The Longest War

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?