The New Warfare And Old Truths

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In the early 1880s, a Maine-born inventor named Hiram Maxim, who had tried and failed to become a leading figure in the young electrical industry, met a fellow American in Vienna who told him, “Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility.” Maxim took the man’s advice. He invented the first truly automatic machine gun. By the turn of the century, it had killed thousands of colonial rebels in Africa, India, and Egypt, and it accounted for more than half of the Japanese casualties in the Russo-Japanese War. By the end of World War I, the Germans had 100,000 machine guns. Death was now mass-produced.

Maxim’s gun was one of an endless succession of breakthroughs in warfare that have gone on for millennia, escalating destruction by leaps. Some of those breakthroughs, the Maxim gun among them, have seemed to change the very nature of warfare. Earlier in the nineteenth century had come the development of the rifle and the birth of the ironclad, remaking war both on land and sea. Later came the military airplane and the aircraft carrier and, most epochally, the atom bomb.

On September n, 2001, the technology of war took a leap in a wholly new direction. Now it was not a matter of bigger, more advanced machinery, of an increase in destructive capability. It was chillingly the opposite. The biggest, most advanced weapon used on September 11 may have been a box cutter. This was a breakthrough into war fought not with weapons at all but with the peaceful technology of modern life. Swords were put aside, and our plowshares were turned against us.

It was done with fearful sophistication. Whoever dreamed up the conspiracy had been thinking exactly the way the man who advised Hiram Maxim thought: He had been discovering how to make killing radically easier. The terrorists recognized that our technologies have become so huge and so mighty that they are engines of death in disguise, needing only to be turned to that use, and that the mass murderer no longer need acquire mass-murder weapons. Building on this insight, the terrorists became experts in the civil technologies involved, not only learning to pilot jetliners but also, evidently, studying how to make the combination of jetliners and skyscrapers as deadly as possible. They chose transcontinental flights carrying thousands of gallons of fuel. They flew into the World Trade Center precisely high enough to avoid surrounding buildings, but low enough so that when the searing heat of burning fuel destroyed the structures’ integrity, enough floors above would topple down to crush, floor by floor, all those below. And they chose buildings whose collapse would make them into bombs themselves, throwing out shock waves that would wreck other buildings in turn, ruining acres of the world’s most heavily populated and economically central real estate while eradicating thousands of lives.

How much of this was planned, and how much gruesome luck, is not yet known and may never be. But the shock waves to our colossally interdependent world flowed beyond those acres and lives—to the financial markets, closed for nearly a week; to the airlines, nearly bankrupted as all air travel nationwide stopped for days; to the country’s very tranquillity, shattered not only by the specter of further, unpredictable attacks but by the likelihood of a war in a place, Afghanistan, that had already been one superpower’s Vietnam.

Were we cursed by our own prowess? Had our very strength and versatility—in throwing up cities of skyscrapers, in building ships to transport us across the skies, in having so much wealth and power to concentrate in such a confined space—become a fatal curse? What positive lessons, what glimmers of hope, can be drawn from this turning of our mastery back upon ourselves? I think there are two very important ones.

First, there are crucial ways in which systems did not fail under the intense pressure of the attacks but rather showed remarkable resilience. Almost unremarked amid the chaos of the events of September 11 was the fact that more than 4,000 commercial airliners in the air scrambled to find places to land in an instant game of nationwide musical chairs. Hundreds, if not thousands, of them had to head for airports they had never been to before. This might be the sternest test possible of the nation’s strained air-traffic-control system. It was passed so easily that it was hardly noticed amid the day’s tragedies.

Likewise, the unprecedentedly massive mobilization of emergency services in New York was carried out with a dazzling efficiency. By the end of the day, the New York City Fire Department had lost almost half as many men and women as in its entire previous history, transportation was shut down, and the whole city had to be closed off two miles north of the World Trade Center; yet, while absorbing this body blow, the city reacted with lightning speed. Right after the first plane struck, a TV-studio lot at Chelsea Piers began to be turned into a huge emergency trauma unit with rows of gurneys and IV racks; a new city Emergency Command Center was established within hours after the original one was destroyed in the attack; TV and radio stations that broadcast from the top of the World Trade Center raced to find backup transmitters; telephone and cellphone networks, suddenly handling many times their normal volume of calls, accommodated them with surprisingly little strain.