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The Longest War
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.
February/March 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 1
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.