides to the human condition; facts, knowledge, and even methodical inquiry were replaced in many of our schools by an ideology. The result was that now many of our cultural leaders know little of history, and they mask their ignorance with the arrogance of good intentions, fueled by the bounty of American materialism.

This naivéte has been tested in the present crisis by bin Laden and the Taliban and their followers, whose likes we have not seen since 1945. Our salvation will hinge on how many of our leaders read history, learn its lessons, and act out of conviction drawn from classical American wisdom and military strength.

‘No Stronger Retrogade Force Exists in the World”

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