Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Days of Infamy

USS Maryland alongside capsized USS Oklahoma, December 7, 1941.
Photo credit:  U.S. National Park Service
     Sixty-nine years ago today, Americans received the kind of national jolt that has often brought a people together. Like the equally infamous 9/11, the attack on Pearl Harbor prompted the citizens of our republic to respond with idealism and resolve. More than anything else in the past 40 years or so, our response to 9/11 proved that the American people still possess the fortitude to stand up to challenge. The historian Arnold Toynbee wrote that the response to challenge can often germinate a civilization. Too much challenge can snuff out a nascent culture. Too little, and there is not enough reason to shrug off old patterns of life and take the hard steps needed to ascend to the next rung of the ladder. Similarly, response to challenge can also stimulate a generation to become great. Days of infamy, like 9/11 and 12/7, can re-focus internally squabbling partisans on united, national effort.

     History is full of days of infamy. On one day in May, 88 BC, the King of Pontus dealt a ruthless blow to the Roman Republic. The King’s name was Mithridates. On a single day, Mithridates’ agents and soldiers and allied Greeks slaughtered every Roman and Italian living in Asia Minor. Eighty thousand men, women, and children died that day. Rome was stunned. In reply, the Republic launched a five-year war that ended with Mithridates’ defeat. There is much more to be told of Mithridates, but the point is to remark how a blow that strong could have failed. Mithridates had expected the massacre to transfer Asia Minor from Rome’s control to his own. Instead, it brought the avenging Roman legions down upon him. His challenge only stimulated Rome to make a supreme response.

     Likewise, the attack on Pearl Harbor eventually rebounded on the attackers. As horrible as the destruction was that day, it only stimulated America to make a supreme response. It was even a tactical failure, since none of the American carrier fleet was in port when the bombs began to fall.

     The attack on 9/11 certainly could have led to a similar victory. Immediately afterward, politicians of the Left and Right closed ranks and gave the president whatever he wanted. The public united under the flag, and many Americans volunteered for military service. Within a few months, al-Qaida and their Taliban hosts were on the run. For years afterward, it appeared the rapid victory of the Northern Alliance, under U.S. air cover, had ended a barbarous period in Afghan history. The capture of bin Laden himself seemed within reach. What happened?

     Toynbee believed that a large challenge that did not destroy a people would stimulate that people to new effort. Rome in 88 BC. America in 1941 AD. But ironically, the people that seem to have survived an existential challenge most recently are the Taliban. We blasted them nearly out of existence, but we didn’t finish the job. We turned our gaze to Iraq, and lost our opportunity. Had we focused on the Taliban, had we deployed an overwhelmingly larger force to destroy them, had we increased the Congressional limits on military end-strength, we would have had a far better chance of ending the threat. Americans would have done almost anything the president asked. Now, they have lost patience, after years of exacting heroic effort from a fraction of the population. When people asked, on September 12, what they could do to help, the president could have called for a full-scale mobilization. We could have deployed a force many times larger than the one we did. We could have established the kind of security environment that would not have allowed the Taliban to re-group and re-arm as they have. Instead, we relied on the Northern Alliance to do our ground work for us, and bin Laden slipped away.

     Would such a massive effort really have paid off? It didn’t work for the Russians. On the other hand, we would not have been attempting imperial annexation. Our goal could have been simply the capture of two small groups: Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and their respective cadres. For that job, undivided focus and the enormous resources of the wholly mobilized American public would have been sufficient. With the al-Qaida and Taliban leaders captured or killed, we could have left Afghanistan to its future.

     Our latest day of infamy certainly challenged America. We responded by declaring war not on real enemies but on a cowardly method of mayhem. Even etymologically, a “war on terrorism” does not make sense. No one can win such a war. We might have won the war against al-Qaida, if we had declared and fought it to the exclusion of all other missions.

     For that matter, we still could—at least in principle. The war in Afghanistan has always been ours to lose. The Leftist and libertarian press are still reporting all the bad news and none of the good. As a result, and because the infamy of 9/11 has already begun to fade, the public is in no mood to begin a new and larger surge. If we do eventually leave without having eradicated the Taliban or captured bin Laden, Afghanistan will join Vietnam as another American failure. We may then expect yet another day of infamy sometime thereafter. When that day arrives, let us hope our leadership will have learned from our history in the past ten years.

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