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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
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.