November/December 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 8
The last time the U.S. military went into action, in Kosovo, it relied on jet-fighter aircraft and rockets or smart bombs and on electronic technology. The time before that, in Desert Storm, it relied on those same weapons plus ground troops using big, fast tanks, trucks, and jeeps. Earlier, in Vietnam, it relied on jet bombers and fighters, tanks, electronics, sea power, and ground troops equipped with modern weapons. In Korea it was air, sea, and ground firepower, plus maneuver. But this time, in Afghanistan, it will be a different kind of war, one that is more reminiscent of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, battles that were fought more than a half-century ago.
The enemy in Afghanistan will be in caves, rocky defiles, and trenches, armed with rifles, grenades, some mortars, a few radios, and perhaps some radar. Every enemy soldier, apparently, will be ready to die in defense of the country. That is as it was on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The difference is the size of Afghanistan, almost as big as Texas, as opposed to Iwo Jima (5 miles long, a couple of miles wide) or Okinawa (about 25 miles long, generally 2 or 3 miles wide). The Japanese had caves, defiles, and trenches. They had some artillery, mortars, some radio communication, and infantry prepared to die.
Before the invasions, the U.S. Navy and the Army Air Force and Navy fighters pounded the islands with shells, bombs, and napalm, in two of the most powerful attacks ever. They devastated almost everything aboveground. But they hardly took out any enemy soldiers. What worked on Iwo Jima and Okinawa was infantry. The Marines and Army took fearful casualties, as many as, if not more than, the numbers of enemy on the islands. They took almost no prisoners, not by choice but because the enemy simply would not surrender. The critical weapons were rifles, grenades, to some extent mortars, satchel charges, and, most of all, flamethrowers. To overcome the Japanese, the Americans had to work their way up to the entrances of the caves, then send flames into the openings. That either burned the Japanese or, by sucking out all the oxygen, suffocated them.
The terrorists in Afghanistan have at their disposal what amounts to a nearly unstoppable weapon, in some ways the ultimate weapon. It is a man willing to give up his life for his cause. In World War II, the U.S. Navy took its most severe losses not at Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway, or the Battle of the Atlantic, but in the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. What sank more American ships and killed more sailors than any other weapon was the Kamikaze. There was no machine then, and no computer now, that can respond as fast or as accurately as the human eye and brain. Kamikaze pilots are relatively easy to train and difficult to stop.
What we most need is to improve and extend our surveillance. After Pearl Harbor, there were congressional investigations to attempt to find out what happened and why our intelligence was caught so badly off-guard. How on earth in 1941 could American intelligence, at a time of great tension between Japan and the United States, lose the Japanese fleet? Scapegoats were found. Intelligence was improved and extended, and by 1944 was the best in the world. That can and will be done again.
We have spent more than half a century providing our military with the best weapons, the most advanced weapons, the technologically superior weapons. They deterred the Soviet Union, as they were designed to do. Now it is not the Soviet Union we are fighting, and few of those high-tech weapons will make much difference in Afghanistan. What we will rely on is the human component, most of all intelligence and especially our ground forces. As is almost always the case in war, it will come down to the poor bloody infantry. But as the Marines and Army showed at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, American soldiers will be there and will prevail.
One final thought: After the unconditional surrender (which we also are demanding of the Taliban), we turned Japan from a feudal, criminal society into a flourishing democracy. Perhaps we could do something similar in Afghanistan. At least we could try.