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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
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.